May 16, 1983 12:00 PM

You never go through that kind of experience for five years and come out the same. Believe me, that tunnel is long, often cold and very dark. There is no way you come out unscarred.

So says David Cassidy of his glory days, when he burst into showbiz as the squeaky-clean, 20-year-old rocker on TV’s The Partridge Family. Almost overnight he became the teenyboppers’ No. 1 heartthrob, and by his 21st birthday, in 1971, he had made his first $1 million. A kind of pint-size (5’8″, 120 pounds), G-rated Mick Jagger, he played some 350 concerts in 17 countries while turning out 10 Partridge albums, eight solo albums and 17 singles. There were also posters, bubble gum cards, even David Cassidy dresses. But early in 1975 he quit, burned out at 24.

He was further seared when he tried a comeback three years later with a short-lived crime series, David Cassidy—Man Undercover. On the difficulty of finding work again, Cassidy says, “To the people who put you on TV and in films, it was like: ‘Who are you? Goodbye.’ I was yesterday’s news. I felt a lot of pain about that, for having to almost apologize for having been a teen idol.”

But now, after an intermission of almost five years spent mostly performing in regional theater, there is a second act in Cassidy’s life. At 33, he is at last starring on Broadway, as Andy Gibb’s replacement in the hit musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. And today there’s more to lean on than just his career, most notably Meryl Tanz, 37, a South African-born redhead who is both his fiancée and his partner in a horse-breeding and racing business involving some 60 Thoroughbreds and a 35-acre Santa Barbara spread called Clairmont Farm. “David,” says Meryl, “is absolutely on target. A lot of people in rock have died or been impaired by drugs or whatever. He is sane, normal and clean-living.”

True, but she hardly noticed it when they first met at a 1974 Lexington, Ky. horse sale. “Basically, she hated me,” says Cassidy. “I got more attention than she did.” Meryl, a savvy horsewoman who was married at the time, wondered just how much he knew about horses. Also, there were those bodyguards of his: “I didn’t feel I was relating to another human being.”

They saw each other subsequently at various horse events. In 1980 Meryl divorced her husband, Mark Tanz, a Canadian real estate mogul and sometime film producer (Inside Moves) who was 15 years her senior. A year later David separated from actress Kay Lenz, whom he had wed in 1977. Then last summer they met by chance at a party before a race at an Illinois track. “Suddenly she and I looked at each other as if for the first time, and WHEW!” marvels David. Adds Meryl: “We haven’t been apart since. In his rock days, he was remote. Now he has time for me.” They commute from their small Manhattan apartment to an L.A. house and their jointly owned spread in Santa Barbara, where Meryl’s daughter, Caroline, 7, is in school. “David,” says Meryl, “could live out of a suitcase and be happy. He’s taught me a lot about letting go.”

Traveling light is part of his stage brat heritage. His late father, Jack Cassidy, won a 1963 Tony for She Loves Me. Mother Evelyn Ward took over for Gwen Verdon on Broadway in New Girl in Town in 1958. David, she says, “was a very happy child. I used to call him Smilin’ Sam.” He says he decided to be an actor at 3 in 1953, when he saw his dad in Wish You Were Here. The next year Jack left his wife, eventually marrying Shirley Jones (who played David’s Partridge Family mother). Young Cassidy was raised by his mom and her parents in West Orange, N.J. His grandfather, a utility company meter reader, became a surrogate dad, but Jack’s absence hurt. “He wouldn’t show up half the time he said he’d come,” recalls Evelyn.

David started playing piano at 5, and later soloed in the local Episcopal church choir. When he was 11, he and Evelyn moved to California, where he saw more of his dad. His new family included three half brothers: Shaun, now 24 and acting in Mass Appeal in San Francisco; Patrick, 21, who has just finished filming a forthcoming TV movie; and Ryan, 18, a student. After David graduated from high school he went to New York and eventually landed a bit part in a George Abbott musical. Someone from CBS spotted him, and soon he was back in California appearing on Marcus Welby, M.D. and other series. Then in 1970 he became Keith Partridge (“He really made the show,” says Shirley Jones) and the rest was hysteria.

“I was a kid, not a man,” he says of those days. Actually, he was merchandise. His life was taken over by agents. At a Manhattan concert, fans ripped apart a couple of limos thinking he might be in one of them; he had to be smuggled to performances in laundry trucks, and between shows he stayed in his hotel while his pals went out and partied. At 21 he wound up in a hospital having his gallbladder removed. “My body just broke down,” he recalls. At a May 1974 London concert some 800 fans fainted or were hurt in a mob crush and one girl subsequently died of a heart attack. Three months later falling ratings killed The Partridge Family. The next year Cassidy wearily quit showbiz. Says a friend, Samuel Hyman: “If David hadn’t done all those years of seven-day weeks—acting, touring, recording—he might not have been driven to the edge. I think he had to stop for his mental well-being.”

For a while Cassidy all but dropped out of sight. He traveled alone, frequently going back and forth to Europe to ski and visit friends. Marty Ingels, the current husband of Shirley Jones, with whom Cassidy had become close, says: “David was eaten by success. He didn’t know who he was. Shirley cried the whole time. No one who loved him could reach him.”

In 1976 Jack Cassidy—by then totally estranged from David—died at 49 in an accidental fire at his L.A. apartment. “Jack was a big talent. He was intimidated by his son’s success,” says Ingels. David’s view: “Dad was so charismatic. There was a madness in him. And he was wild. It was controlled for most of his life. I’m not sure of that the last few years. I just wish I could have talked to him before he left. I didn’t have a chance to say ‘I love you.’ ”

A year after his father’s death David met and married Kay. Of their separation he says: “Kay had her own life, and I had different needs. It’s taken till I started seeing Meryl for me to feel I had an anchor in my life.”

Meryl is the daughter of a retired director of Cape Technical College in Cape Town and the granddaughter of Irish horse trainers who emigrated to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. She attended her dad’s school, modeled on the side, and after her 1965 graduation went to Canada. She became an assistant fashion editor on a magazine in Toronto, where she met Mark Tanz. They married in 1970 and settled in La Costa, Calif., where she took up horse breeding and fund raising for Jonas Salk’s cancer research. “An idyllic life,” she says. “We traveled for four or five months a year, renting homes in the Bahamas, Switzerland and France. Mark nurtured and spoiled me. But the age difference caught up with us. In my early 30s I felt I wanted to be on my own, and I left.”

To date Meryl’s biggest success with Thoroughbreds has been Johnny’s Image, who won $350,000 and set three track records at Hollywood Park. For David, the value of horses is therapeutic as well as financial. They are, he says, “what pulled me through” his teen idol days. “People in the horse business have always dealt with me not as a celebrity, but as a horseman.”

After Gibb was fired from Joseph in January for too many no-shows, David beat out Jimmy Osmond and four other finalists for the role. Says producer Zev Bufman: “David is the finest of the six Josephs so far. Andy had been the best actor, but he didn’t have the voice. David has star command onstage.” Though Cassidy says “I hate the word comeback,” he admits he feels “so lucky. I pinch myself wondering, ‘Is this really happening?’ ”

After leaving Joseph in August, he will cut his first album since 1976, a collection of ballads and rock. Then, when his divorce is final, he and Meryl will wed, probably at their farm. For now, the farm is mostly her show. While he’s doing his eight performances a week in New York, she oversees the horses. Recently, when Meryl was unsure about whether to syndicate or auction a horse, David flew out and helped her with the syndication deal. “I have never had a relationship where somebody has gone that extra mile for me,” she says. “I admire David’s humanity. He’s good to his mother and to his friends.”

When they’re both on the farm, they like to walk with Caroline, study the racing news, and go on trail rides. As for the future, David has put showbiz behind him enough not to fret about being a superstar again. But there is a prize that they both dream of. Confesses Meryl: “Our goal is to someday win the Kentucky Derby.”

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