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Renaissance man

'Matt Houston' star Lee Horsley is channeling his cowboy dreams into writing westerns

By Serena Kappes

Lee Horsley
Lee Horsley, pictured in 2001, counts fly-fishing as a "big passion"; (inset) the actor on "Matt Houston."

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(PEOPLE) -- Starring as mustachioed millionaire Texas private eye Matt Houston in the eponymous 1980s series, Lee Horsley's facial hair was his trademark. Today the actor has a more complicated relationship with his on-again, off-again whiskers.

"Why would one side get gray and not the other? It's strange, it's like a punk-looking thing," he says with a laugh. "I may just go back to shaving it off."

Whether or not to shave has been less of an issue professionally in recent years for Horsley, now 47, since he has been doing a lot of voiceover work. His most recent project is the children's animated film "Jasper: The Story of a Mule," for which he's the narrator (a summer 2003 release is planned).

And four years ago, "on a lark," Horsley began writing western novels. "I've got about five of them that are in very different shapes of completion," says the actor, who has had a lifelong love for the genre. "It's just the kind of stuff that I grew up with. I used to love watching the guy in the end ride up to the hilltop, rear his horse and tip his hat and ride off. "

Horsley is no stranger to the cowboy world. "Somewhere, I guess, in a past life I must have done something of that nature because it seems to fit real well for me," he says.

Not only has he played cowboys, but he also has participated in celebrity rodeos for years. An accident a year and a half ago in which a horse fell over him, breaking some of his ribs and puncturing his spleen, "kind of slowed me down a little bit," Horsley says, but he still participates.

He may sound like a rootin-tootin' cowpoke -- but the Muleshoe, Texas, native actually got his start in musical theater.

After leaving college his junior year to tour in productions of shows such as "1776," Horsley headed to New York City with hopes of taking "Broadway by storm." He was discovered by an agent while performing in a New York production of "Forty Carats" and ultimately got cast as William Conrad's sidekick in the 1981 series "Nero Wolfe."

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Horsley became a television fixture, with starring roles in the western series "Paradise" (1988-91) and the syndicated drama "Hawkeye," which ran from 1994-95 (his biggest splash was on "Matt Houston"). But things began to slow down when his 1998 series, "Wind on Water," costarring Bo Derek, lasted only two airings.

These days, Horsley -- who's been married to homemaker wife Stephanie, 57, since 1980 and has two children, Amber, 21, and Logan, 20 -- who recently completed filming an as-yet-unnamed independent thriller, admits that getting roles is tougher when "you get older and wider."

Yet acting is still where his heart is.

"I figured out at a pretty early age that it was a lot more comfortable for me to wear somebody else's hat and become a character than it was to be myself," he says, chuckling. "I'm not quite sure why that is, but maybe if I ever go into therapy it would explain some of those things."

For more Where Are They Now? stories, visit PEOPLE.COM

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