Quark with a Quirk

updated 04/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AT 5'4 1/2", WITH A FACE THAT didn't cry out "I'm a star!" Armin Shimerman never expected to be competing for parts with Tom Cruise. Still, Shimerman couldn't help feeling a little bit down six years ago as he stared into a mirror in his L.A. home. "Look at yourself, Armin," he muttered, humbled by nine months of casting turn-downs. "You're too old, too short, too bald. Too everything."

Today, in his third season as Quark, arguably the most popular character on the syndicated sci-fi series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the diminutive Shimerman has finally made it big. He's got big teeth, big ears (like a giant bat's) and a big forehead that looks, says his friend and costar Rene Auberjonois (Security Chief Odo), "like this big rubber baby's behind."

It takes makeup artists 3 hours to turn Shimerman into Quark, member of an alien race known as Ferengi. Quark works as the sly saloon keeper on the space station Deep Space Nine, where he also serves as the resident skirt-chaser and comic-relief con artist. "Quark is not simply a guy witht a rubber head," insists Shimerman, who is also a respected Shakespearean drama coach with a degree in Renaissance studies from UCLA. "He is what in Elizabethan literature was called the vice character. Like Shyiock or Falstaff, he instructs the audience about what not to do."

Cast mates say Shimerman's portrayal is a lesson in how to breathe life into latex. "He's taken a character that could just be the butt of easy jokes and given him dignity," says Auberjonois, who often has dinner with Shimerman, 45, and his wife, actress Kitty Swink, 40. "My wife, Judith, says she loves it when a really beautiful woman is connected to a man who is not your prototype Adonis," says Auberjonois. Actually, at 5'10", Swink is "the shortest woman I ever dated," jokes Shimerman.

Height wasn't always a laughing matter to him. The older son of house-painter Herbert Shimerman, now 87, and his wife, Susan, an accountant, he was, he says, the last picked for teams in his hometown of Lakewood, N.J. His parents divorced when he was 7 and his brother Marc (now an aircraft engineer) was 5. Eight years later, in 1964, Susan moved across the country to Santa Monica so her sons could eventually attend one of California's first-rate state universities. "My goal," she says, "was to see that the boys got their education."

Because Armin was bookish and had trouble at first making friends, his mother enrolled him in a local drama group. Acting became such a passion that after graduating from UCLA in 1972, he ignored his mother's advice to go to law school and joined San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. In 1976 he moved to New York City and soon landed a costarring role in Joseph Papp's production of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera.

He met Swink in a bar across the street from the Broadway theater where he was in a 1979 revival oil Remember Mama. "I loved him because he was so shy and unassuming," she says. They wed in May 1981 and then moved to L.A., where Shimerman worked steadily for the next few years as a guest star on dozens of TV shows (Hill Street Blues, Civil Wars, Who's the Boss?). Swink says the marriage thrives because she and Armin complement each other so well. "He taught me how to get my work done," she says, "and I taught him how to have fun."

His happy marriage, Shimerman says, helped him through the career dry gulch that had him talking to his mirror in 1989. Relief came soon after when he landed a regular gig as Cousin Bernard on CBS's critically acclaimed Brooklyn Bridge. Then, in 1992, DS9's executive producer, Rick Berman—impressed by Shimerman's two earlier guest shots as a Ferengi on Star Trek: The Next Generation—conceived Quark just for him. "His character is dishonest and cowardly, yet still very lovable," says Berman. "And Armin's love for his work rubs off on the people around him."

"I am," says Shimerman, "the luckiest person alive"—even if he is hard to recognize without his humongous ears. At a recent Trek convention in Pasadena, an artist offered to do a portrait of him as an extraterrestrial. "He looked me straight in the eye," recalls Shimerman, "and said, 'You want to be an alien, sir?' 'No,' I said. 'Been there. Done that.' "

JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles

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