Winning on Appeal

updated 02/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

WOMEN VIEWERS LOVE TO WORRY over Eli Levinson, the sweet-natured, soul-searching attorney of Civil Wars and now L.A. Law. Once, at the supermarket, says Alan Rosenberg, 42, the sweet-natured, soul-searching actor who plays Eli, a female fan "told me she was concerned because I had two women on the show leave me the week before." Another woman, claiming to be a psychiatrist, asked what drug Eli had taken in an episode in which he suffered a nervous breakdown. When Rosenberg told her, the woman informed him that the primary side effect was "an erection that won't go away."

Such are the real-life trials facing the screen attorney named last December by TV Guide as one of television's "unlikely heartthrobs." Says. Rosenberg: "At first I didn't know whether it was an insult or a compliment. So I chose to ignore 'unlikely.' " Says his wife, actress Marg Helgenberger, 35 (the tough-minded hooker on China Beach): "He became a sex symbol while I was away shooting a miniseries, and now he can't get his head through the door."

Maybe not, but Rosenberg, who introduced the Levinson character on Civil Wars in 1991, is a nimble fellow nonetheless. When ABC canceled that Steven Bochco production last season, the actor simply moved his desk to Bochco's L.A. Law at NBC. His patented brand of legal soul seems to be just what McKenzie, Brackman needed. (The Dallas Morning News called him "sort of a Columbo with a law degree.")

Rosenberg is also as eastern as Eli. He grew up in Passaic, N.J., with his brother Mark, two years older. Their father, Howard, managed Wexler's Department Store, their mother Martha's family business. At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Rosenberg earned degrees in political science and drama—fitting for an avowed socialist who viewed the theater as "the way to effect societal and political change." His other passion was poker: When his parents sent him money for grad school applications, he promptly gambled away nearly all of it. What was left he used to apply to the highly selective Yale School of Drama—"a long shot," he says—but his audition got him accepted. At Yale, he fell in "unrequited love" with classmate Meryl Streep but rather than graduate, Rosenberg moved to New York City, where he went on auditions and drove a limo (for rock star Peter Frampton, among others). In 1976 he married actress Robin Bartlett.

He worked Off-Broadway for a few years, then made his film debut in 1979's The Wanderers. In 1980, Rosenberg landed a small part on the daytime drama Ryan's Hope.. By that time he was having second thoughts about acting (soap operas weren't what he had in mind, he says, "when I got into this business with all my noble ambitions") and applied to Syracuse law school. But the day he was accepted, he landed the lead in Buck Off-Broadway—and rededicated himself to the theater. Recalls his mother: "He came home and said, 'I'd rather starve as an actor than do anything else.' "

In 1984, Rosenberg, newly divorced and living in L.A., spotted Helgenberger, whom he'd met on Ryan's Hope, in a bank line in West Hollywood. "I didn't think she'd remember me," he says. But she did. Within two months they were living together, and they married in 1989. Soon he became a father (son Hugh is now 3) and landed his breakthrough role on Civil Wars. But Rosenberg's happy existence was temporarily shattered by the unexpected death of his brother, a film executive, who suffered a heart attack two years ago on location in Texas for Flesh & Bone. "I'm still taking it quite hard," he says bleakly. "I believe that any minute he's going to walk through that door."

Otherwise, Rosenberg's biggest challenge is juggling career and parenthood. Helgenberger recently spent three months on location in Europe filming a miniseries with Omar Sharif. Hugh spent about half the time on location with Mom, then moved back home with Dad at the family's three-bedroom home in Santa Monica. Says Rosenberg: "Hugh seems to be well-adjusted, but it's hard on me—I miss him terribly when he's away."

No longer a socialist, Rosenberg has even taken up the bourgeois pas-time of golf, and he and his Law costar and pal Michael Tucker hit the links often. But the yen for public service remains. "I have this one ambition that everybody laughs at," he says. "Someday, when I'm done with all this, I have this dream of going back to my hometown and running for political office." Like what? "Well," he sighs, "I'd like to be the mayor of Passaic."

JOHNNY DODD in Los Angeles

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