Sorbo the Greek

updated 07/03/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/03/1995 01:00AM

SO WHAT DOES HERCULES, SON OF Zeus and Alcmene, look like at the tail end of a cold? Kevin Sorbo, who stars on the syndicated TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and is himself not so far from being a god, gives you an idea. As Sorbo, 36, sits in his rented apartment in Auckland, New Zealand, drinking bottled water, his only visible imperfection is a slight puffiness under his very blue eyes. Otherwise, he's still a long-limbed 6'3", with a strong, handsome face that reflects his Nordic blood.

"Initially I laughed at the whole notion of me playing Hercules," says Sorbo, who moved from L.A. to Auckland, where the show is taped, almost two years ago. "People would say, 'Look, we're used to Steve Reeves. We're used to Lou Ferrigno.' " But unlike those guys, Sorbo plays Hercules as something more than beefcake in leather briefs. This Here is conscious of doing good, able to verbalize his feelings and, unlike his legendary forebear, has learned to avoid losing his cool and wreaking untold destruction. "It's a '90s Hercules," says producer Eric Gruendemann. "Strong yet sensitive at the same time." Says Sorbo: "Hercules isn't a monosyllabic jerk. He's affable, makes mistakes." In addition to this gentle giant, Hercules boasts computer-generated effects (dig that many-headed hydra!), savage but seductive women and dialogue firmly in the Italian gladiator-movie tradition ("I'd rather sleep in a dungeon with rats than share satin pillows with a viper!"). And of course there is the primordial beauty of New Zealand, where the foliage is lush and production costs are low.

With all this, Hercules, which started in 1993 as a string of TV movies, has in its first regular season bounded to the top ranks of syndicated shows in the U.S., running neck-and-neck with Bay watch. And thanks to Hercules, Sorbo, whose previous experience was mostly in commercials, is now a star. "It's weird," he says of one of his occasional visits home, "to be in New York walking down the street and having people yelling at me, 'Yo, Hercules!'': The show doesn't air in New Zealand, but Sorbo has a certain celebrity there too, thanks to a popular Jim Beam TV ad he did three years ago. "I love it here," says Sorbo, gazing at a landscape that includes the volcanic island of Rangitoto, "but you're still a long way from home."

That would be Mound, a Minneapolis suburb, where Sorbo grew up as the fourth of five kids. His father, Lynn, taught junior-high biology and math; his mother, Ardis, quit nursing to raise the children. Sorbo recalls watching Steve Reeves's Hercules movies with his older brothers. "Since I was 11, I wanted to be an actor," he says. "It's funny, though, I didn't share that with anyone for years. Maybe that was an insecurity, maybe a fear." Instead he studied marketing at the University of Minnesota. Then he followed a girlfriend to Europe, where he started a modeling career that resulted in what he describes as tons of commercials. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1986, spots for products including Budweiser, Diet Coke and BMW paid the bills. He appeared in a few pilots (and lost out to Dean Cain for the role of Superman in ABC's Lois & Clark). Then in 1993, on Sorbo's 35th birthday, Hercules producers decided he was exactly the "Joe Montana type" they were looking for.

Certainly his regimen would impress any athlete. He eats six small meals a day, starting with a large, white-of-egg omelette. After shooting he works out for 90 minutes, then maybe tops that off with a jog. No caffeine, very little alcohol. He also does most of his own stunts, earning the occasional kick in the faceā€”and nine stitches when Michael Hurst, who plays sidekick Iolaus, conked him during a sword fight.

But don't forget: This is a '90s superhero, willing to admit vulnerability. Consider Sorbo's two-year, bi-country relationship with Erin Dodson, a Los Angeles children's clothes designer, whom he met on a blind date. She has managed to visit him 13 times, and they recently took a Hawaiian vacation. "It gets hard because we talk once a day for five minutes, on his lunch break or whatever," says Dodson. "We do the best we can." Sorbo agrees that "we're just playing it by ear. She's got her career and I've got mine."

For now, his place is in Auckland, where he puts in 16-hour shooting days up to six days a week. Sounds kind of lonely, Here. "You do want somebody to go to the movies with," he admits. "I'm a guy like anybody else."

TOM GLIATTO
KIRSTEN WARNER in Auckland

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