By Sonja Steptoe
January 21, 2002 12:00 PM

In the fall of 1999, as camouflageclad Douglas Emerson wandered through the woods outside Spokane, Wash., his face daubed with mud and paint, he thought he was blending in well with the other new enlistees at Air Force survival school. Then his cover got blown. “You remind me of that guy from Beverly Hills, 90210!” a classmate blurted. Emerson was disappointed. “I don’t want people to think I’m cocky,” he says, explaining wiry he rarely talks about his brief role as Scott Scanlon during the series debut 1990-91 TV season. “The first thing they’d say is, ‘That guy’s Mr. Hollywood.’ ”

His fears seem unfounded. For one thing, Emerson, now 27 and a staff sergeant working in Air Force intelligence, has served with distinction on high-profile missions from the Middle East to Europe. For another, though he had done dozens of TV ads and guest shots on shows such as Night Court and The Wonder Years by age 15, the California native never got a chance to develop an attitude. “He’d come home and have to take out the garbage,” says his mom, Diane, 58.

It helped that the 90210 set was still an ego-free zone during Emerson’s stint, which ended just before the 1990-2000 series became a sensation. Originally considered for the role of David Silver (filled by Brian Austin Green), he was cast as Scott, the nerd who never quite clicked with the clique at fictional West Beverly High. Emerson, though, fit right in. “He was a very nice guy with wide-eyed excitement,” says Gabrielle Carteris, now 41, who played school-newspaper editor Andrea Zuckerman. Diane Emerson recalls that Tori Spelling was “very kind” to her son: “I think Douglas had a little crush on her.”

Alas, it was Emerson who was crushed. Midway through the second season, Emerson’s character accidentally killed himself while twirling a handgun at his 16th-birthday party. Producers threw the actor a tearful goodbye party and presented him with the Stetson he wore on the show, autographed by cast and crew. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m no longer really a part of this,’ ” he says.

He was then 17, 90210 imitators had yet to surface, and TV teen roles were scarce. Refusing “to be a burnout,” and armed with a general equivalency diploma, Emerson enrolled in a junior college and in 1993 transferred to Pepperdine University. There he met coed Emily Barth. The pair married after he dropped out of school to enlist in the Air Force in 1996 and now live with daughters Hayley, 5, and Hannah, 2, in a three-bedroom ranch-style duplex on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, where Emily, 27, sells Mary Kay cosmetics.

Emerson’s career choice didn’t surprise his family. Growing up in Canoga Park, Calif., Doug and his younger brother Toby, now 24, ran around in fatigues, carrying fake guns and playing soldier. “It’s in our blood,” says Toby, a former Air Force airman.

That legacy, however, includes what would seem to be far more than one family’s share of tragedy. Their British-born father, John, served in the Royal Air Force and—after battling alcoholism and depression, and separating from Diane when Doug was around 6—committed suicide in 1981. Seven years later older brother Keith, 25, a Navy cook who was gay and battling AIDS, committed suicide. Then last March another brother, Curtis, 38, a former Air Force internal investigator who was addicted to painkillers, died in his sleep. Diane, who works with disabled veterans, and sisters Wendy, 30, an insurance investigator, and Rachel, 27, a nurse, helped Doug survive the traumas. “We’d sit together and talk about it,” says Emerson, who boasts, “I’ve never done a single drug.”

His squeaky-clean record helped him ace the background check for the Air Force, where his assignments included a top-secret 1997 mission to Kuwait. “Holy cow, this sand isn’t a backdrop to a set!” Emerson recalls thinking when he landed. Though based in Tucson during the recent U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, he has earned a dozen awards for, among other feats, planning missions during the 1999 Kosovo air raids from a base in Italy. Says Diane: “I’m more proud of the medals than any TV series.” Still, her son says he doesn’t plan to reenlist when his tour ends in 2003. He might work with computers—or try acting again. “If he got a call about a war movie,” says Emily, “and could make a decent living for his family, he’d go back in a second.”

Emerson says he sometimes muses about the life that might have been if 90210 hadn’t dropped him. And yet, he says, “if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have met my wife, and I wouldn’t have my kids. This is worth it.”

Sonja Steptoe

Jenny Hontz in Los Angeles