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Dylan McDermott: ''In the Line of Fire''

Dylan McDermott: ”In the Line of Fire” — Julia Roberts’ former fiance finds his breakout role in the new Clint Eastwood flick

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Four years ago, he was most famous for his engagement to his Steel Magnolias costar, Julia Roberts. But these days, thanks to In the Line of Fire, Dylan McDermott is getting plenty of attention on his own. With his performance as Al, Clint Eastwood’s doubt-ridden and, yes, doomed partner, McDermott has room to flex his sensitive-guy muscles playing a young Secret Service agent torn between job and family.

The breakthrough role has been a long time coming for McDermott, whose subtle New York gruffness — a gravelly twinge of cabbie, perhaps — saves him from his smooth good looks and poster-boy blue eyes. At 31, he has already chalked up 14 years as an actor and roles in almost a dozen movies, including box office letdowns like the futuristic sci-fi thriller Hardware (1990) and Hamburger Hill (1987), a Vietnam melodrama. But even his semi-high profile role as Roberts’ husband in 1989’s Magnolias failed to ignite his career. ”No one knew what to do with me,” he says. ”I was in that weird boy/man period.”

After a deliberate hiatus to retreat to the theater, McDermott’s comeback was also less than stellar. Where Sleeping Dogs Lie, with Sharon Stone, zipped straight to its video death this year. And Sony Pictures up and sold Jersey Girl, with costar Jami Gertz, to Fox television just weeks before its intended theatrical release in 1992 (it is expected to air during a coming sweeps period).

Now, by the grace of ”some movie god out there,” McDermott’s career seems at last on track. His role in Line of Fire had only one drawback: As the partner, Al must die. It’s a Clint thing. ”Of course, I would have liked to live,” he says. ”I think most actors would have tried to play Al a little more macho and it would have been a mistake. Clint is the quintessential macho guy — he is muy macho — you’d compete with that and it’s impossible.”

McDermott’s upbringing exposed him to macho and to some of its downside. Named after poet Dylan Thomas, he spent most of his childhood in bars with his father, a bartender and owner of New York’s West Fourth Street Saloon. His stepmother, playwright Eve Ensler, suggested 17-year-old McDermott give acting a shot. ”I saw in Dylan a very funny, passionate, and creative person who needed a place to direct that,” she says. He liked acting immediately. ”It was the first time anyone paid attention to me,” he says.

While studying acting, McDermott worked as a busboy and waiter. ”I lived that real sour Eugene O’Neill life, always in bars with the drunks, watching them puking,” he remembers. ”And they were all actors too, wondering why they couldn’t get jobs.” A sometime poet himself, McDermott is well aware that his namesake drank himself to death, and knows how easy it is to have one too many, one too many times, when you work in a bar. ”I had my bouts, let’s put it that way,” he says over a Virgin Mary in a restaurant close to his Greenwich Village home.

But there hasn’t been much time to hang out recently; McDermott has actually been turning offers down. Right now, he’s looking for a comedy or a role as a bad guy with ”a little good in him.” He feels he can afford to be choosy, idealistic even. ”I never became an actor to make loads of money,” he says. ”If I wanted that I could have become a stockbroker.”

McDermott has also found life after Julia. He’s downright lovestruck for a UCLA liberal arts undergrad who, ”thank God,” is not in the movie business. ”Ten months and things keep getting better,” he boasts of the relationship. ”She walked by and I knew. It was completely instinctual.” Just like taking a bullet — for Clint.