By Karen G. Jackovich
Updated July 30, 1979 12:00 PM

Few people know better than Stan Dragoti that freedom has a way of altering a man’s perspective. On the Fourth of July, Dragoti, director of the current movie hit Love at First Bite, stood anxiously in a West German courtroom facing 10 years in prison for possession of cocaine. Admitting guilt, he told the court he had been driven to drugs by overwork and the much-publicized love affair between his wife, Cheryl Tiegs, and photographer Peter Beard. Dragoti said he wanted “to kill the pain.” The judge took pity on him (“This man committed a criminal act, but he is not a criminal”), suspended his 21-month sentence, ordered him released from the 7-by-12-foot prison cell where he had languished since his May 13 arrest at the Frankfurt airport—and sent him home. Once back in Los Angeles, Dragoti surprised an unsuspecting public by heaping praise on the very woman he had blamed for his downfall.

“Cheryl was terrific,” Dragoti, 46, announced. “She called everyone she could think of who could possibly help. In many ways I owe my life to Cheryl, my lawyer Russell Goldsmith and my friend Larry Gordon [producer of The Warriors].” No sooner had Stan stepped off the plane than Cheryl began affectionately chastising him. “I don’t know whether to spank you or kiss you,” she said. “You don’t know what you put me through.” Then she threw her arms around her husband, murmured, “I love you,” and started to cry. Tactfully, no one alluded to Beard (Dragoti says he would rather not talk about him), and the couple stole off for a weekend together at their Bel Air home.

“Hollywood may be known for its storybook endings; Bel Air is not. Still, the reunion began on a note of high promise. “It was like all this had never happened,” Stan recalled last week. “We talked, had quiet dinners at the house. We read. It was like being in a time warp.” But when the weekend ended, so, unhappily, did the illusion that all wounds had healed. Dragoti flew to Canada to visit friends, then on to New York. Tiegs returned to Africa, where work on an ABC television special—and Peter Beard—awaited her. “Cheryl and I are trying to get back together again,” Dragoti said wistfully. “I’m not saying it will happen. I wish it would, and I think she would like it too, but we both have to feel it.”

Dragoti’s breakup with Cheryl “was emotionally shattering to him,” said Bob Kaufman, a co-producer of Love at First Bite. In their 11 years together—eight of them as husband and wife—Dragoti, an Albanian immigrant’s son, rose from Madison Avenue account executive to Hollywood director, while Tiegs, the high school cheerleader daughter of California Quakers, went from New York model to cover-girl superstar. Incredibly, it took Cheryl three years to talk Stan into marrying her. After an earlier marriage had failed, he recalls, “I lost confidence in my judgment. I didn’t know how I could have made such a mistake the first time. My parents were very happily married and I wanted the same thing.” When Tiegs finally persuaded him to take the risk, Dragoti committed himself totally. “We had a fabulous relationship,” he says. “I believed in it 100 percent. I really thought it was for life.”

Although Tiegs’ romance with Beard began making headlines last year, her husband may have been the last to know—or, at least, the last to acknowledge it. “I guess you could say I was not strong enough to take the pain,” he admits. He had never been known in the film community as a drug user. “Stan didn’t even do grass,” says a friend, actress Cindy Williams. “He’s the straightest person I know.” Yet swiftly and recklessly Dragoti took up cocaine. En route to the Cannes Film Festival, he tried clumsily to smuggle 21 grams of the drug past German authorities—sticking it to his body with tape and foil—but was detected by an airport security device. “I was in a state of shock for two days after my arrest,” he recalls. “It was the first time I had ever been in trouble in my life. There I was, sitting in jail thinking, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ ”

Dragoti’s nice-guy reputation was borne out by the unwavering loyalty of his Hollywood friends. Lawyer Goldsmith arranged for German defense counsel, and producer Gordon, who was with Stan at the time of the arrest, stayed on in Frankfurt to give him support. A stream of fan letters buoyed Dragoti’s morale, and a surprise visitor sent his spirits soaring. “Cheryl came over unnoticed and spent two days,” he says. “She checked in as Dragoti, and the press didn’t even know she was there.” Adds Goldsmith: “Cheryl worked unquestioningly to help Stan and unselfishly put his interests first. It was remarkable, something few people will ever recognize.” When Tiegs left, her parents flew in from California to stay with their son-in-law through his trial—and to buy him his first dinner as a free man. “Hearing someone say ‘You’re free’ is the closest thing to being born again,” he says. “I remember they came over and kissed me, and it was almost dreamlike. But I distinctly recall smelling the fresh air for the first time in two months. Free air really does have a sweet odor.”

Some of Stan’s friends believe his imprisonment may be therapeutic. “As bad as this sounds, it was the best thing that could have happened to him,” says an advertising colleague, Charlie Moss, vice-chairman of Wells Rich Greene. “This is what he needed to shock him into a better life-style—and it worked. He’s already into the swing of things, working on new projects. It’s fantastic.” Within a week of his release, Dragoti was reading scripts for his next movie. (“I was so worried that this would ruin my career,” he admits.) George Hamilton, star of Love at First Bite, has asked him to direct Zorro, the Gay Blade, and other properties are being considered.

The “life-style” which Dragoti seeks above all, of course, is the one that seems the hardest to achieve—reconciliation with Cheryl. During the nearly eight weeks he was imprisoned, Stan jogged for an hour each day in the jail yard, paced his tiny cell at other times and pondered the future of his marriage. “There is no longer any resentment or hurt on my part,” he maintains. “That’s gone. My arrest happened, and Cheryl acted the way she did, and I feel very grateful to her. The time in jail sort of cleared everything out for me.”

Perhaps. But in his determination to save his marriage, he may be flirting with another crushing disappointment. On one of his first evenings in New York, he hurried expectantly back to his hotel suite to call Cheryl in Africa—hoping to hear she was on her way home. After a long wait the call finally went through, but the message he received was a gloomy one. Cheryl would be delayed in Johannesburg. Worse, the voice on the wire was not his wife’s but that of her secretary, impersonally deputized to bear the bad news.