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SHOW-STOPPER PAUSES TO RECOUNT HIS BATTLE WITH DRUGS, ROAD TO TONY

Eight times a week, Michael Jeter of "Grand Hotel" stops the show at the Martin Beck Theater.

Last weekend, he stopped a very different show at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. In fact, he stopped it twice.That show was the Tony Awards, and the first time the 37-year-old Jeter brought it to a halt was with his wild Charleston number from "Grand Hotel."

In the musical, he portrays the elderly Otto Kringelein, a dying clerk who has led a constricted, unimaginative life and who has come to Berlin for a first and last fling.

And fling he does, breaking loose, with arms and legs gyrating in unexpected moments of sheer, uninhibited joy as he dances to "We'll Take a Glass Together."

The second time he stopped the Tony show was a few minutes later, as he accepted the Tony for best performance by a featured actor in a musical.

In a voice filled with emotion, Jeter told the theater and nationwide television audiences that "if you've got a problem with alcohol and drugs and think you can't stop, I stand here as living proof" that you can.

"It changes a day at a time," he added. "And dreams come true."

Jeter was reluctant to talk in detail about the nature of the problems that he referred to in his Tony acceptance speech.

"All I really have to say is that I used to have a problem with substances," he said. "I've been in recovery for almost nine years and things have changed. I'm not the same person I was then. Thank God."

His problems began, he said, when he was 14, in school in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., "wishing to gain entry into the society of my peers, around school, wanting to hang out with a certain group of people and wanting to do what they did in order to be accepted."

His interest in theater started at Memphis State University. "I come from a family of health-care professionals, and I was sort of being primed for the medical profession," he said.

"But I started seeing shows at the university, and I started getting interested in that, and I went into the arts program. Then I sort of wandered, via Baltimore, to New York."

He got to New York in the summer of 1977, and his first acting job was a small role in Milos Forman's movie of "Hair."

His first stage job was in a revival of "Once in a Lifetime" at Circle in the Square Uptown. He did a lot of television commercials and voice-over work, and was a cast replacement in Caryl Churchill's "Cloud 9," which was directed by Tommy Tune.

But five years ago he dropped out of the theater.

"My decision to become an actor was made when I was pretty advanced with my substance problem," he said, "and one of the reasons for getting out of the business was to find out if mine was indeed a problem-related career or whether it was something that I really needed and loved to do."

"I was with a very large theatrical agency," he said, "and I kind of got lost in their files. And I was at a particularly crucial point in my own life, and in my recovery, where I was not really sure that I wanted to put up with the life of the theater.

"So I decided I would get out of it for a while and find out, for one thing, if I missed it, and for another, because I needed a boost to my self-esteem.

"I needed to be able to believe that I could do something else, that my entire self-esteem wasn't contingent on whether I was working in the theater."

So he taught himself to type, he learned some computer programs and he became a litigation secretary for a midtown law firm. He finally decided to return to the theater, he said, because he discovered he missed it.

He had just finished working in a play, "Only Kidding," at the American Jewish Theater, and had gone back to the law firm between acting jobs, when his agent called and said that Tune wanted to see him the next day.

It was an audition for "Grand Hotel," which Tune was directing and choreographing.

His dance number in the show, Jeter said, evolved over time. "Originally, it wasn't even there," he said. "Then it was just a song. And then it was a tap dance number.

"And then one day Tommy was sitting out in the house and looked at it and said, `A tap number does not belong in this show.' So we all got our heads together and decided it should be a period number.

"And Tommy seemed to feel that the Charleston would be something one could just throw oneself into. Which is literally what I do. Because I'm not a trained dancer. And that number just seemed to work for the character.

"I think that's one of Tune's little bits of specific brilliance: That he can look at the way your body moves and he can find the medium, in dance, within which to move it."

Jeter's Tony was one of five won by the musical, an evocation of pre-Hitler Berlin based on the Vicky Baum novel of the same name. Two of the awards went to Tune as director and choreographer.

Jeter's contract with the show runs until mid-September, and he will be going on vacation sometime in June, when he is to film a small role in a new Terry Gilliam movie, "The Fisher King." Beyond that, he said, he has no specific plans.

Looking back at himself nine years ago, Jeter said, he thinks of the problems he had as "another life."

"But at the same time," he said, "I know that any reprieve from that illness - and I do consider it an illness - is contingent on daily maintenance.