Most movie stars who hit a rough patch in their careers enter rehab, call a plastic surgeon, or maybe do a stint on Broadway. Kiefer Sutherland ran off and joined the rodeo. So it was that in the spring of 1994 he found himself in the saddle, on a horse called Till, backing into the starting box at a San Antonio rodeo. It was his first big team-roping competition, and he could hear some rodeo regulars behind him chuckling, amused by the sight of this Hollywood actor who apparently thought starring in a couple of cowboy flicks made him the real deal.

Then the chute opened and a steer charged out. Sutherland followed, nervous but determined. Within seconds his rope landed exactly where it was supposed to, and he managed to catch his first steer by the horns. Even Sutherland was surprised. My God, he thought. It worked! It was a feeling he would never forget, the "perfect combination of exhilaration and relief."

In the following years, the chuckling would end. Sutherland and his team-roping partner, John English, a top pro he met on the set of 1994's 'The Cowboy Way,' would take first in a United States Team Roping Championships event in Phoenix and place near the top in Albuquerque. Some of the same cowboys laughing behind his back would later come up and ask him to partner up. The doubters turned around, Sutherland says, "as soon as they realized I wasn't doing it just so that Entertainment Tonight might come and film me."

Kiefer Sutherland is a man who takes considerable pleasure and a certain amount of pride in doing things the hard way. In a world of slick surfaces, he likes a little edge. Although he could clearly afford to reside in some lily-white Malibu lockdown, he chooses to live in a more diverse and funky stretch of the Hollywood Hills. He just might be the most famous guy in L.A. who rides the subways regularly.

It has always been thus. Before he landed the role of Jack Bauer, the hero of the much lauded Fox series '24,' his Hollywood career was a series of ups and downs. With that familiar face, deep voice, and famous last name, Sutherland became a bright new star in the eighties – an unusually powerful young actor with just enough gravitas to avoid the Brat Pack label – in such movies as 'Stand by Me,' 'The Lost Boys,' and 'Flatliners.' Director Joel Schumacher, who has worked with Sutherland on 'The Lost Boys,' 'Flatliners,' and 'Phone Booth,' calls him a "born character actor. He can become anyone he wants to. He can be good guy, bad guy, crazy guy. He'll always work."

Yet in the early nineties, good film roles dried up, and suddenly the promising Sutherland kid was somehow most famous as the poor bastard Julia Roberts had left at (or very near) the altar.

To hear him tell it now, over a few games of pool at Hollywood Billiards (now closed), a cavernous joint on the seedy side of town that he's talked the owner into opening for us three hours early, Sutherland's ensuing Hollywood exile and pro rodeo career was something he did when his movie career stopped exciting him.

Lou Diamond Phillips – who costarred with Sutherland in 'Young Guns,' when Sutherland first took a shine to horses, and worked with him on the first season of '24' – says that leaving Hollywood was not out of character. "Kiefer's always been serious about his acting. But if he's got an urge to do something, he's going to do it. Kiefer doesn't just stick his toe in. He goes all the way in. He became a real cowboy."

Sutherland had made lots of friends in Hollywood, but somehow his new rodeo companions were different – mainly because of the time they spent together. "We had to haul our horses, so we had to log a lot of miles – 100,000 miles a season, easy," Sutherland explains. "Generally, one guy would sleep and two would sit up and talk. And there's nothing like two o'clock in the morning on the highway."

The adventurous life was not a new thing for Sutherland. Before he joined the rodeo circuit, he had raised horses on his ranch in Montana, and later he ran a cattle ranch in central California. He's also an avid skier (though he admits, "My knees are getting a bit old for the bumps"), a "very, very average hockey player" who dearly loves the game and occasionally plays with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a frustrated rocker (he owns more than 40 guitars, including a 1959 Les Paul and a Gretsch Tennessean), and, once upon a Scotch-soaked time, a pretty game bar fighter. "There was one fight, up in Montana, where I took a good licking," Sutherland recalls as he chalks up a pool cue. "I still have part of a beer bottle stuck in my elbow."

He was born Kiefer William Frederick Dempsey George Rufus Sutherland. Yes, his father is the distinguished actor Donald Sutherland. No, he wasn't a particularly fortunate son. "One of the biggest misconceptions about Kiefer is that he got anything easy in his life," says his old friend Jude Cole, a successful singer-songwriter and rock manager. "He's done it on his own, every step of the way."

Sutherland and his twin sister, Rachel, were born in swinging London in 1966 and spent their earliest years there and in Los Angeles. But by the time they were four, their father had split from their mother, Shirley Douglas – an actress and the daughter of Canada's first socialist leader, Tommy Douglas. Donald was soon otherwise engaged, making movies and starting another family.

Kiefer moved to Toronto with his mother and sister, and grew up surprisingly middle-class in the "first Canadian housing project," among his mother's flamboyant theater friends. By age 13, he was off to boarding school at nearby St. Andrew's College. He was, by his own admission, a bad student, unfocused, and eventually got tossed out of that school. At his next school, he went AWOL just before Christmas break and his 16th birthday. He called his parents to say he was dropping out. "They didn't have a whole lot of choice," he says. "I was going to do it one way or another."

The next year, Sutherland moved to New York on his own, a young man in a curious, sometimes fumbling rush to grow up. A year later, he headed west to Los Angeles in a borrowed '67 Mustang, determined to break into the movie industry. It was in L.A., while staying with a friend who had tapes of almost every film his father had made, that Sutherland realized the depth of his father's legacy. "I had never even seen 'MASH,' " he recalls. "So one afternoon I sat and watched it, and then 'Don't Look Now,' 'Kelly's Heroes,' 'The Dirty Dozen.' I remember phoning my dad and telling him I was really sorry that I hadn't known how amazing he was."

After that, everything started happening for Sutherland at once. Just as he was becoming a hot young actor, he married Camelia Kath – the widow of Terry Kath, the guitar great from the band Chicago. She was 14 years his senior and the mother of a young daughter, Michelle. Before long, the couple had a daughter of their own, Sarah Jude (now 15), but the marriage foundered. "I was in no way mature enough to take on a family," he admits. "I tried, and I was not successful."

His next big romance, in the early nineties, would turn into an international incident when Julia Roberts – his costar in 1990's 'Flatliners' - fled their impending nuptials in the company of actor Jason Patric. Officially, the decision to split was mutual, but the tabloids attributed it more to Sutherland's hard-partying lifestyle – specifically a weakness for Scotch and strippers. "Julia was right, you know," he says now. "It's a terrible thing when people decide to get married when they should actually be breaking up. She was smart enough to know that, thank God, but it didn't make dealing with it at that time any easier."

Or any less embarrassing. He had a crappy apartment up on Sunset, where he hid out from the tabloids and tried to get his life back together. He vividly remembers wanting to go to a nearby liquor store one day to buy cigarettes but being afraid to risk seeing another tabloid headline, or worse, a prying fan. "I didn't want to get in a fight, but if someone said something really shitty to me, then I knew I'd have to."

This was in 1991. He limped through some bad movies for the next couple of years, saved some money, and then, looking for greener pastures, headed out to experience the cowboy life. Ultimately, the time away reminded him what he loved about acting in the first place. "It taught me what a privilege it was to do what I do," he says. "The thing I learned that I'll never forget was that if films and everything else went completely away, I'd be all right. I don't think I really knew that before."

Armed with this new self-assurance, he ended his exile, and by the end of the nineties he was back in the movie business. In 1996 he got married again, this time to a former model, Kelly Winn. He helped raise her sons, Julian and Timothy, but then filed for divorce in 2000.

Sutherland is the first to admit he's no ideal husband. But Cole points out that he is an ideal friend. "He's Corleone loyal," says Cole. "We used to have a recurring fight about if one of us killed somebody, would we rat on each other? I'd say, 'That would depend on why you killed 'em.' And he would get really mad at me for that. In his code it wouldn't matter what the fuck you did; you would just never rat on your friend."

Hollywood Billiards is a far cleaner, better-lit place these days than it was at its original location, where Sutherland hung out constantly when he first moved to Los Angeles. "That was our Charles Bukowski period," Cole says. "We liked to stay in cheap motels, live in the pool hall, and listen to Marvin Gaye. I wasn't married yet, and Kiefer was falling in love every day."

"The place was open 24 hours then, and it was full of all these great old hustlers – guys with names like Drummer and Rags – all these characters that you only ever read about or heard about in songs," Sutherland says. "I worked four months out of the year back then. That's a lot of downtime, and you could get lost playing pool for 10 hours, easy." Today, Sutherland – dressed in jeans and a fresh white T-shirt – is drinking soda, not Scotch, and he allows himself only one short break to sneak into the courtyard for a cigarette. When he leans over the pool table and sinks yet another shot (on his way to kicking my ass, winning two games and charitably throwing another), his shirt-sleeves slide up and reveal the tattoos – the Douglas family crest, barbed wire, a "band of life" drawn by some guys he met in New Zealand – on his surprisingly muscled arms.

These days Sutherland has a lot less time for pool, for hockey, and even for his beloved horses. He's too busy with the almost constant demands of starring in and helping produce '24' – a project that he might once have dismissed just because it was a television series. And now, once again, he's making high-profile movies – the recent 'Phone Booth,' with Colin Farrell, and 'Taking Lives,' with Angelina Jolie, which comes out in the spring.

But Sutherland isn't complaining about being too busy to fully wallow in all his passions. "If the last 20 years are any indication, I'm sure I'll have time," he says. "I'm enjoying working now, so I don't feel like I'm missing anything." And it's not as if he has suddenly abandoned everything else entirely. He still rides recreationally, but the ranches have been sold. He's still very much involved in the lives of his children, but he can't imagine getting married again. And recently he and Cole have become partners in a recording studio called Ironworks, where Beth Orton and the band Lifehouse have already recorded, and where Sutherland is spending some of the last days of the '24' summer hiatus in the studio with the band Softcore.

Sutherland says he has no idea how long his run on '24' will last. "My biggest concern is how long we can maintain and even improve on the quality of what we've done," he says. "I do feel we've made a serious, concerted effort to do something good." He loves playing Jack Bauer, a veritable one-man army fighting the good fight against terrorists, but he understands that he's no hero himself. "I am my own terrorism," he says.

Then he laughs at himself and takes his next shot – and wins.