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Judd Nelson tries to shed his ''bad guy'' image

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The door to Judd Nelson’s dressing room — the one marked with a Fun Lovin’ Criminals sticker — swings open, and there he stands, his impeccably cropped high-‘n’-tight ‘do rising to the occasion. ”Come on in; hope the air-conditioning isn’t too loud,” the grinning Nelson says. Then, thud! An errant pass from a basketball game next door rattles the walls. Uh-oh, trouble already? Nelson wrinkles his forehead…and smiles politely at his publicist. ”Would you talk to them?” he pleads. ”I don’t want to be the bad guy.”

Judd Nelson? Bad guy? Come to think of it, maybe he has made a career out of playing smirking antiheroes, from the cynical wasteoid in The Breakfast Club to the morally bankrupt elitist of the Billionaire Boys Club. But the 36-year-old Portland, Maine, native — whose off-camera behavior provoked a few tabloid headlines (a skirmish with the law here, a romance with the equally infamous Shannen Doherty there) — is about to throw a career curveball with his sitcom debut as Brooke Shields’ frenetic, miserably married boss on NBC’s Suddenly Susan.

”Judd was not somebody who we thought, This guy’s perfect for a sitcom,” says Susan exec producer Gary Dontzig. ”But when he read for us, he had the most off-the-wall, daring, skewed takes. I think audiences will be as surprised as we were by his comedic instincts.”

Call it a surprise if you wish, but not a comeback, or even a new beginning. ”I like to think of it as rounds in a boxing match,” relates Nelson, an admitted sports junkie. ”You can be knocked down, but it doesn’t mean you’re out.”

Like fellow Brat Packer Molly Ringwald, Nelson is amused by the hard-to-shake label: ”At the time this whole gang was supposedly cruising the Sunset Strip,” he notes, ”I was living in New York.” Also like Ringwald, his mid-’80s career high was followed by a series of box office clunkers (New Jack City excepted) and forgettable TV specials (Harley-Davidson: The American Motorcycle included). Off camera, he was partying till morning’s set call.

Then Nelson turned 30. Suddenly, says the actor, ”someone would ask, ‘Hey, wanna go out and do this really stupid thing?’ and I was like, ‘Noooooo….’ Maybe it’s that prolonged adolescence I went through, trying to be deep as opposed to just letting everything seek its own level. I’m certainly not at peace, but I try.”

Peace and quiet may still be a ways off; in addition to Susan, he’s costarring in Shaquille O’Neal’s upcoming movie, Steel. What’s the part? Nelson smiles almost apologetically: ”The bad guy.”

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