November 15, 1993 12:00 PM

HE MADE HIS DEBUT AS A CHERUBIC 3-month-old in diapers in a baby-product commercial. Two decades later he is happily changing diapers for his own small sons. Today, Rick Schroder—he hasn’t been Ricky since 1989—is 23. On TV, he plays a cowboy: Beginning Nov. 14, in CBS’s seven-hour miniseries Return to Lonesome Dove, he will reprise the role of Newt Dobbs, which he played in the original Lonesome Dove in 1989. In real life he is a cowboy—the denim-clad, boot-shod proprietor of a 56,000-acre Colorado ranch—and a family man whose dusty green pickup holds both a rifle rack and a child’s car seat.

But while Schroder has grown and prospered and fathered, there has remained a constant: “The news is that Rick is a wonderful actor who is going to have a continuing career as a young leading man,” says his Return co-star, Jon Voight, who last paired with Schroder during the 1979 tearjerker The Champ. “It’s great to see that happen—because it doesn’t always.”

Given Schroder’s decidedly bittersweet experience as a child actor, things could have turned out differently. True, his career, even after 23 years, is still healthy, with Dove and an upcoming TV movie, Single Dad, for Disney. Even so, says Schroder, “I tell people that there was a price to pay for being a child actor—and people who put kids into the business don’t realize the price.”

Voight delights in the way his youthful colleague has turned out. “On the set I found he was a generous artist, that he was concerned about my work as much as he was his own,” says Voight, 54. Voight also was impressed with the way a mature Schroder pondered his part. Explains Schroder: “There is a lot of Rick in Newt. For instance, innocence. Newt is a good guy who is trying to do the right thing and doesn’t always know what the right thing is, even though his intentions are always good.”

Only in the past few years has Schroder had the emotional leisure for such self-examination. As a child actor, he recalls, it was all work and sacrifice. His parents, Diane and Richard Schroder, who both “worked for the phone company on Staten Island in New York City, began taking Rick and his sister, Dawn, 26, to auditions soon after Rick was born. By age 7, when he was cast in The Champ, Ricky had already appeared in 60 commercials.

Sometimes acting was an adventure. At 9, Schroder costarred with William Holden in The Earthling. On the three-month Australian shoot, Holden introduced Schroder to hunting when the two tracked rabbits together. “I thought it was the neatest thing to eat something that I had killed,” says Schroder, now an avowed conservationist and sportsman. “It fostered a love for the outdoors and the need to protect it.”

Despite the glamor, that early emphasis on career also had drawbacks. “I played one year in Little League. I was a shortstop and loved it,” says Schroder. “But then I had no time for any of that.” Instead, he says, “I was around adults all the time. That’s who most of my friends were, and the people I talked to.”

That made for a difficult transition in 1986, at the end of the four-season run of his hit NBC sitcom, Silver Spoons. Schroder, whose family had moved to California when he was 16, had received on-the-set tutoring for eight years. But for his senior year he entered a public high school outside Los Angeles. “It was pretty tough,” he says. “Everybody knew me, and I didn’t know anybody. They treated me differently, and I didn’t know-how to deal with the structure.” When he tried college—briefly studying farm and ranch management at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo.—”I didn’t have the discipline necessary to go to the lectures and write the papers.”

Compounding his difficulties were parents who, he says, were probably overprotective but also indulgent. “Getting a Porsche when I was 16 was silly,” says Schroder, who today is an avid race-car driver who once won at the annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity Race. “It was done with the right intentions, all out of love, but it didn’t help me to make good decisions on my own.”

In time he did learn to make his own choices. In 1990, in Calgary for the filming of Blood River with Wilford Brimley, he met 17-year-old Andrea Bernard, one of five children of a strong Mormon family. They were at a nightclub, and Andrea was dancing with her brother Jared when 20-year-old Rick cut in. “I knew him from Silver Spoons” says Andrea, “but I never would have recognized him in a million years. He had dyed brown hair, a beard and sideburns.”

The couple became engaged on New Year’s Eve of 1991 and later moved in together on what was then the 16,000-acre nucleus of Schroder’s ranch outside Grand Junction. Home was a 36-foot Airstream trailer. “It was small and crowded and drove Andrea nuts,” says Rick. When she became pregnant, the couple moved into a rustic cabin on the ranch while they built their current 4,000-square-foot adobe home. “He was testing me,” leases Andrea of their first few months on the ranch.

On Jan. 8 last year, Holden Richard (named for Schroder’s Earthling costar) was delivered in a natural childbirth that Rick attended. “I cried like a baby,” he recalls. Eight months later, Schroder married Andrea on the terrace of their ranch house. Luke William’s arrival followed this past August, and both Schroders agree that they would like two more children. “It’s been great for me not to think about myself all the time,” says Rick, planting a kiss on Holden’s cheek. “Doing for others, like Holden, makes you feel good, whether it’s just changing a diaper, or making him dinner, or pulling him to bed at night.”

He will not, he says, allow his kids to consider acting as a career, at least until after college. “Being a child actor was great to me, and was also very bad for me. I want them to have other choices.”

His relationship with his own parents has changed of late, especially since he took over the management of his career from his mother last year. But Schroder is proud of running his own affairs—a film-production company, his finances (“I just started paying all my bills myself and learning how to invest”) and his property, which includes 800 head of cattle, quarter horses, 2,000 deer, three trout lakes and five miles of stream. “I sunk about everything I have into this place,” he says, “because I wanted something to leave my sons. I wanted them to have something to protect, including the trees, the water and the critters that live here.”

Ultimately, says Schroder, fatherhood, more than anything else, is what has allowed him to redress his past. “It’s given me a chance to rediscover my own childhood and find more love and understanding for myself,” he says. “All the life experiences, all the things I’ve done, have made me what I am. I wouldn’t want to change any of it. I don’t feel bad for myself at all.”

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE

VICKIE BANE in Grand Junction

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