September 26, 2005 12:00 PM

It seemed like a good idea at the time: a reality TV series about Danny Bonaduce, the former child star of The Partridge Family; his wife, Gretchen, whom he married 15 years ago on a first date; and their two children, Dante, 4, and Isabella, 10, all living quirky-cute in their Mission-style three-bedroom home in L.A. “We thought it would be funny to have Marilyn Manson tell my daughter a bedtime story,” says Bonaduce, 46. “Instead I took drugs and alcohol and attacked people. I just didn’t have the dignity to choke on my vomit and die.”

The Partridges—or even the Osbournes—they are not. Over the course of the 11-episode series on VH1, which began airing Sept. 11, Bonaduce pushes past the usual mix of dysfunction and high emotion that define reality TV and verbally abuses his wife, Dr. Garry Corgiat, the therapist who counsels them on the show, and the production crew. He pops pain medication and injects himself with steroids. In a chain of events that prompted the network, and Dr. Corgiat, to consider canceling the series, Gretchen, 39, reeling from both his recent affair and what she calls his “nervous breakdown, a whole new level of low,” says she wants a divorce. Bonaduce reacts with an all-night bender that ends with him slashing his wrists. “I was out of control,” says Bonaduce, his usual wry detachment replaced by candor and shame. “It was awful. I could hear myself saying, ‘Stop this.’ But I couldn’t this time.” When VH1 told Bonaduce they would not resume shooting until he got serious help, says Michael Hirschorn, the network’s executive VP of programming and production, “he flipped it on us and said, ‘I’m only going to get help if you continue shooting.'”

Bonaduce—who then spent a 30-day stint in rehab, which will also be part of the show—admits his initial motive was “money. It was good money.” But for Gretchen it was a lifeline. For years, she says, she had stood by her husband, despite his struggles with substance abuse. “I’m tough,” she says. “I will do anything to keep our family together.” On good days they jumped on the trampoline, played on the swings, went to movies. On one bad day last spring, she heard her husband admit on his radio talk show (from which he has since been fired) that he had had an affair. Despite her talk of divorce, she says she never imagined a life without him. “Apart neither one of us would have added up to anything,” she says. “Together we make this incredible duo.” And she knew a camera filming him in rehab was the best way to keep her husband, who loves to be on TV, there. As she says, “I was desperate to do anything. If [the show] was going to be some leverage for me, I was all about it.”

Thanks to daily AA meetings, Bonaduce says he has been sober for more than 120 days (the longest he’s been in 30 years). “It’s a day-by-day thing,” he says. “I don’t get to behave any way I wish. Gretchen has demanded… a time of reasonable behavior before we can become husband and wife in the best sense.” To improve their bond, each has picked an activity to share: He brings her to the gym; she takes him to church. One activity they will not share is watching their show. “I’m mortified by it,” says Bonaduce. “But if my life can continue to go the way it is going, it was worth the cost.”

Karen S. Schneider. Johnny Dodd and Brenda Rodriguez in Los Angeles

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