CALL CHRISTOPHER MCDONALD A cad, a cretin or a bounder, and he'll blush with quiet pride. "I get 'I hated you in such-and-such' all the time," says McDonald, 42, who first drew glares as Darryl, the piggish spouse Geena Davis walks out on in 1991's Thelma & Louise, and is now eliciting hisses as Bryce, Kirstie Alley's philandering husband on NBC's new hit sitcom Veronica's Closet. "I just say, 'Thank you, that's my job.' "

But as McDonald's wife, Lupe, 32, an actress turned homemaker, says with a grin, "Chris is not like the schmucks he plays—most of the time." In fact, for his most recent part, McDonald was the one who got dumped on. Portraying writer Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air, an ABC TV movie airing Nov. 9 and based on Krakauer's bestseller about the 1996 Mount Everest expedition in which eight climbers died, McDonald endured 30 days of snow and squalls at altitudes over 12,000 feet—and wind chills of -15°F—in the Austrian Alps. "Into Thin Air is different from anything I've ever done," says McDonald, who had never been mountain climbing prior to the shoot but did most of his own stunts. "It's haunting. One wrong step, you fall 7,000 feet." Still, says the movie's producer Bernard Sofronski, "Chris was always excited, never stopping. In one scene we were on the edge of this cliff, and the safety people said if you fall here, it's a 3,000-foot drop. Even then, Chris wasn't afraid."

Taking on challenges is nothing new to McDonald. Growing up in Romulus, N.Y., the fourth of seven children of James, an educator, and Patricia, a former nursing professor and now a real estate agent, "I was a superachiever," McDonald says. "I became captain of three sports [at Romulus Central high school] and was president of my class for three years." At New York's Hobart College, where he began studying to be a dentist, he soon found acting more filling. After graduating in '77 as an English major, he attended London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Back in Manhattan in 1984, McDonald studied for two years with famed acting teacher Stella Adler. "I was so poor, I bartered my tuition with her," he says. "I walked her dogs, I drove her to the hairdresser, I catered her parties." Meanwhile he subsisted on ketchup sandwiches and small parts in plays. "We all thought we were going to be superstars," he says of his feature film debut, 1982's Grease 2. But the movie tanked, and McDonald scrambled for TV guest shots until his next big break: Thelma & Louise opposite Davis, who had been his live-in love for a time in the '80s. "I see her around socially," he says. "She's a great lady."

While filming Thelma, McDonald was already dating Lupe Gidley, his costar in a 1989 Santa Fe stage drama. Their son Jackson was born in 1990, and two years later the couple married. (The family now also includes daughters Hannah, 4, and Rosie, 1.) "She's got a heart of gold," says McDonald of Lupe. "I know those are rare, so I jumped on it."

After Thelma, says McDonald, "I was offered every redneck, wife-bashing guy out there. I turned down a lot of them." Veronica's Bryce was different. "I was really up to the challenge of making him funny," says McDonald. David Crane, the show's executive producer, agrees: "Chris is able to make stuff that could be so creepy really funny, and you're able to laugh at him." Audiences seem to be doing just that. In addition to Veronica, McDonald did a turn as Ward Cleaver in last summer's big-screen remake of Leave It to Beaver. And soon he'll be seen in Disney's Flubber (premiering Nov. 26) as Robin Williams's blowhard nemesis. "My big scene was the Flubber dance," says McDonald. "I was making Robin laugh—that's an accomplishment."

With his career healthy, McDonald says his next goal is to be "typecast as a leading man." Driving around Beverly Hills in his champagne-color '64 Cadillac convertible—top down, shades on—he almost seems to be auditioning. In a way, he is. "In this town," he says, "you are what you drive."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
MONICA RIZZO in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Monica Rizzo.