Why the ''sexiest man on TV'' went into hiding. The ''Wiseguy'' star recounts the ups and downs of his last eight reclusive years

By Dalton Ross
Updated July 23, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Ken Wahl
Credit: Ken Wahl: Globe Photos

The ”sexiest man on TV” rests in the back booth of a Los Angeles bar. He’s sitting with a vodka in one hand and holding his aching neck with the other. Somewhere behind the bushy goatee, disheveled black and gray hair, and many layers of extra weight hides Ken Wahl. The other patrons are oblivious to the presence of a man whose résumé includes movies with Paul Newman and Brad Pitt, a critically hailed TV show (”Wiseguy”), as well as a Golden Globe win and Emmy nod for best actor. At one time, Wahl, with his chiseled chin and picture-perfect pompadour, was hailed as the hottest hunk since Tom Cruise. Us magazine put him on its cover in April of ’89, proclaiming him TV’s stud-muffin du jour. All the guys wanted to share a beer with him, and all the gals wanted to share a bed with him.

But Ken Wahl’s story didn’t follow the expected script. His story involves alcohol, accidents, arrests, a cover-up, Elvis, both Barbi twins, and most of all, a boatload of physical and emotional distress. During his first in-person interview in more than eight years, Wahl squirms constantly in his seat. He’s obviously uncomfortable. Sure, there’s the physical pain. But he also loathes opening up — a fact he’ll repeat in his deep, direct voice many times over the next two hours. Wahl refused to be photographed, and says he’s doing this interview only as a favor to a publicist friend, who encouraged him to promote three available ”Wiseguy” DVD sets. After all, what’s in it for him? And what could possibly be so interesting about his life?

The mystery surrounding Wahl goes all the way back to the beginning. Ken Wahl was born in Chicago on… well, no one quite knows when Wahl was born. Some reports say Halloween 1954, others say Valentine’s Day 1956, but these reports seem to be attempts by the actor to stymie curiosity seekers. ”There’s a reason for that,” Wahl states cryptically, ”but I’m not gonna get into why.” Oh, one other thing: Ken Wahl is not actually Ken Wahl. At least he wasn’t when he was born. While he declines to disclose his birth name, he does say that the moniker he’s gone by for the past 25 years is the name of the person who saved his father’s life in the Korean War.

Growing up, Wahl dreamed of becoming a baseball player. With an athletic frame that would grow to 6 foot 3, he was a power-hitting shortstop in the Cal Ripken Jr. mold. ”I don’t know if I would have made the major leagues,” Wahl says, ”but I would have gotten to at least Triple-A.” That was before the 15-year-old crashed a motorcycle during a little off-roading. The result — a busted left knee — ended Wahl’s field of dreams. It was also a nasty case of foreshadowing.