Frat and Happy
"He hasn't much choice. In a career spanning 40 years, Matheson, 54, has made dozens of films (Fletch, 1941, The Story of Us) and TV shows (he was JFK in the 2000 mini-series Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis). But to his fans who came of age in the '70s (and their video-store-svvy offspring), he will forever be Eric "Otter" Stratton, the slick frat-house Lothario of 1978's megahit comedy Animal House.
"Otter is his biggest fan base," says Matheson's wife, Megan, 42. "Outside a video store recently there were teenagers saying, 'Hey, Otter!' He appreciates that." Even his West Wing audition in the summer of '99 had echoes of the collegiately dapper. "I think I wore a golf-type shirt and a sport coat," says Matheson, "because the script said Hoynes had a tan. By the time I got back home, they'd offered me the job."
It's a job that may be getting bigger. In March Matheson was sent a just-completed script focusing on the reelection strategy of President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen). Matheson had worried that Hoynes might wind up like the President's late secretary Mrs. Landingham—"offstage car crash and gone." But then "I slowly read the last act and was like, 'Whew, thank God!' Not only do I stay on the ticket, but, hey, I'm a decent guy." His old pal and fellow West Winger Rob Lowe seconds that. "Hoynes is a part that really works to Tim's strengths," says Lowe. "He's charismatic and cuts as romantic a swath as anyone there."
As did Matheson himself in his Hollywood heyday. Otter's party-animal image clung to him like a wet toga. "It was the high life," says the actor, who in the late '70s had a string of fiancées. "I thought you were supposed to behave like that." In retrospect, he says, "it was a nightmare. I was working through all the dysfunction of my youth."
Raised "very poor" in Glendale, Calif., he was 6 when his parents—Clifford, a training pilot, and Sally—divorced. (Both are now deceased.) While Sally worked 80-hour weeks as a bookkeeper and LAPD dispatcher, Tim and his sister Sue—now 55 and a Lafayette, Calif., lawyer—"were pretty much on our own." He found solace—and direction—at the local movie house, watching favorites like 1957's Witness for the Prosecution, Encouraged by his mother, Matheson, at 13, made his TV debut as Roddy Miller in the CBS series Window on Main Street, then went on to appear in episodes of Leave It to Beaver and My Three Sons.
Despite his success, Matheson says he was "nerdy and weird" at high school in Burbank. "I went to the prom with a girlfriend of my sister's, a platonic date." By 19, however, his luck with women had changed; he impulsively wed actress Jennifer Leak in what Matheson now calls an "immature" union that fell apart six months later.
After a similarly brief stint at California State, Matheson returned to acting, but "I got stuck in westerns and as the boy next door," he says. So in 1976 he joined the L.A. improv-comedy troupe the Groundlings—a breeding ground for Saturday Night Live cast members—which led to his eventual casting in Animal House. It was there that he befriended costar and SNL legend John Belushi, who died in 1982 from a cocaine and heroin overdose. That, and Matheson's umpteenth failed fling, compelled him to declare, "I'm stopping this—I'm not partying anymore."
There was another motivation. In 1979 mutual friends had introduced him to Megan Murphy, a then-19-year-old New York City ballerina. Matheson was instantly enamored, but his bad-boy rep had preceded him. "She thought I was the slimy Hollywood type," he says. It took Matheson the next six years to change her mind.
Married since 1985, the couple share a five-bedroom French-country house in Santa Barbara, Calif., with daughters Molly, 15, and Emma, 14, and son Cooper, 8. "My life honestly didn't start until I got married and had kids," says Matheson, who wakes at 5 a.m. to exercise before taking his brood to the bus. "I'm as lame as all dads are," he admits. So how did his daughters react when they were finally allowed to watch Animal House? "I think it was a little hard," says Megan, "seeing their dad being Mr. Cool."
Julie Jordan in Santa Barbara