October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

Size still matters for Meat Loaf, the once much-larger-than-life singer born Marvin Lee Aday. “People have the impression that I’m twice as big as I am, that I have long hair, ride motorcycles and in my spare time chew beer cans,” says Meat Loaf as he settles his 6’2″ and trim-for-him 241-pound frame into a chair on the back porch of his five-bedroom Los Angeles home. In reality a doting father who just celebrated his 20th wedding anniversary, Meat Loaf seldom drinks, cruises not on a hog, but in a Mercedes, collects American Impressionist paintings and watches what he eats. “I pass by people all the time and hear them say, ‘No, that’s not him. He’s too small.’ ”

It’s his career that’s getting fatter. At 52, Meat Loaf is on one whopper of a roll. It began last month with the release of his autobiography To Hell and Back, detailing the rise and equally spectacular fall of a music career that began in 1977 with Bat out of Hell, one of the bestselling albums of all time, and seemed to end soon after in a tailspin of depression and legal battles. Now, having engineered a comeback with his 1993 Grammy-winning album Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell, Meat Loaf finds himself in a frenzy of activity. “What’s going on?” he bellows as he ticks off a torrent of current projects, including a new album (Storytellers) and tour, two films (Fight Club, with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, out now, and Crazy in Alabama, directed by Antonio Banderas, due Oct. 22) and a CBS miniseries (The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, airing next year). “The only person who had so much going on is [late Saturday Night Live star John] Belushi. He had a film, a TV series and an album, but he didn’t have a tour and a book.”

A veteran stage and film actor (1975’s cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Meat Loaf reverts to type in Fight Club as a 400-pound recruit to a bizarre men’s group, a role that required him to wear a bulging body prosthesis. “People were originally reluctant to take me seriously as an actor,” he says. “But that’s beginning to change.” In fact, says Lucy Whipple costar Glenn Close, “He was a fantastic member of the ensemble.”

Some Fight Club castmates who were grousing about the long downtime between takes also learned that the man fans call Meat is no loafer. ” ‘What would you be doing if you weren’t here?’ ” he recalls barking during a shooting lull. ” ‘You’d be sitting home complaining that you don’t have a job.’ ”

Which is a state of affairs Meat Loaf knows only too well. Just one year after his Bat out of Hell collaboration with songwriter Jim Steinman made him a millionaire, Meat Loaf suffered an emotional breakdown. “I think his childhood is one of the reasons he’s so driven,” says old pal Brett Cullen. Son of an alcoholic Dallas salesman, Ovis Aday, Meat Loaf left home at 18, shortly after the death of his schoolteacher mother, Wilma. “He comes from being a really big fat kid who was constantly ridiculed,” says Cullen.

By 1983 legal battles with his manager, publisher and other associates had left him depressed and bankrupt. “Sure they won,” he says of myriad lawsuits. “They took everything. What they couldn’t take was my spirit, my tenaciousness and my creativity.”

Retreating to his Connecticut home, Meat Loaf and his wife, Leslie, 48, a former recording studio manager, raised her child by a previous relationship, Pearl, now 22 and a singer in L.A., and daughter Amanda, 18, an aspiring actress. He supported his family by performing. After five failed solo albums in the ’80s, he and Steinman teamed up again on Bat II, the 17-million-selling CD that put him back on top. Now happily ensconced in L.A., where he moved in 1996, Meat Loaf has risen from his tribulations like, yes, a bat out of hell. But the image ends there. “People see this big scary guy,” says daughter Amanda. “But he’s just a dad.” Indeed, life chez Meat Loaf is “like Father Knows Best,” says Leslie. “We’re in bed in time for the news. He’s not one of those rock stars who feels he has to live it.” Yet, as he savors his reborn career, Meat Loaf keeps the bad old days in mind. “All this success and $3.55,” he says, “will get me a cappuccino grande at Starbucks.”

Steve Dougherty

Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles