FOR ACTOR DAVID SCHWIMMER, things are going just schwimmingly, thanks. NBC's Friends, in which he plays Ross Geller, one of a sextet of twentysomethings who hang out at a Manhattan coffee bar, is percolating among TV's top six shows. And Schwimmer, 28, has suddenly found himself first among equals. When he and his costars go out together after work, he's often the one fans recognize. Not long ago, the cast took their bows before a studio audience in Burbank, Calif., where the show tapes each Tuesday. Says Courteney Cox Arquette, who plays Ross's sister, Monica: "There were about 10 girls who stood up and shouted, 'We love you, Ross!' "

"It must be my haircut," shrugs Schwimmer, a close-cropped, soulful-eyed guy who is as self-effacing as the schnook he plays. There are a few differences. Whereas the recently divorced Ross frets, with Woody Allenish angst, about his sex appeal—understandably, since his wife left him for a woman—the never-wed Schwimmer happily jets once a month to New Orleans, where his girlfriend, Sarah Trimble, 24, clerks for a federal judge.

Still, Cox discerns in him some Rosslike qualities. "He's very vulnerable," she says. "The way David says Hi when he's depressed is so cute, you just want to run up and say, 'Okay, what? I'll help you.' "

Schwimmer, whose parents, Arlene and Arthur, both 53, are prominent attorneys in L.A., where he and his sister El-lie, 29, were raised, could have used some help fitting in at Beverly Hills High. "I was a fat, ugly geek," says Schwimmer, now a sleek 6'2", 175 lbs., "the prankster always telling jokes." School plays offered an outlet—and an inspiration—and in 1984 he entered Northwestern as a theater major. In his junior year he mounted an off-campus production of Alice in Wonderland. "The play was a real bonding experience," he says, "and we thought, 'We just gotta keep doing this.' " Thus was born the Lookingglass Theater Company, which Schwimmer cofounded with seven other Northwestern alums upon graduating in 1988.

After commuting between Chicago and L.A., Schwimmer finally put Lookingglass aside and plunged down the Hollywood rabbit hole. He began landing parts in shows like The Wonder Years, Monty and, most memorably, NYPD Blue (in which he played "4B," a dweebish apartment dweller who shoots a mugger). "He was so funny," says Marta Kauffman, who, with David Crane, met Schwimmer when he tried out for a pilot they were producing. Though he didn't get the role, says Kauffman, "His voice just stuck in our heads." And they thought of him when they began casting Friends.

He and the rest of the cast melded quickly, especially after director Jim Burrows took them all to Las Vegas last spring. There's just one place Schwimmer won't accompany his friends: the local coffeehouse. "It makes me sick when you go there and see four 'serious writers' tapping away at their laptops," he says. "Half the time they're looking up to see which cute girl comes in. I'm like, 'Please!' "

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff.