December 30, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Maybe it’s the accent. Maybe it’s the smile. Maybe it’s the irresistible British charm and charisma.

Nah. It’s the accent.

Without a single big-budget picture under his belt, Hugh Grant, 34, has zoomed to the very peak of the Hollywood pecking order. His ticket to the top: a modest, low-budget ($6 million) Brit flick called Four Weddings and a Funeral that became last spring’s surprise smash, earning $250 million worldwide and making Grant the year’s reigning romantic leading man.

If there’s any formula to Grant’s work, it’s that his good guys are heartbreakers even when they’re the opposite of suave — you never like Grant more than when he’s blundering through a confession of love in Weddings, standing transfixed by a nude Elle Macpherson in Sirens, or tip-toeing with both priggishness and voyeurism into the world of naughty grown-up sex in Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon. His characters are often bright, self-deprecating, endearingly awkward, offhandedly waggish middle-class Englishmen who seem fresh off the quad at Oxford (Grant’s an alumnus himself). It’s a winning screen persona that the actor is already taking to Hollywood: Grant is currently filming his first American feature, Nine Months, a comedy about a reluctant father, directed by Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire).

Perhaps because handsome, articulate new romantic stars are a lot harder to find than thick-of-neck-and-tongue action heroes, ”Hollywood has become almost ridiculously solicitous and nice,” Grant told a British magazine. ”The money offers are hysterical. They make me giggle. My agent came out the other day and we tried to have these grown-up meetings and even he couldn’t stop giggling.”

All that giggling hasn’t kept him from getting serious; behind the shy stammerer is a smooth businessman who recently locked up a deal with Castle Rock to develop, produce, and act in his own projects. ”(Grant) is actually two people,” Four Weddings director Mike Newell said recently. ”There is at least as much of Hugh that is charismatic, intellectual, and whose tongue is maybe too clever for its own good as there is of him that’s gorgeous and kind of woolly and flubsy.”

Nine Months is due out next year, when audiences will also be treated to a triple dose of Grant as a turn-of-the-century mapmaker in a small British film with the overgrown title The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain; in a cameo as a 17th-century portraitist in Restoration, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Meg Ryan; and as a sexually confused theater director in An Awfully Big Adventure. After that, the smoothest Grant since Cary can have pretty much whatever he wants. This year, he has turned down leads in everything from The Saint to the movie version of Michael Crichton’s Congo. There was even speculation that he might become the new James Bond; Pierce Brosnan took the part instead. Too bad: Grant’s got the perfect accent to order a martini shaken, not stirred.

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