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He’s just pressing on

Special to The Times

Tommy CHONG is fit, free and about as mellow as you could expect anyone to be after serving nine months in prison for selling a bong. Most afternoons he can be found at the World Gym in Marina del Rey working on his deltoids and kibitzing with Zabo, the 80-year-old bodybuilder who performed as a stunt double in Cheech and Chong movies. Zabo returned the favor in July when Chong finished his sentence by giving the movie star a job at the gym.

“I was on Dennis Miller’s show last night,” Chong grunts between sit-ups. “I was in way better shape than anybody else there.”

Moving to a chest-stretching contraption, Chong says he had to quit working out in prison because weightlifting is banned in federal penitentiaries. “I tried jogging and got up to a mile, but then I got a bad case of gout and that stopped everything. We figured out it was this terrible food they served us, which was basically fried calories with a side of starch. There’s a lot of out-of-shape guys in prison walking around with big guts.”

Chong, 66, has no gut, no grudges and, he says, no bitter feelings toward former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, who orchestrated the U.S. Justice Department’s “Operation Pipe Dream” crackdown on drug paraphernalia. “He never entered my mind,” Chong says. “My whole thing is, ‘resist not evil.’ ” In the next breath, he adds, “The prison system is so corrupt, we’d be here for two weeks talking about it. All I can say is, it’s privatized, so the government really doesn’t have any control over it. They make a little show of doing it, but they don’t.”

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Lifting a 20-pound weight in each hand, Chong calmly describes the raid on his Pacific Palisades home two years ago; his subsequent guilty plea, made to spare his wife, Shelby, and son, Paris, who ran the Gardena-based bong business (called Nice Dreams Enterprises), from prosecution; and the shock he experienced when the judge sentenced him to hard time. “I thought because of my celebrity, they wouldn’t come after me, but I was wrong. They wanted to make an example of me.”

The court case and prison experience might one day yield comedy gold for Chong, but you won’t see him venting about it in public any time soon. Instead, he’s starring in “The Marijuana-Logues,” a three-person staged reading of grass-roots comedy vignettes structured like “The Vagina Monologues” that comes to Los Angeles for a one-night stand Saturday.

“This show is basically something to do while I’m on probation,” Chong says after his workout. “Even though they said I could work, I don’t trust this administration. I feel I could be ambushed at any time if I went out there with my own show. ‘Marijuana-Logues’ is a play that’s owned by a big company who can afford legal representation and can afford to sue, if need be.”

Chong is also playing it safe, at least until his probation is up next summer, by avoiding contact with fans. “Signing autographs after the show? I just don’t take that chance,” he says. “My release papers say I’m not allowed to be around drug paraphernalia, so a guy could have a pipe in his pocket and technically I could be violated.”

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Besides offering Chong insulation from potentially thorny legal complications, “The Marijuana-Logues” project promises a much-appreciated revenue stream. The case cost him dearly, Chong says. “The [government] took a business I sunk a lot of money into, they interrupted my income, they fined me, and I had to pay the lawyers, so I’m down about $2 million. But thanks to the publicity, I’ll make that back probably within a year or two.”

Cementing his reputation

Far from branding Chong as a disgraced outlaw, prison time seems to have reinforced his status as a poster boy for pot-smoking comedy aficionados. When he joined the off-Broadway run of “Marijuana-Logues” for two weeks late last year, the show sold out; producer Lee Marshall says Chong has generated so much interest in the play that he plans to extend the 30-city tour with a second set of road dates next fall.

Alan Mayer, managing director for Sitrick and Co., a public relations firm specializing in crisis management for scandal-plagued celebrities, isn’t surprised that Chong, post-incarceration, is thriving. “Tommy’s comic persona was that of the ultimate stoner, so to have him accused later on in life of selling bongs -- no one’s ever going to say, ‘Oh, my God, who would have ever thought Tommy Chong would do such a thing!,’ Mayer says. “Not that anyone should have to go through what he went through, but I suspect Tommy can wear his conviction as a badge of honor, certainly among people who are his fans.”

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Since resuming life as a civilian, Chong has patched things up with his longtime comedy partner, Cheech Marin. They had a falling out in the late ‘80s after making seven drug culture comedies, beginning with 1978’s “Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke.” They appeared together at the Aspen Comedy Festival this month and are collaborating on a script for what they hope will be their first film together in 20 years.

“It was like a Kafka play that kept getting increasingly more bizarre,” says Marin, who stayed in touch with his old friend during the court case and ensuing imprisonment. “Now that he’s gone through it, I think Tommy has grown spiritually. It’s an interesting point in our lives right now where the ego part is subsiding a little and we stand on equal footing. That was always the fly in the ointment. Tommy is 8 years older, and it was always the big brother-little brother syndrome. Time and experience has smoothed that out.”

As Chong eases back into showbiz, he’s instinctively tried to distance himself from his time behind bars. “When you go away to prison,” he muses, “it’s like you enter another dimension.”

But Chong still carries around one souvenir from his stint at Taft Correctional Facility near Bakersfield. “This is a Lakota Indian medicine ball for good luck,” he says, fingering the chestnut-colored amulet hanging around his neck. “I got into all the religions in prison. I started going to this sweat lodge ceremony every week. Just before I left, every one of the Indians held this in their left hand, said a little prayer and passed it to the next one in the circle until it came to me and was put around my neck. It’s supposed to keep the evil spirits away.”

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So far, the pouch is working like a charm. Chong checks his watch. “I gotta go,” he says, rising to head out the door. “I’ve got a tango lesson.”

*

‘The Marijuana-Logues’

Where: Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

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When: 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday

Ends: Saturday

Price: $20 to $75

Contact: (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-7878, www.BroadwayLA.org

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