Dick Van Patten, best known as a TV father of eight and currently portraying a TV weatherman, recently ventured into more dangerous territory - a cage full of bears.

He's one of the stars of tonight's 15th annual "Circus of the Stars" (8 p.m., Ch. 5), but the experience didn't turn out exactly as he expected."I've always been a big fan of `Circus of the Stars.' The producers came to me and said, `We have an act that we think would be wonderful for you to do.'

"I said yes right away. Then I found out it was going to be a bear act."

And while these are trained bears, they're still bears - big claws, big teeth and very strong.

"When they first asked me, I thought it would be easy," Van Patten said. "It wasn't."

Van Patten spent an hour a day for 30 days rehearsing with the animals.

"It's kind of of scary. They're very unpredictable," he said.

"I got scraped a couple of times. I had to shake hands with the bears, and when they pull their hand away, it just scratches your whole palm," he said. "They don't realize their own power.

"At one point in the act, I tell one of the bears to roll over," he said. "He just looked up at me and growled, and I said, `OK, don't roll over.' "

Van Patten even entertained the idea of backing out of the show for a while. Valerie Perrine, one of Van Patten's neighbors, offered to let him keep the money if he let her perform with the bears.

"I was really tempted," he said. "But I thought it would look bad if I backed out."

Van Patten is just one of a host of celebrities appearing on "Circus." Richard Crenna, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Urich and Joan Van Ark are the ringmasters, and other performers include Rebeca Arthur, Linda Blair, Morgan Brittany, Dick Clark, Ann Jillian, Richard Simmons and David Soul.

When he's not appearing in the bears' den, Van Patten is behind the scenes at the sometimes equally vicious world of local television news on "WIOU." He's playing Floyd the weatherman, who's sort of a tuna swimming in a tank full of shark.

"All my life I've been interested in weathermen," Van Patten said. "They're never quite normal - they're alway a little off center."

As for Floyd, "I'm doing a combination of four or five of them. Willard Scott is the most obvious.

"It's a fun part. I'm really enjoying this show - it's my seventh series, and I love it."