From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Blame it on that salt-soaked popcorn. Or Jim Carrey going dark. The fact is, save for the odd blockbuster, drawing crowds to theaters this summer has been a mission impossible, and the movie industry is not alone with its woes. Pop culture seems basically pooped: Sales of books, records, even comic books are wavering. But then there's television. The medium, some say, is in a second golden age. Certainly the dramas are grittier (see ER), the comedies quirkier (Seinfeld), the trash flashier (Baywatch) than a decade ago. "There's a party going on," says Michael J. Fox, star of ABC's new Spin City, about the excitement in today's TV. As the following pages show, the key players this season are a curious crew. Rookie Brooke Shields has yet to meet a Suddenly Susan prop she doesn't trip over. Homicide's Andre Braugher has yet to see a network show he will let his young son watch. MTV's Dennis Rodman hopes to party alongside Bill Clinton. With personalities like these, who needs crummy movie popcorn anyway? Pass the remote.

IN THEIR PRIME TIME
Each age has its icons, but today's TV stars leaven their charisma with the common touch. Even when they're outrageously funny, or spectacularly sexy, these future Hall of Famers remain, somehow, real

Adam Arkin
Chicago Hope (CBS, Mon., 10 p.m. ET)

He may not have the fame and the multimillion-dollar movie contracts of ER's George Clooney-for whom fans and paparazzi often mistake him. But he does have a sexy-sullen aura all his own. ("Adam's a very good kisser," says onscreen love interest Christine Lahti.) As neurosurgeon Aaron Shutt, Arkin, 40, anchors a show that this year has earned 15 Emmy nominations.

STATUS
Recently separated from his wife, Linda. The Brooklyn-born son of actor Alan Arkin (Catch-22) is considering a move from L.A. to Seattle to be near his 9-year-old daughter.

FUN FACT
Between takes, Arkin and costar Hector Elizondo go New Age on the drums. "We'll just zip into a trailer, smile and play," says Elizondo. "Sometimes we won't even talk. We'll just give each other a high five afterwards and go back to work."

TRUE CONFESSION
"I have a feeling this may be my last season on the show," Arkin says. "The hours are too long, the role too constricting." And as for the writing, he says, "[last season] the characters became generic." The diagnosis may not please his bosses at CBS. But, says Arkin, "if it gets me in hot water, they can fire me."

Fran Drescher
The Nanny (CBS, Wed., 8 p.m.)

The nasal honk is straight out of her native Queens, but at 38, the former New York City beauty school graduate has metamorphosed into a Hollywood minimogul. She not only created and stars in her show, she approves every script and fusses over the sets. "She notices everything," says Renee Taylor, who plays Drescher's mother. "She'll see a candy dish and say, 'There should be more candy in there." Control-freak Drescher makes no apologies: "Win, lose or draw, I want to live by my own mistakes."

STATUS
Wed Peter Marc Jacobson, now a Nanny executive producer, in 1978. No plans for motherhood: "I couldn't wear those miniskirts anymore."

FUN FACT
AS a financial hedge during the 1988 Hollywood writers' strike, the couple launched Loaf & Kisses Gourmet Croutons, which are still available in L.A.

TRUE CONFESSION
To maximize workout time, she does butt-clenching exercises while at the movies. To deal with working with her husband, she says, "sometimes we have to go into a lot of therapy."

Helen Hunt
Mad About You (NBC, Tues., 8 p.m.)

She has squinty eyes. A crooked smile. And now and then a flat-hair day that would make Jennifer Aniston scoff. And make no mistake: That scoff would rattle Mad About You's adorably neurotic Jamie Buchman—which is just as Helen Hunt wants it. "I try to make her very human and very not-perfect," said Hunt, 33, a native of Culver City, Calif. (whose father, Gordon, is a TV director). By holding her own with costar Paul Reiser through plot difficulties large (should they stay together?) and small (does favorite old junk get saved or thrown away?), Hunt has molded mayoral aide Jamie into the most loved (and lusted after) Everywoman since Mary Richards.

STATUS
Hunt has two men in her life: her beau of four years, Hank Azaria, 32, who plays a dog walker on Mad, and her dog, a white Samoyed named Johnny. This summer the actress left her dog behind but brought Azaria when she took a break from the fanfare surrounding Twister. She packed a bag full of books (a recent favorite: Primary Colors) and headed for Hawaii.

FUN FACT
A 7-year-old Hunt showed up on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Murray's daughter.

TRUE CONFESSION
Hunt, who will play a pregnant woman for most of the season, was initially afraid to commit to Mad because she feared the role would pigeonhole her as a sitcom wife. "Take it," director Neal Jimenez told her. "Chances are, the show will be canceled anyway."

Jerry Seinfeld
(NBC, Thurs., 9 p.m.)

You think he would be getting tired, but after seven years, the star of the No. 1-ranked sitcom is still having fun. "You can't do this stuff if you don't like it," says Seinfeld, 42, "because it shows." Clearly the fortune he has made through the show goes a long way toward his liking it. But the most important thing to his fans—31 million on average watch each week (another 9 million or so catch the reruns)—is that Seinfeld still works. The secret, he says, is sticking to business: "We go straight for the comedy. Other shows are supposed to be funny and then start telling you 'warm' stories. It's like, 'I want to laugh a little here!' "

STATUS
After three years, still dating Shoshanna Lonstein, now 21 and entering her senior year at UCLA. He won't comment on the prospect of marriage. "Everything's going fine," he says. "Just fine."

FUN FACT
The cast members decide each year whether or not to give it another season. "We vote," Seinfeld says, "usually around Christmastime." While there obviously won't be a show without Seinfeld, he says, "I pretend it's a democracy."

TRUE CONFESSION
Seinfeld admits that his fans were less than pleased with last season's finale, in which George's fiancée, played by Heidi Swedberg, dies. "I can't explain," he cryptically confides, "but it's not over [with her]."

Rip Torn
The Larry Sanders Show (HBO)

Back in the '50s, he was part of the New York City theater crowd. There were Brando, Newman—and Torn. But while several of his compatriots went on to stardom, Torn fell into the semi-obscurity reserved for fine character actors: big on respect (for roles in movies such as 1962's Sweet Bird of Youth and 1983's Cross Creek) but short on cash and fame. All that changed dramatically four years ago when Garry Shandling cast him as Artie, the canny, caustic producer on HBO's razor-sharp talk show parody, which returns in November. Finally, at 65, the man has more to his legacy than his much satirized name.

STATUS
Widowed since the death of his second wife, Geraldine Page, in 1987, he is close to actress Amy Wright (the mother of two of his six children) but still enjoys an innocent flirt. "Maybe it's like Henry Kissinger says," muses Torn of his sex appeal to female viewers. "Playing a symbol of power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."

FUN FACT
The actor was christened Elmore Rual Torn Jr. in his hometown of Temple, Texas. Rip is a nickname shared by his father, an uncle and a cousin.

TRUE CONFESSION
The Connecticut-based actor is grateful for the Sanders experience: "I've been able to pay off all my debts."

Susan Lucci
All My Children (ABC, weekdays, 1 p.m.)

"Would I like to win? Of course I'd like to win," says the 16-time daytime Emmy nominee who once again did not win in May. But here's the thing: Win or lose, it no longer matters. After 26 years as soap diva Erica Kane, Lucci, 49, has transcended TV trinkets. In between her nighttime adventures—TV films such as Seduced and Betrayed and Haunted by Her Past—she has spent lazy afternoons, oh, chasing Nazis in Bolivia, facing down the stray grizzly bear and, this year, in the throes of a drug addiction, scheming, lying, and wrecking yet another marriage. Will Erica stay sober? Will she and Dimitri stay together? Stick around. "There's a great humanity in Erica Kane that people identify with," says Lucci, "a desire to have it all, to love and be loved. I think these are the things that drive everybody."

STATUS
The mother of two has been married for 26 years to her manager, Austrian-born ex-restaurateur Helmet Huber, 56.

FUN FACT
Lucci still gets so nervous seeing herself on TV that when AMC comes on, she frequently retreats to a private room to watch.

TRUE CONFESSION
"In our master bathroom there's a TV built-in," says the Long Islander, a fan of Larry King Live and Seinfeld. "Often I'm watching from a bubble bath at night."

David Duchovny
The X-Files (Fox, Fri., 9 p.m.)

As agent Fox Mulder, an FBI specialist in cases paranormal, extraterrestrial and just plain creepo, the actor, 36, is dour, pensive and says his lines with all the vigor of Jack Webb on Dragnet. This is all very sexy, as his Internet fans will tell you, should you visit the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade site. Friends may appreciate his wit ("Everything with him goes to finding the joke," says costar Nicholas Lea, who plays Agent Krycek) and his generosity ("He lets me use his car and stay at his house," adds Lea). But the fans like that special Duchovny vibe—the sense that there may be bedroom eyes beneath the furrowed brow. "He looks like the guy everybody's mother wants them to marry," jokes casting director Johanna Ray, who in 1990 cast him as a transvestite cop on Twin Peaks. "Little do they know."

STATUS
Dated actress Perrey Reeves for two years, but they split last fall.

FUN FACT
Between takes, he and Mitch Pileggi, who plays his boss, occasionally leap into choreography from West Side Story.

TRUE CONFESSION
A onetime English student at Princeton (where he got his undergrad degree in '82) and Yale (he left to pursue acting just short of getting his Ph.D.), Duchovny misses academia. "I really want to get back to my roots," he says. "Graduate school."

Andre Braugher
Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC, Fri., 10 p.m.)

The intensity is for real. Braugher, 34, took the role of Det. Frank Pembleton in 1992 because it was complex and challenging. When he felt that the part ceased to be either last year, he called executive producer Tom Fontana and said so. The result: A debilitating stroke in the season finale will mean a more fragile Pembleton this year. Braugher himself remains anything but. "He is so tough and smart and sure of himself," says Fontana, "that he intimidates everyone around him—including me." The first-time Emmy nominee seems oblivious to the trappings of fame. He has no manager. No publicist. He avoids parties and premieres: "I'm just a guy who goes home after work and takes out the garbage."

STATUS
Married since 1991 to Ami Brabson, his Homicide wife and "my best friend."

FUN FACT
The Stanford speech and drama major liked to prance barefoot in his dorm courtyard, giving roses to friends.

TRUE CONFESSION
Braugher won't let his son Michael, 4, watch him (or anything but kids' PBS) on TV: "I don't want him to see me pointing a gun."

Jimmy Smits
NYPD Blue (ABC, Tues., 10 p.m.)

It may have taken Detective Sipowicz a while to warm up to partner Bobby Simone, but fans took an instant liking. Try asking the shy Brooklyn-born actor what is in those sweet-scented envelopes he gets from viewers. "Stuff," he'll tell you. What? Silky stuff? "Stuff," Smits, 41, repeats with a laugh. "Just stuff." Two Emmy nominations in his two years on the show suggest that there's more to his appeal than those bare-butted frolics with onscreen lover Kim Delaney. As the show's producer Steven Bochco puts it, "The guy's a Ferrari. No matter how hard you push the pedal, there's always more there."

STATUS
The divorced father of two (Taina, 22, and Joaquin, 13) has lived with actress Wanda De Jesus—"my lady," he says—since 1985.

FUN FACT
Smits went fishing with his buddies in British Columbia this summer to recover from the strain of playing the somber Simone. His self-analysis: "Jimmy likes being bouncy."

TRUE CONFESSION
Though Detective Simone has been an object of female desire in the 15th Precinct, "that will change," Smits says. "Let's just say we're not going with the status quo."

THE SOPHOMORE CLASS
Last season won't go down as a banner year for newcomers. But those who survived the shakeout shine on as some of the tube's hottest stars

Nancy Travis
Almost Perfect (CBS, Wed., 9 p.m. ET)

The small screen has been good to Travis. Though she held her own in feature films—in hits such as Three Men and a Baby and bombs including So I Married an Axe Murderer-the New York City-born Travis, 33, found her stride as a hyperkinetic TV producer in Perfect (the only new '95 CBS sitcom back for a second season). "She has that old-fashioned, great-broad attitude," says Perfect creator Robin Schiff. "Like Barbara Stanwyck or Katharine Hepburn, she's got raving intelligence but is also sexually desirable." Fans, Travis says, take great interest in the chemistry between her and onscreen beau Kevin Kilner: "People come up to me and say, 'Why is there so much kissing on the show?' " Her lips may get a rest since Kilner will soon be leaving. But Travis is ready to pucker up, take a pie in the face, or do whatever else the job requires. "I've been bored all summer," she says. "I can't wait to get back to working."

STATUS
Married to Savoy Pictures president Rob Fried since 1994.

FUN FACT
Though no committed fan, Travis keeps Fried company while he watches golf. "I know that Greg Norman is the Shark and that Nick Faldo is the cutest golfer," she says. Her only question: "Why are the announcers always whispering?"

TRUE CONFESSION
Travis talks to herself while taking walks near her L.A. home: "I do this really bad Bill Clinton impersonation. It's very amusing to me."

Anthony Clark
Boston Common (NBC, Sun., 8:30 p.m.)

So much for conventional TV wisdom. Though he ultimately charmed his way into the Top 10, starting out this spring in the Thursday time slot between Friends and Seinfeld was, says Clark, 32, a drag: "There was too much pressure." For better or worse, the kid from Lynchburg, Va., now gets to see how he'll do against ABC's hit Lois & Clark.

STATUS
NO romance to speak of—but in need of a maid. "You should see the hole he lives in," says producer Max Mutchnick.

FUN FACT
When Clark started at Boston's Emerson College, his father, a General Electric plant worker, said, "Son, I wish you all the luck in the world, but I have a feelin' you're going to be back working at GE." When Clark told NBC exec Warren Littlefield the tale, he responded, "Well, he was right." (GE owns the network.)

TRUE CONFESSION
Clark doesn't want a new house (sorry, Mutchnick) or fancy clothes: "I love shopping for $5 velour pullovers. I'm afraid if I change, the magic will go. Whatever I did to get here, that's why I'm here."

Kristen Johnston
3rd Rock from the Sun (NBC, Sun., 8 p.m.)

Never mind the Napoleon complex; at 13, the 5'11" Johnston was already suffering from the Wilt Chamberlain complex. After hearing the occasional "How's the weather up there?" from her Whitefish Bay, Wis., neighbors, she says, "I had to find another way of fitting in—which for me was being the funniest girl in the class." Now 28—and an even 6 feet—the NYU grad takes her (very real, she says) physical awkwardness to new heights as 3rd Rock's Sally, a macho male alien trapped inside a voluptuous human female form. As executive producer Bonnie Turner tells it, the actress herself is just as trapped: "Outside she's this gorgeous woman. Inside she's a geek. Basically, she's a nerd goddess."

STATUS
Refreshed, after a Maine summer vacation with main squeeze David (Homefront) Newsom.

FUN FACT
In her first season, writers had Johnston struggle with such important feminine issues as cleavage. This year, she says, "I get dumped a lot. I've been forewarned."

TRUE CONFESSION
Johnston now pines for the days when folks noticed her just because she wasn't, as she says, "5'2" and dainty." Fame's spotlight, she says, "makes me a little nervous. All I want to do is sit in a dark bar."

Brandy
Moesha (UPN, Tues., 8 p.m.)

Brandy gets bummed out when her manager-mother turns down projects. Sure, the 17-year-old singer-actress is already busy. Besides her Moesha tapings, she has enrolled at Pepperdine University and will soon start a second album (her 1994 Brandy CD went triple platinum). And, yes, she knows Mom's rule: "All money isn't good money," recites Brandy. "But you know, I mean, you see, it's like the more money you get, the more I can go shopping." Is there any question why she makes Moesha work? "She brings complete legitimacy to the part of a teenager," says creator Ralph Farquhar. "She's the real deal."

STATUS
Brandy lives in L.A. with her mother, Sonja, 45, father Willie, 47, a church music director, and her brother Ray J, 15. Brandy won't date seriously "until I'm 18." She says, "You never know about guys today."

FUN FACT
Her Clueless videotape gets a good workout: "I watch it every day."

TRUE CONFESSION
"I don't think I can ever be friends with a star because I'm so starstruck," says Brandy. Take Whitney Houston, whom she's known for more than a year. "Every time she calls me," Brandy: admits, "I scream."

The Tick
(Fox, Sat., 11:30 a.m.); (Comedy Central, Sun., 7 p.m.)

The Tick, in the manner of all cartoon superheroes, has a strong jaw, a zest for doing good and his name in the title. Mentally, though, he's on another planet—a dim, distant one. Charging into action, this child in a superman's body can think of no mightier rallying cry than "Spoon!" The smartly silly animated series is crammed with 100 other nutty characters, including Die Fledermaus, a bat-suited prettyboy who likes to hand out glossies of himself. Explaining the show's appeal to both adults and kids, Ben Edlund, who created The Tick as a comic book in 1988, shrugs: "Why don't we call it a zany romp?"

STATUS
NO girlfriend. No alter ego, even.

FUN FACT
In the first season, Mickey Dolenz, the Monkee, was the voice of the Tick's sidekick Arthur. Arthur is an accountant in a moth suit.

TRUE CONFESSION
Edlund's first version of the Tick had him dressed in brown shag. "Then I thought, 'Superman wears blue. Spiderman wears blue,' " Edlund says. "Blue just works better when you're a superhero."

BATTERS UP
A mix of fresh faces and familiar names step up to the plate for an intriguing new fall TV season

Dennis Rodman
Rodman...The '96 D Tour (MTV, starting in November)

MTV didn't hesitate two years ago when the Chicago Bulls bad boy (then strutting his flamboyant stuff for the San Antonio Spurs) offered to do a show. Says programming exec Andy Schuon: "We were like, 'We'll send some cameras right over.' " What took so long for the idea to come to fruition is hard to say—but it sure wasn't fine-tuning. Weeks before the first of 20 weekly segments, loosely billed as a month in the life of Rodman, is set to shoot, the host is short on concrete plans but long on Rodmanian concepts. He says he hopes he will: (1) dress up in drag with Jim Carrey; (2) "party" with Bill Clinton (as well as Chelsea, Socks and Bob Dole); (3) kiss a guy (presumably not Mr. Dole). "And," adds Rodman, 35, "half the guests I'm gonna have get a tattoo. I'm gonna do the impossible. Watch." We will.

STATUS
Single—despite last week's publicity-stunt threat to marry. "I'm a free agent, totally," says Rodman, "and I'm not going to the highest bidder." An unabashed player, he is nonetheless careful to practice safe sex unless he is absolutely sure of his partner's history: "It's all right to party, but it's all right to be in control too."

FUN FACT
A favorite pastime is watching old Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movies.

TRUE CONFESSION
"I don't give a f—k about what the system thinks of me," says Rodman. "And that's what people like."

Kimberly Williams
Relativity (ABC, Sat., 10 p.m. ET)

Five years ago, Williams surprised people in the movie biz (not to mention her agent) by heading back to Chicago after playing Steve Martin's daughter in Father of the Bride. She wanted to finish her studies at Northwestern. Now 24, undergrad degree in hand, the actress is eager for a new challenge. "There seem to be better parts for women in TV than in film," she says. In particular, high-strung Isabel in the romantic drama Relativity—a character who is nothing like Williams. "Kim is so normal," says her brother Jay, 21, a crew member on her show. "She aspires to be neurotic," adds executive producer Ed Zwick, "but I think she's plenty interesting." So do the Northwestern police. Read on.

STATUS
Casually dating: Actors need not apply. Citing prior dissatisfaction, she says, "I'm staying away from the funny, theatrical type."

FUN FACT
Williams shares her one-bedroom Santa Monica apartment with her cockatiel Louise. "He flaps all over the place and poops everywhere," she says. "I'm constantly cleaning up after him."

TRUE CONFESSION
During her senior year in college, Williams took a late-night skinny-dip in Lake Michigan with some pals. They fled when campus police arrived. "So," she proudly declares, "we were streaking too."

Molly Ringwald
Townies (ABC, Wed., 8:30 p.m.)

The teen star of the John Hughes classics Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles had to think hard before signing on to do a sitcom. "It's a big commitment," says Ringwald, 28. "You can't just run off to Paris on a whim." Which is exactly what the 1986 TIME magazine cover girl—dubbed Hollywood's new teen princess—did a few years back after a string of flops such as 1988's Fresh Horses knocked her off her throne. "It was my own fault," she says. "I was dying to play an adult before I was an adult. My mom kept saying, 'Why are you in such a rush?' " As a costar in what she describes as a working-class Friends, the place she'll be rushing to now is the set. "It's a job," she says. "So far, so good."

STATUS
Her Parisian beau, novelist Valery Lamiegnere, has moved to L.A.: "I spent time in his country. He needs to spend time in mine."

FUN FACT
Le boyfriend gets sore over Ringwald's kissing scenes. She doesn't blame him: "It is kind of odd."

TRUE CONFESSION
Director Hughes, 18 years Ringwald's senior, was her first crush. "It was like falling for your English teacher," she says. After a bitter parting and years of silence, she says, they now "communicate. It's fine."

Greg Giraldo
Common Law (ABC, Sat., 9:30 p.m.)

"When you're an immigrant's kid, there's a lot of pressure to succeed," says Greg Giraldo, 31. He lived up to his parents' dreams—his father is Colombian, his mother Spanish—when he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1990 and joined a big Manhattan firm. But he lasted only a year before deciding he really wanted to do comedy. Discovered last year at Caroline's comedy club in New York City, he plays a Harvard-trained attorney who, like Giraldo, was raised in Queens, N.Y. "Because I grew up in an Irish neighborhood, I never really identified myself with my ethnicity," he says. Now he's on TV, and suddenly "I'm the torchbearer for all things Hispanic."

STATUS
Dating "a woman who works in the clothing design business," he says.

FUN FACT
His mother, Dolores, a homemaker, still wishes he had "a regular job," but his father, Alfonso, a retired purchaser for the defunct Pan Am airline, has done a 180. "He didn't even know who Tom Cruise was," says Giraldo. "Now he's calling up asking, 'What do you think the demographics will be on a Saturday night?' "

TRUE CONFESSION
He doesn't like people getting his name wrong. It's like Jerome, "not Geraldo Rivera."

Kyle Chandler
Early Edition (CBS, Sat., 9 p.m.)

Movie and TV audiences may remember Chandler, 30, from his role as a baseball player in the ensemble cast of ABC's canceled Homefront, or from a small part in this year's film Mulholland Falls. But the animals on the 20-acre farm in Loganville, Ga. (pop: 4,200), where he grew up, know Chandler as a do-it-all superstar. After watching old movies on TV, he says, "I'd go out into the field and play every one of the parts." That homespun talent helped him win the lead on Early Edition, a Capra-esque drama about a man who finds the next day's newspaper at his door each morning. "He has the feel of a Jimmy Stewart," executive producer Bob Brush says of Chandler. More important, says costar Shanesia Davis with a laugh: "He has really cool eyebrows."

STATUS
Chandler and his wife, Katherine, a television writer, live in L.A. with their infant daughter and their two terriers, Buckley and Otis (named for R&B singer Otis Redding).

FUN FACT
An avid fisherman, Chandler rarely manages to snag more than a minnow. "I like casting the line more than catching the fish," he says. "I take my wife. It's a relaxation thing."

TRUE CONFESSION
When he was a teen, Chandler's mother had to bail him out of jail for what he'll only describe as "little stupid stuff."

Brooke Shields
Suddenly Susan
(NBC, Thurs., 9:30 p.m.)

It looked like the sultry adolescent star of Pretty Baby and The Blue Lagoon might have to fall back on her Princeton romance languages degree after Brenda Starr and the film fiascos that followed it. (Remember The Seventh Floor and Freaked? Neither do we.) Then, last January, her guest spot on Friends—playing a fan obsessed with soap opera actor Joey (Matt LeBlanc)—pointed to a new career path: situation comedy. "There's a very analytical, serious side of me," says Shields, 31, whose Susan is a single magazine journalist in San Francisco. "But I think I've learned to have a sense of humor."

STATUS
Still no date set for her wedding to brash, buzz-cut tennis star Andre Agassi, 26. She works regular hours on Susan, but the two "have to juggle our time together."

FUN FACT
This beauty is no princess. "Once we were taking a walk, and I dropped my candy bar," says Shields's pal, actress Gail O'Grady. "I threw it away, and Brooke said, 'I'd probably brush it off and keep eating.' "

TRUE CONFESSION
AS a kid, says Shields, "I was always the one who wanted to dress up as a tube of Crest toothpaste on Halloween."

Ally Walker
Profiler (NBC, Sat., 10 p.m.)

Walker has dead-on credentials to play Sam Waters, a forensic psychologist helping the FBI track serial killers. The Tullahoma, Tenn., native, 35, majored in biology and minored in chemistry at the University of California at Santa Cruz—and her first job was as a researcher on a genetic engineering project. Her keen wit may have been wasted playing opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1992's Universal Soldier, but not, it seems, in Profiler. "She lets her soul be available," says costar Robert Davi. Never mind. It's an actor thing.

STATUS
Divorced—and spending "all my time" with her mutt Gussy.

FUN FACT
Walker was saved from a life in the laboratory when a producer saw her having dinner with her then boyfriend in a Los Angeles restaurant and asked her to be in his low-budget film Aloha Summer in 1988. Though her acting debut was edited out, she says, "I got the bug, I guess."

TRUE CONFESSION
Her private passion is literature, but Walker says she decided not to pursue creative writing because she is "very sensitive to criticism." Good luck with the reviews, kid.

Rachel Blanchard
Clueless (ABC, Fri., 9 p.m.)

She looks like Alicia Silverstone, she talks like Alicia Silverstone. But Blanchard, the publicity-shy 20-year-old who's taking on the role of Cher in Clueless, the TV spinoff of last year's hit, insists she's her own person. Costar Twink Caplan says the difference is subtle: "Alicia is mushy and sweet. Rachel is giggly and sweet." Whatever. The Toronto-raised actress is so clueless about the L.A. fashion scene that producers sent her on a fact-finding trip to Beverly Hills High. She learned all about hip huggers and Guccis—but still prefers her hiking boots.

STATUS
Single and (notice to prospective suitors) very fit. "Rachel always wants to know," says series creator Amy Heckerling, "where the nearest rock-climbing place is."

FUN FACT
"She's got a Canadian accent," says costar Donald Adeosun Faison. "She'll be in her Beverly Hills talk, and all of a sudden she'll say 'abooot,' and it's like, 'Cut!' "

TRUE CONFESSION
Canada has snooty teens just like the Clueless kids, she says. Back home it's just "pine trees instead of palm trees."

COMEBACK KIDS
A bevy of achievers from the not-so-distant past return in the hope of proving that lightning strikes twice

Michael J. Fox
Spin City (ABC, Tues., 9:30 p.m. ET)

For Fox, it was like riding a bike. Seven years have passed since he played Reaganite yuppie Alex Keaton on Family Ties, but Fox, 35, says his old habits came right back on Spin City, in which he plays the deputy mayor of New York City. "I skipped dinner, I paced backstage as the audience came in. All stuff I'd done years ago." Skeptics may assume the weak performance of many of his films, including last month's thriller The Frighteners, has a lot to do with his return to TV But Fox says differently. Mostly, the Manhattan-based father of three says he likes its regular hours. "I can walk my son to school," he says. "We can take vacations as a family."

STATUS
Married to former Ties costar Tracy Pollan since 1988.

FUN FACT
Regularly scheduled TV takes a backseat during the hockey season: "There could be a perfectly good game on."

TRUE CONFESSION
Though playing Keaton turned the Canadian-born actor into "a Republican poster boy," says Fox, he doesn't even vote: "I'm not a U.S. citizen."

Cher
If These Walls Could Talk
(HBO, Oct. 13, 9 p.m.)

Cher is the first to say it: Her personal and professional lives came together in the drama that follows three women (Demi Moore, Sissy Spacek and Anne Heche) who face choices about unplanned pregnancies. "I've had two abortions," says the 50-year-old mother of two (Chastity, 27, and Elijah, 20). "It's not something I'm proud of. It's also not something I'm ashamed of. It's just something that was an unfortunate fact in my life." What lured the Moonstruck Oscar-winner to the project was not the small though pivotal role as a gynecologist in an abortion clinic, but rather the chance to direct. "I wanted to see if I could do it," she says. The word from her colleagues? Positive. "Demi thinks she's so cool," says a Moore associate. On the last day of production, the crew wore T-shirts that read Cher Rocks.

STATUS
Single—and not a mate for the fainthearted (or haired): When Cher eyed the graying ponytail of Walls editor Peter Honess, she took him to her Malibu home and performed a quickie dye job.

FUN FACT
The hip TV vet hasn't seen a single episode of Friends.

TRUE CONFESSION
Making those "schlocky" hair-care infomercials was "a bad choice," she says. "But if that is enough to ruin my career, then screw it; it's not a very meaningful career."

Rhea Perlman
Pearl (CBS, Wed., 8:30 p.m.)

Yes, education is a wonderful thing. And surely that theme will be worked into Perlman's new sitcom—her first TV foray after 11 seasons as Carla on Cheers (1982-93)—in which she plays a blue-collar widow who enrolls in an Ivy League college. But growing up in Brooklyn, Perlman was more likely to be found watching TV than poring over a book. "In the morning, if I could come up with a great cough," says Perlman, 48, "I'd get to stay home and watch Topper and December Bride." Her three kids, ages 8 to 13, favor Seinfeld and Friends. But the negotiations remain the same. "Childhood," she says, laughing, "is all about getting your parents to let you stay up that extra half hour to see more shows."

STATUS
Married for 14 years to actor-director Danny DeVito.

FUN FACT
Despite their fame and fortune, Perlman and DeVito haven't lost their lunch-bucket mentality. "Danny loves the idea that I'm working full-time," kids Perlman. "He feels like he has to work harder if I'm not."

TRUE CONFESSION "I'd love to go back to school and study science," Perlman says. "It was always my worst subject."

Justine Bateman
Men Behaving Badly (NBC, Wed., 9:30 p.m.)

Fourteen years after introducing us to Family Ties' Mallory Keaton—a teen who could teach Alicia Silverstone a thing about malls—Bateman is back, eager to play a grownup in this much buzzed-about romantic comedy with Ron (ER) Eldard and Rob (Saturday Night Live) Schneider. "When you get on a show," says Bateman, 30, who ended her Ties run in 1989, "you start riding that wave. Then some time into it, you might realize that you're not even sure you know how to surf. Well, I'm on a different wave now. But at least this time I've stood on the board once before." Did we mention she has taken up creative writing?

STATUS
Mum about romance but in her own offbeat way says she's "thoroughly enjoying life."

FUN FACT
Gets her fill of sitcoms on the job. One of her own favorite classics is Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.

TRUE CONFESSION
Bateman gets her biggest rush from doing a piece of performance art she wrote, based on her own poetry, called The Pony Pony Show, at coffee shops and hip L.A. clubs such as Johnny Depp's Viper Room: "Just today someone came up to me and complimented me on it."

Ted Danson & Mary Steenburgen
Ink (CBS, Mon., 8:30 p.m.)

Three years after Cheers, Danson agreed to try another sitcom—but soon had misgivings about his costar. "Mary's had this pristine film career," says Danson, 48, of his wife. "I thought, 'Maybe I shouldn't push her into this.' " No need to nudge, Steenburgen, 43, assured him. "I'm looking forward to making people laugh with you." Or at him. As a divorced couple forced to work together at a New York City newspaper, Steenburgen gets .the upper hand; she plays the boss.

STATUS
Determinedly domesticated after their 1995 marriage (his third, her second; they have a joint brood of four). "It took us a long time to find each other," says Steenburgen, explaining their decision to costar. "I don't want to be away from him." Ditto Danson: "If the show is not good for our relationship, then the show won't last."

FUN FACT
The couple go over lines while making the 40-minute commute from their Los Angeles home to the CBS studio. "[The series] is still new to us," says Steenburgen. "So we're obsessing."

TRUE CONFESSION
"Making the Ink pilot was like an acid trip," says Danson. "I kept thinking, 'Shouldn't I be behind a bar?' " His wife didn't want things to be too familiar—that's why they play a divorced couple. Doing their marriage "would be a little too weird."

HOSTS WITH THE MOST
Consider what it takes to hold down the fort: Give these folks a mike and a desk and they could conquer the world—all while working in frequent commercial breaks

Don Francisco
Sábado Gigante (Univision, Sat., 7 p.m)

The average Nielsen family may have no idea who Don Francisco is. But to 90 million Spanish-speaking viewers in America and around the world, the beefy, cigar-smoking host of this 4-hour talk-game-gong show is the don of TV. In the show's 34 years, Francisco has interviewed guests as varied as Elizabeth Taylor and Indira Gandhi.

STATUS
The 55-year-old Chilean national and his wife, Teresa, relocated to Miami 10 years ago. They have three children, Vivian, 30, and Francisco, 28, who live in Santiago, and Patricio, 32, who lives in Miami.

FUN FACT
The son of German Jewish immigrants was 19 when his father, who owned a garment store in Santiago, sent him to New York City to study tailoring. In his hotel room, the future TV host saw what he believed to be a very big radio: "I turned it on and saw the image, black-and-white, and I thought, 'Incredible.' "

TRUE CONFESSION
The exuberant Don Francisco exists onstage only. Mario Kreutzberger (his real name) "is someone you don't want to invite to a dinner party," his longtime friend and producer Marcelo Amunategui fondly reveals, "because he will bore everyone."

Conan O'Brien
Late Night (NBC, weeknights, 12:35 a.m. ET)

Three years ago, when David Letterman hauled his cranky old self off to CBS, NBC replaced him with a redheaded 30-year-old whose chief credit was writing jokes for The Simpsons. Few had much confidence in little Conan (even though he's 6'4"). The reviews were dismal, and NBC renewed his contract for only months at a stretch. But the Harvard grad wasn't surprised that his leap to late night met with more hackles than chuckles. "I was raised Catholic," he says, "and there's this feeling that you have to earn whatever you get." O'Brien finally seems to have worked his way over to the side of the angels, and in the past year, critics and audiences have warmed to his whimsical style. (His idea of a great lineup? "Abe Vigoda, Gore Vidal and a chef who cooks with explosives.") And his latest contract is for a whole year!

STATUS
Involved with Lynn Kaplan, a talent booker on the show, since 1993.

FUN FACT
Keeps a giant plastic pickle, a gift from Letterman's old NBC crew, on the wall behind his desk.

TRUE CONFESSION
The Brookline, Mass., native is so used to hearing noise in his downtown Manhattan apartment, he says, "I need two guys threatening each other with lead pipes to get to sleep."

Daisy Fuentes
Top 20 MTV Weekly Countdown (Fri., noon)

Would you believe this high-spirited veejay started her TV career a decade ago tracking low-pressure zones for WNJU in New Jersey? "I didn't know a thing about the weather," says the Cuban-born Fuentes, 29, who moved to New Jersey as a child. "Don't ask me how I pulled it off." Her former WNJU colleague, news anchor Jorge Ramos, thinks he knows: "You can't help but fall in love with her. If she made a mistake, you'd go, 'So what? It's Daisy. She's allowed.' "

STATUS
Divorced from high school beau Timothy Adams, she has no comment on her love life (including reports that her steady is singer Luis Miguel): "I'm happy. I don't want to jinx it."

FUN FACT
"If I tell somebody a dirty joke and they don't have one for me," says Fuentes, "that's a sign we're not really going to click."

TRUE CONFESSION
Never mind what you see on her exercise video and swimsuit calendar. Usually "I don't look that good," says Fuentes, who works out only when "my heart is in it" and gives in to most food cravings. "I don't let them do a close-up of my thighs."

Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick
SportsCenter (ESPN, weeknights)

Call them gridiron gurus or groin-pull pundits, but don't call them mere sportscasters. Since pairing up on the cable program in 1992, the duo have infused sports reporting with a late-night blend of Letterman-like loopiness and Koppel-esque smarts. Their strategy is simple: Fun comes first. "We mock ourselves," says Patrick (right). "If Keith says something silly, I say it's stupid." And if, say, acting Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig says something silly, he'll hear about it too. Says Olbermann: "We're suspicious of players, of owners, of leagues, of sponsors."

STATUS
Both live in Hartford, Conn. Olbermann, 37, is single. Patrick, 38, is married with two kids.

FUN FACT
Patrick likes to sneak special words—potato, for instance—on the air as messages to his family: "I could say, 'He dropped the ball like a hot potato,' and it's a code for the kids to tell them Daddy says hi."

TRUE CONFESSION
Patrick would prefer to have been chosen as one of PEOPLE'S 50 Beauties: "I look better in person than I do on TV." Counters Olbermann: "I don't think that's true."

  • Contributors:
  • Karen Brailsford,
  • Miro Cernetig,
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Anna David,
  • Johnny Dodd,
  • Anthony Duignan-Cabrera,
  • Mary Esselman,
  • F.X. Feeney,
  • Joanne Fowler,
  • Susan Christian Goulding,
  • Elizabeth Leonard,
  • Shelley Levitt,
  • Sabrina McFarland,
  • Danelle Morton,
  • Cathy Nolan,
  • Marisa.