By Erik Meers
December 20, 1999 12:00 PM

Carol Alt was about to strip off her clothes and dive into a muddy river last May when producers for her new syndicated TV series, Peter Bench-ley’s Amazon, felt compelled to share some news with the onetime supermodel: A caiman crocodile had recently been seen slithering into the murky river. That said, would she mind shooting the scene anyway? “No problem,” she gamely responded. “How big is he?” (Answer: 6 ft.)

The scene went off without so much as a nibble. “I swam with a phalanx of men surrounding me in case the caiman came out,” says Alt, 39, who plays Karen Oldham, one of six survivors of a plane crash in the South American jungle. The hungry croc later resurfaced after smelling the crew’s pizza.

Serving as bait is worth the risk for Alt, who, after gracing more than 700 magazine covers during her eight-year career as one of the world’s highest-paid models, is hoping Amazon will give Hollywood producers a taste of her abilities. After 45 roles mostly in European-made films since shifting her focus to acting in 1985, Alt’s making the most of her exposure on Amazon (which has been critically savaged but is building a solid, if small, following). Says Amazon creator and Jaws author Benchley: “One of the first things she said to me is, ‘Write me like a man! Write anything you want—I’ll do it.’ ”

He obliged. “I had one scene where I was covered in scorpions,” says the East Williston, N.Y.-raised Alt proudly. “I’ve also pulled leeches off of my costars.” And there’s not much in the way of cover-girl beauty moments: These days makeup “consists of 20 minutes of [applying fake] cuts and bruises and 30 minutes on the Stair-Master,” she says. “When I start to sweat and get all red, they say, ‘Carol, we’re ready to shoot.’ ”

The shooting started for Alt after a photographer spotted the Hofstra University freshman waiting tables at a Steer Barn in 1980. The third of four kids of the late Anthony, a New York City fire chief, and Muriel, 67, a former model, dropped out of college—she was on an ROTC scholarship—and moved to Manhattan to pursue modeling full-time. “The one tip I gave her was, don’t do it,” says Muriel. “I knew very few make it to the top.”

Alt became one of those few, commanding $2,000 a day to pose in Valentino and Sasson jeans and landing on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s swimsuit issue in 1982. “I never thought I was the most beautiful model out there or the most sexy woman,” she says. “But I was a hard worker.” Even with that ethic, her segue into acting proved difficult. “On my first project I made practically no money,” she says. “I paid most of it to my acting coaches. I was often paying for my own hotel rooms.”

Her hectic career strained Alt’s marriage to New York Rangers defenseman Ron Greschner, 44, whom she had wed in 1984. “I wasn’t prepared to stop working and have a family anytime soon,” says Alt, who still wants to have children one day. The couple separated in 1996. Though she still speaks to Greschner regularly, Alt claims, oddly, that she’s “not really quite sure” whether their divorce was ever finalized.

Such technicalities haven’t stopped her from dating. She was spotted holding hands with Jim Carrey at an Academy Awards post-party in March. (“We had a good time, then I left for Toronto,” she says. “That’s about it.”) The man in her life these days is yet another hockey star, Ottawa Senators forward Alexei Yashin, 26, a Russian immigrant who is currently practicing with a hockey team in Zurich while his agent fights for an increase to his $3.6 million contract. The two met at an NHL banquet, where she was a presenter, in June and have dated ever since. Despite appearances, Alt denies that she has a thing for men on ice. “It’s not like I go for hockey players,” says Alt, who recently visited Yashin in Zurich. “When I met Ron, he wasn’t even playing because of an injury.” She also shrugs off their age difference. “If it doesn’t matter to him,” she says, “it doesn’t matter to me.”

When not yakking with Yashin by phone, Alt likes to kill time driving race cars in charity events. “I have taken a Ferrari up to 185 mph,” says Alt, who lives in Los Angeles. Still, she’s not sweating the risk to her million-dollar face whether on the track or the danger-fraught Amazon set. “They certainly could kill off my character,” says Alt. “But I hope they wouldn’t kill me for real!”

Erik Meers

Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles