By Michael A. Lipton
December 23, 1991 12:00 PM

CHRISTOPHER RYDELL KNOWS HOW to give his father heartburn. In the sentimental drama For the Boys, starring Bette Midler and James Caan as sparring USO performers, he plays Midler’s son. a soldier whose Vietnam duty ends suddenly—and bloodily—during a mortar attack. Anxiously overseeing the pyrotechnics was Chris’s dad, veteran director Mark (The Rose) Rydell, 57. “I had to run among exploding dirt bombs as flames licked my arms,” says Chris, 28, at ease in his rented three-bedroom bungalow in the heart of L.A. “Man, I felt macho, but my dad got a little excited.”

The elder Rydell should be used to it by now. A second-generation Hollywood blue blood, Chris gave his parents—and several schools—a hard time before focusing his nervous energy on an acting career. That apparently has been a smart move: Though Boys is bombing at the box office, Variety calls Rydell’s brief, brooding portrayal “memorable.” Dad, naturally, is more effusive: “He has astonishing power, like Mel Gibson and Steve McQueen.”

Well, maybe, but some believe Rydell père showed above-average Hollywood chutzpall in casting his son. The Los Angeles Reader’s film critic, Torene Svitil, simply wrote, “Chris Rydell plays Bette Midler’s son. Thanks, Dad.” “A cheap shot,” gripes Rydell fils, whose credits include underwhelmers like 1989’s How I Got into College. So how did he get into Boys? When Mark urged Midler, a coproducer, to let his son play her son, she resisted—until he gave her a tape of Chris’s Emmy-nominated turn as a hit-and-run driver in Lies of the Heart, a CBS Schoolbreak Special last year. Her reaction, says Rydell: “You win. He’s great.”

Though Boys is a breakthrough for him, Chris has been a fixture on his lather’s sets since he was a kid. James Caan, a Dutch uncle to Chris-since 1973, when Caan starred in his father’s Cinderella Liberty, remembers “Chris running around that set, with everyone yelling at him to stop carrying on.”

Chris recalls “a lot of yelling and fighting” at home. His parents divorced when he was 8, and he lived in the Hollywood Hills with his mother, Joanne Linville, an acting teacher, and baby sister Amy (now 21). “The divorce caused him severe trauma for years,” says his dad.

In the process, Chris spent five years on an analyst’s couch arid bounced around four different schools, public and private. “I was definitely screwed up,” he admits. When he was 13, says his mom, “he asked me if he could live with his dad and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I thought that was important. I he move didn’t work. His son, Mark recalls, was “a sally, provocative monster who took the heart out of my body a hundred times.” Rydell finally sent 17-year-old Chris off to CEDU, an alternative school for underachievers in Running Springs, Calif. “It really helped me,” Chris says. He transferred to public school a year later and, soon after, he says, “I really got close to my parents.”

Chris got closer to his eventual career in 1983 by enrolling in a summer drama program at Yale. He later studied acting with his mother back in L.A. The payoff came with a role in 1985’s Mask, as a bully who torments Cher’s deformed son, followed by TV guest stints on Cagney & Lacey and Family Ties.

In the upcoming By the Sword, a modern-day fencing tale, you can catch him cutting up with Eric Roberts and F. Murray Abraham and someday he hopes to direct, like his father. “I’m noticing as I get older, we’re more similar than I thought,” he muses. “It’s scary: I look in the mirror and see him.”

He’ll see a different generational reflection come March. That’s when Rydell and his girlfriend of three years, Amanda Hull, 24, a model, are expecting their first child. The couple have no plans to wed. “It’s more important that we love each other and we’re together,” explains the former wild child, who says Amanda “has mellowed me in a big way.” His pal Caan agrees: “He’s more introspective, very soft-spoken.” Unlike a certain proud grandpa-in-waiting. “I consider myself a No. 1 dad,” boasts Mark Rydell, “and I bet he beats me. He’s born to be a father.” Thanks, Dad.