Back in Gear

At the Sundance Film Festival last month an actor hobnobbed with friends and hyped his latest film. To accommodate a photographer he descended a flight of stairs and posed outside in the snow. Not much unusual about any of this—were the actor not Jason Priestley. Six months ago, on Aug. 11, Priestley crashed head-on into a wall at 182 mph during a practice run at the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky. Lifted unconscious from his open-wheel car, the former Beverly Hills 90210 star sustained facial injuries and broken bones in his back and both feet, all of which required surgery and months of daily rehab. Yet there he was on Jan. 19, skipping down stairs with nary a hobble. “I’m not going to be skiing this year, unfortunately,” he said with a grin. “But I’m doing much better.”

In fact, Priestley’s recovery has been astonishingly quick. “The average person might take a year to show the progress he has made,” says Dr. Henry Bock, one of the first physicians to arrive at the scene. “He gets around without any apparent disabilities.”

It’s well in keeping with his go-for-it philosophy. During the 12 days that Priestley, 33, spent at Indianapolis’s Methodist Hospital last August, he underwent two facial surgeries and an operation to fuse several vertebrae. But even as he was also struggling with impaired speech and short-term memory loss, “at no time time did I see his spirits down,” says Roger Bailey, executive director of the Indy Racing Infiniti Pro Series, who paid some dozen visits. “He was very determined and continues to be.”

Still, Priestley admits that the first weeks after the crash were frightening. In his first postaccident interview, to be aired Jan. 31 on 20/20, he tells Barbara Walters that in the moments after the crash, he stopped breathing and “for about 45 seconds or a minute I actually checked out.” Upon regaining consciousness, he said, “I thought to myself, Can I move my legs? Can I move my feet? Can I move my toes? Can I move anything?…We all know Christopher Reeve…. I was really terrified that was going to be me.”

Rushing to his best friend’s bedside, 90210 costar Luke Perry, 36, was also distraught. “He looked like hell,” Perry told Walters. “I said, ‘Jay, Jay, it’s Luke, wake up,’…and his eyes popped open and it scared me…. You know Jay’s got the blue eyes…. His eyes were blood red.” Says Walters: “We have pictures of him [after the accident], which are so ghastly. His nose was pushed so far up, almost to his forehead, that his sinuses were exposed.”

Priestley wants to race again, says Walters, “but he doesn’t know if he can, physically.” Meanwhile, other interests beckon. He and special effects technician Naomi Lowde, 26, his girlfriend of three years, recently moved into a Hollywood Hills house. He’s also trying to ramp up his acting career. The comedy he was promoting in Sundance, Die Mommie Die, in which he plays an actor wannabe, has been praised as one of the festival’s funniest films. But mostly Priestley seems to be savoring the fruits of his good luck and hard rehab work. When a Sundance guest congratulated him for walking without a limp, Priestley smiled and said, “Thank God.”

Jill Smolowe

Julie Jordan in Park City, Mark Dagostino in New York City, Noah Isackson in Chicago and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles

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