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Enough for now

Willie Aames and his wife find peace away from Hollywood.

January 22, 2008|Matthew DeBord | Special to The Times

It all could have turned out so differently for Willie Aames. The 1970s teen heartthrob, star of ABC's "Eight Is Enough" and a curly locked fixture on the bedroom walls of thousands of teenage girls during the Carter administration, has traveled a million miles, or so it seems, from those golden days. Tommy Bradford's twinkly adolescent allure has been replaced by a weathered maturity. These days, there's not much Buddy Lembeck -- Aames' hustling, sex-driven character from his 1980s hit series with Scott Baio, "Charles in Charge" -- in evidence, either.

Aames is a Hollywood refugee and a redeemed Christian now. For 16 years, he has lived in Kansas with his wife, Maylo Upton-Aames, also a believer, and their daughter, Harleigh (he also has a grown son from an earlier marriage). He was in Los Angeles recently to conclude work on his second appearance in VH1's "Celebrity Fit Club." He looked like the surfer he once was: streaked brown-blond hair, black jacket over a hip T-shirt, running shoes. Nothing fancy. He and Maylo -- a former runaway and drug addict who lived on the streets, and a moderately successful actress -- ate salads in a booth at the restaurant of the Sheraton Universal in Burbank and observed a shared sobriety: water for her, iced tea for him. She was dressed neatly in black, her hair cut medium length. They sat close and talked about the book they recently published, "Grace Is Enough," a shared memoir of his Hollywood childhood and her escape from poverty, rape and drugs, published by B&H Books, a Nashville-based Christian publisher.

At a time when the entire genre of the washed-up celebrity has gained plenty of entertainment-industry traction, Aames' effort to follow a different path actually distinguishes him from the competition. Sure, he readily admits that he is washed up, but he refuses to fully join the (literally, for him) unholy party. Of course, he won't be appearing on "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew," another VH1 invention and the latest example of the trend, because he's been sober for more than a decade. Equally refreshing is the absence of heavy-handed moral prescriptions in "Grace Is Enough." This is a cautionary tale that avoids describing Hollywood as a black hole of sin and suffering.

In a vanished time before youthful stardom, Aames said that he had considered becoming a marine biologist or joining the military, pursuing SEAL duty. "I wanted to leave 'Eight Is Enough' for the Navy," he said. That's not as ridiculous as it might sound. Aames was an experienced ocean swimmer and diver, taught by his hard-as-nails firefighter father before he could drive. Before "Eight Is Enough," he spent his days on Orange County beaches. He has begun to physically revert to his genetic legacy: outdoorsy, ranch-folk, John Ford type. "It was an old-school family," he said. "Adventurous and intellectual. When I was growing up, I didn't know there was a world outside of California."

Of late, Aames has gotten about as far away from Tommy Bradford as is possible, but closer to his inner Ted Nugent. He's appeared in a series of hunting programs produced by MacMillan River Adventures and broadcast on the Outdoor Channel. He prefers to convene with his higher power in nature and always has. It only makes sense that he would turn it into a job. "I've been on TV for 40 years." Aames said. "People think they know me, but they have no idea."

Born Albert William Upton, the 48-year-old Aames changed his name on the advice of an early agent, so that he would always appear high in alphabetical credit rolls. The first of many compromising decisions, you might think, along with smoking that first joint and drinking that first beer and snorting that first line of coke and getting married before he turned 20 and sinking his earnings into investments that would invite the bankrupting scrutiny of the IRS. Aames brushed it off, however. "Hollywood has always been good to me," he said. "I've never blamed Hollywood for my problems."

Aames had it easy by contrast with Maylo, 46, whom he met in 1985 (they later weaned Maylo off drugs and booze, through Alcoholics Anonymous, and were baptized and married during the same ceremony in 1987). Her father was a gay backup singer for Johnny Mathis who divorced Maylo's unstable mother in the 1960s. The mother dragged Maylo and her sister from one apartment to another, exposing the young girl to the sexual predations of a live-in boyfriend.

Frequently raped as a teen, she left home for good at 16 and lived as a homeless itinerant, scavenging food from garbage cans and using drugs. A trained dancer, she gave acting a try and eventually landed some TV roles. For several years, she appeared on the soap opera "Santa Barbara."

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