Chris Noth (mr. Big)

updated 06/01/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/01/2001 01:00AM

JUST BEFORE FILMING ONE OF LAST season's most memorable scenes—in which he and Sarah Jessica Parker fall into a pond in New York City's Central Park—Chris Noth felt "like I was on a roller coaster, going uuupppp..." The reason for his apprehension? "It's grungy water," Noth says. "It had to be tested so we wouldn't get typhoid or whatever." Still, when it came time to tumble, Noth, 46, didn't hesitate—even after an unscripted mishap. "Sarah Jessica lost her purse when she fell in," recalls writer and consulting producer Jenny Bicks. "And Chris dove under that awful water to get it."

A willingness to take the plunge has been a hallmark of Noth's career. In 1995, after starring for five years on NBC's crime drama Law & Order, Noth walked away from his role as Det. Mike Logan not sure what he was going to do next. "As an actor you appreciate the security of a job," he explains. "But I don't ever want to get too comfortable." Even when Noth decided to dive back into a series with Sex and the City, playing the show's cad-about-town Mr. Big proved another risky choice. Not only is the character—who had an adulterous affair last season with Parker's Carrie—so emotionally unavailable that "he doesn't even have a name," says Noth, Mr. Big is also so manipulative that "people will come up and say to me, 'Stop treating Carrie so badly!' "

Offscreen, however, "Chris throws you over his shoulder and sometimes doesn't comb his hair," Bicks says. Adds executive producer Michael Patrick King: "Chris has a lot of the devil in him, but he's not as stuffy as Mr. Big"—which means Noth can be talked into joining Parker's Broadway show tune sing-alongs on the set. "I only do Sweeney Todd," he deadpans.

The youngest of three boys born to Jeanne Parr, now 77 and a former CBS news correspondent, and Charles Noth, an insurance salesman who died in 1966, Noth began performing at Vermont's Marlboro College and in 1985 earned an MFA from Yale's School of Drama. "I wasn't thinking about Hollywood," he says. "It was the theater I had in mind."

Fortunately, Sex's success allows him to keep a foot in both worlds. In the past year, he has starred on Broadway (The Best Man) and in a TV miniseries (May's The Judge). He also played Helen Hunt's husband in Cast Away and will appear with Elizabeth Hurley in Double Whammy, due in the fall.

When the unattached Noth—who ended a five-year relationship with ex-model Beverly Johnson in 1995—has a day off, he can usually be found at the Cutting Room, a live-music club he co-owns in Manhattan's Chelsea district. But the actor, who admits to having "a little bit of wanderlust," says it would be a mistake for Sex's fans to try to pin him down. "As soon as I feel people are talking too much about my character, it's time to leave," he says. "I don't want to be identified by any one role I do."

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