WHEN MELROSE PLACE HEART-throb Patrick Muldoon was in high school back in San Pedro, Calif., all he wanted to be was a jock. But after winning a partial football scholarship to USC in 1987, he found himself on the sidelines for practically every game—and his acting instincts took over. "I'd stand by the coach, lean over and look like I was really involved," he says. "I thought about pulling the quarterback over and saying something like, 'Could I wash your car?' " That way, says Muldoon, even if he didn't get in the game, "at least I'd look good on TV."

He still does. In fact, Muldoon, now 27, looks so good on Melrose, as sometimes-sweet, sometimes-sinister fashion designer Richard Hart, that his role—originally intended as a four-episode stint—has been extended indefinitely. Says producer Aaron Spelling: "We'll be doing business with Patrick for some time to come."

Muldoon reacts to such comments by shrugging, looking down at his feet and smiling self-consciously. "I don't know what Mr. Spelling saw in me," he says quietly. "If he likes me, I just say, 'Thank you.' " Such boyishness is Muldoon's trademark. One recent afternoon he was sitting on the living-room floor of his parents' home in Palos Verdes, Calif.—where he was staying temporarily while searching for a new apartment of his own—and eagerly flipping through the hundreds of comic books he has collected since childhood. "Here's a good one," he exclaimed. "An old Avengers. I'd still like to find some of the old X-Men, like the very first one. Or issue number 94, the beginning of the new era of the X-Men."

Muldoon's sister Shana, 18, currently an undergraduate at USC, finds nothing unusual about this obsession. "He still loves video games too," she says. Besides, she adds, her brother "was always a little off the wall. He'd do impersonations of the family. It was like he was always onstage." Still, Muldoon, born William Patrick III to Pat Jr., a personal injury lawyer, and Deanna, a homemaker, had mostly football on his mind growing up. His success as a tight end at Loyola High School earned him his USC scholarship, but at college it was mainly off the field that he made a name for himself, especially after being asked to pose as a freshman for a school calendar called the Men of USC. Soon, local department stores called with modeling offers, and in his sophomore year he signed on with the Wilhelmina Agency, which landed him a national gig as a Calvin Klein jeans model. Predictably, his football teammates wouldn't let him live it down. One of them, tight end Paul Green, recalls that when Muldoon knocked someone down in practice, teammates would shout, "Are you going to let a model kick your ass?"

Make that model-actor. As a sophomore, Muldoon began auditioning for spots on sitcoms. By junior year he had appeared on episodes of Who's the Boss? and Silk Stalkings. Show business, he remembers thinking, was a lot more appealing than football. "You're paid more," he says, "and your knees last longer." He soon quit the team to pursue acting seriously, and in 1992, a year after graduating with a degree in communications, he landed the three-year role of sweet, all-American Austin Reed on NBC's Days of Our Lives, a show whose viewers include a certain Candy Spelling.

"My wife saw Patrick on the soap," says Aaron Spelling, "and asked me to call him in. He was nervous; it was 'Mr. Spelling' this and 'Mr. Spelling' that." But in 1995, with just a few months left before his Days contract expired, Mr. Spelling offered him a special holding contract, which stated that Muldoon would remain under Spelling's wing until an appropriate job could be found. It was Spelling who offered him the temporary spot on Melrose, and the producer is still looking for a suitable followup project.

As for Muldoon, he seems to be in no hurry in matters either professional or personal. Tabloid reports linking him romantically to Spelling's daughter, 90210 star Tori Spelling, are nonsense, he insists. After one report announced an upcoming wedding between the two, he says with a chuckle, "I got calls from friends-saying, 'Congratulations, but why didn't you tell us?' " In reality, he says of Tori, "we became really good friends" while working on the NBC movie Deadly Pursuits. And friends are all Muldoon is looking for. "I'm not dating anyone now," says the actor, who has now left his parents' home and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in nearby Los Angeles. "I've always had long relationships. I'm just not a dating kind of guy."

His Melrose counterpart, on the other hand, has so far worked his way through two love interests, recently dumping the second and hiring a woman to seduce the boyfriend of the first. What's next? "Friends always want to know," says Muldoon with a secretive smile. "I tell them lies. I can get pretty out-there—I should bring space aliens into them." But don't expect to see his character develop a comic-book fetish. Reality, after all, is supposed to be stranger than fiction.

DAN JEWEL
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles

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  • Craig Tomashoff.