Tuesday, February 27, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Danny Nucci has just settled into a corner booth at a discreetly hip midtown restaurant when he spots something interesting off the menu.

“Hey, I havent seen this yet,” the actor says, reaching for a folder stuffed with publicity materials for “Some of My Best Friends,” a new CBS sitcom starring Mr. Nucci and Jason Bateman.

He quickly shuffles through studio photographs, focusing on one in which hes leaning stiffly on a table, a bland smile in place.

“This is my Sears catalog pose,” says a playful Mr. Nucci, holding the shot of himself as character Frankie Zito up for inspection.

That would be a catalog circa 1970s, the decade in which Frankie with his well-oiled pompadour and polyester threads seems to be stuck. When he answers a roommate-wanted ad specifying “GWM,” he decodes that as “Guy With Money,” not “Gay White Male.”

Big heart, narrow perspective. The confusion ends up putting friendly Frankie in an odd-couple pairing with gay writer Warren Fairbanks (Mr. Bateman) and putting Mr. Nucci in a role he didnt expect to play: sitcom actor.

“I did the show because its funny. I love it because its funny. I cant stop laughing,” says Mr. Nucci, 32, whose resume leaned toward films and TV dramas before “Some of My Best Friends” (debuting at 8 p.m. tomorrow on WUSA , Channel 9)

A working actor since age 14, Mr. Nuccis been a familiar face in good, small roles in a range of movies including independents such as “The Big Squeeze” and studio releases “Eraser,” “The Rock” and “Crimson Tide.”

In 1999, he had the historic privilege of appearing in “Snoops,” a rare TV flop from megaproducer David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice,” “Boston Public.”)

“I prefer the word ‘miss ” Mr. Nucci chides. “The show didnt know what it was at first, and when it did it took so long to get there nobody cared anymore.”

Then theres his biggest credit: “Titanic,” in which Mr. Nucci played Leonardo DiCaprios buddy, Fabrizio. Much of Mr. Nuccis role hit an iceberg, however, and sank from audience view on the cutting-room floor.

“What an experience to be in a film that was so honored and accepted; in that sense, its great. But the role that I did is not in the film. Its hard not to go ‘What if, what if.’

“It didnt hurt the film at all, so in that sense it was the right decision. But when Im thinking about how it affects me, then it was somewhat disappointing.”

After “Titanic,” Mr. Nucci was able to deflect the publics where-have-I-seen-you-before questions with a one-movie reply.

But if films arent always the breakthrough opportunity they seem to be, TV series work has turned out to be more than Mr. Nucci expected.

“When I do a film Ive got a two-hour script ‘Titanic,’ 3 and 1/2 and I look and I see what my character does, how he serves the piece… For television, I build this character.

“I dont know what the writers are writing, I dont know what Im doing to have to play… In that sense, its really exciting, because you never know whats coming down the pike,” Mr. Nucci says.

He was steered into the Paramount TV series by Executive Producer Jonathan Axelrod and Mr. Axelrods actress-wife, Ileana Douglas, with whom Mr. Nucci worked on the mountain plane-crash drama “Alive” (1992).

“Some of My Best Friends,” which co-stars Alec Mapa, Michael DeLuise and Jessica Lundy, is based on the film “Kiss Me Guido” that showed at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival.

Mr. Nucci says the naive character of Frankie Zito is very real to him.

“Ive got a buddy from the Bronx, Joey. Through the years Ive watched him grow from looking at the world this way” Mr. Nucci holds his palms close together “to this,” he says, stretching his hands apart. “So hes a great template.”

Mr. Nucci had a more cosmopolitan upbringing. The son of an Italian businessman, he was born in Austria, grew up outside Venice, Italy, and, at age 7, moved to Queens, N.Y., as his father pursued opportunities.

Three years later, Mr. Nuccis family moved to Californias San Fernando Valley; four years after that, he made his professional debut with a single days work on “General Hospital.”

It was the 1982 film “Frances,” featuring a stellar performance by Jessica Lange as the troubled actress Frances Farmer, that inspired Mr. Nucci. The career hed like to emulate, he says, is that of Al Pacino in the 70s: “To go from ‘The Godfather to ‘Serpico to ‘Dog Day Afternoon to ‘Bobby Deerfield,” Mr. Nucci says, offering a respectful litany.

For now, Mr. Nucci is content with a lively comedy and the chance to spend time with his 4-year-old daughter (hes a divorced dad).

“For somebody whos done mostly film, there can be a little bit of ‘Oh, its a sitcom. But I love going to work.”

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