07/24/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
Not since the invention of talcum powder has a man looked so uncomfortable. While Tonight Show host Jay Leno smiled warmly and tried to put him at ease, Hugh Grant flinched and fidgeted and reached repeatedly for a too-distant cup of water. Even Leno was struck by the sight of the once-suave movie star wound tighter than any racket at Wimbledon. "I said after the first segment, 'I thought that went great,' " recalls Leno. "He just breathed a heavy 'whew,' and I said, 'When we come back, we'll do some fun stuff.' "
Memo to Hugh: Are we having fun yet? The actor, 34, flew in from London last week with his gorgeous girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley, 29, and stayed in Beverly Hills' plush Peninsula Hotel, but it was pretty much downhill from there. You know you're having a bad week when probably the easiest thing you do is plead no contest, through your lawyer, to a charge of lewd conduct in a public place—and are ordered to pay $1,180, serve two years probation and complete an AIDS education program. More difficult for Grant, no doubt, was keeping his commitment to publicize his new movie, Nine Months. But the actor did just that, planning to fess up to his June 27 mistake in every conceivable kind of cathode confessional: late night (Tonight), cable (Larry King Live), morning (The Today Show) and daytime chat (Live with Regis & Kathie Lee). As he told Leno, "You know in life what's a good thing to do and what's a bad thing. I did a bad thing, and there you have it."
Grant's friends applauded his candor. "Most people, after something like this, would hide for months," says Chris Columbus, director of Nine Months. Nor did Grant surround himself with spin doctors. Before broadcast time, Leno visited Grant in his dressing room and found the star sitting alone with a security guard. "I was surprised," he says. "There was no legion of PR people. Nobody saying, 'Don't ask him that.' "
Equally surprising, perhaps, was that Grant was not alone at the L.A. premiere for Nine Months. Hurley ended the speculation by showing up with her beau of eight years. "They're on the road to recovery," says Columbus. Still, Hurley's expressions ran the gamut from blank to tight-lipped, and she looked the very embodiment of mixed emotions in her white minidress. The couple walked grimly into the gala, then ducked out in less than an hour.
What have we learned from all this? That confession is good for the soul and wondrous for Tonight Show ratings, which doubled on the night of Grant's appearance. And the scandal has undoubtedly helped to sell Nine Months. "The publicity has actually turned from an awful thing to a wonderful thing," says Columbus, "and it's all because of Hugh." Grant himself is said to be grateful for the reaction he has received. "We're a very forgiving country," says Columbus. "Hugh told me last night that coming back to America, it felt like stepping into a warm bath."