This actor-director-screenwriter is making a name for himself at your local video store

They sent you 3,000 miles to interview me?” Grinning in disbelief, Wings Hauser whispers, almost to himself, ”I’m just another monkey in the tree.”

In the world of video, though, the Hauser monkey is a gorilla. Say ”Hauser” to most Friday-night moviegoers at the multiplex and they’ll think you mean Doogie. But after 44 films — mostly no-budget thrillers and action flicks — in nine years, Wings Hauser’s name on a cassette box often means the difference between the movie gathering dust on a video-store shelf or renting steadily week after week.

That’s because the 43-year-old actor-director-screenwriter is a bit different from most stars of action flicks. Jean Claude Van Damme may have the muscles, Rutger Hauer the attitude, and Michael Pare the sigh-guy good looks; Hauser is unique for his obvious intelligence and his ferocious, good-humored enthusiasm for taking professional gambles. His performance as the psychotic police chief in Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, for example, has been widely recognized as the best thing in that howlingly weird vanity film.

Despite small roles in theatrical releases like Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, Hauser’s bread-and-butter métier is cheap action: Movies like Dead Man Walking may never get reviewed by Siskel and Ebert, but their video following is devoted. Recently, in fact, Hauser’s been so busy that his life seems like one continuous chase scene: Having completed nine movies in the past 15 months alone, he’s currently nearing the end of a killer low-budget, 14-day shooting schedule in California’s San Fernando Valley. No prima donna, he shares a dressing room (a.k.a. the bathroom) with the rest of the cast, spends extra time rehearsing with the little girl who plays his daughter, and cuddles with 27-year-old girlfriend, actress Darcy DeMoss (Can’t Buy Me Love), between takes.

To understand the rich and strange depth Hauser brings to his action quickies, you have to hear about the rich, strange life he has led. His father, screenwriter Dwight Hauser, was blacklisted as a Communist during the McCarthy era; as the senior Hauser’s star fell, Wings (né Gerald Dwight) was shunned by school classmates. ”For two years, until we moved, I basically had just my family and my imagination,” he says, sitting after the day’s shooting in the Hollywood restaurant that serves as home turf (and where he wrote much of the script for the highly praised 1983 Gene Hackman film Uncommon Valor).

Locked out of films, Dwight Hauser started a theater group outside of Los Angeles, where 8-year-old Wings worked backstage. Although exposed to acting since childhood, he turned to music as a young man, writing folk-rock songs and singing them with an acoustic guitar on L.A. street corners. But Hauser’s life took a downturn in 1972 when he split with his wife of two years, taking his 13-month-old daughter, Bright. ”I arrived in L.A., swear to God, with $30, a box of Pampers, and a suitcase,” he says. They moved into a vacant garage; other homeless people babysat Bright while Hauser worked as a night watchman.

The music didn’t pan out, though, and Hauser turned to the acting craft he’d known from his days at his father’s theater. In 1977, he joined the cast of The Young and the Restless and ”died there for 3 1/2 years to support my family.” His first big role — and the part that tapped the blue-eyed psycho in his soul — didn’t arrive until 1982, when he landed a pivotal part in the cop thriller Vice Squad.

It seemed an inauspicious breakthrough: Hauser left during the film’s premiere because the audience was screaming at the screen. ”I thought I’d have to go into real estate, people would hate me that much,” he says. ”But I got fan letters like you wouldn’t believe from women, and letters from parents thanking me for scaring the hell out of their kids and keeping them off the street.”

Vice Squad opened the door to action-adventure, a genre that was starting to find a new audience on home video. Hauser acknowledges that ”video’s been good to me,” and it may yet be his springboard to real fame. He had a recurring role on the Vietnam TV series China Beach last season and starred in the critically acclaimed TV movie Bump in the Night, which dealt sensitively with divorce and child molestation.

Hauser is earning ”a lot of goddamn money,” but he says he hasn’t ”forgotten what it’s like to be homeless.” After dinner at a local restaurant, he cashes a check so he can give a few dollars to a woman on the street. Maybe it’s the memories of his early hand-to-mouth days that burn under this actor’s wild on-screen glee, and maybe it’s a fear that he could still end up back there. ”I have a home today,” he says, ruminating quietly, ”but, God, who knows about tomorrow?”