All in the Family

updated 04/03/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/03/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

JOHN PANKOW MOVES AND talks like a sidewalk sleight-of-hand artist as he manipulates the makings of a bowl of linguine al tonno in the kitchen of his Los Angeles home. "I love to eat," he says, sampling his creation. "Ummmm, ummmm!" Still, he can't resist a little fine-tuning. "I'm gonna toss it up," he says, "just to get the sauce going. I like my pasta to have a little bit of bite."

The same could be said of his acting. For the past three seasons, the 38-year-old actor's portrayal of Cousin Ira has added just the right amount of spice to NBC's hit sitcom Mad About You. It was Ira, for example, who plunged New York City into a blackout when he tried to hot-wire a cable-TV box for Paul Buchman (Paul Reiser). His initial guest role in the show's first year quickly turned into a regular gig. "He was so much fun we kept having him back," says Reiser. "We hit it off so well that you bought that our characters were kids together."

Pankow may look like a sitcom natural, but the small screen wasn't exactly a logical step in his career. A Broadway veteran, he has starred as Mozart in Amadeus and appeared at the New York Shakespeare Festival. The stage is still his first love. "A movie lasts three months. You do it a scene at a time. For a control freak—and I'm a control freak—movies are tough. If you told me right now that I'd never do a movie again for the rest of my life, I could live with that," he says. "But if you told me I was never going to do a play again, I'd die."

But his role as the streetwise Ira is fine for now. "What appealed to me about Ira was how resilient he was," says Pankow. "There's very little self-pity." Growing up in Park Ridge, Ill, the sixth of nine children born to Marion Pankow, a homemaker, and her husband, Wayne, a magazine advertising salesman, Pankow learned to value self-reliance. "If you look real close," he jokes, pointing to his forehead, "you'll see a six, because my parents could never remember names." His older brother Matt, a suburban Chicago police sergeant, says Pankow hasn't changed from those days of dormlike living: "He's one of the most unaffected people I've ever met."

After graduating in 1974 from Maine South High School, where he acted in school plays, Pankow spent a year stacking groceries to save up for tuition at Northeastern Illinois University. When he finally landed on campus, though, the acting classes bored him. (Most guys enrolled "to meet chicks," he says.) Then he went to see David Mamet's American Buffalo at Chicago's St. Nicholas Theatre. "It was so riveting, so powerful," Pankow recalls, that he dropped out of college and signed up for a two-year acting program at the St. Nicholas. This time he paid the bills by working the late shift at a 7-Eleven.

In 1979, Pankow was performing in a repertory company in Arrow Rock, Mo., where his leading lady was a New York City actress, Kristine Sutherland. "It was really love at first sight," says Sutherland, 38. "He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and was pigeon-toed, so it wasn't a visual thing. But he was just lit up with this energy." When the play ended, Pankow went to visit Kristine in New York City and never left. (They married in 1985.)

His big break came in 1982 when he took over the role of Mozart in Amadeus from Peter Firth. He then went on to perform in Henry V and The Iceman Cometh. He has also appeared in several films, including The Secret of My Success. By the late 1980s, Kristine's career had started taking off too, with commercials and a costarring role in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, in which she played Rick Moranis's next-door neighbor.

But at home the couple faced a troublesome challenge. Kristine spent several years undergoing fertility procedures before finally giving birth to their daughter Eleanore in 1990. "That stuff can either break a marriage or strengthen it," Pankow says. "It brought us together." Kristine is now back at the doctor's, trying for a second child. The struggle to conceive—and Eleanore—took away any ambivalence about having children, says Kristine. "You wake up every day realizing what a gift she is."

When Pankow became a Mad About You regular in 1993, the family moved to a three-bedroom house in L.A. 5 minutes from the show's set. At night, after Eleanore is asleep, they often go to bed and engage in a G-rated passion—reading recipes to one another from their favorite Italian cookbooks. "Before you know it," says Kristine, "it's 2 in the morning, and you're just starving to death." Anybody for linguine al tonno?

TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

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