Tube: Juddernaut Suddenly Susan-less, Judd Nelson streaks ahead with a string of movies and a laid-back outlook on life

( People ) Tom Gliatto Paula Yoo in Los Angeles; 10-18-1999

Step into Judd Nelson's modest two-bedroom Los Angeles ranch-style house and the first thing you notice are the gargoyles, a half-dozen of them, grimacing and glaring at you. "They say gargoyles protect you from evil," muses Nelson, still most famous as a charter member of the '80s Brat Pack. "Maybe I should've gotten more."

Nelson could have used their help last month. While he was out walking his Staffordshire bull terrier, Tallulah Bighead, the dog began chasing a squirrel, with owner in tow. "The squirrel lost his tail, I got injured"--a torn tendon near his thumb--"and the dog thought it was a victory," says Nelson, laughing.

Otherwise, the 39-year-old actor is the one feeling like a winner. After a decade-long slump in films, Nelson made a comeback three years ago as Brooke Shields's hyperkinetic editor, Jack Richmond, on NBC's Suddenly Susan. Now, having amicably departed that sitcom last spring, he has returned in an NBC-TV movie, Mr. Rock 'n' Roll: The Alan Freed Story (Oct. 17), playing the '50s radio deejay and rock pioneer whose career took a nosedive after he was accused of taking money in return for pushing certain songs. Before those headlines, though, Freed was best known for his on-air enthusiasm. And Nelson, like Freed, "is incredibly energetic," says the movie's director, Andy Wolk. "The kind of patter Freed had, Judd has. If he wasn't an actor, he could have been a deejay, yapping all the time."

He has a lot to yap about. In the past year, Nelson has done seven movies (including next month's Light It Up, in which he plays a likable New York City high school teacher). "I now consider myself a plow-horse actor," he says. "Strap that yoke on my neck." It's a far cry from the boogie nights that regularly landed him in the tabloids. Still single, he hasn't given up is love for R&B or Harley Davidsons, but now he no longer wakes up, he says, and wonders, Why was I singing sea chanteys on top of that car?"

"I think he has matured considerably," says his father, Leonard Nelson, a prominent attorney in Portland, Maine. Leonard and his wife, Merle, a court mediator in domestic cases and a former state assemblywoman, raised Judd there with his two younger sisters, Eve, 37, a lawyer, and Julie Nelson Forsyth, 33, a businesswoman. A good student and athlete at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., Nelson opted for Haverford College, outside Philadelphia, where "I took all the philosophy courses I could and then left," he says, after two years.

That's because at college he had discovered his true passion: theater. With his parents' blessing, Nelson moved to New York City in 1980 to study acting; soon after, he left for .A. He made his film debut in 1984's Making the Grade and then--along with the likes of Molly Ringwald and Emilio Estevez--got tagged as a Brat Packer in 1985, first with The Breakfast Club and later St. Elmo's Fire. "Most of us who were listed in this group," he says, amused, "didn't even know each other."

After St. Elmo's, though, Nelson became well-known in nightclubs, embarking on a high-profile social life that reportedly included romance with then-Beverly Hills 90210 star Shannen Doherty. He occasionally misbehaved. In 1987 he was fined $300 for disorderly intoxication at a West Palm Beach, Fla., lounge. Onscreen, he played dislikable characters in stinkers like 1986's Blue City and sleepers like 1991's New Jack City.

Joining Suddenly Susan in 1996 "was actor camp for me," Nelson says. "It was very light and airy and simple." But after the suicide last March of costar David Strickland, Nelson no longer felt like laughing. "David was the funniest person of the group," says Nelson. "He was the mortar, and now we were just a group of bricks."

Media brickbats still come his way. Nelson shrugs off tabloid reports, including one about a spat he allegedly had in September with now ex-girlfriend Kelly Stafford. Besides, Nelson, who's currently unattached, says his brawling days are behind him. A Muhammad Ali fan--proudly, Nelson displays the fighter's gloves in a glass case in his home--he regards show business as "a boxing match with endless rounds. In some, you take a hellacious beating. In others, you're almost down but you gotta get back up. The guys are snapping their towels at you. And," he concludes, "you get up."

--Tom Gliatto

--Paula Yoo in Los Angeles