Healthy, Wealthy and a Wiseguy No Longer, Rehabbed Ray Sharkey Is Looking at a Bright Future

updated 02/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Glowering at the glowing ash on his unfiltered cigarette, rolling it like a fine cigar between his fingers and jabbing the air for emphasis, actor Ray Sharkey is playing the raspy-voiced tough guy. "Yeah, I'm cut up all over," he says nonchalantly. "I was in a lot of fights, taken to the hospital and stitched up a few times. I've never been stabbed, but quite a few bottles have been broken over my head."

It's a convincing performance, but Sharkey isn't acting. He's reminiscing about growing up on the mean streets of Brooklyn's rough Red Hook section. "Where I grew up there were always gangsters fighting and killing each other in the streets," he says almost wistfully, his gold crucifix earring glinting in the light. "The wise guys from my neighborhood wore patent leather shoes and silk socks. And the creases in their pants were so sharp you could slice tomatoes."

Sharkey, 36, who's best known for his TV and movie roles as menacing thugs and street hustlers, has had plenty of occasion to draw on his background. In 1980 he was a manic music manager in The Idolmaker, last season he was suave mobster Sonny Steelgrave in CBS's Wiseguy, and this Sunday he'll play the lead in NBC's Revenge of Al Capone. But it was his relatively minor role in the 1978 drug movie Who'll Stop the Ruin that came closest to the worst part of his past. Until 2½ years ago, Sharkey was himself a heroin addict.

The son of a professional drummer who left the family when Sharkey was 5, Ray became interested in acting when he saw Jack Lemmon's performance as an alcoholic in 1962's Days of Wine and Roses. After a four-year stint in a Greenwich Village acting school, the new graduate, three days shy of his 21st birthday, drove to Los Angeles and quickly picked up a string of knockabout parts in several TV series. In 1980 his performance in The Idolmaker won him industry renown and a Golden Globe Award.

It was just then that his life left the rails. A dabbler in drugs since his Catholic grammar school days, he celebrated his success by graduating to heroin. It was a fast downward spiral; during the filming of a 1981 TV movie, The Ordeal of Bill Carney, he was nodding off on-camera. "Around that time was the beginning of really screwing myself up," he says. "I got lost in it. That's how the stuff went."

How his career went was downhill fast. While friends of his—John Travolta, Nick Nolte, Sly Stallone—were earning their reputations as bankable talents, Sharkey was establishing his as a wildly unpredictable bad risk who sopped up bit parts in forgettable projects and periodically signed himself into rehab centers. "I always knew I would fall big-time," he says. "I enjoyed the fast life, the perks that you get. You think you have this license to abuse yourself. I always knew for me that one is too many, and a thousand ain't enough."

He survived four drug-related car accidents (two required microsurgery on his eyes), a series of overdoses and a few movie roles. In 1986 he put in a brief, skeletal appearance in Wise Guys, with Danny DeVito. At the time, he had dropped 40 lbs. and was feeding a $400-a-day heroin and cocaine habit. Of his addiction, Sharkey says, "It's a conditioned response to not dealing with life. I was lazy, rebellious and still fighting. I didn't want the responsibility that came along with stardom, of being a model-A citizen, a person that others look up to."

He didn't have to worry about that. Estranged from Hollywood friends and shunned by wary producers, Sharkey had become a showbiz pariah. Then, in 1986, came what passed for his moment of truth. "I'd been at my mom's house for a while. I was in hell," he recalls. "The Idolmaker came on television. I remember looking at it and not knowing that guy. I was crying, because somewhere in my wet brain I knew that I had created that character, his morality, integrity, honor. And I had none of those qualities. I was shocked that that guy was me. I was so far away from that. And that was when I started to realize that something was desperately wrong with me."

One week later, aided by his mother, Sharkey checked into an Orange County rehabilitation center for two months. Hearing that he was clean, producer Stephen Cannell gambled on signing him for the role of mobster Sonny Steelgrave in his new series, Wiseguy.

Almost immediately, "there was a definite shift in reality," says Sharkey. "I went from eating hospital food and lights out at 10 and therapy all day to a penthouse suite in Vancouver with a driver and people lighting my cigarettes on the set. That all happened in one day."

The role was worth toughing out. Critics raved about his performance, and when his character was killed off last season, diehard fans formed the Sonny Steel-grave Memorial Society to lobby him back to life. Sharkey returned to Wiseguy last week in a dream sequence and is continuing his professional resurrection with three spring films: Portrait of the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, Act of Piracy and Wired, appearing in the latter as a Puerto Rican guardian angel who escorts the deceased John Belushi on a tour of his life. "I own the spring!" says Ray.

His addiction having contributed to the end of his first marriage, to model Rebecca Wood, Sharkey has also turned over a new leaf in his social life: Last October he wed actress Carole Graham, and the two are expecting their first child in March. At the time they met (at a Santa Monica gym), "I was running around Hollywood like the Mad Hatter," he says. "I had women stashed all over town. There was no shame in my game, and everybody knew it. But here I am, eight months later, with a station wagon with wood paneling on the side. And I'm about to have a kid!"

"Before we got married," says Carole, who lives with Ray in a two-bedroom Marina del Rey apartment, "he used to go to nightclubs and went out at night with his biker friends. He doesn't really do that anymore." Yet Sharkey treasures some vestiges of his past—the Harley, for example, that he sometimes rides with buddy Sly Stallone. And he'd still take the old neighborhood's ambience over Hollywood's any day. "There's no real edge out here," he complains. "The edge in L.A. is shopping at Neiman-Marcus "hen there's no sale."

Sharkey will soon move back to New York to begin filming an ABC series about a detective. But that doesn't mean he'll be reverting to his old streetwise ways. "I feel a certain surge of responsibility for someone else's emotional life and personality," Sharkey says somberly. "There's no hip, slick and cool way of being a father, and I will be strict about certain things.

"But if I was a kid," says the pop-to-be, brightening suddenly, "I would love to have Ray Sharkey as a father. I think that would be the coolest thing in the world."

—Susan Schindehette, and Michael Alexander in Los Angeles

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