"I'm ready to put this behind me," says the actor, who confronts his past in his new movie

By Ulrica Wihlborg
Updated November 06, 2008 09:00 AM

To portray a child molester in a movie is a risky career move for any actor. But for comic actor Tom Arnold, 49, accepting the role as Alex in the new movie Gardens of the Night was more than a role: It was his attempt to finally put his own past as a sexually abused child behind him.

From ages 4 to 7, while growing up in Ottumwa, Iowa, Arnold says he was sexually abused by a 19-year-old male babysitter. He opens up about the experience in an interview with PEOPLE:

Why did you want to play Alex in Gardens of the Night?
It was a tough choice. I was a smart kid, and [my molester] still got to me. So I wanted to portray a pedophile in a way no one has seen before in order to explain how these things can happen. I even wore the same clothes as him in the movie. Showing this guy meant so much to me.

How did this happen to you?
[The abuse] started shortly before I turned 4. This guy would babysit me three or four times a week. He wanted me to play a game, and he wanted me to learn it so I could play it every time. I knew it was weird and I was scared, but I didn’t know what sex was.

Why didn’t you tell your dad?
The guy gave me a candy bar at the end of the game. I wasn’t allowed to have candy at my house, and I felt ashamed that I took the candy. And I was afraid of him. The message was clear he would hurt my dad if I told, and the thought of losing my dad was impossible.

When did it stop?
There was an incident when I was 7. The guy had showed me his gun and aimed it at my dad one day when he arrived home from work. A few days later, I stole my dad’s gun and went out in the middle of the street, waived it around and pointed it at his house. It caused a stir in the neighborhood to say the least. After that, I think it slowly stopped. I remember it as him moving away.

When you were 30, you found him and confronted him.
During my last week of drug and alcohol rehab in 1990, I told what had happened to me for the first time. In my mind, he was only a few years older than me. When my counselor said, ‘So you were 5 and you had a 7-year-old babysitter?’ I remembered he had a man’s body. With the help of a private investigator, I found him and confronted him at his office. Coming out of the building, I felt pure joy.

What’s next for you?
I’m ready to put this behind me. To portray him in a movie was the final thing I, as an actor, felt I could do. Forty-five years is a long time to keep something like this in your life. I’m ready to take the chance to be with a good person, and hopefully one day have my own children. That’s what I want more than anything.

For more on Tom Arnold, including what happened when he confronted his abuser, pick up PEOPLE on newsstands Friday