By Lisa Ingrassia
April 10, 2006 12:00 PM

Actor Drake Bell may not remember New Year’s Eve well—but his foggy recollection came not from holiday overindulgence but from a head-on car crash Dec. 29 resulting in a broken jaw, fractured neck, six dislodged teeth and a deep gash in his chin that left a 2½-in. scar. Now back on the set of the hit Nickelodeon comedy Drake & Josh, 19-year-old Bell talks about the healing process with PEOPLE’s Lisa Ingrassia.

I was coming back from the beach in Malibu with my friend Thomas. We’re on the Pacific Coast Highway, and I got in the left-hand turn lane at Sunset. I was dead stopped. Suddenly this car comes towards me and starts to drift over the double yellow line. I’m like, “This guy can’t turn here.” Thomas goes, “I don’t think he’s stop …” And bam! We get hit. I fly into my steering wheel. My car is a ’66 Mustang, so the steering wheel is made of wood and metal. I only had lap belts and there’s no air bag. Thomas just had bruises, so he jumps out and says, “Dude! Get out, we’re okay!” I’m spitting teeth out of my mouth, and I’m like, “Dude, we are not okay.” I broke my jaw in three places. A whole part fell into my mouth! I could stick my tongue out this scar [pointing to the still-pink swoosh on his chin]. It was like another mouth. But I’m in such shock that I can’t feel anything. I run over to the other car. People are like, “He’s okay, but you need an ambulance.” I lay down on a bus stop bench. I was instantly beyond p—. I was like, “My career’s over. I don’t know how I’m going to look after this.”

Bell spent four days in the hospital, undergoing surgery on his neck and jaw. His jaw was wired shut for almost two months. He also had dental surgery and plastic surgery on his chin.

When I woke up [from neck surgery], my jaw was wired shut, and my chin and neck were swollen. I was in the hospital thinking my life was over. My [stitched-up gash] looked like someone took a live caterpillar and stuck it on my chin. [Costar Josh Peck] was like, “You’re still better looking than me, man.” Josh was bringing me smoothies every day. It was so much more than I would expect. He was totally awesome.

With his parents Joe Bell and Robin Dodson and friends spending time with him, Bell recuperated at home in his two-bedroom Studio City, Calif., apartment.

I couldn’t shave, so I had a full-on, Paul McCartney, pull-on-it beard. I dug it. Milkshakes and smoothies were my breakfast, lunch and dinner. I lost a ton of weight, from 147 lbs. to 121 lbs. Now I’m 130 lbs. We tried putting pizza in a blender, but it smelled like vomit. Doctors said, “All you have to do is put hamburger meat, beef broth and ketchup in a blender. It tastes like a burger.” Dude, it doesn’t.

They unwired me Feb. 16, but I could just open my mouth a little bit. I had to do jaw exercises. I would try to pry open my mouth with my hands, and it wouldn’t even budge. After I worked on it, my whole body would be exhausted. The Nickelodeon producers told me to come back March 8 [to shoot 10 more episodes of the show]. I’m thinking, “That’s impossible!” But I wanted to be back at work.

Now they’re having me do physical comedy—it’s terrible! I’m reading the script, and it says, “Drake gets stunned by stun gun, shakes uncontrollably and then drops to the ground.” I’m like, “Hi! Broken neck over here!” But you don’t want to stop the machine. The accident showed me how much I love what I’m doing and that it can be taken away in a split second.

The third day after I went back to work, I shaved my beard. I couldn’t see my scar until then. I’m getting more used to it every day. If it wasn’t there, it’s like I went through this accident and I have nothing to show for it.