Banker's Hour

updated 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

LOOKING BACK, ACTOR KEVIN Kilner recalls the moment he realized he was badly miscast in his first big role. A newly graduated economics major from Johns Hopkins University in 1981, he worked as a credit analyst at the Baltimore headquarters of the First National Bank of Maryland. He wore gray pinstripes and was well-versed in subordinated debentures. But after he had spent two months on the job, Kilner says, a coworker stopped him. "Every time I see you, I picture you with a surfboard under your arm," she said. "Whatever you're meant to do, this isn't it."

Today, sitting in his cozy one-bedroom L.A. apartment, the 6'3" Kilner, 37, grins ruefully at the memory. Already unhappy with banking, he knew she was right—"only it took me four more years to find what I wanted," he says. Now Kilner is reaping the dividends—costarring with Nancy Travis in the new, critically applauded CBS sitcom Almost Perfect. He is also earning a reputation as a truly funny hunk. "He's special," says Almost Perfect executive producer Robin Schiff. "There aren't many attractive, intelligent guys around who can do comedy." Adds Travis: "He has an understated strength that gives him confidence. He takes everything in stride."

Maybe that's because the role of L.A. district attorney Mike Ryan doesn't pinch like his banker's wingtips. "I feel so many similarities with the character," Kilner says. "We're both very practical, very down-to-earth. He's a guy's guy, but a big mush on the inside—which I am, too."

In rural Monkton, Md., where he grew up the son of Edward, an insurance and advertising salesman, and his wife, Dorthea, a kindergarten teacher, the highlight of Kilner's week was the arrival of the county library bookmobile. He and his younger sister, Mary-Stuart, he says, "would have contests to see who could read the most books." And books, says his only sibling, now 36 and a Scranton, Pa., bank executive, helped bring out Kilner's sensitive side: "I can remember him reading The Yearling at the kitchen table and crying."

Fortunately for Kilner, he was also athletic. An all-American lacrosse player at Dulaney High School, he won a partial scholarship to perennial powerhouse Hopkins, in Baltimore. He had a career path clearly mapped out. "The father of everybody I knew was a businessman," he says. "I thought, 'That's what you do.' I never questioned it."

The questions came soon enough. Stifled creatively at the bank, Kilner says, "I got so depressed. I hated what I was doing." Seeking distractions, he played strong safety in 1982 for a semipro football team, the Baltimore Eagles. He took evening courses in journalism and fiction writing. Then, in 1983, he took an acting class at the Baltimore Dance Center.

A new world opened up for Kilner, but he knew his parents would worry that he wouldn't be earning a steady living. By Christmas Eve, Kilner still hadn't told them how he felt. "I had to work late that day," he recalls. "I missed the cooking, decorating the tree. I was so angry and started cursing the bank. My mom started to cry." Three months later, Dorthea saw her son off to New York City. "There were big tears in her eyes," Kilner says. "She said, 'I'm not worried. You're too smart to starve.' That's the best blessing you can get."

Soon, Kilner was waiting tables by night, taking acting classes by day. "He just lit up a room," recalls acting teacher Kathryn Gately. "He had this innocence and charm. Women adored him." In 1989, Kilner starred as a burnt-out cop in an NBC movie-of-the-week, Murder in Paradise. The experience prompted him to move to L.A., where he got character roles on shows including China Beach and L.A. Law. In 1993 he met actress Jordan Baker.

It was, Kilner says, instant love—so strong that when Baker won a role in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women later that year, Kilner followed her back to New York. Last year he played the Gentleman Caller, opposite Julie Harris, in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie on Broadway. The role won him nominations for the prestigious Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards—and an offer to read for the male lead in Almost Perfect.

Today, back in L.A., life is almost perfect—the biggest hitch being that Baker is still in New York, starring on Broadway in Suddenly Last Summer. So Kilner fills his off-hours biking, hiking in the Hollywood Hills, going out with friends and reading—his "real joy." As for finance, forget it. "I only go into a bank now if I have a problem," Kilner says. "It's a terrible thing to admit when you were once a banker, but I can't balance my checkbook."

CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles

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