’’Wiseguy’’ wasn’t the same either. Wahl returned to the series in 1989, but by the end of the third season the show was drifting into ’’Twin Peaks’’ territory. ’’Our last arc, we had a legless sheriff who had dwarfs as deputies,’’ recalls Cannell, ’’and I thought, you know, Enough.’’ Both he and CBS wanted to return to the street-savvy, action-oriented plots of season 1, while Wahl preferred the more ’’cerebral’’ tone of season 3. After a 10-minute phone call in the spring of 1990 in which the two stood their ground, Cannell, essentially, fired Wahl. The split sparked gossip of a nasty feud, but both say Wahl parted amicably. ’’It was very businesslike. He wanted to change the show, and I didn’t,’’ says Wahl. Concurs Cannell: ’’It was just a difference of opinion’’ (a difference that was apparently resolved when the two teamed for a ’’Wiseguy’’ reunion movie in 1996). But other factors may have caused the split. Cannell hints that Wahl was eager to get back into movies, while Jim Byrnes, who played Vinnie’s crime-fighting cohort, says, ’’It seemed like Ken did take some bad advice from a manager. He sort of dug a hole that was hard to get out of.’’ So just a year after Us magazine’s ’’Sexiest Man on TV’’ cover hit newsstands, Wahl was no longer on television. At first he welcomed the break: ’’When that Sexiest Man thing came out, I absolutely hated it,’’ his voice rising. ’’Everybody likes to be thought of as attractive, but when it’s the foremost thing that you’re known for, it’s the kiss of death.’’
After ’’Wiseguy,’’ Wahl starred in 1991’s ’’Die Hard’’ knockoff ’’The Taking of Beverly Hills.’’ The movie flopped, grossing less than $1 million. And then things got worse. A lot worse. And weirder. A lot weirder. In 1992, Wahl gave the press a detailed account of a horrific motorcycle crash that occurred when he was riding his Harley at 2:30 a.m. and was cut off by a car. Only one problem -- the accident never happened. In actuality, Wahl fell down a flight of stairs. The problem is that they were not his stairs. The incident, he says now, really happened at the home of Rodney Dangerfield’s girlfriend, Joan Child. ’’We were dating casually,’’ Wahl begins after ordering another drink. ’’I stayed over at her house one night, fell down these stairs, and she begged me not to say that in the press. She said, ’Because if Rodney finds out, he’s going to cut me out.’’’ (Child, who married Dangerfield a year later, declined to comment for this article.)
Wahl chalks up the accident to his injured ankle from the ’’Wiseguy’’ set giving out on him. ’’It’s a string of events from that day,’’ Wahl shakes his head. ’’Connect the dots.’’ The result was a fractured neck, which he says became even more painful after doctors ’’botched’’ the surgery. When doctors refused to prescribe pain medication -- in Wahl’s view because it would have been ’’an admission of guilt’’ -- he found another way to numb the senses. ’’I was like, Okay, I can’t get a prescription, so I’ll get a bottle of vodka. I was in such chronic, agonizing pain 24 hours a day that I started drinking to kill the pain.’’
By the mid-’90s, Wahl’s physical and emotional state was deteriorating. Since he was unable to exercise, his weight increased, as did his vodka intake. But he tried to keep acting. A 1994 TV film, ’’Search for Grace,’’ was followed by the ’’Wiseguy’’ reunion. Even that workload was too much. ’’On the ’Wiseguy’ movie they were shooting me up like a racehorse with cortisone and s---. I only worked 16 days and barely got through it. That’s when I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to hang ’em up.’’ Ken Wahl hasn’t acted since.
Off screen, Wahl suffered as well. In late 1995, he was charged with disturbing the peace after a neighbor apprehended him in a citizen’s arrest. (’’It was a kids’ party with Elvis Christmas music!’’ laughs Wahl. ’’I mean, how benign can you get?’’) Less benign was the outstanding warrant for a drunken-driving charge police discovered when they arrived at Wahl’s Malibu home. He pleaded no contest to both charges and received probation. A year later, Wahl was arrested again, this time for allegedly threatening a bartender with a hunting knife after being refused alcohol. Wahl disputes the charge as ’’total bulls---. He was just a really nasty prick and I finally said to him, ’You know, buddy, if you keep up this attitude, I’m going to kick your ass.’’’ Nonetheless, Wahl pleaded no contest again and was ordered to enter a live-in alcohol rehabilitation program. The treatment facility didn’t help. ’’There were times I talked to him where I was like, ’Oh, my God, Kenny!’’’ recalls Byrnes, who knows something about physical pain courtesy of a 1972 car crash that claimed both of his legs. ’’And what can you do to help somebody on the phone in the middle of the night and you can tell how hammered they are? You want to pick him up and smack him around and say, ’What the hell are you doing, man? You’ve got so much to live for!’’’
Evidently, Wahl didn’t agree. While he says he wasn’t actively trying to kill himself, he wasn’t actively trying to live, either. ’’It’s not that you’re suicidal, but you are ambivalent,’’ says Wahl of his state at the time. Only when a doctor finally prescribed him pain medication, Wahl says, did he begin to curtail his boozing. But to what degree? As he recounts these stories, Wahl sits within arm’s reach of a shot of Grey Goose vodka, but he claims it’s his first drink in three months. ’’I never said that I quit drinking,’’ he states flatly. ’’And I never will. And furthermore, if I had to do it all over again, I would do the exact same thing.’’
Every Ken needs a Barbi, and Wahl’s has taken his life into another bizarre direction. On Sept. 17, 1997, Wahl wed Playboy cover girl Shane Barbi of the notorious Barbi twins. It was the second time he’d married an X-rated pinup; his first wife was Penthouse Pet Corinne Alphen. But Shane had something Corinne did not: a twin sister. In 2001, Shane and Sia went on Howard Stern’s radio show and revealed that they ’’shared’’ Wahl sexually, with Sia visiting Ken two to three times a week. ’’Yeah, occasionally,’’ confirms Wahl. ’’Hey, that’s something I can still do, so I take advantage of it every chance I got. I don’t make any apologies for that.’’ Nor does he make apologies for the sexually explicit photos he took of the twins spanking, whipping, and walking each other like dogs that appeared in the January and August 2004 issues of Hustler -- photos that arrived at the magazine courtesy of a third party who Hustler insists was not Wahl. ’’I like photography, I like sex, I like girls, so I took pictures,’’ explains the amateur shutterbug. ’’You know -- no big deal.’’
To this day, Wahl says he still experiences excruciating pain from his spinal column all the way down to his right toes. ’’It feels like somebody is stabbing you with a heated knife,’’ he explains. ’’It’s searing, like your flesh is on a barbecue.’’ He’s supporting himself, he says, with monthly disability checks. As a result, ’’I borrow a lot of money,’’ says Wahl, his eyes fixed on the table. ’’That’s an honest answer for you.’’
While he says he doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him -- one of the main reasons he has stayed quiet for so long -- Wahl can’t help but pity himself: ’’I try to keep a positive outlook on life and a sense of humor, but I’m only human and sometimes it does get to me. Yeah, I know that other people have got it worse, but I truly did lose everything. I lost my insurance and all the money that I had, my health, and my livelihood. Everything -- gone.’’
Wahl has to leave now. His pain prevents him from sitting for long periods of time. He stands gingerly and limps toward the exit, stopping briefly to catch the Lakers score on TV. The Lakers are winning. Wahl hates the Lakers. He shakes his head in disgust and walks out the door. How long he’ll disappear for this time is anyone’s guess.