My brother says I’m every single man’s dream and every married man’s nightmare,” laughs Peter Onorati, shrugging muscular shoulders and digging at a Cobb salad in a Beverly Hills hotel café. The dream is that a not tall (5’9”), not blond (Italian-American on both sides of the family), not drop-dead-handsome guy with a nose sculpted by wrestling and a voice shaped by New Jersey could become TV’s latest urban sex symbol. The nightmare is that a lot of TV-viewing women — wives and otherwise — are attracted to Charlie Howell, the rough-edged, street-smart divorce lawyer played by Onorati, who shares a law practice with tall, blond, coolly sculpted Mariel Hemingway on ABC’s Civil Wars.
Anyhow, Onorati, 37, claims that all of this hunk talk is kind of… well, who knew? Certainly it’s not the plan he had in mind when he graduated from Lycoming College in Pennsylvania in 1975 and hoped for a career as a wide receiver until he was cut by Philadelphia of the World Football League. Onorati got his MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1978, then took a job in the marketing and research department of McCall’s Publications. Along the way, he also hung out at New York comedy clubs and joined an improv group. And finally, urged by his wife, Jeanette Collins, a former comedian and stage actress who now writes for NBC’s A Different World, he quit his day job in 1985 and threw himself into acting full time.
He got commercial jobs. He got a regular guest role as plumber Lou Corello ) on Kate & Allie. Then his agent got a call: Did her client sing? ”She said sure I could sing, when I couldn’t. I got them to put a voice coach into my contract.” The show was Steven Bochco’s Cop Rock. The role — Vincent La Russo, the cop with the trip-wire temper who was indicted for killing a murder suspect — turned out to be a plum.
Cop Rock died in 1991 after 11 episodes, but Onorati’s good reviews lived on. He got more commercials, notably an improv actor’s dream of a Bud Dry (”Why ask why?”) ad in which a boorish Onorati spears steak off his date’s plate (”You troo wit dat?”). And he began to be recognized on the street: ”Yo, La Russo!” is what he heard when he and his wife took 3-year-old Sonny (who’s formally Sebastiano) and year-old twins Francesco and Giancarlo (a.k.a. Frankie and Charlie) to the mall near their home in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
With Civil Wars, Onorati knows he’s onto something: GQ magazine recently shot him and Hemingway for a fashion spread. ”There was an embarrassing stage last year when people would come up and go, ‘You’re…’ and I’d say, ‘Civil Wars,’ and they’d say, ‘No.’ They had either seen a commercial or thought I went to high school with them.”
Now? Now Onorati is getting used to being called Charlie, and to all those short men-tall women comments. ”Mariel’s starting to dig me now because she knows I’m comfortable with [the height difference],” he says. ”Except for my wife and one other serious girlfriend, all my life I’ve been interested in tall women. Look, my relatives from the Bronx called my mom and said, ‘Tell him he’s always holding his coat and chasin’ [Mariel]. What is dat?”’
Dat’s show biz. Peter Onorati has no problem wit dat.