By Samantha Miller
December 17, 2001 12:00 PM

On a dimly lit Philadelphia street Jared Martin and his film crew patiently wait for a local drunk to stop singing so they can shoot their scene. Never mind that the movie’s $60,000 budget probably wouldn’t have covered the hairspray bills on Martin’s best-known production. “Twenty years ago I was in Hollywood living in a house on the hill, driving a fancy car,” says Martin, who seduced Sue Ellen Ewing (Linda Gray)—and many female fans—as cowboy Dusty Farlow on the ratings-ruling ’80s soap Dallas. “This is a lot more exciting.”

“This” is Philadelphia’s Big Picture Alliance, a nonprofit group that Martin cofounded in 1994 to introduce inner city kids to the art of filmmaking. “We want to use the energy that so often goes to waste,” says Martin, 59, who teaches the teens to write, shoot and edit short films. Though his charges are too young to remember him as a TV heartthrob, “their mothers always find out who I am,” he says.

Not that Martin is on the dating market. Last year the actor wed Yu Wei, 42, a classical Chinese dancer he met through an Internet matchmaking service for Chinese women who wanted to meet Americans. Martin says he first wrote to Yu Wei “as a kick.” After they exchanged faxed letters for 16 months, he flew to China to meet her, and “we realized we really liked each other,” he says. “It seemed like an adventure that I wanted to take.”

Despite its unorthodox roots, their romance seems to have flourished. “He’s understanding and kind,” Yu Wei says in heavily accented English, patting her husband’s shoulder in their tiny Philadelphia loft. (Martin says he lost his $400,000 Dallas earnings to bad investments but isn’t bitter: “I wouldn’t know what to do in a mansion.”) “I think it’s great,” says Martin’s son Christian, 34, a Dateline NBC producer. “He has a loving and talented partner in Yu Wei.”

This new chapter is a happy one for Martin, who felt unfulfilled by his Dallas fame. Growing up in Manhattan, he absorbed the attitudes of his politically liberal parents, Charles, a New Yorker cover artist who died in 1995, and homemaker Florence, 91. “I always had a sense that, although I’m selfish enough to take care of myself, that there’s more to be done,” he says.

At Columbia University the aspiring actor roomed with Brian De Palma, the future director of films such as Scarface. “We didn’t go to class a lot,” Martin says. “We hung out on 42nd Street and studied the movies.” In 1963 Martin wed college sweetheart Nancy Fales—”we’re still good friends,” he says, though they divorced in 1977. After graduating from Columbia in 1965, he took a job at The New York Times as a copy boy. He left for Hollywood after De Palma gave him the lead in his 1968 thriller Murder à la Mod. “The only things I really remember about it is that I made $35 and Hershey’s syrup makes great blood in black and white,” says Martin.

After small film and TV roles, he donned a 10-gallon hat in 1979 for a planned three-episode stint on Dallas. His character was killed in a plane crash, but when fans swooned over “Lusty Dusty,” producers concocted a way to revive him. The introspective Martin was not close with most of his castmates—although a few sparks did fly with Linda Gray. “I’d look into his blue eyes and think, ‘Oooh!’ ” says Gray, 61. “I’m sure half the women in America felt that.”

Martin felt bored amid the large cast but did enjoy his star treatment. “We went to Rome and got mobbed at the Vatican,” recalls Christian. “Here we are in front of great works of art, and people are rushing to see this soap-opera character.”

After Dusty’s final departure in 1985, Martin starred in the 1988-90 syndicated sci-fi series War of the Worlds. While out of work in L.A. in 1993, the actor befriended Jeff Seder, 53, a businessman who asked him to direct a 20-minute film honoring Philly community leaders. On the streets, kids flocked to the movie equipment. “A girl asked, ‘Are you coming back?’ ” Martin recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ knowing damn well that I wasn’t.”

Then an idea hit him: Why not? He and Seder launched BPA, which made its first movie, a four-minute slasher flick, in 1994 with eight students and $146. Today more than 500 students have completed the 30-week after-school program, whose $300,000 budget comes from charitable grants. One of two full-time staffers, Martin directs most of the films, which premiere at community centers. He hopes participants learn about teamwork and perseverance as well as potential careers. “Whatever he says goes,” says Ronald Johnson, 16, who has acted in eight films. “He makes it fun.”

For Martin, who moonlights as host of a weekly local-affairs show on public TV, Philly now beats Dallas any day. “He’s making a difference,” says Seder. “He’s found himself here. It may sound corny, but it’s true.”

Samantha Miller

Mensah M. Dean in Philadelphia