April 25, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

He’s the offspring of two acting powerhouses and a respected performer in his own right, but what Campbell Scott really wants to do is…not act. ”Frankly, I know the formula,” says Scott, who’s nonetheless appeared in more than 20 movies in the last 15 years. ”There’s a real desire for me to do less of it, so that I do more stuff like directing and producing and writing.”

Well, ain’t that a shame. Scott’s threats of retirement come after the 41-year-old has delivered two of the most impressive performances of his career. Last December, he won the National Board of Review’s Best Actor prize for his turn as a fast-talking lothario in the indie Roger Dodger. And in August, he’ll explore the rhythms of an unstable marriage with The Secret Lives of Dentists, a drama about a suburban New York couple (Scott and About Schmidt’s Hope Davis) who irritate each other both at home and at their joint dental practice.

Dentists is another unique career move for Scott, who, despite being the son of the late showbiz heavyweights George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, has never quite played by Hollywood’s rules. His heart seems to lie closer to the New York theater world — or the director’s chair — but he’s anchored such high-profile productions as Dying Young, Singles, and The Spanish Prisoner, and his currency as an actor has never been more highly valued. ”I think it’s taken a long time for people to realize how good he is,” says playwright Craig Lucas, who wrote the screenplays for Dentists and Scott’s 1990 breakthrough, Longtime Companion. ”In Hollywood, they think if you can play a retarded person, you can act. If you can be autistic, you get all the awards. What he’s doing is so subtle.”

”Campbell was an actor that the system was waiting for,” adds Alan Rudolph, who directed him in Dentists as well as 1994’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. ”He has the pedigree. He’s a serious actor, but he’s also an appealing leading man. He had that film with Julia Roberts [Dying Young] where they dusted him off and said, ‘Okay, now he’s the next guy.’ And boom — he ran right back to the theater. If there’s any purity left, I think Campbell’s one of the few people pursuing this for pure reasons.”

That purity is evident in Dentists. Part of the film’s allure for Scott was that in the first half hour, the plot is impossible to categorize. ”We spent two weeks in a dental office with all these weird little scenes drilling people,” says Scott in between sips of tea at a cafe near his house two hours north of New York City. ”And then we spent these two agonizing weeks in a house with this sad divorce drama.” The script even offered a scene of near-operatic proportions in which Scott is berated in a crowded theater by a patient (played by Denis Leary) over a failed filling. ”I can remember thinking, What movie are we making?” says Scott. ”But I look for s — – like that. Otherwise you’d rather be home.”

That’s probably what he was wishing in 1990 when he was filming his intended leading-man vehicle Dying Young, where he played a leukemia patient who falls in love with caretaker Roberts. ”I had no idea what was going on,” remembers Scott, who had mostly acted on stage until then. ”Nothing operated in the way I was used to in a professional environment. What threw me about that experience is that here was this great dark script and then this $23 million structure on top of it,” he says, referring to the film’s low-for-Hollywood-but-high-for-him budget. ”It was days spent doing nothing. I kept saying ‘Why aren’t we working on these scenes and making them as f — -ed-up and weird as possible?’ People still like the movie. I don’t particularly, because I thought there was a lot more potential there.”

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