By Tom Gliatto
October 08, 1990 12:00 PM

There are times when David Clennon wishes he could cut the same figure—one of sleek, angular, sharp-lapelled menace—as Miles Drentell, the seductive rotter of an ad executive he plays on ABC’s yuppie epic, thirtysomething. “I find myself expecting, hoping that people will be intimidated by me,” he says. “That they’ll just—’Oh, my God! Oh, my, Mr. Clennon!’ It’s fun to imagine having that kind of power.” That kind of power isn’t to be found in his split-level Santa Monica condo, decorated with art and posters dedicated to Central American political struggles and an award for his work with Salvadoran refugees. At the moment, Clennon, 47, dressed in khakis and moccasins, is entertaining a Salvadoran friend who has come to update him on the nationalist movement in Mexico. The host offers a choice of beverages, including cider—”The only one on the market, I think, that is still actually pressed from whole apples.”

By utter contrast, Clennon’s Miles is pressed from a deliciously bad apple. And that comes from a deep barrel of unsavory screen roles that the lean, hungry-looking, eagle-eyed actor has played (such as stuffy officials in The Right Stuff and Missing). “There’s something of that educated, managerial-level professional, slightly smug, articulate, devious and generally unsympathetic type in many of the people I’ve played,” says Clennon. But the part of Miles, which quickly grew from a one-shot appearance in January 1989, has been a breakthrough for the actor—and, for audiences, a relief. When Miles first joined the show, Clennon says, strangers would say to him, “You’re the only one who doesn’t whine.”

No: Miles weasels, sublimely. At the end of last season, he slyly fended off a takeover attempt spearheaded by Michael (Ken Olin). In his Oct. 9 reappearance, Miles launches a new power play—one that disturbs Clennon. He has complained in a recent interview that not only does Miles try to force himself upon the kookily winsome Melissa, but he loses control of the situation. Now, after a clampdown by the thirtysomething powers that be, Clennon will not discuss the plot but says, “I’m worried that the audience is going to be dissatisfied. This character they find intriguing is suddenly going to be lacking in credibility and consistency. I may be hooted off the tube.”

Like his character, however, Clennon himself has often broken the rules. He’s been arrested nine times, by his count, starting with the march on the Pentagon in ’67, “one more in the Vietnam era and seven times” since then, he says, protesting U.S. military aid to Central America. “Clennon is passionate about seeing that the world be set right,” says his girlfriend, Becky Sue Epstein, a thirtysomething film producer. That has always been the way of the Clennon clan. “My family talked politics a lot,” says Clennon, who grew up in Waukegan, Ill., the son of an accountant, Cecil, and a homemaker, Virginia (he has two sisters). “I remember in 1952, we’d sit around the radio listening to the Democratic Convention, the one that chose Stevenson to run against Eisenhower. The family was always very strongly Democratic.”

As a teenager, Clennon canvassed for John F. Kennedy. And, following the orbit of the New Frontier President, he dreamed of being an astronaut. To that end, he went to Notre Dame to study physics on the ROTC program. This amounted to two wrong steps for Clennon—he was court-martialed out of ROTC (“I was supposed to address my senior officers with ‘Sir. Yes, sir,’ ” he recalls. “I thought one ‘sir’ was enough, and they freaked”) and fled physics after a course in electromagnetics (“Stopped me cold,” he says). It was Mom who suggested that he might try acting as a break from the books. At last, a magnetic attraction he liked. “I can’t explain it,” says Clennon, “but it was something about acting Hamlet in front of an audience…”

In 1967, studying drama at Yale, the politically committed student confronted the issue of whether to be or not to be in Vietnam and provoked a family crisis when he gave up his grad-school draft deferment so that he could out-and-out refuse to go to war. His dad, who supported the war, flew to Yale, where Clennon asked the famed radical Rev. William Sloane Coffin to back him up. “it helped a little bit,” Clennon says, “but my whole family was concerned that I was gonna go to prison.”

This time, actually, he didn’t—the Army turned him down. “I was found to be suffering from depression,” he says. “It’s true—I do have frequent bouts of depression. I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning—I don’t see the point. I feel derelict, lazy and worthless. It almost feels as though I’d been injected with a very subtle drug that saps my strength.”

Drugs, he admits, were once part of the problem. “I self-medicated myself for about 18 years, from my early 20s to my late 30s—tremendous quantities of beer, and I’d lace it with other stuff. I used a lot of drugs,” including marijuana and mescaline. Without them, he says, “I thought I would never be able to be relaxed and loose enough to act well.” And, although he finally faced up to his addictions in 1981 and now treats his depression with therapy, he wonders if his concerns about acting weren’t somehow justified. “I would like to think that I’m more honest in my work,” he says, “but I’m not really sure.”

Never married, he’s equally ambivalent about relationships. “I’m really very good at the beginning,” he says. “But I don’t have a very good track record over the long haul. Maybe relationships should be renewable after the first six months.” He and Epstein, who live apart, have renewed once. Epstein says she likes Clennon for his sweetness and support. When he first asked her for a date a year ago—a mutual friend introduced them at a reception for Russian filmmakers—she hadn’t seen him play Miles. “If I had,” she says, “I’d never have gone out with him.”

—Tom Gliatto, Robin Micheli in Los Angeles