April 29, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Before he made a big splash on Melrose Place this season as Reed, a now-deceased sleazebag drug-smuggler, James Wilder did a stint as a San Francisco street performer with what he thought was a one-of-a kind act: juggling bowling balls. But then he discovered that someone else was doing his shtick. ”I went crazy when I found out,” says Wilder, laughing, ”just crazy. This guy ripped me off, and I decided to break both his arms. But the night I was going to do it there were too many witnesses around.”

With a sense of humor, and a bent for retribution, like that, it’s no surprise that Wilder slipped easily into the role of another TV scumbucket, anti-Kerrigan conspirator Jeff Gillooly, in NBC’s Tonya and Nancy: The Inside Story. And while Wilder doesn’t condone what Gillooly did, he has no trouble understanding the motives of Tonya Harding’s ex. ”I mean, Gillooly knows Tonya is a great skater technically. But Nancy is also swanlike, while Tonya is Dick Butkus on skates. And there is all this endorsement money at stake, and well, you can see how it started to make sense to him.”

When he was only 17, Wilder was doing a juggling opening act for the B-52’s and the Dead Kennedys, among others; the pre-Melrose acting stints he is best known for are the short-lived but acclaimed 1990 series Equal Justice and last summer’s four-episode bomb Route 66. Wilder says he’d never even seen Melrose before taking the part of Reed, who seduces his old classmate Jo (Daphne Zuniga), entangles her in his fatal foul play, and leaves her pregnant. ”I wanted Reed to be the kind of guy you would want to run off to Vegas with for the weekend but would never marry,” he says. ”I never knew he would become that popular or that it would impact my career. I did it for stocking-stuffer money. But now I’m hooked on watching it.”

Wilder, a former San Franciscan whose dad is a contractor, built his own Gothic home in the Hollywood hills. ”Building is a release for me,” he says. And he needs one. ”I don’t get invited to a lot of things. The only parties I go to are the ones I throw. I thought this town was dead. Jeez. Maybe it’s me!” Or just the characters he plays.

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