May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

Dabney Coleman doesn’t get rattled easily, especially on a tennis court, where he’s a fierce competitor. During a match in early 2000, however, the actor grew anxious after muffing an easy shot. “This is scary,” he thought. “I can’t see the ball.” Over the next month the sight in his left eye worsened. “I had no depth perception,” recalls Coleman, now 70 and costarring in CBS’s hit drama The Guardian. “Objects ran together. Instead of three houses, you see one.”

Finally he consulted Dr. Steven Schwartz, a retinal specialist at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. The news was bleak: Coleman was suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness for people over 55. No one knows exactly what triggers the ailment, which afflicts 10 million Americans, but its result is the destruction of the macula, or central retina. “Abnormal blood vessels develop in the back of the eye and begin to leak,” says Schwartz, 40. “Patients are left with a large blind spot in the center of their vision and only blurry sight around the edges.”

Until recently the prognosis was hopeless; laser treatment could only slow the disease, not stop it. But Schwartz offered Coleman the chance to take part in a clinical trial of a new family of drugs designed to block the rogue blood vessels that cause AMD. Developed by several pharmaceutical labs, the compounds, called antineo-vasculars, are injected into the eyeball. Coleman didn’t flinch. “No one wants a needle in the eye,” he says. “But I had very little alternative.”

Not long after his diagnosis, Coleman was among the first 30 patients to undergo the procedure. “I told Dabney and the others, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen to your vision,’ ” says Schwartz, who has been working on AMD since 1990. “I never expected the spectacular results we got.”

Spectacular indeed: 30 percent of the patients showed dramatic improvement. Coleman “went from 20-400 vision, which is legally blind, to 20-40, which is nearly normal, in just a week,” says Schwartz, cautioning that the early findings are inconclusive. “It’s an important advance,” affirms Dr. Mark Blumenkranz, chairman of the ophthalmology department at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. Trials are still ongoing—at UCLA and many other centers throughout the U.S.—and FDA approval may be one to three years away. “I’m very encouraged,” says Schwartz, “but they’re far from proven medicines.” Coleman has all the proof he needs. “Before the treatment I couldn’t see the moon with my left eye,” he says. “Two days after the shot I could see the moon. It’s like I got a big chunk of my life back.”

Coleman—who parlayed his big break as the nasty boss in the 1980 film 9 to 5 into a career playing gruff cads—insists he never fretted over his professional future during his eye crisis. But tennis was another matter for the twice-divorced father of four, who was once considered the best celebrity player in Hollywood.

“With one eye you can do just about anything you care to—except look at a flying object coming at you going 100 mph,” he notes. Now Coleman is hitting ground strokes with longtime companion Kathleen Carter, 52, a real estate broker, and he vows a return to competitive form. “I’ll play good tennis again,” he says. “That’s a promise.”

Richard Jerome

Ron Arias in Los Angeles

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