By Tom Gliatto
December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

As someone who began acting at 10, Jason Bateman is aware of the irony of starring in a FOX sitcom called Arrested Development. Even though he avoided the humiliations of so many maturing kid actors—arrests, rehab, a cameo in Dickie Roberts—he admits he endured a few harmless mal-adjustments after his early brush with fame. Like the time when he was 18 and already the veteran of TV hits like Little House on the Prairie and Silver Spoons, and he bought his own home to create his fantasy of a frat house, complete with pool table, 60-in. TV and indoor basketball court. “I was trying to make up for not going to college,” he says. “I needed” the basketball hoops and the neon beer signs and that kind of crap. But I’m all caught up now.”

And making a leap forward into a grown-up career. Now 34 and married to Amanda Anka, 34 (daughter of pop star Paul Anka), the guy who played Ricky Schroder’s sneaky buddy Derek on Spoons and Valerie Harper’s smart-alecky son on Valerie (later redubbed The Hogan Family) is starring in a daringly wicked show that doesn’t have one squeaky-clean moment. On Development, he plays Michael Bluth, the one sane person in a family of mindless, craven creeps. After his old man (Jeffrey Tambor) goes to jail for fraud, he tries to helm the family real estate development business while being undermined by his bitter socialite mother (Jessica Walter), a failed-magician brother (Will Arnett) and a sister (Ally McBeal’s Portia de Rossi) who bills her lavish lifestyle as a company expense. The show, one of the best-reviewed new series of the season, is “smarter and hipper than anything I’ve done,” says Bateman. Costars say it wouldn’t work without Bateman anchoring the comedy. “It’s like Johnny Carson,” says Tambor. “He lets the people around him shine, then he has his moment and he just kills.”

And maybe he can finally lay to rest audiences’ image of him as a dependably likable cutie in the Michael J. Fox mold. “There’s certainly some residual baggage that I carry,” admits Bateman, whose actress sister, Justine Bateman, 37, herself became a star playing Fox’s sister on Family Ties. “I’m still an ex-teen idol. I’ve never been as famous as I was as a teenager.”

He and Justine, who now lives just a mile away with her husband, real estate developer Mark Fluent, and their 1-year-old son Duke, grew up in a show-biz household. Their father, Kent Bateman, 67, is a TV producer and director. (He and their mother, Victoria, 62, a former flight attendant, divorced in 1989.) “Another kid might want to play football to impress his dad,” says Bateman. “I wanted to be an actor.” Dad, who eventually directed episodes of both his kids’ hit sitcoms, was not disappointed. After a string of commercials and a year on Little House on the Prairie, Bateman became a bona fide star with his four years on Silver Spoons, which debuted in 1982. “Any kid and any teenager who’s on a television show is going to be a teen idol,” he says, shrugging off memories of those days. “You’re just part of the machine.”

Keeping with the traditional script, the machine spat him out. Twenty-two when The Hogan Family ended in 1991, he hit one pothole after another in his 20s and 30s, including failed sitcoms (Chicago Sons, George & Leo) and movie flops like Love Stinks. In fact, says his wife, Development “is his only show I’ve liked a lot.” Not that he’s complaining. “My motto is ‘You’re alive now, so live!’ I had plenty of money to have some incredible times. I’ve traveled all over the world and paid for my friends to go with me. I’ve rented ski houses and planes.” He even drove race cars, winning the celeb portion of the Long Beach grand prix. “That was a cheesy celebrity thing I did for a while,” he says with a laugh. “Racing isn’t for me.” He has been able to keep that sort of perspective through his bond with his sister, who still acts and designs clothes (and is pregnant with her second child). “They both went through the same things,” says his wife. “They get each other.”

A fellow Hollywood kid, Anka knew Bateman as a casual acquaintance for years before they finally settled down to dating in 1998. “We did this dance for a long time,” says Anka, whose career emphasis has been on voice-overs. “But I think we always knew.” They married three years later and now live in a four-bedroom house in Los Angeles. Both are ready to start a family, but at the moment Bateman is obsessed with the Japanese garden flourishing in his backyard. “I love my koi pond and my koi fish.” He pauses. “I really am 34.”

Tom Gliatto. Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles