AT BLOOMINGDALE'S IN MANHATTAN, they are still talking about the commotion Brian O'Connor caused two Christmases back. "The store had to shut off the escalators because people were getting squished," O'Connor says. "It was crazy. I was yelling, 'Help me!"

It wasn't the usual shoppers who were storming this actor with the endearingly droopy mug. The frantic fans were kids who had come for an appearance by the man they knew as Schemer, the leisure-suited lout from PBS's award-winning Shining Time Station. A mixture of characters both human and animated, the whimsical sitcom tackles topics from the environment to the election process. But it's Schemer's passion for nickels that tickles the tots. "The kids love me," says O'Connor, 40, "because I'm selfish and stupid."

Or maybe they love him because he has an affinity for offbeat TV. O'Connor is also the cocreator of MTV's You Wrote It, You Watch It series and host of VH-l's gossip game show, Rumor Has It. His urge to entertain started in Lynnfield, Mass., he says, where he spent his teen years, the third child of five, in a high-spirited Irish Catholic family. "In our house," he says, "if you have a big nose like mine, you laugh about it—or you're told about it." The high—and low—point of his high school drama career was playing Peter Pan in the senior play. "They kept screwing up the pulley system," he says. "I made crash landings."

In 1975, O'Connor left the University of Massachusetts (from which he later graduated) to pursue acting. In 1986 he landed an actress: wife Jane Brucker, who attests to her husband's rapport with children, including their 3-year-old daughter, Sally. "He's not someone who as soon as he gets off-camera says, 'Gel out of here, you rotten kids,' " Jane reports. "He can be really goofy as well as profound." Kind of a Renaissance cutup. "I can lie, I can cry, and I can fall down," says O'Connor, extolling the joys of Schemer-ing. "To me, that's what acting's all about."