ACTOR VONDIE CURTIS-HALL HAS played plenty of roles in his 15-year career. He has been a politician, a DEA agent, even a rapist. But when the producers of ER asked him to take on a bit part as a suicidal transsexual two years ago, the dashing six-footer hesitated.

"I don't know about this," he said to his then girlfriend, screenwriter Kasi Lemmons. "What do you think?"

Her answer was as stern as a doctor's order: "Put on that dress!"

Good advice. Not only did that gender-bending turn lead to an Emmy nomination, it also landed Curtis-Hall, 40, a starring role on that other doctor drama, CBS's Chicago Hope. Now in his second season as brooding idealist Dr. Dennis Hancock, the actor (who also hit the big screen Nov. 1 as Captain Prince in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) happily admits he has been typecast. "There are very few differences between me and Dr. Hancock," he says. "We're both intense and hardheaded. Once we go to bat for something, we're hard to sway."

But it's not just his conviction viewers find attractive. "He's incredibly sexy without being aware of how sexy he is," says former Hope costar Roxanne Hart. "He's like still water but with something percolating beneath." The show's executive producer John Tinker puts it another way: "It's stunning what Vondie's able to do as an actor—a juxtaposition of complete calm and then this storm."

Raised in Detroit, the oldest of three children born to Curtis Hall, the now retired owner of a construction company, and his wife, Angeline, a nurse, Curtis-Hall didn't always live up to Hancockian standards of behavior. As a teenager he loved rock and roll—especially home-state antihero Iggy Pop, whose high-octane punk he recreated in a number of neighborhood garage bands. Then his rock dreams took a darker turn. "When we were 16, one of my friends pulled out a bag of heroin and said, 'This is really cool. We should try this,' " he recalls. "And soon everyone was throwing up, sick as dogs." Some of his friends, Curtis-Hall says, became hooked; he was lucky enough to keep it to what he calls a "weekend-recreation" level. By the time he graduated from high school in 1974, he was clean. "My life changed, and my friends changed," he says. "I outgrew it."

At 20, Curtis-Hall moved to New York City and enrolled in Juilliard's prestigious music program. Recruited as a singer and dancer for Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music in 1980, he left Juilliard for Broadway, where his friendship with future wife Kasi blossomed into romance. ("We stopped under the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater, and she just grabbed me and kissed me.") He then started auditioning for—and winning—roles in the movies and on TV He got his big break in 1992 when director John Sayles cast him as Alfre Woodard's lover in Passion Fish. Since then he has been praised for both his abilities and his professionalism. "His ability to deal with the rigorous schedule of making a film and, on top of it, doing Shakespeare was incredible," says Romeo director Baz Luhrmann. "Some actors you have to babysit, but Vondie's no baby."

Seeking to broaden his range, Curtis-Hall recently moved into writing and directing. His first feature film, Gridlock, a dark comedy about two artists who decide to kick drugs, will be released in February. One of its stars, rapper Tupac Shakur, was shot and killed only weeks after filming ended. While many critics were put off by Shakur's violent image, Curtis-Hall admired his intelligence and creativity. "[His murder was] a great tragedy," says Curtis-Hall. "When I think of the contribution he would have made as a poet, an actor and a human being, I'm deeply saddened."

In his own life, there is much to celebrate. After 15 years of couplehood, he and Lemmons married last year. In April she gave birth to their first child, Henry. (Curtis-Hall has another son, Che, 17, from a previous relationship.) Along with Henry's care, feeding and diapers, the couple are also collaborating (with costar Samuel L. Jackson) on Eve's Bayou, a film written and directed by Lemmons. "We never sleep," Curtis-Hall says. Ever conscientious about his onscreen credibility (he has viewed operations at UCLA Medical Center), he admits that no one in the real world would mistake him for a doctor. "I get a little queasy at the sight of blood," he admits. "Once I went to an appendectomy. Eeeeeww!"

PETER CARLIN
PAULA YOO in Los Angeles

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  • Paula Yoo.