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Chris Meloni, runaway success

The ’80s TV debut of Chris Meloni (rhymes with baloney) was no big deal. Now appearing in “Runaway Bride,” “Oz,” and the upcoming “Law & Order” spin-off, he’s a very big deal indeed.

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He’s all that, no doubt about it: He’s deliciously dangerous on HBO’s searing prison serial Oz. He’s charming as Julia Roberts’ fumbling fiance in Runaway Bride. He has the rugged appeal of John Wayne, the creepy intensity of John Malkovich, and his very own series, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, coming this fall. But as good as Chris Meloni is, he wasn’t good enough, apparently, for The Equalizer.

He thought it would be his big break — or at least a break of sorts — playing an assassin in one episode of Edward Woodward’s late-’80s CBS action series. ”I’ve gotten the job,” says Meloni, 38. ”I go to the wardrobe people, they put me in a jumpsuit, they give me gloves, they give me a vest for hand grenades and bombs. Then they put me in a wool cap that covers my face completely…”

Meloni can laugh about it now, and he does, though frankly, it’s a little jarring to see him do so. Although he’ll play a good guy in the Law & Order spin-off (an intense good guy who investigates some really heinous sex crimes with costar Mariska Hargitay), Meloni is most notable for creating some of TV’s most chilling characters. On Oz, he’s Keller, the horrifyingly duplicitous criminal who (without shying away from frontal nudity) seduced and betrayed his cell mate last season and is now in the process of teasing the heart and mind of Oz‘s resident social-worker nun, played by Rita Moreno. Or perhaps you remember him on NYPD Blue, as Kim Delaney’s bad-boy seducer, or on Homicide, as a gung ho bounty hunter.

In short, Meloni has become the premier seductively menacing guy, thanks to talent honed at Manhattan’s prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse and a great Rushmore of a forehead that gives his characters a primal heft, a forehead so cruelly obscured by The Equalizer‘s wardrobe people. ”I have close-set eyes and a heavy brow,” concedes Meloni, who hails from Washington, D.C., and now lives in New York City with his wife of four years, production designer Sherman Williams. ”That explains the menacing part.”

This gritty persona also made him an unlikely candidate for Runaway Bride. Although Meloni did star in NBC’s good but short-lived sitcom The Fanelli Boys, ”I’d only seen him shoot people,” says Bride director Garry Marshall. ”I didn’t know he had a comic side.” In the end, Marshall and Roberts were both impressed by Meloni’s audition, so the actor was cast as the oafish football coach engaged to Roberts until Richard Gere shows up. Test audiences were impressed enough, according to the director, that some of Meloni’s excised bits were added back to the final cut. Also in the actor’s favor, says Marshall: ”He can throw a football to you while you’re waiting on lights to be set up.”

Yes, Meloni — who was once a history major at the University of Colorado and a construction worker — is nothing if not versatile. And the producers of The Equalizer were fools — fools! — to cover him up. That’s not all: ”…so I’m totally covered head to toe,” says Meloni. ”Long story short, when I saw the show and invited people over to watch, they’d also dubbed my voice.” Meloni laughs again, as well he should, because the first rule of showbiz is this: He who has his own series, a hit movie with Julia Roberts, and the best forehead in Hollywood laughs last.