Henry Kissinger said that power is the great aphrodisiac, but he would say that, wouldn’t he: He’s powerful, and he’s no Dean Cain. For the rest of us, though, when it comes to actor-heartthrobs, it’s the suggestion of smarts in a man that elevates pinup beauty (To Lisa, Follow your bliss, Sincerely, Keanu) to fabulous objects of fantasy (Dearest Lisa, Here are two tickets for our trip to Hawaii, Love, Jimmy Smits). A hunk with a pretty face is easy on the eyes; as Det. Bobby Simone on NYPD Blue, a man like Smits, who projects depth and complexity, can acquire a magnetism that transcends the specifics of abs and pecs.
Unlike their pulchritudinous female counterparts, for whom active brain cells can be a mixed blessing, men can more easily have it all. For instance, with his buff bod and serious, handsome viz, David Duchovny would attract admirers even if he weren’t a former Yale teaching assistant. But on The X-Files, his alter ego’s abilities to track conspiracy theories and quote Shakespeare make Fox Mulder the FBI agent you’d most like to be trapped in a small town examining cockroaches with. Similarly for Matthew Perry: His cute wit is what spiffs up his outerwear-catalog-style cute looks and makes him the guy you’d most like to sit on a couch drinking decaf with. George Clooney’s rumpled handsomeness is used to best effect when he’s angst-ing as Dr. Doug Ross on ER; Peter Berg’s jock-sweet smile is enhanced by the streetwise savvy he brings to Dr. Billy Kronk on Chicago Hope. And as for Jack Wagner, who looks good from any angle, stick his Dr. Peter Burns in with the rest of the low-wattage fixtures on Melrose Place and he’s the bright light. You may call Dr. Burns a hunk, but you’ll never mistake him for a himbo.
For others, though, the projection of intelligence (and its ancillary virtues: intensity, a superior funny bone, and cheek-pinchable menschiness) can turn even the least likely candidate into crush material. Graying, fleshy Everyhubby Adam Arkin comforts on Chicago Hope because he’s got soul; angular, cerebral older guy Sam Waterston draws a fan club on Law & Order because he’s got ethics; balding, dark-browed schemer Stanley Tucci smolders on Murder One because he’s got snake appeal; bald, cigarette-puffing Andre Braugher mesmerizes on Homicide: Life on the Street because he’s got to be the most private, passionate cop on TV. You know how lifestyle magazines report that ”sense of humor” is high on the list of dream-date requirements? That’s where Paul Reiser and Dave Foley come in on Mad About You and NewsRadio.
In an earlier era of TV sex appeal, a fellow knew his place — and so did his audience: One was either a hunk or else one was the best friend/colleague/enemy of a hunk, who got all the best lines but none of the smooching. Brains were nice, but they were almost beside the point — an accessory, like sideburns or a cool car. Now they’re a necessity, at least among the discriminating fantasy prone. So here’s to the program-executive Einsteins who now, more than ever, recognize what TV viewers — and Henry Kissinger — have known all along: A powerful cerebrum is the great aphrodisiac.