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Better off 'Ned'

Thomas Haden Church sheds his ‘Wings’

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Crunch! It’s the sound of a big guy stepping on your feet. Crush! Oh, no, now that guy has you in a bear hug. Well, no one can say Thomas Haden Church, in the L.A. dressing room of Ned and Stacey, keeps the press at arm’s length. After the embrace, the actor who shone as dim bulb Lowell for five seasons on Wings mercifully allows you to sit on the couch — alone. He takes the armchair.

The subject is Church’s flight from Wings, which had been guaranteed at least two more seasons, to Ned and Stacey, which only has a 13-week commitment. But this is Church’s chance to move from doltish fourth banana to suave leading man. ”My contract was over with Wings,” says Church, 30. ”It’s one of those things — you pump gas for someone else or you get your own gas station.”

The metaphor is apt: While Lowell toiled as a grease monkey, ad exec Ned fashions himself a Master of the Universe. ”Ned’s definitely not a dullard,” says Church. ”He’s very successful and clever and sarcastic and has all the great qualities that a young male in the ’90s needs.”

Church has all these qualities as well, yet the first adjective that comes to mind is quirky. He’s more interested in reminiscing about his high school job picking up roadkill in his native Texas or chatting about his lifelong dream to own a cattle ranch than plugging his own show. Appropriately enough, Church also worked in advertising before moving to L.A. and playing a skating penguin in a Cheers episode, which led to Wings, where he’ll return for one last episode this season. ”It’s a dicey call,” he says. ”I don’t want to take away from Ned and Stacey, because that’s where my career is headed now.” Then he realizes Ned may be sneaking into his vocabulary: ”I hate the word career. I can’t believe I just used it.”