As a Scurvy Attorney with Almost Criminal Appeal, Corbin Bernsen Takes L.a. Law into His Own Hands

updated 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Corbin Bernsen, one of the stars of NBC's L.A. Law, wants to make a plea before the bench: He and his character, he insists, have nothing in common. The argument is not surprising. Bernsen, 32, plays divorce attorney Arnold Becker, an opportunistic slimeball whose baby blues will flash at anything in a skirt, whose vanity plate reads LITIG8R and whose poignant response to the death of a colleague was "I got dibs on his office!"

Of course Becker's love-to-hate qualities have helped make L.A. Law—a gritty dissection of life among the jurisprudent set—one of the season's earliest hits. Notwithstanding, Bernsen takes pains to distinguish himself from the role. "Arnold is a playboy," he says. "He'll go up to a woman at a party and say, 'Let's go to Spago for dinner.' Me, I'm a hound dog. I'd be standing behind a cactus in the corner." If you don't believe Bernsen, just ask his mother, Jeanne Cooper, who's played Katherine Chancellor on The Young and the Restless for 13 years. "The greatest thing about Corbin is his sensitivity," she says. "If somebody walks on a flower and crushes it, Corbin will say, That was a living thing! How could you do that?' "

Bernsen may actually have more in common with Arnold Becker than he realizes—or cares to admit. If he treads lightly on flower beds, he has all the delicacy of an elephant when it comes to discussing his love life. For example, casually mentioning that he had a five-year relationship with aspiring actress Brenda Cooper, 29, Bernsen neglects to say that they've been married for the past three years. "I just blanked the whole thing out," he says when reminded of his nuptial vows. Now separated from Cooper, Bernsen explains that "the relationship was holding me back. Brenda was trying to find herself, and that caused the relationship to end. We love each other, but nothing is going to stop me now."

Bernsen is even more cavalier about Heather (The Fall Guy) Thomas, 29, the party in another five-year affair. "It was a wholesome college romance," says Bernsen, who met Thomas in 1977 when both were attending UCLA. "I thought she was going to be the girl. We broke up the minute she got the series. She got really into herself." But there's no reason for a reporter to get into the subject. "It brings down my credibility as an actor to be associated with her," he says, asking that the relationship be given minimal ink. "It's a bit of the Ken and Barbie image. She's very bright, but she's become this blond bombshell-y kind of thing."

Thomas, who's kinder (at least in print) than Bernsen, volunteers another reason: her admitted use of cocaine. "He doesn't want to be associated with me," she says, "because he had nothing to do with drug abuse, which is a very lonely, private thing I'd been doing since I was 11." Corbin's father, producer Harry {The Awakening Land) Bernsen, agrees with both his son and his son's ex-girlfriend. "He's right about not wanting to be associated with Heather. He doesn't want to become a poster boy. And if you give anybody a clue to being on drugs or gay, this town thrives on that."

Born in North Hollywood, the first child of an industry family, Corbin knows the town well. He became intoxicated with show business very early, when his mother—who frequently guest starred on TV—took him with her on acting assignments. "I remember being on the set of Daniel Boone," Bernsen says. "There was fake snow on the ground, and I could smell it. I said, 'I just gotta get into this.' "

At 19, while studying at UCLA and planning to become an entertainment attorney, he was given a cameo role by his father in a black action film, Three the Hard Way. Discovering that "I just loved being in front of the camera," Bernsen switched to UCLA's theater department. After earning a master's degree in playwriting in 1980, he worked as a model and carpenter; during the 1984-85 season he played policeman Ken Graham on Ryan's Hope. When he auditioned for L.A. Law, Bernsen was called back for three readings before being cast as Arnold Becker. Co-creator Terry Louise Fisher describes the Becker character as "a sleazy lawyer who looks like the All-American beachboy."

Despite his insistence to the contrary, Bernsen does not seem the type to hide his confidence behind a cactus. At home in his one-room Hollywood Hills apartment, the actor shows annoyance when a messenger from the studio drops off an L.A. Law script, asking for Corbin Burstyn. "They'll start getting my name right," Bernsen predicts, and it's clear that his ambition isn't limited to name recognition. He points to a spotlit niche where a pre-Columbian statue now sits. "See that light up there?" he says. "If I ever win an Emmy, that's where it's going to go."

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