Wayne's Whirl

updated 02/07/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/07/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

OH, HELLO...NEWMAN." IT MAYBE TVs chilliest catch phrase, but Jerry Seinfeld's scornful greeting to his obnoxious Seinfeld neighbor, played by Wayne Knight, never fails to get a laugh. And now, as soon as the portly Knight, 38, ambles onto the show's L.A. set, the studio audience begins cheering—and chanting, "Newman! Newman!"

The object of their adoration has also answered to a couple of other NBC series names this season: He's Robert, John Mendoza's smug newspaper editor on The Second Half (returning next month), and was Froggy Wilson, the well-meaning hardware-store owner on the recently canceled Against the Grain. And yes, T. rex fans, he was also Nedry, the computer nerd in Jurassic Park. Bui it's nasty Newman who has made Knight's day as an actor. "He's like having a boil on your ass," says Knight. "He's a little hard to forget."

These days, there's less of Knight to remember. Last fall he embarked on a diet-and-exercise regimen and has shed 40 pounds from his 280-pound bulk. His motivation: fear. Two years ago, his father, Bill, a retired supervisor at a textile factory in Cartersville, Ga., died of heart disease. He was 69. "My father's passing was the first time I really ever looked mortality in the face," says Knight.

Overweight has been a lifetime burden. "I still remember a kid calling me a tub-o'-lard in the fourth grade," he says. At the University of Georgia, he majored in theater, hoping that acting would add a little heft to his ego. In that regard, "it didn't do s—I," he says, but it did open doors on Broadway (1977's Gemini) and TV, where he costarred with Emma Thompson, then a newcomer, in Assaulted Nuts, an early '80s British sitcom. Knight remains one of the Oscar winner's closest chums. "He's like family to me, and he makes me laugh more than anybody I know," says Thompson.

The never-wed Knight, who has a three-bedroom English-style cottage in the San Fernando Valley, is serious, though, about the new woman in his life: Paula Sutor, 30ish, a makeup artist he met last summer on the set of The Second Half. For Knight, falling in love was inevitable. "After spending four months two inches away from her face, looking into her green eyes," he says, "I couldn't help myself."

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