October 05, 1998 12:00 PM

For a moment in the late 1970s, Jimmy McNichol had a shot at being a Leonardo DiCaprio, or at least a Donny Osmond. A Tiger Beat cover boy with his own band, a swarm of female admirers and a killer blow-dried ‘do, Jimmy was flooded with movie offers—and chose Escape from El Diablo, Night Warning and Smokey Bites the Dust. Huh? “It wasn’t the right time or the right material,” he admits today. “Basically I sold myself out.”

Now 37, McNichol (call him James, please) is trying to rebuild his career in entertainment with an eye toward his true passion—preserving the environment—while he spends his days buying, renovating and reselling houses in Southern California. But remembering the time when his picture adorned many a junior high school locker still brings a smile. “I went from girls and car chases to a horror film where everybody is decapitated,” he says, laughing. “I look at it as a great experience. It was wild.”

McNichol, who lives in Topanga with his homemaker wife of one year, Renée, and their 17-month-old son Nash (the couple’s second baby is due in December), won’t pretend he hasn’t lost something special. “I miss the awards shows and the premieres,” he says of his days hosting the 1978 syndicated variety show Hollywood Teen and starring in the 1979 prime time surfer-dude drama California Fever. But now he happily calls himself “a regular guy.”

Like his little sister Kristy, who starred in the drama Family in the ’70s and Empty Nest from ’88 to ’92, McNichol was appearing on TV at the age when most kids are starting school. With encouragement from their manager-mom Carolyn, 56, who was divorced from James Sr., 60, a carpenter, when the children were small, both youngsters moved quickly from commercials to prime time. (Their brother Tommy, 33, studies computer science.) “My mom always said,” McNichol recalls,” ‘If you are not having fun, we don’t have to do this anymore.’ ”

Eventually, Kristy’s health forced her to stop. Suffering from a bipolar disorder, she had a breakdown and dropped out of her Empty Nest role in 1992 “to hibernate,” James says. “It was devastating for her,” adds her brother, who speaks to his 36-year-old sister often and describes their relationship as very close. “When she would reach a low, we would play tennis or go to the beach—whatever it took to make her feel better, we would make it happen.”

Indeed, McNichol, an avid outdoorsman, has made Kristy part of a project that he’s now shopping to the networks: a show on the environment that he hopes to produce and host with her. Called planeT View, it’s a look at what McNichol calls “the good things that people are doing to heal the planet.”

Although McNichol says that neither he nor his sister were ever part of the Hollywood party scene, he has seen that “fame has emotional spikes that could take a toll on anybody.” Having grown up in—and out of—stardom, he figures he’ll be able to handle whatever the future hands him, whether it’s a microphone or a hammer. “I am going to stay rooted,” he promises.

Kyle Smith

Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles

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