He was 21.

Dude, you were a hot young actor in Hollywood, and—never mind how stupid it is to get hitched, period, in that position—you marry a woman inching up to menopause? What were you thinking?

“It was ridiculous,” Dempsey now admits, “a Freudian nightmare that’s publicly known. Let’s say I was a little bit lost.” Even worse, Parker becomes his Svengali, selecting his projects, enabling his ridiculous demands—the usual brat-star whining for more money, a bigger trailer—disciplining him when he displeases her. Thwack. Thwack. Bad Beta Dempsey. (“I taught Patrick how to read and write,” Parker told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.) Longtime friend Harry Winer, who directed Dempsey in several projects (JFK: Reckless Youth, Jeremiah, and Lucky 7), says of Beta Dempsey’s May-December fiasco, “The relationship was destructive, to himself and his career. He was manipulated.”

Dempsey, who just turned 40, reluctantly agrees: “I guess I needed that discipline, but I sort of outgrew that.”

He calls what follows “a midlife crisis at 22”: He separates from his wife-manager and watches hair mousse give way to bleach, sleeveless shirts to flannel, 1989’s hit Loverboy to 1991’s flop Mobsters. Beta Dempsey, now replaced by Mark Wahlberg and Freddie Prinze Jr., treads the dark path of Skeet Ulrich: yesterday’s idea of tomorrow’s big star.

II. Proto Dempsey

DEMPSEY TELLS A STORY. IT IS SIMPLE AND ELegant and is the metaphor for this stage of the evolution of Dempsey. Growing up in Turner, Maine, he had been a state-champion slalom skier, dutifully trudging out every morning with his Rossignol STS skis to collect cedar switches to plant as gates on Loft Valley, Farmington, and Sugarloaf runs. He dreamed of getting out of Maine. As a kid, he recalls, you see the magazines, the TV shows, and you want to be a part of that bigger world. A good athlete, the younger Dempsey, Proto Dempsey, felt that his future would be on the slopes, and he believed he would ride out of Turner, Maine, on those Rossignols. Dude, he’s 15, with gold-medal dreams.

And then one Sunday morning in 1980 at Sugarloaf, he comes over a mogul just before the starting gate to a slalom run, times his takeoff wrong, gets too elevated and crashes hard, snow shoved into all of his facial orifices, the wind knocked out of him, his spine compacted, ribs bruised, self-esteem shattered. “It was the first time I got really badly hurt,” he explains. “And it just kind of . . . changed. I lost the edge. Lost my confidence.”

Got it? He had a wreck. And lost his confidence.

III. Dempsey 1.0

Dempsey 1.0, the early-nineties model, was a disappointing product that really shouldn’t have advanced beyond the beta stage but was somehow foisted on an unwilling marketplace anyway.