'Wonder Woman's' Second Act

July 29, 2005 — -- She was an Amazon princess: voluptuous, but tough as nails. In the '70s, when action stars were all men, Wonder Woman was both beauty and brawn. Starring in the hit series, Lynda Carter gave television audiences something they had never seen before: an icon of a strong, empowered -- and sexy -- female action hero.

Carter told "20/20's" JuJu Chang she enjoyed portraying a role model for children. "They were gonna be in a world where it was OK to be smart, OK to be beautiful, OK to be feminine, OK to be strong, OK to be athletic," she said.

The half-Irish, half-Mexican beauty began her career singing in folk bands before having a successful run on the beauty pageant circuit.

At 5-foot-10, with that perfect hourglass figure, Carter seemed to have jumped off the pages of the original comic book and was a perfect fit for the series.

The show lasted just three seasons -- from 1976 to 1979 -- but in re-runs the statuesque brunette with her invisible plane and bulletproof bracelets captured the imagination of an entire generation of boys and girls.

Cater often performed her own stunts, like dangling 40 feet in the air. She seemed indestructible. But in real life, that wasn't the case. She may have been the embodiment of a superhero on television, but in the end she had very human frailties.

She had married a talent agent who became her manager, but was deeply unhappy. Carter says it was Wonder Woman who saved her.

"I would stay late after the crew had already gone home. Because I, you know, I didn't want to have to go back to my house," she said.

She spent the '80s doing variety shows and made-for-TV movies, and traveled the country as a spokesperson for Maybelline.

During this period, she met her second husband Washington lawyer Robert Altman. "I fell for him like that -- boom," she said.

They quickly became a D.C. power couple with two beautiful kids and a mansion in the suburbs. Life was beautiful until the summer of 1992.

Prosecutors accused Lynda's husband of bank fraud and taking bribes in a huge scandal involving an international bank called BCCI. The court froze the family's assets and overnight Altman's reputation was destroyed. Carter, who had fought wrongdoing on television, tried to shield her family from what she felt was a great injustice.

"I was trying to hold things together and be strong. And it was that fakery that was the hardest," she recalled.

With two young kids at home, and her husband facing a 16-year prison term, Carter sat stoically in the courtroom throughout the five-month trial.

But the ordeal put an enormous strain on Carter, her family, and her marriage.

"I think that you either go one way or the other when you face a tragedy. And this was a bona fide tragedy," she said.

Ultimately, the jury found Altman not guilty on all charges.

Despite vindication in the criminal court, the trauma of an extended trial had taken its toll. A secret she had kept for years reared its ugly head.

What she could no longer hide was the fact that she was an alcoholic. It was something that ran in her family and something she had struggled with since her first failed marriage. But after her husband's trial, her alcoholism spun out of control.

"I was afraid of the public finding out, and ... not living up to what people thought I was," she told "20/20."

Like many who struggle with addiction in the public eye, Carter thought she could be strong enough to keep her problem hidden. "I kept thinking I could control it and handle it. It's like standing on a precipice -- we've all been to the Grand Canyon, but now there's no beautiful rocks, it's just this abyss," she explained.

She tried repeatedly to quit on her own. But kept slipping.

Ultimately feeling trapped and powerless, she even contemplated her own death. "If I had gotten in an accident I thought it would be over with. I would never kill myself but it would be over with, and it would be hard for a little while. People would get on with their lives, because I can't control this," she said.

She finally entered rehab, but her secret was out when the tabloids learned of her drinking problem. There was ample fodder for the supermarket press -- the picture-perfect woman who'd led a storybook life wasn't so perfect after all.

But Carter made it through the difficult rehab process. She's been sober now for eight years, and at 54, she no longer tries to be perfect.

"I think I'm happier with the way I look now than I was when I was in my 20s," she said.

Now, she's clearly as ease with herself and enjoying a career upswing. Her latest project is the summer Disney movie "Sky High" which opens today. (Disney is the corporate parent of ABC News.)

In a sense she's come full circle. In "Sky High" she plays the principal at a school for superheroes.

And next week, she'll be featured in the big-budget summer action comedy, "Dukes of Hazzard."

These days Carter walks the red carpet with her husband of 22 years and her teenage kids. And having weathered the storms, her moment back in the limelight seems somehow sweeter.

"I'm enjoying it this time around. It's kind of great to still be around, you know, still be kicking and still be relevant. And I know that this is cyclical as well, and this too will pass. And so I'm just rocking and rolling."

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