ROOTING AROUND IN THE CLOSET OF Kevin Spacey's career can be an unsettling task: He has played the lecher, the drunk, the gangster and, most memorably, the incestuous, monomaniacal drug dealer on television's Wiseguy. Which is why someone in a Greenwich Village café a mere tuna-and-avocado salad's length away from Spacey might have an impulse to keep close tabs on his dinner knife.

In truth, the only things Spacey, 31, is likely to attack are his challenging, complex roles. He stars this week (June 7) in the PBS production Darrow as the renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow, a character previously played by the likes of Paul Muni, Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy. Recently Spacey was nominated for a Tony award for his role in the Neil Simon comedy Lost in Yonkers. He plays the mobster Uncle Louie, and, as he did in his riveting portrayal of the psychotic Mel Profitt in Wiseguy, Spacey makes Louie's menace as fluid as mercury; it skitters away, then slips back at the least expected moments. Such subtlety has endeared him to his bosses. "Kevin is a writer's dream," says Simon. "I could have used him in at least six of my plays, including as Oscar in The Odd Couple."

It's fitting that many of Spacey's best-known roles seem born of aggression, since the same could be said of his acting career. The youngest of three children of a South Orange, N.J., technical writer and a secretary, Spacey moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1963. Kicked out of Northridge Military Academy for hitting a classmate with a tire, he was advised by a guidance counselor to channel that combative energy into acting. "I took a drama class," Spacey says. "And suddenly I left at home."

Spacey's subsequent decision to concentrate on supporting roles didn't spring from timidity. After leaving New York City's Juilliard School in 1981—he had enrolled on the advice of his high school classmate Val (The Doors) Kilmer—he looked hard at the careers of the actors he most admired: Tracy, Fonda, Pacino. "Most of them were 30 years old when they took their first starring roles in movies," Spacey says. "You say, okay, what were they doing between 20 and 30, and you find out they were working in the theater, building a foundation." Following suit, Spacey apprenticed on Broadway in such classics as Long Day's Journey into Night and Ibsen's Ghosts. He also began a continuing correspondence with Katharine Hepburn, who had visited backstage at Journey. "I write relatively long letters, telling her what I'm up to," Spacey says. "And she writes me back these little notes: 'Dear Kevin, Good for you. Kate.' "

Spacey has earned small but juicy parts in such films as Working Girl and Henry & June, but Wiseguy's Profitt remains his breakthrough. Ironically he turned the part down three times before finally accepting. "I wanted to do something so left of center that no one would be able to figure it out," Spacey says of the warped drug mogul who manipulated his toes and spoke to them as if they were players in some twisted drama unfolding in his head.

With Darrow, Spacey hews to convention. The drama focuses on Dar-row's defense of labor leader Eugene V. Debs during the 1894 Pullman railroad strike. It is a powerful, interior performance that should bring Spacey some larger measure of unwanted fame. He lives in a two-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment and is intensely guarded about his personal life; the only continuing relationship he admits to is one with his dog, Legacy, a black mule-eared stray he found on the street in Los Angeles. Has he ever been married? The question elicits a long sigh, a nervous laugh and a cryptic answer: "Oh...man...wow....I've been close."

If it is up to Spacey, it will be a long time before audiences will ever get close to him. "Nobody knows who I am yet," he says. "And I want to keep it that way. The longer I do, the better off I'll be as an actor. Success is like death. The more successful you become, the higher the houses in the hills gel and the higher the fences get." Chances are, Spacey will have to learn to live with those fences.

JOHN TAYMAN
TOBY KAHN in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Toby Kahn.