From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
"My agent told me that there were momentary flashes when I reminded him a tad of Jimmy Stewart," says Dawson's Creek star James Van Der Beek. "That was the nicest compliment."

The generational update: On the runaway WB teen hit, the 6-foot Van Der Beek, 21, is indeed the stalwart center—but of Mr. Smith's So-Called Wonderful Life at Melrose Place, 90210. The show has created controversy, with critics charging explicit hormonal overload and young Web site fans identifying with its puberty vérité. Van Der Beek plays Dawson Leery, an earnest 15-year-old film fanatic who idolizes Steven Spielberg and practices moviemaking on his hyperarticulate friends in a small Massachusetts beach town. "James is so good-looking, yet has this incredibly analytical, intelligent side," says series creator Kevin Williamson. Creek costar Joshua Jackson, who plays Dawson's buddy Pacey, a high school student who had an affair with his English teacher, agrees. "James is very much Dawson," he says, "a couple of years down the line."

The eldest of three children of Jim, a Cheshire, Conn., telephone-company employee, and Melinda, a gym teacher, Van Der Beek, who is single, was sidelined from football in the eighth grade with a concussion and began acting in community theater. Now on leave from New Jersey's Drew University, where he's an English major, he tips his lid to his most dependable beauty aid, the baseball cap. "I basically jump in the shower, throw a hat on and take it off at work. In half an hour, my hair is cool," he says. "I'm ambidextrous. I wear it both ways, but on formal occasions, brim forward."

Such savoir faire impresses Michelle Williams, who plays Dawson's next-door neighbor Jennifer. "James is very graceful and unassuming," she says. "A very smooth, even, cool guy." The kind of guy who sums up his ablutions in three simple words: "Soap is good."

But the price of playing a 15-year-old with 21 years of hormones coursing through your veins is constant vigilance. "For Dawson's Creek, I have to shave a lot," Van Der Beek admits. "I shave twice every day."