It was a moment of truth. It was initiation night, a night to serve notice to his friends -- his gang, really -- that Tim Reid, then in his early teens, belonged among them.

The gang was on the prowl that night, and it was Reid's turn "to take someone out." Not to kill, necessarily, but to attack, perhaps to steal, to show he had what it took to survive and fit into a world in which violence was the norm.

"I found myself wanting to be a part of a group I knew was bent on destruction," Reid recalled. But when the time came for him to prove himself, Reid couldn't do it. That circle of 11 friends never quite became an even dozen.

"Of the 11 kids I knew then," said Reid, "only four of us are alive today."

Drugs, gang violence, and armed robberies that went awry took their toll on that old gang of his.

"I'm the only one to finish high school," said Reid. "Actually, I'm the only one in my immediate family to finish high school or college."

Now, Reid finds himself frequently on the road, talking to groups -- including one in Washington recently -- about kids and drugs. Reid's own flirtation with juvenile hooliganism, plus his perspective as a parent, have given him a number of hard- nosed opinions about the young, where they're heading and what they need.

"Somewhere we've lost respect for younger and elderly people," he said. For the children, he said, it's meant a serious loss of self-esteem. The road back is a long one, said Reid, and it leads through the home. "It has to be done through parents. The hero in the house should be the mother, father, uncle, whoever," said Reid. "I see a tremendous alienation among young people. The generation gap is no longer a gap -- it's two opposing forces, two groups who don't understand each other."

Welcome to the serious side of Tim Reid. It's a side he never exposed while playing Venus Flytrap on "WKRP in Cincinnati." It isn't evident either as he plays Downtown Brown, a plainclothes police lieutenant who helps his friends "Simon & Simon" in a style befitting the academy of creative law enforcement.

But the serious side is there, shaped by his upbringing in Norfolk, Va., given substance by his own role as a parent, and given impact by his celebrity as an actor.

Reid is in his third season as Downtown Brown. He beefed up for the part at the start of the season, adding about 25 pounds of muscle to his slim 150-pound frame. "I wanted to look the part," he said. If he looks a bit on the anemic side as the season goes on, it's because he's tapered off in his workouts, losing 12 pounds of bulk in a 14- month period.

And understably there are other demands on his time. He and his wife, Daphne Maxwell, are renovating the house they recently bought in California. "We decided on a few changes," said Reid. "But I didn't know we'd end up moving walls."

The changes will eventually accommodate Maxwell's sewing room, a hobby that absorbs her when she isn't acting, which she does occasionally on the "Simon & Simon."

Reid and Maxwell are each married for the second time. Reid has a son and daughter by his first marriage, and Maxwell has a son by hers, all in their teens.

When the summer comes and "Simon" is on hiatus, it's travel time. "We're not into drugs or fast cars," said Reid. "We travel every year." High points have included France, Japan and England.

"We took the kids to Stonehenge," recalled Reid. "There we were, looking at this marvel, and I turned around and what were the kids doing? Taking pictures of cows. That's what happens when you travel with kids who are city slickers."

Exposure to new things has been a two- way proposition for Reid and his children. He credits the experience of his oldest son, now 19, with awakening him to the threat drugs pose to young people.

"I found there was a budding interest in illegal drugs in sixth-graders through high school-aged kids in Illinois, where we were at the time," recalled Reid. "White kids and black kids were sniffing glue and it wasn't being publicized. My son was 4 or 5 at the time. I wanted him to have a fighting chance. I wanted him to see me in action against it," said Reid, who worked to alert others to the problem as a member of the Jaycees. The whole phenomenon, said Reid, "is a symphony of young people crying out for understanding."

Reid's own youth is punctuated with achievement, despite its early, walk-on- the-wild-side undercurrent. He was a member of the track team at Crestwood High School in Chesapeake, Va., and served as student council vice president and as a yearbook editor. After high school, he waited tables in a spiffy restaurant in Virginia Beach and made enough to write his own tuition checks at Norfolk State College.

His junior year was a pivotal one. In addition to marrying and fathering his son that year, he was asked by a drama professor to try out for a big role in the school's production of "Oedipus Rex." A mentorship and career bloomed. The professor, Stanley Wilson, died in 1981, and Reid set up a scholarship in his name in Norfolk State's drama department.

Meanwhile, Reid used his degree in business and marketing to land a job as a marketing representative in Chicago for DuPont. There, Reid met Tom Dreesen, a kindred spirit with whom he formed a comedy team. The duo eventually broke up, but the addiction induced by the first laugh in a Chicago area night club has endured.

Stand-up comedy led to television commercials and a move to California, where he studied acting at the Film Actors' Workshop in Burbank. His acting exploits have included "Teachers Only" for television and the movies "Mother, Jugs and Speed" and "Uptown Saturday Night."

Reid has also published a collection of his poems and photographs entitled "As I Feel It," as well as writing two "WKRP" scripts.

Looking beyond "Simon & Simon," Reid sees film production and Virginia in his future. "I'd like to move back east, maybe to Virginia, and stay involved in production," he said. He lamented the lack of black-produced, black-oriented TV and motion picture projects, and accepted part of the blame. "I haven't done it," he said flatly. "I have Spielberg dreams . . . Now I'm working on smaller productions." Rather than endure the frustrations of trying -- and failing -- to pull off large-scale productions, Reid is committed to thinking small for now, but he's mindful that larger things are there for the doing.

"Why not take a smaller project and push it through?" he said. "Blacks have tremendous tenacity and stubbornness and arrogance. If we didn't, we would nave died on the boats coming over."

Among his plans are a music video titled "Stop the Madness" and a feature film, "multiracial and positive, about people coping with low self-esteem."

Positive is the key word. "I'm a Frank Capra fan at heart," he said. "I was reared on Frank Capra films. The kind of world I'd like to see is a Frank Capra world."