September 15, 1986 12:00 PM

You don’t get a fix on him right away. At first there’s just dust and a loud, rumbling roar from a 1959 cherry red Caddy convertible. Then the camera moves in for the closeup. Behind the wheel sits an uncanny reincarnation of James Dean, complete with blond hair and piercing gaze. He eases out of the car, runs his fingers through a perfectly greased ducktail, sticks his thumbs into the back pockets of tight jeans and announces to a startled Canadian family that he is their cousin Butch, in from California for a visit.

So begins My American Cousin, a coming-of-age-in-the-1950s movie that stands above the rest for its remarkable evocation of period. The film won an unprecedented six Genies (Canadian Oscars) and a Best Actor prize for Toronto-born actor John Wildman, 25, who plays Butch. Just released in the States, Cousin is winning more raves for the actor.

Though Wildman wasn’t yet born in 1959, he doesn’t consider his performance a terribly long reach. “I like convertibles, girls and rock ‘n’ roll too,” he says. Still, he admits the innocence of the backseat love scenes disoriented him. “It was all necking and petting—a game of ‘I want to but I can’t.’ You never got past second base.” For Wildman, “touching, feeling and conquest are important. I’m a sensualist.” He shows little false modesty about his own growing-up experiences. “I was always a ladies’ man,” he says.

Hard to believe then that his looks almost lost Wildman his star-making role. Cousin’s writer-director, Sandy Wilson, 38, based the film on a long-ago summer visit from her own American cousin, “a tall, skinny, brooding kind of guy.” When Wildman came to audition, Wilson was aghast. “I said, ‘Get that guy out of here. He’s too good-looking.’ ” But Wildman’s reading with a young actress persuaded Wilson to rethink the role. “There was a sparkle in his eye, and I loved the way he related to the girl.”

Wildman is sure that his Cousin success, coupled with “my own dedication” and a continuing role on The Campbells (a Little House on the Prairie-type family saga seen here on CBN-Cable Network), will win him acceptance as an actor in the States. He attributes his self-confidence to an unusual childhood. “I lived a nomadic life,” he says. An understatement, considering that he attended 14 schools in 13 years. John’s parents divorced when he was seven. His father is vice-president of a Canadian fitness center. His mother(whom he calls Julie), then a model and would-be actress, moved John and his older sister, Molly, around the job circuit, using a house in Montreal as home base. Julie stagemomed John into doing commercials for snowmobiles and potato chips. At 9, he won his first film role in a short called The Huntsman, about a kid who sells retrieved golf balls back to members of a country club. By 14, he had decided on acting in earnest. He did eight shows in three years at the Dome Theatre in Montreal, an actor’s school, where he supported himself with photography, taking head shots of his fellow thespians.

For the next few years John lived in Colorado, did a horror flick called Humongous and, at 21, auditioned a lot in New York. He missed the big movie break but did a Listerine commercial that earned him more in residuals than had any film he made in Canada.

Today Wildman lives in a small one-bedroom house on a shady street in Toronto; his garage holds his motorcycle, his 1965 Buick convertible and his barbells. Valerie Andrews, 25, his girlfriend of four years, and their 2½-year-old daughter, Leah, live a block away. They once lived together, but the strain of a 30-segment TV schedule for two seasons in The Campbells seems to have taken precedence. Having an active toddler about, Wildman says, doesn’t allow him the privacy he needs to prepare for his work. Valerie seems unbothered by the unusual living arrangement. She calls John “a great father,” and he says, “We don’t know if a traditional marriage ceremony is what we feel at this point. But we don’t date other people.” John gets home from shooting at 7 p.m., goes over to Valerie’s, where he plays with Leah, reads to her and puts her to bed, and then goes home to read and prepare for the next day’s shoot. The couple spends weekends together. “John is a little more realistic about his dreams than Butch,” says Valerie. “Butch is a teenager and John’s a father.”

John is also an actor and Valerie understands better than anyone his drive to succeed. He’s just completed a French film called Exit and is hungry for more exposure. “I hate to sing my own praises,” says Wildman. “But I’ve got good looks and talent. I think audiences respond to me.” His priorities are clear. “For the next five years,” says Wildman in the voice of a true crusader, “I’m really going after my career.”

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