May 04, 1998 12:00 PM

An eight-year veteran of the Chicago police force, Steve Wilkos knows a thing or two about domestic disputes. And at 6’3″ and 225 lbs., Wilkos has what his fellow cop land apartment roommate Dave Johnsen calls “a face that stops people in their tracks.” Still, Wilkos, 34, hardly expected the reaction he got last January when he responded to a 911 involving an irate woman and her three teenage daughters screaming at their stepfather. Then, says Wilkos, “the woman got a look of surprise and said, ‘You’re Steve from the Jerry Springer show?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ The daughters said, ‘Oh, my God, it is Steve. Can we get some tickets to the show?’ ”

Who can blame them for asking? Springer’s syndicated daily talk show, a free-for-all of “teen call girls,” “proud racists” and jilted lovers, has lately been running neck and neck with Oprah Winfrey in the Nielsens. And in the thick of it stands Wilkos, moonlighting as the show’s chief security guard. “Steve gets more air time than I do,” jokes Springer. “I just ask the questions. He breaks up the fights.”

But breaking up is hard to do. Wilkos has been kicked, scratched and, last January, suffered a groin pull after separating two female guests arguing over one boyfriend. “My main concern,” says his police supervisor, Sgt. William Johnston, “is that he doesn’t get bit.” He hasn’t…yet. “Men take a few swings and wait for you to break it up,” he says. “Women claw, scratch, pull hair and won’t stop.”

The third of four children of Stanley, a retired Chicago cop, and his wife, Jeanette, a beauty school instructor, Wilkos had his share of scrapes as a teenager. If not for his disciplinarian dad, he says, “I’d probably be in jail today.” He graduated from high school in 1982 and joined the Marine Corps. At Quantico, Va., he married his first wife, Rosae, a fellow Marine, in 1985. They divorced two years later. (Wilkos recently separated from his second wife, Hannah.)

Back in civvies in 1989, Wilkos applied to the Chicago Police Department and was accepted in March 1990. The fights he later broke up on the beat proved good training for Jerry Springer, where a fellow cop working on the show in 1994 asked Wilkos to help out on an episode with Ku Klux Klan members. Wilkos was hooked. Now he tapes two shows a day before returning to his 4 p.m.-to-midnight police shift. “I work so much,” he says, “I don’t have time for a social life.”

In response to critics, the show has added more security guards to break up the brawls. “They’re getting there much faster,” says an insider. From what Wilkos sees of Springer’s family feuds, “It makes me realize how lucky I am,” he says. “I have two good parents, two good jobs and good friends. My life’s not bad at all.”

Michael A. Lipton

John T. Slania in Chicago

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