10/13/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Dean Cain doesn't mince words. "Disgusting" is how he describes the legal battle he faced with ex-girlfriend Samantha Torres over custody of their 3-year-old son Christopher. The worst? Accusations surfaced that he abused drugs and alcohol—allegations he refuted by taking tests to prove he was sober. After spending a year and a half in court, Cain was granted joint custody in May. "I know I'm a fit father," he says. "I'm better at being a father than I have been at anything else in my entire life."
It's a far cry from the kind of challenges tackled by Superman, Cain's former alter ego on ABC's mid-'90s hit Lois & Clark
. Now 37, a single dad and a successful producer, Cain is hoping to reignite his acting career with his role as a menacing husband in the new movie thriller Out of Time
. Squaring off with Denzel Washington
, Cain—whose character, like the actor himself, is a former pro-football player—won praise at the Toronto Film Festival last month for his bad-guy turn. "There's that edge to him," says director Carl Franklin, who had never seen Lois & Clark
when Cain auditioned for the role. "He looked streetwise and like he could handle a woman."
Clearly, Cain is ready to shed his superhero persona. "Playing this character is less a departure from who I am than playing Superman," says the actor, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Colorado, where he owns a five-bedroom ranch house outside Aspen. "It's a world that I know: being a golden boy football player and then getting in the NFL and having the flame burn out. It made it very real for me."
Stardom and setbacks are both familiar ground to Cain, who was raised in Malibu by his mom, actress Sharon Thomas, 57, and film director Christopher Cain (Young Guns
), 59, who adopted Cain when he was 3. (Thomas was divorced from Cain's biological father before he was born; he also has a brother, Roger, 39, and half sister Krisinda, 30.) A star quarterback and student at Santa Monica High School, Cain headed to Princeton University, where he set NCAA football records and dated classmate Brooke Shields
for two years. After graduating in 1988 with a degree in history, he signed with the Buffalo Bills, only to have a knee injury in training camp end his career before it had even begun. "My original plan was to play football for 10 years and be a screenwriter," he says. "Then, when it was over so quickly, I was sitting at the computer, going, 'Now I've got to be a screenwriter?'"
Instead, encouraged by an agent who had seen him in 1984's Stone Boy
. directed by his dad, Cain pursued acting. Guest roles led to Lois & Clark
, which made him a star. But when the show was canceled in 1997 after four seasons, Cain was hardly bothered. "I said, 'Yes!'" he recalls. "I thought I would make big movies. Then it was a struggle."
While his acting career languished, Cain was approached to host the TBS show Ripley's Believe It or Not!
With his own production company behind it, the show, which began in 1999, has proved highly lucrative—if not exactly cool. "People were saying my career was over. I heard the snickers," he says. "But I'm an athlete. You can call me all you want. I've made money every single year since I finished Superman."
Just as Ripley's
was taking off, Cain's romance with Torres, 30, a Playboy
model, also began to heat up. But the pair had already split when Torres learned she was pregnant with Christopher. In December 2001 Cain filed for joint custody of the then 18-month-old boy, and Torres resisted. "I think we just fundamentally disagreed on how to do this with a child out of wedlock," says Cain. "And then the lawyers got involved. I think family law needs to change. It's set up adversarially. You're not fighting over a piece of property. You're trying to figure out how to best raise a child." (Torres declined to comment for this story.)
Christopher now spends half of each week with each parent, "right down the middle," says Cain, who pays Torres child support. "There's no animosity." Christopher accompanies Cain, who recently started filming the independent kids' film Bailey, on location. Cain's longtime friend and production partner Mike Carr says the actor has "a football player mentality—nose to the grindstone, never content. But I've never seen him so happy as when he's with his kid."
As for romance, while "I do date," Cain says, "I'm very, very careful about that with my son. If I bring someone to meet him, then that will be the real thing. He'll have to approve. If he doesn't approve, then I've got a problem."
Michael Fleeman in Toronto