Capacity for controversy

Times Staff Writer

DANNY BONADUCE growls and purrs more than he speaks, carrying his tightly wound self as if spring-loaded. And this is on a good day, in a cool, dark soundstage in Hollywood, where he is doing his best impersonation of a game-show host.

He lobbed jokey questions at a trio of contestants about the melodramas of, it turns out, some of his friends and neighbors -- Ozzy Osbourne, Courtney Love and Janice Dickinson -- looking far more executive than usual in a dark suit. This was Bonaduce as the star of “Starface,” a celebrity-gossip challenge that premieres Tuesday on GSN, a game show cable channel. It’s a striking shift from the vodka-guzzling, wrist-slashing, tantrum-throwing train wreck of a man depicted in last fall’s VH1 reality series “Breaking Bonaduce.” The irony of this latest role is lost on no one, least of all Bonaduce.

“This is the weirdest show I’ve ever done,” he said during a lunch break, “by leaps and bounds.”

Actually, weird -- or, more specifically, alarming, cringe-inducing self-exploitation -- is what Bonaduce does best. Still, after all these years, he’s strangely compelling. He possesses an odd mix of rage, self-loathing, intellect, even romance that is irresistibly entertaining on the one hand, yet unsettlingly removed from reality on the other.


He has become so attuned to clever one-liners that his language is peppered with tidy, often exaggerated, sound bites. He prides himself on never having uttered the phrase “no comment” to a journalist. Yet he’s so admittedly confused about his identity that even his closest friends don’t feel they really know him. He may be hosting a game show, but this is, after all, the same guy who punched out Barry “Greg Brady” Williams on a show called “Celebrity Boxing,” who seriously considered goading a poisonous snake into biting him on “The Other Half” and who had the name of a radio-station general manager tattooed on his backside.

Bonaduce is perpetually in comeback mode, like so many other entertainers “in recovery,” rebounding from drugs and alcohol or his own bad judgment. He said he’s been “in jail, all bloody, chained up to people,” but he has spent more time in rehab than in police custody. Nothing has stalled his career for long. Show business has an insatiable appetite for self-destruction, and Bonaduce has learned how to make that work in his favor.

“People seem to be willing to give Danny chance after chance,” said his wife and manager, Gretchen Bonaduce. “I think for some reason he just brings that out in people. You want him to succeed.”

As Bonaduce sees it, July has been a phenomenal month. He’s finding his rhythm on “Starface.” He has learned that A&E; will air his biography later this year. Another TV show he and Gretchen are shopping has garnered some interest. High-profile radio offers are starting to roll in. He was the highlight of the Television Critics Assn. conference in Pasadena on the day he appeared. Though Dan Rather had wept before a roomful of reporters, Bonaduce made the headlines.


But all this good news is relatively recent. “Breaking Bonaduce 2,” set to air in October, just wrapped, and it was filmed during a period that was yet another rocky one for the family. So much so that Bonaduce said he insisted that VH1 keep a crew on standby until the show airs so any new melodrama could be added to the finale. (A VH1 publicist declined to comment.)

For one thing, he developed online relationships with about 20 women across the country whom he’d met on MySpace .com. The correspondence got “very personal,” he said, and his wife likened it to yet another infidelity. Bonaduce, speaking like a master of rationalization, saw it this way: “Several of the women asked if we could meet, and I said, ‘No. No. Never. Of course not. First of all, people don’t really speak like this in real life. You know how awkward would it be for us to talk this way in public? And second, I’m married! I can’t talk like this to you and meet you! This is a thing on the computer!’ ”

Though he said he would “crumble away and die” if Gretchen ever left him, Bonaduce’s amusement at this drama is unmistakable -- and a little suspicious.

Things have since settled into a predictable routine, he said. He’s been sober for about a year, and he and his wife are still in counseling. But, he added, all the therapy hasn’t given him any more self-awareness.


“I would be very comfortable doing some type of show about this crazy, drug-addled guy that flirts and does all this stuff,” he said. “If you want to do a television show about a guy who does none of that stuff, which currently I do not, I have almost limited knowledge about that guy. I have no idea what my current life looks like. I just know what it’s not.”

In the “Starface” control room, Rich Cronin, GSN president and chief executive, watched the day’s taping on a monitor, stopping every few minutes to marvel at the host. One moment, Bonaduce was letting out a blood-curdling wail -- his version of Bruce Lee -- the next he was comparing his arrest record to that of actor Edward Furlong.

“He was busted twice in four hours,” Bonaduce said, “beating my record by half an hour!” (Bonaduce didn’t have a driver’s license until age 30, so every time he was pulled over, he was arrested. More memorable, though, are his convictions for cocaine possession in 1985 and 1990 and assault in 1991.)

Cronin said he took a hard look at Bonaduce before he hired him. He called the VH1 producers, who, he said, stressed Bonaduce’s professionalism. Then he realized that Bonaduce, and everything he represented, would really give the show its heart. Its sarcastic tone is actually softened by Bonaduce’s presence because, Cronin said, “Danny’s one of them.”


A little later, the “Starface” crew broke for lunch and Bonaduce strode purposefully into the baking afternoon, seemingly intent on demonstrating self-control, talking a little too loudly, gesturing grandly. He made his way to the lunch buffet, careful to stand in line with everyone else.

Once in his dressing room, Bonaduce said the game show was “shaky ground” for him, primarily because it’s not centered on any aspect of his personality. (He said he did, however, manage to get his own mug shot and indiscretions into one series of questions.)

“I’m usually employed to be some version of me: ‘Be wild Danny.’ ‘Be recovered Danny.’ ‘Be scary Danny.’ ‘Be sympathetic Danny.’ ‘Be Danny,’ ” he said. “And here, the game comes first no matter what.... So it’s really weird.”

Bonaduce’s young life is, by now, Hollywood legend. He was world famous by age 12 for his role as the red-haired wiseacre Danny Partridge in the 1970s show “The Partridge Family,” but his home life was so bad that costar Shirley Jones often brought him to her house to spare him abuse.


There were the lean years, spent living out of his car, hawking autographs on Hollywood Boulevard. For a while, his only paying jobs were radio stunts in which he deliberately played the pathetic has-been. Ultimately, Bonaduce landed a DJ gig and turned it into a respectable career.

“He’s pretty complex,” said longtime friend Larry Wert, president and general manager of WMAQ TV in Chicago. (He gave Bonaduce a break on Chicago radio in 1991. In thanks, Bonaduce tattooed Wert’s name on his rear end.) “His life experiences have left him with a fair amount of scar tissue. Not all his wounds have been self-inflected, but many have.”

He met and married Gretchen on their first, blind date in 1988, and she recalls him, even then, as “absolutely out of control.” But the marriage has survived for reasons neither one of them can pinpoint. They have two children: Countess Isabella, 11, and Count Dante, 5. (Gretchen is a big fan of royalty.)

“A lot of people say, ‘You just stay for the money,’ ” she said. “If we divorced, I’d get half. I’d be rich and I wouldn’t have to deal with this. It’s not about that at all. It’s about loving a human being and trying to keep our family together.”


Today, fans of “Breaking Bonaduce” approach him with their own tales of addiction. Some thank him for making his struggle so public. Others just chuckle about his reality-show antics -- jumping from a moving car, for example -- as if he were a fictional character in a trumped-up tragedy. Which, in some ways, he is.

“The whole thing is just so weird,” he said. He smiled, in an “aw shucks” way, bringing an incongruous sort of levity to traumas that for another guy might call for round-the-clock monitoring -- or, at the very least, an exorcism.

“I take ‘public figure’ in the most literal sense of the word,” said Bonaduce. “And I say this proudly: I am the property of others. And I’m currently not the property of enough others.”