May 28, 2001 12:00 PM

As someone who didn’t benefit much from the Clinton economy, Timothy Bottoms can thank George W. Bush for returning him to the ranks of the gainfully employed. Since April Bottoms, a dead ringer for Dubya, has been parodying the President on Comedy Central’s sitcom That’s My Bush. Weeks before landing that gig, though, he gratefully took a $90-a-day job as a surveyor’s assistant on a project near his Santa Barbara home.

“I was learning a trade,” says Bottoms, 50, who retains a trace of the boyish earnestness he displayed in such coming-of-age films as The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase. “The other surveyors can’t take the poison oak,” he says. “I can.”

And if some viewers are allergic to the bad-taste assault of That’s My Bush, well, they should expect that from a show by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who cast the Bush look-alike after seeing a photo of Bottoms in a magazine. The Comedy Central hit, just starting reruns, lampoons Dubya’s image as a clueless bumbler. In one episode he unintentionally electrocutes a death-row inmate. Though a sitcom novice, “Tim is just this sweet guy,” says Stone. “He’s running around all the time and never complains.” Adds Marcia Wallace, who played the receptionist on The Bob Newhart Show and now is cast as Bush’s White House maid: “He’s not trying to be funny. He just is.”

“I just jumped in,” says Bottoms, who, on a day off, lounges barefoot in the living room of the modest two-story house he shares with his second wife, artist Marcia Morehart, 46. “I feel confident,” he says. “It’s a wonderful world.”

It sure must seem that way now to an actor once bedeviled by drug use and a career dry spell that limited him to direct-to-video potboilers with titles like Ripper Man and Mr. Atlas.

The eldest son of James “Bud” Bottoms, a Santa Barbara sculptor, and Betty, a homemaker, Bottoms formed a rambunctious rat pack with brothers Joseph, 47, Sam, 45, and Ben, 40. “It was a vaudeville act growing up in our family,” says Sam, as they all shared Bottoms’s flair for performing. After graduating from high school he found quick success in 1971 playing a war vet in Johnny Got His Gun and a troubled smalltown youth in The Last Picture Show, and he was one of John Houseman’s law students in the 1973 hit The Paper Chase.

His life, though, was wandering off trail. His parents’ separation in 1967 had caused “a lot of stress,” he says. His own 1975 marriage, to folksinger Alicia Cory, produced a son, Bartholomew (now 24 and a veterinary student), but ended in divorce three years later. And Bottoms and his brothers, who had followed him into acting, drifted apart. Though none will say why, Sam, the one brother still close to him, answers, “How are we doing? No lawsuits.” In the late ’70s, Bottoms’s career came apart, too. By then, increasingly reclusive on a 340-acre Big Sur ranch he bought in 1974, he was hooked on a variety of drugs—”whatever anybody else was doing,” he says.

In 1979 a Jesuit friend took Bottoms under his wing and steered him away from the drugs. But his attempted 1981 comeback in Broadway’s Fifth of July was disastrous. In the midst of a custody fight with Cory, “mentally I just wasn’t able to handle it,” he says. Quitting the show in rehearsal, “I took a train home and called Marcia.”

Marcia Morehart, a rancher’s daughter, had dated Bottoms on and off for years. As she helped him through his meltdown, “I fell in love with her more,” he says. They wed in 1984 and had three children in six years: Bodie, 16, Bridget, 14, and Benton, 11. With acting jobs scarce, “it was tough times,” admits Marcia. “But I wasn’t going to be the person who left.” Marcia, Bottoms says, is a daily reminder of his true priorities. “His values,” she jokes, “are to fix the barn roof and get the horses inoculated. And we need a new septic tank.”

As for his TV residence, the White House, Bottoms is waiting to hear if Bush will be renewed. And if it isn’t? “I’ve been through all kinds of changes,” he muses, “and been able to come back. It’s made me a better person, and I have a little more knowledge of who I am.” Dubya couldn’t have said it better.

Tom Gliatto

Michael Fleeman and Mark Dagostino in Los Angeles

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