January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

Clad in black jeans and settled into a peach leather couch in his cluttered Los Angeles living room, a barefoot David Carradine, 62, sips a cup of herbal tea, chain-smokes an unfiltered English Oval cigarette and recalls the not-so-distant days when chamomile tea was not his beverage of choice. “I was drinking every minute I was awake,” says the once notorious bad boy of his three decades in an alcoholic haze. “I got up to a quart and a half a day. Vodka, you name it—I would drink all day long.”

In the early 1970s, Carradine, the eldest son of acting patriarch John Carradine, was riding high, starring as a spiritual half-Asian martial arts expert in the ABC series Kung Fu. But scarcely a decade later, fueled by booze and drugs, his life had degenerated into one long career slide marked by a string of straight-to-video movies and a reputation for a temper that left him almost unemployable. Even in 1994 when a doctor told Carradine, who was filming a pale remake of Kung Fu in Toronto at the time, that his liver was shutting down, he kept on drinking. “It wasn’t much fun to hang around David. He was pretty far gone,” recalls his half brother Robert Carradine, 44, an actor. “If he didn’t have a drink in his hand, he was on his way to get one.”

But spurred on by his fourth wife, Marina Benjamin, a 40ish actress and producer, he put down his shot glass for good in March 1996. “I haven’t had one bad moment, and I haven’t looked back,” says the veteran of some 100 mostly regrettable film and TV roles. “I feel like I’m the sole survivor of a shipwreck and I’ve reached the beach of a gorgeous tropical island with papayas and mangoes and beautifully colored birds.”

So much for being washed-up. In The New Swiss Family Robinson, a TV update of Johann David Wyss’s classic novel, airing Jan. 10 (ABC, 7-9 p.m. ET), Carradine plays a buccaneer bad guy who menaces the famously stranded family. These days “it is a complete joy, a miracle to see how clear David is,” says actor James Keach, 51, who, along with various Carradine, Keach and Quaid brothers, starred with him in the 1980s western The Long Riders. “He is totally in the present tense. He has the brilliance he had as a young actor.”

Even better, says Carradine, sobriety has also revived his relationship with his family. It includes daughters Calista, 36, an actress, and Kansas, 20, a student; son Free, 26, a special-effects artist; adopted brother Bruce, 65, a building contractor; and half brothers Robert, Christopher, 51, an L.A. architect, and Keith, 49, an actor. “David’s got his eloquence and manners back. You can have a conversation with him now,” says Robert, who recently completed a film with Carradine in Ireland, produced by B-movie king Roger Corman. “He looks 10 years younger than when he was boozing. I’ve got my brother back.”

Accessibility is a trait he shares with his late father, John, who appeared in such movies as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Ten Commandments (1956). “People who followed my father’s career knew him as well as I did. He was a very public person.” Still, by the late 1960s, after Carradine, a draftee, had been court-martialed out of the Army at 24 for shoplifting from a base grocery store, he followed the family path to Hollywood. His Kung Fu years, 1972-75, followed by roles as Woody Guthrie in 1976’s Bound for Glory and as an outlaw in Riders, “were my most brilliant days as an actor,” recalls Carradine. “Then, somehow or another, I got sidetracked.” Left by the wayside as well, in 1975, was a highly publicized six-year relationship with actress Barbara Hershey (mother of Free, who now also goes by Tom). “Barbara and I haven’t talked in years,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve had an actual eye-to-eye conversation with her since she got married [to painter Stephen Douglas in 1992].”

By the early ’80s, Carradine had earned a reputation as an unreliable drunk, although “you can’t blame it all on the alcohol,” he now says. “I am an arrogant son of a bitch.” Dunned by the IRS for back taxes, he took throw-away villain roles in such duds as Kill Zone and Dune Warrior, where he always kept a liquor flask on the set. By 1990, Carradine was poison in Hollywood. “I did a helluva lot of damage,” he admits, “and it wasn’t clear if my career was going to survive at all.” In 1995 he filed for separation from his third wife, Gail Jensen, his business manager. The divorce became final in March 1997. Carradine says they split over “irreconcilable differences.” He adds, “I was living with someone who didn’t have my best interest at heart.”

In 1995 he rekindled an acquaintance with an actress he had first met in 1973 while she was still a student. “When I got together with Marina, I really was trying to find some way out of this mess,” he says. “I was tired of the whole thing, but I couldn’t conceive that I would never have a drink again. I didn’t have the strength.”

Marina helped him find it, and today he is using his restored stamina not only to revive his acting career (he recently completed an independent film, American Reel, in which he plays a musician) but also to indulge his love of tai chi and songwriting. Then there’s that tattoo. “I figured out that what I had to do was outlast the other actors,” says Carradine, explaining the significance of the carp on his right buttock. It is, he explains with a sly grin, “the Chinese symbol of longevity.”

Susan Schindehette

Ken Baker in Los Angeles

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