December 12, 1994 12:00 PM

DON IMUS IS HAVING A PRODUCTIVE day. With an hour to go on his syndicated radio talk show, Imus in the Morning, he has already skewered (by insult or parody) the Clintons, Jesse Helms, Dan Rather, Connie Chung and rival Howard Stern. Unfortunately for 60 Minutes reporter Ed Bradley, Imus isn’t finished. “Ed Bradley is fat,” Imus declares from the WFAN studios in New York City. “He did this 60 Minutes piece on the Rolling Stones last night, and he looked huge. And what was it with that ugly Hawaiian shirt he wore when he interviewed Jagger? God, it was hideous.”

Since he first hit the airwaves in 1968, Imus, 54, has never hesitated to speak ill of anyone, and his fans love him for it. Some 9 million listeners in 44 cities tune in daily to catch his bilious attacks and scathing parodies of people in the news. And by spiking his show with idiosyncratic political commentary (he endorsed Oliver North and Ted Kennedy in the November elections), he has attracted a big bipartisan following in Washington, where he has been on the air since last July. This new clout has brought A-listers like Bob Dole and Mary Matalin on board as guests, and the President himself got into the act during his ’92 campaign by agreeing to a phone interview (the first of four so far) in which Imus called him Bubba.

Radio, however, isn’t Imus’s only outlet. These days he’s making a push into literature with God’s Other Son (Simon & Schuster), a comic novel—published to lackluster sales in 1981, reissued last month and now a best-seller—featuring a spectacularly unscrupulous preacher named Billy Sol Hargus. “The book’s not William Faulkner,” concedes Imus, who hasn’t been shy about hyping it on the air, “but it’s not s-t either.”

The newest chapter in the I-man’s personal life is his marriage on Dec. 17 to aspiring actress Deirdre Coleman, 29.

They met in November 1992 after she auditioned for a skit on his show. Last April he proposed. “There was a question of whether I should adopt her or marry her,” says Imus, who has four grown daughters from a first marriage that ended in 1979, of their 25-year age gap. “She’s already practicing wiping the oatmeal off my chin. I wasn’t running around looking for a younger woman,” he adds, “but I fell in love with her. She’s interesting, funny and smart. What was I supposed to do?”

“I don’t think the age difference is a factor,” says Coleman, who has persuaded her fiancé to marry her on a Navajo reservation in the Four Corners region, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico converge. (“How about when we play Ride the Horsie?” he kids.) “I do like it when he reads to me. He tells me these really bizarre bedtime stories like Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Bears, only a very modern version.”

For much of Imus’s adult life, his own story was nothing close to a fairy tale. When he moved to New York City from Cleveland in the early ’70s, he developed an addiction to alcohol and cocaine—to overcome his shyness, he says. “When he drank, there was more of a nastiness, a harder edge to him on and off the air,” remembers his friend and sideman Charles McCord. The boozing took its toll; in 1973, Imus missed 100 days on the air because he was too tanked to talk. “He was in terrible shape,” says McCord. “He was drinking all the time. I’d take my grease pencil and mark the bottles to judge how much, the way family members do. I was very concerned.”

Others, like Imus’s producer Bernard McGuirk, were shocked by his behavior. “My first day on the job in 1983 at WNBC in New York,” recalls McGuirk, “Imus was running up and down the hallways in his underwear screaming at people. That was my first impression of him.” Four years later, Imus checked into the Hanley-Hazelden Center in West Palm Beach for a month. “I decided I wouldn’t bulls-t them,” he says, “and just participate.” It worked. Though he hasn’t had a drink in seven years, Imus still asks that all the liquor be removed from his hotel room before he checks in, “just in case I sleepwalk over to the cabinet.”

Ironically his closest brush with mortality occurred last year and had nothing to do with liquor or drugs. He underwent major surgery for a collapsed lung, a hereditary condition. Intent on working despite the pain, Imus missed only two days on the air, broadcasting from his hospital bed. And what did he learn from the experience? “That not a lot of models gave up careers to be nurses,” he says.

John Donald Imus took a circuitous route to his own career. He and his younger brother Fred, 52, were born on a cattle ranch in Riverside, Calif., and raised near Flagstaff, Ariz. Because of tax problems, he says, the family eventually lost most of its money, and young Don took odd jobs—freight-train brakeman, uranium miner and even window dresser at a San Bernardino department store, where he was fired, at 19, for undressing mannequins in the window during a staged striptease. In 1968 he landed his first radio job on a small station in Palmdale, Calif., and quickly began moving up, even though his stunts—like having listeners come down to the station to participate in an Eldridge Cleaver look-alike contest or asking women callers if they were naked—earned him a pile of pink slips.

By 1971, Imus had made a name for himself as radio’s rowdiest bad boy—Howard Stern was in high school at the time—and took a job at New York City’s WNBC. When his chronic absenteeism got him booted in 1977, ratings tumbled, and the station rehired him a year and a half later; this time he made it to work. In 1988, WFAN, an all-talk AM sports station, bought WNBC, and Imus stayed on. Today, thanks to Imus in the Morning, the station is thriving. It has, in turn, rewarded its star with a more than $3 million annual salary, which partially explains why Imus has decided, “I’m not nearly as angry as I used to be.”

But he is no less feisty. In his limo after his morning show, Imus is parked outside a Manhattan high-rise where the new duplex penthouse that he and his bride will share is under renovation, when suddenly Ed Bradley passes by. Imus leaps out of the car. “Hey, Imus, how are you?” asks Bradley. “I’m great,” says Imus, “Listen, Ed, you know that shirt you wore last night on TV? It’s really ugly, man. You’ve got to lose it.”

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