Finally on the Yupswing, Newhart's Preppy Peter Scolari Finds Love the Second Time Around

updated 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Peter Scolari is usually worried about something, and right now it's his glasses. Should he or should he not wear his horn-rims today? "I decided not to, even though I'm blind as a bat," he says, "because I really do look like Michael in them." Problem is, the indecision makes Scolari seem even more like Michael Harris, the preposterous preppy he plays on the CBS sitcom Newhart. Then he tries to get comfortable in a leather easy chair in the living room of his Hollywood Hills home. But soon Scolari reverts to a more natural state: nervous pacing. "That chair drives me nuts," he says. "It makes me feel too casual."

Peter should relax already. He's doing much better than his prime-time alter ego. In the seventh and possibly final season of Newhart, the hopelessly smitten Michael has nearly broken up with his even more self-centered love, Stephanie (Julia Duffy), and he has lost his position as a local TV producer. Next week he'll suffer further indignities when he's fired from his temp job at a discount shoe store and a restaurant flambés his credit cards. The decline and fall climaxes next month, when Michael ends up in a sanatorium.

To Scolari, 33, life has been a little more generous. Twice nominated for an Emmy for Newhart, he has lately found domestic bliss with his second wife, Debra, and their 7-month-old son, Nicholas. "Things were pretty good before Nicky arrived, and now we just don't know what to do with ourselves," says Scolari—as if his good fortune worries him too.

It's much more than the glasses that suggest a resemblance between the player and the part. Peter sometimes approximates Michael's mixture of ego and innocence. For instance, he says unabashedly, "I probably make more money in a year on Newhart than 70 percent of your working top-name stars. Some weeks I just have six lines, but it doesn't bother me."

Like Michael, Scolari grew up with creature comforts. The second child in a family of four children, he was raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., by his father, Arthur, a Manhattan attorney, and his mother, Barbara, a drug counselor. From his father, who would toss and catch dinner plates for a laugh, Peter developed interests in juggling and athletics. Remembers Barbara: "Peter used to walk around the house on his hands." His parents divorced when he was 15, and his dad died of a heart attack in Sedan's arms five years after. "I spent half an hour with my father, waiting for the ambulance," he recalls. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I really believe that."

Peter then decided to pursue his interest in acting instead of college. After seven seasons of rep theater in New York, he moved to L.A. and won a lead in ABC's cult sitcom Bosom Buddies in 1980. He played a boarder in drag in an all-girls residence with fellow unknown Tom Hanks. "Peter's an intense guy," says Hanks. "When real emotion is called for, he's got an awful lot." After the series ended, "I was morbidly depressed," says Scolari. "The show became popular then. But when we were doing it, we were treated like dog turd by the critics."

There was more bad news in 1983. While Peter was rehearsing for a guest spot on Happy Days, his wife of two years, Lisa Kretzschmar, a Brooklyn attorney, asked for a divorce after enduring a bicoastal relationship. "I was crushed because I never saw it coming," Scolari says. "Now I'm very glad she did it, because I wasn't meant to be with her."

The next year Peter met costume designer Debra Steagal, 30, while filming a low-budget comedy, Rosebud Beach Hotel. Suddenly he was smitten. "I didn't want to be in love, because I got creamed the last time," he recalls. "I remember standing in the shower, hitting my fist against the wall and shouting, 'No!' " To distract himself, Scolari juggled on the set. "The key to Peter is his juggling," says Hanks. "It's not just a hobby. It's this other aspect of him—that his life is not totally in order. When he juggles, everything revolves the way it is supposed to."

The day the movie wrapped, Debra moved in with Scolari and never moved out. "My first wife tried to get back with me a year later," says Scolari, "but there was no way. I used to think she was the be-all and end-all, but I got my stinky little pride back." He and Debra married in 1986. Says Scolari: "If I ever get too arrogant, Debra lets me know. Never underestimate the value of someone who can say, 'You make me sick.' " Their son, Nicholas, was born last July.

If Newhart ends this season, CBS wants a spin-off starring Scolari and Julia Duffy. But Bob Newhart admits, "I don't think the character Michael is a real, genuine person who could carry a half hour." Although he has a development deal with MTM Enterprises, Scolari says he's against a spin-off too, and an uncertain future doesn't faze him. "Good actors work, and I've been out of work about 37 days in 13 years," he says confidently. "I thrive, and I'm good at what I do." For a change, Peter Scolari isn't worried.

—Margot Dougherty, and Vicki Sheff in Los Angeles

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