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For 'Sabrina,' charming Greg Kinnear has winning edge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's 1994, and director Sydney Pollack is casting his big-budget remake of "Sabrina," the 1954 Audrey Hepburn classic. He's combing the Hollywood youth market for a --ing actor to play Harrison Ford's playboy younger brother. He needs charisma, he needs charm, he needs cheek. Tom Cruise, who starred in his box-office hit "The Firm," is booked and turns him down. John Kennedy Jr., a perfect match, can't act.

How about Greg Kinnear?

Surely the most unexpected casting event in recent history is the selection of TV's Kinnear to play the rakish David Larrabee, the William Holden character in Billy Wilder's original "Sabrina."

Hardly a household name, Mr. Kinnear is familiar to only a small segment of TV viewers as the mischievous host of the NBC talk show "Later," which airs weeknights at 1:35 a.m., after both Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. He's also known to an even smaller audience as former host of the E! talk-show sendup "Talk Soup," and to those who remember him as the wise guy in Eagle car commercials. Charismatic, charming and certainly cheeky, Mr. Kinnear precisely fit the role except for one thing: He was not an actor. Now, a year later, his work in "Sabrina" has put Mr. Kinnear on Hollywood's buzz list.

"I'm convinced they're going to bring George Lucas in to electronically alter my voice and image at the last minute," Mr. Kinnear said before the film opened, with his trademark irony. Adjectives you'll find in every Kinnear profile include "irreverent," "smirky" and "ironic." It was that edge that appealed to Mr. Pollack.

Mr. Pollack toyed with the idea of Mr. Kinnear for months and finally gave him a screen test in October 1994. "And then, a few days before Christmas," Mr. Kinnear says, "I was in my dressing room heading out to do an interview on 'Later.' Someone knocked at the door saying, 'Greg, we need ya, let's go,' and at that exact moment, my phone rang. It never rings in the dressing room, and I picked it up, and they said, 'You've got the part.' I was euphoric, and I believe I did a horrible interview that night."

Five weeks later, with the blessing of "a very cooperative" NBC, Mr. Kinnear had banked months' worth of "Later" shows and left for the shoot. He flew to the New York "Sabrina" set with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond, who plays Sabrina, the chauffeur's daughter who's in a triangle with the wealthy Larrabee brothers.

Mr. Kinnear, 32, insists that jumping into a $50 million movie with Harrison "Box Office King" Ford didn't shake his famous cool. "It's a better story for me to say, 'I was vomiting blood before I walked out.' But I was at peace with it." Right away, he says, Mr. Ford took him for a "hello" lunch: "I think he had better things to do with his time. He wanted to let me know it was OK to be there, and I'm eternally grateful for that."

Mr. Ford also exercised his dry humor on the novice actor, at one point donning jewelry to lead Mr. Kinnear through a complicated dance sequence. "Oh, he had his fun with me. Mr. Movie Star!"

Desk hopping

This season, Mr. Kinnear the talk host has found himself "on the other side of the desk," as the awkward subject of dozens of interviews. "I have a new respect for those who traipse onto my TV show in the wee hours and are asked to spill their guts out," he says. "There are worse things than recounting stories of an amazing six months of my life, but some people relish the idea of analyzing their lives and careers publicly, and I've found it's not comfortable for me."

Why not? Mr. Kinnear responds as his sly TV persona, speaking out of the side of his mouth in a voice that could be mistaken for the similarly droll Dennis Miller: "It's probably low self-esteem. It's probably because I know what a loser I really am. Once I start discussing it, it confirms my beliefs."

Relentlessly playful, Mr. Kinnear is nonetheless abundantly cordial to his interviewers, having had his share of difficult guests on "Later." "Usually it's my fault, but, on occasion, guests come on the show and don't want to give anything. 'How are you?' 'How am I? What kind of question is that?' " He won't, of course, divulge the identities of his guests from hell.

The question he can't seem to escape these days, he says, is whether he's planning to give away his late-night real estate. While TV actors like Tim Allen are beginning to shuttle between big and small screens without backlash, a TV interviewer like Dave Letterman or Jay Leno is not expected to jump from one side of the desk to the other -- and back.

"People seem to like people in show business to be clearly defined," he says. "If I'm kinda doing the talk show and I'm kinda doing film, well, what the hell is he?" Mr. Kinnear hopes he can continue to have both the "live energy" of his TV show and the "slower and more exacting" world of movie making.

The bottom line, he says, is that he has never followed a career game plan. After graduating from the University of Arizona with a major in broadcast journalism, he went to Los Angeles, where he became a host for Movietime, a small cable network. Movietime evolved into E!, and E! became a platform for his pioneering wry commentary on America's daytime-talk culture, "Talk Soup."

"I always knew I was interested in show business, but I didn't know what," he says. "By having an undefined agenda, a lot of wonderful opportunities have come along that may not have presented themselves if I'd said, 'This is where I'm going and nothing's going to stop me.' So I am hesitant now to set a beacon point."

Mr. Kinnear's talk-show style looks like something from the wacky Letterman school of hosting, but he says Johnny Carson was his strongest influence. He moved around the globe as a kid, because his father worked for the State Department, but he always found his dose of Mr. Carson. "When we lived in Greece, we had friends next door with a VCR, which in the late '70s was not a popular item in Greece. And they had friends who'd send them tapes of Carson, so I even got my fix overseas."

Cold soup

At the moment, he has no taste for the daytime talk shows that were his inspiration for his three years on "Talk Soup."

"When I do have time in the afternoon, I don't go there for whatever reason. I think I got my fill over the years I did the show. Sometimes, as I flip by them to another channel, in those two seconds I can tell you what's happening -- I can tell you whose sister slept with who; I can tell you how the show is going to end. So I just want to get out of there quickly. I didn't watch them before 'Talk Soup,' either. It's not like a backlash. I'm grateful to the talk shows because they ultimately led to a lucky scenario for me."

And then, of course, comes the side-of-the-mouth addendum: "Yes, they may have destroyed this great nation of ours, but look how I benefited. After all, isn't it all about me?"

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