Touch of Evil

updated 01/22/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/22/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

FOR STANLEY TUCCI, THE ROLE OF scheming Richard Cross on ABC's Murder One was an offer he couldn't refuse. Sure, the character—a wealthy businessman who may or may not have murdered his mistress's teenage sister—is a seductive sleazeball. But he's no paisan—or member of any other specified ethnic group.

That's a refreshing change for Tucci, whose grandparents on both sides journeyed here from Italy at the turn of the century. The 35-year-old actor is frustrated, he says, at always being cast as ethnic heavies, including mobster Rick Pinzolo on CBS's Wiseguy, Arab assassin Khamel in 1993's The Pelican Brief, and corrupt District Attorney Frank Zioli in last year's Kiss of Death. "It would be nice to play leading men," says Tucci, "but they're not ethnic and bald in this country."

For now, though, Tucci is pleased with the job he has. "I like the mystery of Richard Cross. He's a manipulator," says Tucci, "but you are never quite sure when he's doing it." Cross is now manipulating on Monday nights at 10 p.m. since Murder One, highly praised but low-rated while opposite NBC's powerhouse ER on Thursdays, has just returned after a two-month hiatus for retooling (more main story, subplots being phased out). Tucci's bosses are obviously pleased with the job he's doing. Says Charles Eglee, Murder's executive producer: "He brings Cross to life. There's an elegance about him, a worldliness." Tucci hopes the pared-down version will draw viewers into this continuing story about an O.J.-esque murder trial. "I think the show is stronger this way," he says.

If Murder were to be canceled, Tucci wouldn't miss the commute to L.A. He lives in a 125-year-old farmhouse in a suburb north of New York City with his wife, Kate, 33, a social worker, and her two young children from a previous marriage. To spend as much time as he can with his family, he hops red-eye flights both ways when he's needed in Hollywood. Says Kate, who wed Tucci last April while he was filming Murder's, pilot: "Stan flew home two days before the wedding. We married on a Saturday, and he left Sunday. We just chalk this year off to seeing each other when we can."

Tucci grew up in Katonah, N.Y., not far from where he lives today, as the oldest of three children of Stanley Tucci Sr., now a retired high school art teacher, and his wife, Joan, a retired secretary. During Sunday dinners at his grandparents' nearby homes, young Stanley would entertain the extended family with takeoffs on Marx Brothers movies. He made his stage debut in sixth grade (as the rabbit in The Tortoise and the Hare) and kept the greasepaint on through high school. "I always thought Stanley was an actor savant," says Gilbert Freeman, Tucci's drama teacher at John Jay High School in Katonah. "He couldn't do anything else. He had to act." At the State University of New York at Purchase, Tucci majored in acting. Except for painting, which he still enjoys, Tucci has never considered another career. "With acting," he says, "you use every part of yourself—physically, emotionally, intellectually. What could be more exciting?"

After graduating in 1982, he earned his Actors' Equity card when Colleen Dewhurst, mother of high school pal Campbell Scott (Dying Young), handed Tucci and Scott walk-on parts as soldiers in the Broadway play in which she was costarring. Tucci soon moved on to TV and film roles, including Vernon, a dogcatcher in the '92 family hit Beethoven. "Because of that movie, I'm a hero to kids," he says. "They all recognize me."

Tucci would prefer, however, to be recognized as a serious filmmaker. With this in mind, he is working on Big Night, a comedy-drama he coscripted with his cousin Joe Tropiano and codirected with Scott. In the movie, which premieres this month at the Sundance Film Festival, Tucci plays one of a pair of Italian-born brothers who start a restaurant in America in the '50s. Night, boasts Tucci, has "no gangsters, no guns, no Mafiosi," but lots of pasta. Even better, Tucci gets to cuddle with Isabella Rossellini and Minnie Driver. So how was it to finally play a romantic lead? Tucci smiles. He sighs. He shrugs. "You know," he says, "it was fun."

TOBY KAHN in New York City

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