04/07/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
His TV character is nicknamed Fearless, but Mykelti (pronounced "Michael T") Williamson didn't feel that way when he nervously called Boomtown creator Graham Yost into his trailer last winter. "I told him I'd been through something personally," says Williamson, and wanted to build a whole episode around it. An hour later, "we were both crying, and Graham said, 'T, I admire you. We are going to do this.' "
What they do on the March 30 Boomtown is force Williamson's LAPD detective Bobby Smith to relive the sexual abuse he suffered as a child—much as Williamson, 46, has come to terms with the horrific memories of his own abuse. Filming the show was "tough but necessary," he says. Donnie Wahlberg, who plays his partner, Joel Stevens, agrees. "I went to predominantly black schools all my life, and you don't hear as much about this kind of thing in the black community," says Wahlberg. "That makes what T did very courageous."
Williamson, best known to film-goers as the shrimp-loving Bubba Blue in 1994's Forrest Gump, says his molestation began while he was growing up in Los Angeles's working-class Crenshaw district. In 1962 his father left the family, and his mother, Elaine, then an accountant, asked neighbors to look after Mykelti and Jacqueline, the youngest of her three children. It was at the neighbor's home that Williamson says he was "sodomized by the man of the house," who threatened he would kill Elaine if Mykelti, then a third and fourth grader, told.
Terrified, he remained silent but dreamed of retaliation. "I prepared mentally and physically for a big showdown with the guy," he says. But the confrontation was never to be. He later learned that the man had died in the 1970s. "That left a hole in me," says Williamson, who struggled with suicidal feelings as a boy.
"I grew up never liking to be touched by anybody," he says. In later years, "I would see or smell something, maybe a whiff of a certain kind of men's cologne, and I'd just get in my car and drive, trying to get away from the memory of it." Sometimes he would find himself as far away as Arizona. "It was with me all the time," says Williamson, his eyes brimming.
Finally he got tired of running away and opened up to third wife Sondra, an actress and former cohost of Animal Planet's Amazing Tails, shortly before they married in 1997. "We both wept and talked it through," says Sondra, 42. "I said, 'I'm here for you. You have to talk in order to get these things off your chest.' " Adds Williamson (who had remained tight-lipped with previous wives Olivia Brown and Cheryl Chisholm): "She's helped me overcome the fear of remembering."
Telling his mother and siblings Jacqueline, now 40 and a movie promoter, and Jerry, 52, a pastor, was even tougher. "My mother said that she knew something was wrong then but she thought it was because my father had left." Williamson says he briefly tried therapy but quit after the therapist sought to videotape their sessions.
The abuse also sheds light on another dark moment in Williamson's past: his 1998 arrest for stabbing his ex-wife Chisholm's companion Leroy Edwards. Williamson says the violence grew out of concern for what he considered the couple's inappropriate behavior in front of Williamson's daughter Phoenix, now 9, who had been conceived during a brief 1993 reconciliation with Chisholm, with whom he'd split up two years earlier. "After what I'd been through as a child, I was especially sensitive," he says.
He was ultimately acquitted of attempted manslaughter, but the price was steep. "I lost my home, which I sold to pay my lawyers, my car and basically lost my career," he says. "I never thought I'd come back."
It had been a hard-fought career for Williamson, who began appearing in local theater productions and church plays at 10 and became a Soul Train dancer while at Crenshaw High School. He graduated in 1975, and between TV guest spots he supported himself as an auto mechanic. His big break came in Forrest Gump, followed by another hit, 1997's Con Air.
After his acquittal, Williamson rejuvenated his career with 1999's Three Kings and the 2000 series The Fugitive. With the critically acclaimed Boom-town, "he was finally in the right character and in the right show for this [revelation] to come out," says Yost.
Williamson, who lives in L.A. with Sondra and their kids Nicole, 4, and Maya, 2, has no regrets about going public with his tale. "What I want this show to say is everyone has gone through something painful in their life, but if you surround yourself with people who have the light turned on, you can—you will—come through it."
Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles