FOR THE OLD FISH OFT OF WATER FORMULA to work, you need a fresh fish. The floundering hero of Northern Exposure, CBS's sleeper hit about a Yumpie (young urban medical practitioner) forced to doctor in the boonies, is played by Rob Morrow, 28. Trapped in a half-baked Alaskan town where the locals think lox are what hardware stores stock, Morrow's Joel Fleischman is an irascible Noo Yawkah who prefers a subway's roar to an owl's hoot.

"I don't mind playing Joel as whiny as long as people believe he cares," says Morrow, who "lucked into" a series that was launched as a 1990 summer filler but won rave reviews, a devoted audience and renewal for next season. "We come from the same area and a lot of our values are the same. But he hates being stuck in the middle of nowhere. I think I'm much more open."

Yet Morrow is spending his summer break far from the Seattle-area locales that sub for the mythical Alaskan hamlet of Cecily, home to such zanies as Maggie (Janine Turner), the sexy bush pilot whose beaux keep meeting untimely deaths, and Maurice (Barry Corbin), the ex-astronaut who owns most of the town. Morrow and his girlfriend, Leslie Urdang, 34, cofounder of the nonprofit New York Stage and Film Company, are in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., making a 20-minute film he wrote about a child's witnessing his divorced mom's new relationship.

It's a subject the director knows something about. Born in suburban New Rochelle, N.Y., to an industrial-lighting manufacturer father, Murray, and a dental-hygienist mother, Diane, Morrow reacted to their divorce when he was 9 with "your standard garden-variety rebelliousness—shoplifting here, cutting school there." He was expelled from Edgemont High as a sophomore, for filching team uniforms; it was the kids at Grease's Rydell High who gave him a sense of direction. "The fun that John Travolta was having made me think [acting] was a great way to spend your time," says Morrow.

Not initially, though. Morrow moved to Manhattan, where he worked as a movie-house Guy Friday while answering cattle calls. One led to his professional debut in an early '80s way-off-Broadway gay musical. "Every time I saw my poor mother," he recalls, "she'd ask if I had any girlfriends." In 1983, while waiting tables, Morrow signed on as Michael Bennett's assistant for the L.A. production of Dreamgirls. "I think he had a little crush on me, but he never tried anything," says Morrow of the director, who died of AIDS in 1987. Bennett's network helped start Morrow on the road to an impressive 35 stage credits.

Two brushes with Hollywood—a 1985 Johnny Depp turkey, Private Resort, and the short-lived 1988 NBC series Tattinger's—persuaded Morrow to concentrate on more high-minded vehicles. But by 1989 he had been reduced to paying the rent with credit-card advances. Then the script for the Northern Exposure pilot arrived. Morrow's first reading, says series coexecutive producer John Falsey, "was very appealing. He has this very winning quality about himself—it's self-deprecating, but he's nobody's schmuck." Morrow accepted the series even though Urdang's job keeps her in New York City, where they share a brownstone. "The series is hard on our relationship," she says. "We're pretty committed to working it out—although we haven't quite figured out the logistics of it."

Morrow's short film is "the first time I've been behind the camera." But even should he show directorial promise, he has no thoughts of forsaking network stardom, though it means facing the same old questions.

Question 1: Have you ever been to Alaska? "I feel obligated to go," he replies, "but..."

Question 2: Will Northern Exposure copy Remington Steele and Moonlighting and tilt Joel and Maggie's love-hate relationship toward romance? Morrow thinks it inevitable. "Once you set something in motion, it has to go somewhere," he says.

Careful, Rob: the way Maggie's previous lovers ended up, the kiss of the glider woman could prove fatal.

TONY CHIU
TOBY KAHN in Poughkeepsie

  • Contributors:
  • Toby Kahn.