HE HAS PLAYED IAGO AND MERCUTIO, BUT IT'S Murder One's plain old Ted Hoffman who has put him in the big leagues. Benzali, 49, won the ABC series lead after a guest stint on NYPD Blue last year. And while the acclaimed new show is no stunner in the ratings ("I try not to think about it," Benzali says), his dourly compelling defense attorney "is a penetrating presence—he's almost impossible not to watch," says Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg. "I do like being the star," admits Benzali, who has the grace not to lord it over his peers. "He has a great sense of humor—we laugh like hell between takes," says his Murder One costar Stanley Tucci. Off-set, the Brazilian-born Benzali, who spent a year in the Royal Shakespeare Company, roams his spacious Malibu home. (Divorced and childless, he lives alone.) But in case you think he has gone Hollywood.... "At a party recently, a stranger told me there's something Shakespearean about Murder One," Benzali says. "It was the best compliment on the show I've had."
IT'S HARD TO STAY OUT OF THE HEADLINES WHEN YOU'RE DATING THE WORLD'S HOTTEST hunk. Luckily for Paltrow, who's not big on reflected glory, her talent made even more news this year than her nights of nuzzling with Brad Pitt
. Paltrow, 23, won raves playing a future President's daughter in Merchant-Ivory's Jefferson in Paris, then stole some memorable moments as Pitt's anguished wife in Seven. "She's spellbinding," says Morgan Freeman, a Seven costar. "Gwyneth has the gift." She almost kept it under wraps. The brainy daughter of actress Blythe Danner and TV producer Bruce Paltrow, Gwyneth said she accepted her first major film role, Wendy in Steven Spielberg's Hook, despite Mom's hopes that she'd be "the next Margaret Mead." Her parents take her career seriously now—but it might take friends a while to catch on. When she won the role in Seven, Paltrow recalled, she thought "everyone would say, 'So, Gwyn, who do you play?' No. Everyone I know is, like, 'Oh, my God! Does Brad have short hair or long hair now?' "
KEEPING COOL ON THE CAT-walks is a supermodel trademark. No wonder newcomer Irina Pantaeva, 22, has a long leg up on the competition. An Eskimo from Siberia, she is currently the coolest thing on Seventh Avenue. A gushing Isaac Mizrahi describes her as "a six-foot-tall China doll. She can wear anything." The 5'10", 118-lb. Inuit has lent her snow-mask face to Bazaar and Vogue, skated the runways for Richard Tyler and Yves Saint Laurent, and is going mainstream modeling for Levi's, the Gap and Doritos. "Who can be more American than me?" she asks. Between assignments, the model explores her new hometown, New York City, with husband Roland Levin, 38, a Latvian-born photographer. But true to the nomadic roots of her people, she doubts she'll settle for long. "I want to travel," she says. "Like my grandmother always told me: 'You have big eyes. You will see many things.' "
ROLLING STONE LIKENED THEIR sound to "a tire spinning in a mudhole." So how did Live, the alternately droning-and-raucous rock quartet from York, Pa., become such a phenomenon—selling 5 million copies of their second album, Throwing Copper, and sparking one of last summer's hottest concert tours? By ignoring the critics, of course. "What some see as blandness, their fans see as quiet intensity," says Billboard editor Melinda Newman. Regular guys who began jamming in eighth grade to beat the boredom of small-town life, the Live crew, all under 26 (clockwise from left: Chad Taylor, Patrick Dahlheimer, Chad Gracey and Ed Kowalczyk), are at work on album No. 3—and they say it's their best. But they don't blame the doubters. "If I wasn't in the band," lead singer Kowalczyk told the L. A. Times, "I'd probably think, 'Who's their dad? Does he own Viacom or something?' "
AT 7, HE PLAYED THE GHOST OF Christmas Present in a Harlem community center production of A Christmas Carol. But before he was cast as Strike, the Chocolate Moo-drinking crack dealer in Spike Lee's Clockers, Mekhi Phifer (pronounced Meh-KIE Fifer) had never acted professionally. In fact, he had been accepted into SUNY New Paltz's electrical engineering program when, on a lark, he went to an open call for Clockers, Lee's gritty drama about moral choices in a drug-infested Brooklyn 'hood. Ten callbacks later, he had the lead. "It's nice to do a movie that gets people thinking," says Phifer, who impressed his boss while he was at it. "Mekhi definitely knows who he is," says Lee. "He's very talented." Since Clockers, the 20-year-old son of an elementary school teacher has signed for three more films, begun work on a rap album and become a partner in a management company to launch new talent. "He has no chip on his shoulder, no pretensions," says David Zucker, producer of Phifer's next movie, a Rebel Without a Cause spoof called High School High. "He just knocked me over."
SHE MADE HER ACTING DEBUT IN HIGH school back in Lockport, N.Y., singing "Torn Between Two Lovers" while a male duo ripped apart her dress. Now, as the star of The Stephanie Miller Show, a syndicated late-night gabfest airing opposite Leno and Letterman, Miller's still tussling with the guys. Since her L.A.-based show started in September, it has already outrated the big boys, on occasion, in hip markets like Miami and Manhattan. "If we make it, it would be a Cinderella story," says Miller, 34, who honed her outrageous brand of comedy in the early '90s as host of the a.m. drive-time slot on New York City's WHQT radio. "We're under the underdog." And wallowing in those depths. On her first show, Miller crawled around trying to look up guest Scott Bakula's nightshirt; she has since impersonated the pregnant Kim Basinger by smearing pickles and ice cream on her stomach. "She'll do anything for a laugh," says her executive producer, Ann Beatts. Explains Miller: "The show is 'Sketch collides with talk.' We do things no one else is doing." Her biggest fan wonders why she has to. "When I play tennis with friends," says Miller's mom, Stephanie, 72, "I have to put a bag over my head."
THE FIRST TIME MOTHER MARY ANGELICA stepped inside a TV studio during a speechmaking trip to Chicago back in 1978, the Franciscan nun had a vision. "Lord," she remembers thinking, "I've got to have me one of these." Today she is the host of her own twice-weekly conservative talk show, Mother Angelica Live, and the founder and chairwoman of the Eternal Word Television Network on which it airs. Chatting with priests and Sunday school teachers who share her strict values, Mother Angelica, 72, whose program is available to 40 million households, has earned the nickname the Zinging Nun for her highly opinionated homilies. ("Women cannot be priests, sweetheart," she told one caller.) Broadcasting from a $30 million studio in Iron-dale, Ala., Mother Angelica says her topics—such as the dangers of liberalism—are heaven-sent: "I say, 'Lord, if you don't have something to say, that makes two of us.' " So far, He hasn't left her speechless.
LAST SPRING, WHEN THE ad agency she had been modeling for offered Kristin Herold a role in The Spot, their new Internet soap, she didn't break out the bubbly. "I was kind of like, 'Okay, whatever,' " says Herold, 25. "I was afraid of computers." Luckily she toughened up. The Spot, which details the lives of seven Santa Monica roommates through diary entries and photos posted on the World Wide Web, is a cyberspace smash, logging in 110,000 visits a day. And Michelle Foster, the recovering-alcoholic model Herold plays, has become "the show's Heather Locklear
," says executive producer Russell Collins. Herold gets 100-plus e-mail messages daily from smitten webheads—"marriage proposals and praise for my character," she says. She has yet to accept any offers, but who knows? "If my prince comes along," Herold says, "I'll take him."
IN A YEAR OF NONSTOP SUCCESS, TONI COLLETTE EXPERIENCED ONLY ONE WATERLOO—and that was the ABBA song that she lip-synched as the overweight heroine of Muriel's Wedding. Since the film's release last March, the 24-year-old Australian actress not only has worked off the 42 pounds she gained to portray Muriel, she also has shot four films on three continents and had Miramax Films cochairman Harvey Weinstein literally dropping scripts in her lap. He handed her two when he encountered her lunching with friends at his company's New York City headquarters one day. "He said, 'Choose any part you want,' " Collette remembers, "and then he walked out. I was trying to keep cool, thinking, 'Is this normal?' " In her next role, as the plain friend opposite Gwyneth Paltrow
in Emma, Coliette "can be quite funny, and then the next moment she can break your heart," says the film's director, Doug McGrath. "She has an excess of talent."
A YEAR AGO, ED BURNS WAS FETCHING COFFEE as a $23,000-a-year production assistant for Entertainment Tonight. Then his autobiographical movie The Brothers McMullen—shot on weekends at his parents' Long Island, N.Y., home for $25,000 and hundreds of thousands more in IOUs—won the grand prize at January's Sundance Film Festival. The film, about the love lives of three Irish-Catholic brothers, raked in $9 million in theaters and nabbed Burns a $3 million deal with Twentieth Century Fox for his next picture, a romantic comedy called She's the One. "My friends goof on me any time they see me in a magazine," says the director, 27, who has finally "paid off all my debts, thank God." Even better, he has lined up Jennifer Aniston
and Cameron Diaz
, along with his girlfriend (and Brothers McMuUen costar) Maxine Bahns, for She's the One. "Eddie doesn't get much sleep," says Bahns. "He looks like a vampire. But he loves it. This is his dream."
SHE WAS A CANADIAN CHILD STAR WHO once opened for Vanilla Ice and had dropped out of the scene by age 18. But last summer, when Alanis Morissette released her first American album, Jagged Little Pill, on Madonna
's Maverick label, the 21-year-old rocker proved that she was worthy of a second act. Jagged hit No. 10 on Billboard's Top 200 album list in just six weeks, and Spin labeled Morissette "the fastest-rising star in music." The lyrics to her song "Right Through You" ("Now that I'm Miss Thing/ Now that I'm a zillionaire"), written when she was broke and unknown, have come true. A New York City summer gig was so packed that Marisa Tomei and Naomi Campbell
were turned away. Even feminist critic Camille Paglia was converted. "Alanis has a big, dramatic, emotionally rich voice," says Paglia, "not coarse like Melissa Etheridge's or strangled like Courtney Love's." But it's Morissette's boss who has offered the highest praise. Said Madonna
: "She reminds me of me."
NOT TOO LONG AGO, LINDA DAVIES WAS JUST ANOTHER London trader with plenty of opportunity—but no stomach—for illegal deals. Then she had a novel idea: to quit her job and write one. Her thriller Nest of Vipers is fraught with sleekly sexual characters committing high-currency crimes. The banking world, says Davies, 32, "is a hothouse for intelligent fraud." And great training ground for bestseller writing. Last spring, just as Davies's fellow trader Nicholas Leeson was being jailed for bringing down Barings Bank, Nest was flying off bookstore shelves. It has since been optioned by MGM for "a healthy six figures," says Davies, and Fortune predicts, "Davies may yet do for finance what old John [Grisham] did for law." The author, who lives in Peru with her husband and has a new thriller due in January, is more modest about her calling. "I write about fraud instead of committing it," she says. "I sleep at night."
WHEN SHE WON THE role of Benny, the chubby, charming heroine of Circle of Friends, Minnie Driver was unknown outside her native England, and her acting experience was grounded in what she has called the grand tradition of crappy TV. "Do you know how I used to decide on roles?" Driver confessed. "Someone offered me a part, and I automatically said yes." But the actress, 24—who has since landed a role in Sleepers with Brad Pitt
—lobbied so hard for the part that director Pat O'Connor offered it to her, then ordered her to gain 20 pounds. How did that make Driver feel? "Like Miss Limp from the planet Blimp," she admitted. But even fat, Driver was far more beautiful than the heroine Maeve Binchy had in mind when she wrote the autobiographical novel Circle of Friends. "We were very lumpen," says Binchy. "Minnie looked luminous."
IF HIS NBC SITCOM, BROTHERLY LOVE, IS reeling in generation Y, it's largely thanks to Andrew Lawrence's charms as a pint-size mimic. "We think of him as the love child of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey," says the show's executive producer, Jim Vallely, who built the role of Andy around the 7-year-old's own penchant for dressing up like Batman and Elvis. "From the time he could dress, he'd always be in costume," confirms Andy's mom, Donna. But not everything is child's play for the actor. "The kid was so darned funny, I made him my official dialogue coach," says Tom Arnold, who played his dad in the short-lived series Tom. Off-series, Andy joined his brothers (and Brotherly Love costars) Matthew, 15, and Joey, 19, in a TV movie last fall; he also plays John Travolta's son in White Man's Burden. But he takes his success philosophically. "Sometimes I like it," he says. "Sometimes I don't."
"I ALWAYS HAD THE feeling I'd be on Saturday Night Live someday," the plucky comedian says. Someday came just in time. Last summer, Oteri, then a member of L.A.'s Groundlings comedy troupe, was making ends meet as an office temp, had lost her best friend to cancer and was splitting up with her beau when her agent called to say SNL wanted to audition her. "I'd been thinking, 'Life sucks,' but then I started jumping around," says Oteri, who plays coy about her age. Her imaginative leaps on the show—including trademark sendups of Debbie Reynolds and Ross Perot—have helped her rise above the show's embattled reputation. Not that she hasn't sacrificed for the triumph. "I couldn't do this job and be in love," says Oteri. "I can't even walk and chew at The same time."
HER FIRST TV SERIES, ANGELS '88, DIED IN DEVELOPMENT; HER SECOND, FOX'S FLYING Blind, was canceled. So it makes sense that Téa Leoni, who plays tabloid paparazzo Nora Wilde in the new ABC series The Naked Truth, would have job jitters. "There's pressure," says Leoni, 29. "I feel like I'm under' a grand piano." You'd never know it to watch her. Whether she's stealing a urine sample from Anna Nicole Smith
or fielding a date request from a Siamese twin, Leoni is "everything you want in a sit-comedienne," declared Newsweek. Says her Naked costar Holland Taylor: "She's got Tom Hanks's rubbery body and Audrey Hepburn's elegance." And her executive producer's affections. "He's my best friend," says Leoni, who made the tabloids herself last summer when she started dating Chris Thompson, who has since left his wife. Now Naked has won a full season's run, and Leoni has a lead role in next year's film Flirting with Disaster. So the pressure's easing? No chance. "I realize," says Leoni, "how temporary my day in the light can be."