LOS ANGELES — On many mornings, in a remote area near an upscale Southern California neighborhood, former Olympian Bruce Jenner can be found putting his top-of-the-line remote control helicopter through perilous dips and dives. He’s most proud of mastering a particularly difficult trick — flying the chopper upside down inches from the ground without crashing.
“You have to be very, very careful doing this, but this is my new obsession,” said the 60-year-old who gained international fame after winning an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon in 1976. “I try to do this everyday.”
In the decades since his athletic triumph, Jenner has performed his own set of personal and professional acrobatics, managing to leap from Wheaties box cover boy to beleaguered reality TV Dad. The onetime “world’s greatest athlete” is now the calm inside the blended family chaos on E!‘s “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” which wraps up its fourth season Sunday as the cable’s network’s top-rated series.
Being the put-upon father figure is an unlikely turn for Jenner, who has spent more than 30 years in and out of the spotlight. Although he achieved post-Olympic success and financial security as a businessman and commercial spokesman, he has also experienced one of the downsides of celebrity, enduring ridicule for botched plastic surgery on his face and for his participation in questionable entertainment projects.
But even as the slings and arrows have flown, Jenner has nevertheless emerged as a valued voice of reason. In dispensing advice amid the dramas and self-promotion of Kim, Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian, he also has become more critical of the family’s head-butting and self-absorption.
“A lot of mothers come to me and say the only reason why they watch the show is to see how I’m going to handle the situation,” said Jenner while sitting in the Calabasas home he shares with his wife and their two teenage daughters, Kendall and Kylie. “I’ve always been the integrity of the show, the moral high road.”
And he’s pleased that the show not only demonstrates that families can remain strong and loving despite the clashes, but how the show has boosted the fortunes of his children. “I really don’t think it’s been this good for me since the Games,” he said. “Throughout the years, there have been good times and bad times. But I don’t think I’ve been in a better place than I am right now.”
While the women are the E! show’s main focus, Jenner is still one of the series’ key draws, according to the cable network.
“Bruce is the heart of the show,” said Lisa Berger, executive vice president of original programming for E!. “That’s the beauty of this series. It’s a true ensemble, and Bruce is the grounding point of view. He had the experience of being thrust in the spotlight, now he’s dealing with his family being put in that position. He’s seen it all.”
Still, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” has brought more than its share of awkward, uncomfortable moments for Jenner. Though he was the most famous member of the family when the show started, the once celebrated athlete has since been pushed to the background as his stepdaughters became more famous — and infamous — as staples of the Twitter generation.
Slights and embarrassments have piled up too. In one installment, Kris Jenner confiscated his ATM card, prompting him to do chores in his daughters’ clothing store to score a little extra spending money. And, in another episode, he blew up in anger when he found out his wife was spiking his drinks with Viagra as a practical joke.
He was also upset at being the last to learn that Khloe was going to marry Los Angeles Laker forward Lamar Odom after knowing him only a few weeks and was hurt when none of the Kardashian daughters attended a charity dinner where he was being honored.
Even when the cameras aren’t rolling at the Kardashian home, things can be volatile. While discussing Kourtney’s unplanned pregnancy during a recent interview at the house, Kris Jenner suddenly burst into the room and berated her husband, saying he couldn’t say “one word” about her because of an exclusive magazine deal.
“I’m not, I’m not. It’s from my perspective!” he protested.
The heated exchange ended with Jenner saying: “Chill, honey, it was on the show already. Leave. Love you.”
A short time later, Kris Jenner again interrupted the interview to ask Jenner to pick up the youngest daughters at the mall. “Sorry, the kids are waiting and need to be picked up,” she said.
When Jenner asked her why she couldn’t fetch them, she said, “I can’t, I’m working.”
“See what I deal with,” Jenner said to others in the room with a smile. “She controls everything.”
Still, family members seem increasingly impressed with his insight and wisdom, Jenner said. Kourtney’s pregnancy is a good example, he added.
“Everyone here was saying how excited they were,” he said. “I was the only one saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. You’ve got to get real here, girl. This isn’t like having another puppy.’”
He’s good natured about some of his past missteps after his Olympic victory, such as starring in the 1980 disco nonclassic “Can’t Stop the Music” with the Village People. And he is forthright about his bungled plastic surgeries — his face, with his surreal, somewhat feminine features, served as fodder for years with comedians. He underwent more plastic surgery on the show to correct those mistakes.
Jenner places his highest priority on family, and wants to make sure that episodes of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” end with a loving portrait of the family.
“There are problems with every family,” he said. “But when every show ends, we’re a tight unit.”