September 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Fox, 9:30-10 PM – Debuts Sept. 16 at 9 PM

Why is Jay Mohr a brilliant choice to star as the hotshot movie producer in Fox’s new Hollywood-skewering sitcom, Action? Let us count the ways. During a two-hour lunch interview at one of his favorite L.A. Italian restaurants, he exhibits

A healthy confidence: ”Let’s talk more about me. This is great!”

A broad knowledge of showbiz: ”Oh, my God … that girl over there? I’ve seen her in porno movies. Swear to God.”

A real knack for prioritizing: ”All right, c’mon, let’s go — you’re cutting into my sun time.”

Okay, so maybe our 28-year-old comedian-budding-movie-star friend is having a little too much fun role-playing here. But you get the point: If Action turns out to be anywhere near as entertaining as its affably assured star, Fox just might be looking at — hold on to your pec implants and development deals, kiddies — its first non-animated sitcom hit in a decade.

Of course, what fun would that be without a little controversy? The press has been alternately hyping and huffing at Action‘s pilot, which boasts enough racy content and lewd language — don’t worry, the really dirty words are bleeped out — to make even those Sex and the City girls blush (e.g., ”The only reason he got his a– in that door is because his agent, Debbie Moskovitz, gave me a hum job during the People’s Choice Awards”). The two main characters aren’t exactly model citizens either: Mohr’s slick-‘n’-slimy Peter Dragon (enabled by his dim-bulb chauffeur/security guard, played by Buddy Hackett) puts as much passion into popping Xanax as he does denigrating his underlings, while Illeana Douglas plays a child star-turned-whore who tries to save Dragon’s production company and his soul. ”Even though she’s a former coke-addict prostitute,” notes Douglas, ”she’s the moral compass of the show.”

An enlightened hooker? A profanity-spewing producer? Jokes about gays and Jews? Isn’t this supposed to be network TV?

Actually, no. Action was originally created for HBO by bigwig Hollywood producers Joel Silver (the notoriously brash suit behind Lethal Weapon and The Matrix) and Chris Thompson (The Larry Sanders Show, The Naked Truth). But when the pair’s negotiations with the pay-cabler began to falter, incoming Fox Entertainment prez Doug Herzog threw his cell phone into the ring. ”It was one of the funniest scripts we’ve ever read — a real biting commentary on showbiz,” says Herzog, the former Comedy Central chief who previously pushed the envelope with South Park. ”But the conventional wisdom was, ‘Will America think it’s funny? Is it too inside?’ Then there was the coarse language. I was fine with it, but clearly I had people to convince inside the network.”

Not to mention a couple of folks outside the network. Recalls Thompson: ”When Doug said, ‘We want to do this show,’ I said, ‘No, you want to do something like this, but you don’t actually want to do this.’ And he goes, ‘No, we really want to do this.’ So Joel and I went to Fox and said, ‘Do you really want to do this, or does the hooker have to become a ballerina? We can’t have people saying Freak you and Kiss my heinie. Don’t screw with us on content.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we want to do this!”’

The real deal sweetener for Fox, though, was the casting of Mohr — best known as smarmily sinister sports agent Bob Sugar in Jerry Maguire. “When Jay’s name came up, it was a no-brainer,” declares Herzog. “It’s the perfect role for him. He’s got the rapid-fire-machine-gun wit, he’s got the energy, he’s got the looks, and he’s got a little bit of that bluster that this character needs.” Still, notes Thompson, “he’s got a real sense of honor about him, and that’s extremely rare in this town. In fact, it’s so rare, you won’t see it on the show.”

And believe you me, Mohr plans to keep it that way. “I’d rather just burn rubber for 13 episodes and get canceled because the people at Tide and Tropicana got freaked out than make a five-year, hey-gang, homogenized Must See show,” he says. “You’ve got to choose your battles, and that’s a battle I feel confident fighting.”

And if the success of this series ultimately rests on the charms of its leading man? Well, America, consider yourself seduced.

“Damn, you look good,” Mohr tells one of his regular waitresses as he gets up from the table post-interview. “What are you, half Greek? How old are you now? If I’d known you were going to grow up to be this cute … ”

The young woman blushes and giggles.

“Hey, just making people feel good,” he says with a smile, sliding on his shades. “That’s what it’s all about.” — DAN SNIERSON

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