Alex Tresniowski
October 26, 1998 12:00 PM

Heather Thomas was out for a stroll when suddenly her past reared its gaudy head. There in Santa Monica, in the window of a shop specializing in kitsch, was a chilling reminder of her former self: a cheesy Fall Guy lunchbox, priced at $80. “Look, Heather,” her bemused stepdaughter Kristina, 19, pointed out. “You’re vintage.”

If by that Kristina meant “improving with age,” she was dead-on. Best known as the blonde who filled out a bikini on the Lee Majors action series The Fall Guy from 1981 to 1986, Thomas, now a fetching 41, has since forged not one but two new careers: as a successful screenwriter and as the co-owner of a Montana fishing ranch. Along the way, she overcame a drug addiction, a devastating car accident and—perhaps most impressively—the stigma of being an ’80s pinup queen. “I’m a recovering bimbo,” Thomas says with a hearty laugh. “It’s very seductive when people treat you like a child. But I needed to step out of that and ask, ‘What do I want my life to say?’ ”

Her post-starlet statements have certainly been lucrative. School Slut, a darkly comedic script she wrote about a high school beauty maligned by jealous classmates, was gobbled up by Touchstone Pictures last year for a healthy six-figure sum. “There was an originality and ferocity on the page,” says veteran screenwriter Robin Schiff, who was set to direct the movie until filming was postponed recently. “Heather’s as talented as anyone I’ve worked with.”

Thomas, who is married to entertainment lawyer Skip Brittenham, 57 (clients include Harrison Ford and Eddie Murphy), notched another six-figure sale for the horror script Legacies, which is set in a college sorority house. She is also developing a TV series for kids. “People always thought of me as monosyllabic and shallow, so for me to have this voice is gratifying,” Thomas says. “I’m doing what I love to do.”

And what she intended to do all along. The daughter of a Santa Monica statistician and a school researcher, Thomas graduated from UCLA film school in 1980, planning to work behind the camera and act too. After she got the part of a stuntwoman-bounty hunter on The Fall Guy, Thomas was rivaling Farrah Fawcett in the hearts of poster-buying adolescents. “I was going to be [Italian director] Lina Wertmuller,” she says, “and I wound up being Betty Grable.” Thomas “was a spectacular babe” at Hollywood parties, remembers Schiff. “We made nasty remarks about her because she was so gorgeous.”

But Thomas’s untroubled looks masked a fierce struggle with cocaine addiction. After she passed out in front of Majors one day in 1984, he alerted her manager, and her family staged an intervention. She kicked her habit in rehab and soon thereafter acquired a husband, psychotherapist Allan Rosenthal, whom she divorced after seven months. “That was an ‘oops,’ ” says Thomas. “A definite rehab reaction.”

More bad luck followed. Not long after The Fall Guy was canceled in 1986, Thomas was struck by a car—”I remember bouncing in slow motion,” she says—and suffered severe nerve damage to her legs. Early in her monthlong hospitalization, her friend Skip Brittenham stopped by for a visit; he never left. “He used to sleep in my hospital room,” says Thomas of their courtship. “I’d wake up going, ‘What are you still doing here?’ ”

Married in 1991, the couple divide their time between a Spanish-style house in Los Angeles and an Adirondack-style log house in Jackson Hole, Wyo. A three-hour drive north is Firehole, the 400-acre fly-fishing ranch she owns with Brittenham, a top-ranked fly fisherman. There, Thomas holds her own when fishing with her husband and also loves to ride horseback and hang out with Brittenham’s daughters Kristina and Shauna, 17. “I’m so happy, I just laugh every day,” she says, breaking into the smile that sold a thousand lunchboxes. “I can’t believe I’m 41. I never thought I would have lasted this long.”

Alex Tresniowski

Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles

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