We all know what happens to former teen idols -- or, at least, we think we know. We think they become embittered old men chained unwillingly to the past, forever tabbed as lightweights, stymied in any attempt to build a serious show-business career once their big flash dies.

As a counterpoint to this image, we present Bobby Sherman -- one of the very biggest practitioners of the sugar-shell-thin, non- threatening music dubbed "bubblegum," and the prime cover boy for teen mags like Sixteen and Tiger Beat from the very late '60s to the very early '70s.

While the rest of the world seemed jumbled up and threatening, Sherman's smiling visage beamed from the bedroom walls of hundreds of thousands of teen- age girls, a reassuring totem against the riots, drugs, war protests and free love that raged outside.

And do you know what? He's still smiling. You can almost hear it over the phone.

"A lot of times, people say, `Well, if you could go back and change things, what would you do?' " the singer-actor said genially in a recent telephone interview. "And I don't think I'd change a thing -- except to maybe be a little bit more aware of it, because I probably could've relished the fun of it a little more. It was a lot of work. It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears. But it was the best of times."

Sherman's career began in an almost offhand way, when he was coaxed into singing Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" with some old high-school chums at a party. The get-together, however, happened to be a wrap party for the film "The Greatest Story Ever Told," and the crowd was awash with show-biz stars.

"After it was over, three people came up to me: Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda and Sal Mineo," he recalled. They said, `Hey, you're really good. Who's handling you?' Well, I was a kid from Van Nuys, you know, and it was, `What do they mean, handling me?' Then I realized they meant representation."

He laughed. "I ended up giving my number out to them and all that kind of stuff, and I didn't think much more about it. Then, about three or four days later, I get a call from an agent. He introduced himself, and he said, `I don't know you, I haven't met you, but I understand you're pretty good. You might be perfect for this project that's coming up for ABC called "Shindig." Why don't you meet me on the corner of Prospect and Talmage and I'll fill you in.' "

When the rock 'n' roll series "Shindig" -- which is now considered a seminal influence on MTV -- debuted in the fall of '64, Sherman was a featured cast member, and his college child-psychology studies were forever sidelined.

After his "Shindig" run, Sherman was cast in "Here Come the Brides," a comedy-adventure series loosely based on the musical film "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." His role as young logger Jason Bolt, resident of a love-starved late 19th Century Seattle logging camp, immediately began firing the imaginations of teen and sub-teen girls -- a fact driven home to Sherman during a telethon appearance in Buffalo, N.Y.

"The show had just hit the air, and we didn't even have any records out yet," he recalled. "Greg Morris of `Mission: Impossible" and Robert Brown and I from `Here Come the Brides' had been asked to do the telethon, and it was going along, and doing very well, when the fire marshall came in and said, `We have a problem. You'd better come up to the second floor; you've got to greet some people.' They opened up this window, and I looked out, and the parking lot of this television station was absolutely a sea of faces. It was just unbelievable. And I got a clue then that something was happening."

Since Sherman was already a professional singer, it wasn't hard to get him into a recording studio. And, for the next three years -- from 1969 through '71 -- Sherman's young fans made him a million-selling recording act, with light pop singles like "Little Woman," "Easy Come, Easy Go" and "Julie, Do Ya Love Me" becoming million-sellers.

Of course, it couldn't last, and it didn't. But Sherman made the most of it by hiring, early on, show-biz heavyweight Ward Sylvester as his partner.

"He managed the Monkees and all of that, and our contract was a handshake," said Sherman. "I met him when I did a guest shot on `The Monkees,' and I said, `Lookit, I think I'm gonna have some success here. I need help.' And from that day to this day, we've been in business. It's really easy to make money in this business; it's just hard to keep it. You need really good management, and I'm not a money manager. I just did what I had to do."

The arrangement's worked out well for everyone. These days, Sherman lives in a Southern California estate that features, among other things, waterfalls, lagoons and a small rain forest. Amicably divorced, he's raised two sons. And while he keeps his hand in show business -- most recently with a "Bobby Sherman's Greatest Hits" disc for K- tel as well as a 30-minute infomercial for the same company -- his day job now is as a medical- training officer for the Los Angeles Police Department. (Although Sherman didn't mention it in the interview, we learned that he takes no money for his LAPD work.)

"I really always realized that there were going to be pitfalls, and there were always going to be ups and downs, but I knew the bottom line was that if you secured your money well enough then at least you wouldn't be bitter about it. I never sat back and said, `Well, gosh, I'm not Robert Redford,' " he said, laughing again. "What I've done with my life, and what I've been able to accomplish, all comes down to the fact that I've been blessed by the fans. It's stayed with me, so I can have the opportunity to do things that I really love doing. I'm a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. I train people in how to save lives. What could be better?"

And the fans who got him there?

"I think I was always aware they were growing up," he said. "They were getting older, and they were demanding a little more than something as simple as `Hey, Little Woman' or `La La La (If I Had You).' We were all growing together, and we all kind of emerged.

"It wasn't like I ran into a wall and said, `Whoops, it stopped,' " he concluded. "I was looking over my shoulder -- as they were -- to say, `Oh. Yeah. That was pretty good. That was fun. Always remember it.' We all grew up. But we look back to enjoy it. It wasn't an ugly time to reminisce about. It was the best. It was the best."

("Bobby Sherman's Greatest Hits" is currently on sale in stores nationwide. To order direct from K-tel, call 612-509-9418.)