Big Man on Campus

updated 08/15/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tommy Lee has studied many things in his life—tattoo art, women's navels, the bottoms of shot glasses—but the third edition of Chemistry: The Molecular Nature of Matter and Change? That was never on his must-read list. Yet, sure enough, that's Lee, sitting in class and taking notes just like any other college student. Of course, Lee is not your average shy, pimply freshman, which is why, before letting him loose at the University of Nebraska campus to film his reality series Tommy Lee Goes to College, NBC made sure to school him on the meaning of "hands off."

"I got read the riot act," says Lee. "NBC was like, 'Look, we're advising you: Don't look and don't touch.' They even posted an armed guard outside my dorm room and made me watch a sexual harassment tape."

Not exactly the type of sex tape one normally associates with Tommy Lee. But for this far more innocent video project, the high school dropout let a film crew follow him as he took horticulture, chemistry and literature classes, joined the marching band and even pledged a fraternity. "They made me clean toilets, do laundry, wash dishes," he says. "I was like, 'F—-that. I'm starting my own frat. The House of Lee.' " Don't expect any scenes of him trashing his dorm room or streaking across campus, though. "He sees the world a bit differently than I see it, but he was very polite," says the university's chancellor, Harvey Perlman. "I didn't get any complaints about his behavior."

In other words, Lee acted nothing like he did in his Mötley Crüe heyday, when he became more notorious for his insatiable appetite for sex and drugs than for his music. "We were nicknamed the Terror Twins," says Crüe-mate Nikki Sixx. "Tommy's got that exuberant personality—he's always ready for an adventure." In 1989, Lee's thrill-seeking took a near-deadly turn when he overdosed on heroin. "The doctors had to give me a shot of adrenaline in the heart to bring me back," he says. "I thought, 'Okay, that's it. I love life. I don't want to die.' "

Although he cleaned up his act in some ways, Lee's seven-year marriage to actress Heather Locklear, whom he wed in 1986, ended after he cheated on her—with a porn star. "I made a big mistake," offers Lee. In his next marriage—to Pamela Anderson—Lee made a much graver error. Three years after their 1995 beach wedding, Lee pleaded no contest to a charge of spousal abuse and spent four months in jail as a result. "I read like 50 books. Never in my life had I ever been away from a TV or a phone," he says. "A little time in a cabin in Montana would have been better, but I took those months to do research on myself—'Who am I? Am I happy?' " The couple, who had two children together—sons Brandon, 9, and Dylan, 7—divorced that same year but have been on and off again ever since. "They're the Liz Taylor and Richard Burton of our era," cracks Sixx. "Tommy loves so hard and so deeply."

So are they back on? Pam says no, but Lee sounds ready to call the caterer—again. "We're crazy in love," says Lee, who lives by himself in a rented house in Hollywood. "We're going to take things slowly and see where they go." A reconciliation would mean even more quality time with his boys, who recently tagged along with him for a few days on Mötley Crüe's reunion tour. You can see proof of his devotion to them on his wrist. "I let them write their names on me with a Sharpie, and I had a tattoo artist come over and ink it in," says Lee. "I brought them to school and they were like, 'Our dad put our name on his body forever!' They thought it was the coolest thing."

Although Lee stayed in college only for a semester (he won't divulge his grades, except to say, "I kicked ass"), he's hoping the term with his family lasts a lifetime. "The boys miss Pam and me together," he says. "When we're together, they're so happy. At the end of the day, that's truly what my heart wants. I want us all to be together."

Jennifer Wulff. Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles

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