By Margot Dougherty
Updated May 01, 1989 12:00 PM

Wearing the same clothes he has had on for the past three days—navy University of Tennessee sweats and an orange-and-white cap with the UT insignia—a rusty-bearded David Keith is standing on the hood of a Jeep Renegade, spreading his arms as far as they’ll go. “This’ll be my front-porch panorama,” he says, just about encompassing all 140 acres of his bluegrass farmland outside the tiny (pop. 935) town of Tellico Plains, Tenn. “I’m goin’ to get up in the mornin’, ride my horse down to the river and catch a few trout so my wife and children can wake up to the smell of frying fish.” No matter that such family members are presently as make-believe as Keith’s front porch. The guy makes a living riding the waves of his imagination.

With his free-form dress and barbering code, Keith, 34, hardly strikes one as a military type. But on April 30 and May 2, aided by a colonel’s wardrobe, blue contacts and a buzz cut, the Tennessee farm boy will play Washington’s wanna-be power broker in what might be the TV event of the month, CBS’s four-hour miniseries Guts & Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North.

With North’s trial still in the news, the movie should prompt as much debate in its viewing as it did in its making. Citing moral objections, some potential crew members turned down work on the film. But Keith “jumped right on it,” he says. “I think Oliver North is a national hero. No question about it.”

He butted heads with Mike Robe, Guts’ writer, director and executive producer, who based much of the movie on the book of the same name by Ben Bradlee Jr. Iranscam “makes Watergate look like a panty raid,” says Robe. “North had no business making foreign policy.” When it came time to cast North, Robe put Keith, who had shown his stripes as Richard Gere’s upstaging sidekick in An Officer and a Gentleman and as a cadet in The Lords of Discipline, at the top of his list. “David has the same sort of tunnel vision as North,” says Robe. “And he has the same conviction of the Tightness of his acts.” Their differences of opinion made for tension on the set. “I tried to make North more of a hero, and Robe tried to make him less of one,” says Keith. “We probably wound up with something around the truth.”

Since Guts wrapped in March, Keith has been enjoying his R&R. Between trips to New York and L.A., he has managed frequent visits to the farm in Tellico and to his parents’ house 50 miles away in Knoxville, Tenn., which Keith still calls home. Dad Lem, a retired TVA worker and a dead ringer for Santa Claus, and mom Hilda, an ex-schoolteacher with a mean fried-chicken recipe, are still a close part of Keith’s sphere and accompany him to most of his location shoots. Their home—where David grew up with his sister, Debbie, now 33, and his paternal grandparents—is a distant commute from the world he has won for himself.

During a recent visit home, Keith went onstage to accompany rockabilly great Carl Perkins at the Jackson (Tenn.) Civic Center for a standing-O rendition of Carl’s “Blue Suede Shoes.” After the show, sinking back in his stretch limo and nursing a double vodka, Keith reflected on his life as a romantic. “Every night is another beautiful restaurant, beautiful music, a ride through Central Park in a hansom cab,” he says. “These have been the best 10 years of my life.”

And a far cry from parking cars, emptying bedpans, shampooing heads and working in a pea cannery—all of which Keith, a speech and drama major at the University of Tennessee, did before moving to New York in 1977. A brief theater career led to a canceled sitcom stint, then segued into the movies: 1979’s The Rose, with Bette Midler, The Great Santini in 1979 and Brubaker in 1980. Then came Keith’s portrayal of a suicidal cadet in An Officer and a Gentleman, which earned him two Golden Globe nominations in 1982, instant recognition and a notoriously carefree nightlife. “I had a very good time after dark,” Keith says of Officer’s aftermath. “I’d have loved to have been more productive, but hell, what are your 20s for?”

To pave way for your 30s, of course. Now, Keith, who writes music, wants to improve on his “bubblegum, mundane lyrics,” which are “about whorin’ and drinkin’ basically.” And he thinks about “finding one woman, having some children and settling down.” Not just any woman. “I’m looking for a woman with an intense sexual appetite, because I don’t ever want to have to cheat,” he says with foresight.

Keith has been dating Panamanian model Marlenné Kingsland, 24, since meeting her in Aspen, Colo., in December. Although he thinks “Marlenné’s sweet and she listens,” she’s not necessarily part of the fish-eating family of his dreams. But she’s not necessarily not a part of it either. “She hasn’t shown me anything that makes me violently sure she’s not the One,” he says. That One is, by definition, “better than me in every way,” Keith says, but “should think I’m better than her. I want to be her hero.” The uniform may give him an edge.