From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
BEHIND THE ORNATE GREEN IRON GATE WITH THE spider-web grille, past the Japanese lanterns glowing faintly in the late-morning light, Brad Pitt still slumbers. As do the canines, the chameleons and even the iguanas that he keeps as pets. Lush tropical foliage cloaks both master and menagerie from prying eyes; barely visible through the noble palms and rococo bougainvillea is an earth-brown aerie that seems to grow, eerily, right out of the cliff on which it precariously perches.

Is this an outtake from Interview with the Vampire, the film in which Pitt and Tom Cruise quickened pulses as a pair of drop-dead undead? Nope, just a quiet Sunday morning in the Hollywood Hills where the actor, 31 and unattached since recently splitting with his girlfriend, actress Jitka Pohlodek, 25, has moved into the turn-of-the-century mansion previously owned by campy TV horror hostess Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Yes, it's all a bit weird. Yet it's easy to understand why the soulful six-footer with the swimmer's physique would seek refuge in such a lair. Nowadays, everybody seems to want a piece of Brad Pitt.

Blame it on the potent one-two punch of Interview and Legends of the Fall, roles that have transformed Pitt into Hollywood's hottest hunk. As Interview's Louis, the conscience-stricken vampire powerless to escape his fate, Pitt has the kind of fallen-angel face one could gaze at for an eternity—precisely the reason Cruise gives him the kiss of immortality. In the lavishly romantic western Legends, the story of three brothers bewitched by the same woman, Pitt's Tristan Ludlow is no less tormented. But instead of a passive aesthete, he's a leather-and-denim-clad man of action, an elemental force as wild as the stallions he gallops into a lather—while having a similar effect on a large portion of the audience.

And yet, behind that bold, roguish grin, and despite a studly swagger that can do strange and wondrous things to a pair of chaps, there's a hint of something appealingly boyish, even vulnerable, that makes Pitt irresistible. Says one waitress at a restaurant near Pitt's home in L.A.: "When he looked at me, I was worried I would drop his roast chicken and lemonade in his lap."

In Legends, Pitt "handles women, he handles mules and he handles wild horses; he's a man's man who seems to be a woman's man too," says Nilo Otero, assistant director on both that film and Seven, the cop thriller that Pitt is currently shooting with Morgan Freeman in Los Angeles. "He's a classic American lover. He's a man that women can love and like at the same time."

Those who know him agree that Pitt's allure runs deeper than his killer looks. "I think Brad has something very special," said Julia Ormond, 29, the British newcomer who plays his star-crossed lover in Legends. "Apart from the fact that he's a gorgeous guy, he's also someone who's constantly trying to shrug that off. He's not egotistical. He's very, very careful with people—and sweet."

"He's a regular Joe," declares brother Doug Pitt, 28, a computer-company owner who, like the rest of the close-knit clan, still lives in the shadow of the Ozarks in Springfield, Mo. (Parents Bill and Jane work, respectively, as a trucking-company executive and school counselor, while Brad's sister Julie, 26, a homemaker, became a new mother five weeks ago.) Yet Doug says that his older brother also has a healthy independent streak. "If the rush was for everyone to go out and buy Harleys," he says, "Brad wouldn't buy one."

Perhaps this prickliness explains why Pitt has taken such pains to avoid playing pretty boys. Such offers poured in after he stopped traffic as the sexy but larcenous hitchhiker who charms the pants off Geena Davis in 1991's Thelma & Louise. But Pitt preferred portraying a quirky string of misfits and lost souls. Offscreen, too, the actor likes to downplay his looks, often sporting a grunged-out wardrobe and hiding beneath a knitted cap. Not long ago, while on an excursion to buy food for his three dogs—Todd Potter, Saudi and Purty—Pitt went unrecognized by the very checkout clerks who had just been excitedly discussing his move to the neighborhood.

"Heartthrobs are a dime a dozen," Pitt said in 1992, the year his performance as the golden but doomed younger brother A River Runs Through It had many comparing him to the film's director, Robert Redford. While noting tactfully that he was flattered by the notion, the actor also made it clear that he preferred to be his own man. But just who that man might be isn't always clear.

Is William Bradley Pitt an unpretentious sweetheart who left the Midwest but not its values? Or is he a drop-in at Johnny Depp's L.A. Viper Room who sometimes seems to subsist on Camels and beer and has recently been seen hanging out with Kurt Cobain's widow, Courtney Love? And how does the Pitt who loves going to art museums and galleries, sketch pad in hand, jibe with the guy who unapologetically keeps two 12-gauges and a handgun?

Even as a 6-year-old choirboy, Brad Pitt turned heads. "You couldn't keep from watching Brad because his face was so expressive," says Connie Bilyeu, the piano accompanist at South Haven Baptist Church who would later be his high school drama coach. "He would move his little mouth so big with all the words that he attracted everyone's attention."

At Kickapoo High, the clean-cut Pitt distinguished himself at academics, student government—even madrigal singing. "Brad was a super kid," says then-assistant principal Sandra Grey Wagner. He played only supporting roles in school plays but demonstrated a definite flair for the dramatic: one winter, smitten with a girl named Sara Hart, he wrote "Hi Sara" with a heart in the snow outside her classroom.

At the University of Missouri in Columbia, Pitt was a Sigma Chi member and a pinup boy of sorts, posing shirtless for a campus fund-raising calendar. Majoring in journalism, he planned on becoming an advertising art director. But two credits shy of graduating, he dropped out in 1986 and headed for Hollywood in the silver Nissan he called Runaround Sue. "I decided everyone was applying for a job or getting married, and I didn't want to do either," Pitt explained.

Soon, Pitt was doing anything that would keep him in Taco Bell burritos and pay the rent. Dressed as an El Polio Loco chicken, he clucked customers into the fast-food restaurant; he also chauffeured a limo for a strip-o-gram service. One of the strippers referred Pitt to the man who became his acting coach, the late Roy London. (He also taught stars, including Sharon Stone and Michelle Pfeiffer.) Pitt at this point still harbored dreams of becoming a rock star; when he wasn't listening to music he was jamming informally on guitar with a group of musician friends. But acting was where the work was: He started getting gigs steadily, first as an extra (Less Than Zero), then on soaps.

In 1987 Pitt had a five-episode role on Dallas as the boyfriend of the Priscilla Presley character's daughter, followed by sundry TV and movie gigs that he has since dismissed as "butt-awful." But even then, "Brad walking into a room was more exciting than most actors doing a scene," says producer Patrick Hasburgh, who cast him in an episode of 21 Jump Street in 1988.

The most significant thing about these roles may be the women Pitt met. "He fell in love very easily," recalls Phil Lobel, his manager from 1987 to '89. Lobel says he used to float his client the occasional loan to help finance some of the lavish gifts Pitt liked to give his flames. Then, as now, Pitt didn't need to do much to arouse interest. "I've never seen Brad try and get a girl to go home with him. They come to him," says a friend. "He's actually kind of shy."

Among Pitt's early Hollywood girlfriends was Jill Schoelen, an actress he met while filming the 1989 slasher flick Cutting Class. That's not to be confused with Head of the Class, the TV series where he clicked in 1988 with Robin Givens. Once during their six-month romance, in 1989, Pitt almost had his head handed to him. While arriving at Givens's house one evening bearing firewood and wine, Pitt encountered her estranged husband, heavyweight champ Mike Tyson. Fortunately, Givens's fast talking preserved Pitt's profile.

Shooting the 1990 TV movie Too Young to Die?, Pitt fell for costar Juliette Lewis, then 16. The pair was soon sharing a funky rented home in L.A. and talking marriage. "We were trying to be Sid and Nancy or something," Pitt has said of the relationship, which ended in February 1993. Juliette was "extraordinarily intense," says a friend of the couple, "but Brad is really the most laid-back young star I can think of."

About the time Lewis snared an Academy Award nomination for Cape Fear, Pitt, then 28, got almost as much attention for his stunning stomach muscles in Thelma. "He was absolutely charming, very shy and nervous," says one crew member, recalling Pitt's skittishness at doing his love scene with Geena Davis. "His biggest concern was that his mother wouldn't approve."

Determined not to be pigeonholed after his success in Thelma—"only you know what you got in you," he once said—Pitt set out to surprise. In the campy Johnny Suede (1991), he played a pompa-doured, would-be teen idol, and in 1993's Kalifornia (costarring with live-in girlfriend Lewis) he was a dead-souled serial killer. Pitt packed on an extra 20 pounds and grew a greasy goatee for the part—and still had female crew members fantasizing, according to director Dominic Sena. "This guy just gets through to women, no matter what," he marvels.

Pitt's performance in Kalifornia, lurking menace spiked with outlaw charm, may have been his best to date. But that wasn't what won him his Legends spurs. Pitt landed that part in 1989, with a one-line guest spot on thirtysomething—the TV series created by Legends director Ed Zwick and producer Marshall Herskovitz. "He caused such a stir on the set," says Herskovitz of Pitt's scene, in which he and a babysitter-girlfriend make love. "He was so good-looking and so charismatic and such a sweet guy, everybody knew he was going places."

Calgary was where Pitt ended up going for most of the grueling Legends shoot in the summer of '93, a rainy three months during which the actor did many of his own stunts. After that he plunged into a draining five months filming Interview with the Vampire, which came out first. Pitt's problem on Vampire seemed less the rumored rivalry with Cruise—who reportedly had platform heels added to his boots to put him more on par with his taller costar—than the psychic weight of playing a suicidally depressed bloodsucker. "I don't like when a movie messes with your day," Pitt said. "Right now I'd like to play a guy who just wants to [make love to] everybody so I can have a damn good time."

That's exactly what Pitt says he's doing during the filming of Seven, which seems to be allowing him enough leisure to browse for the handcrafted furniture and Tiffany-style glass he collects. "The guy's got no problems, that's the key thing," Pitt has said of the cop he plays in the movie, due out this fall. "It's been a blast so far." After that comes a costarring role in Twelve Monkeys, the Terry Gilliam time-travel adventure with Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe. Pitt can afford to be choosy now. Since Interview, his asking price for a picture has more than doubled, to $6 million.

"Brad is one of the most attractive and talented men in the world today," said Interview producer David Geffen. "He's going to be one of the biggest actors out there." Still, no matter how high Pitt's star soars, family and friends are counting on him to remain rooted to his down-home values. "All of a sudden, all of your dreams are coming true. It's a little overwhelming at first," friend Bill Danziger recalls Pitt telling him soon after River's release. "That's when a person's character comes through. It's when you step back and you realize why all these people are coming on to you. If a person has it inside them, they'll still be that good person."

PAM LAMBERT
TOM CUNNEFF, LYNDON STAMBLER, KATHRYN HARRIS, CHRIS BENGUHE and MARIE MONEY-SMITH in Los Angeles, BONNIE BELL in Springfield, RON RIDENHOUR in New Orleans and LYDIA DENWORTH in London

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Kathryn Harris,
  • Chris Benguhe,
  • Marie Money-Smith,
  • Bonnie Bell,
  • Ron Ridenhour,
  • Lydia Denworth.