04/25/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
Just think: If he hadn't hoisted a beer mug in a TV commercial nine years ago—and become intoxicated with acting—David Duchovny might be in some college classroom lecturing students on Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner. Instead he's chasing down UFOs, ETs and ESP-endowed psychopaths in his role as an eccentric Oxford-educated FBI agent named Fox Mulder on the Fox network's creepy cult series The X-Files. Duchovny, 33, a wry, easygoing Princeton grad (with a master's degree from Yale), is temperamentally about as distant from the grimly obsessive "Spooky" Mulder as Earth is from the planet Mongo—or wherever those UFOs hail from.
"I believe in the possibility that there are other forms of life," Duchovny muses, in the sunny apartment he sublets in Vancouver, B.C., where the series is filmed. "But as it gets played out on the show, well, it's hard for me to believe there's actually a liver-eating serial killer"—a creature featured in one flesh-crawling episode.
Nevertheless, critics have praised the series' low-key credibility, for which Duchovny himself can take some credit. "He has a good eye," says Gillian Anderson, who plays Mulder's skeptical FBI partner, Dana Scully. "He's very good at picking apart a script, because he has quite a literary background."
In fact his childhood in New York City had been steeped in scholarship and sports. His parents, Amram, a Brooklyn-born publicist for the American Jewish Committee, a cultural organization, and Margaret, a Scottish-born homemaker, divorced when David was 11. Raising him and his siblings Daniel and Laurie alone, Margaret took a job teaching elementary school. "Afraid we'd all end up in the gutter," he says, she instilled in her children a need to succeed academically. At 13, David won a scholarship to Collegiate, an elite Manhattan prep school. His grades—and his prowess on the basketball team—were good enough to get him into Princeton (class of '82), where he majored in English lit. "I was really a tight-assed kind of student," he says. Upon learning that one of his room-mates was an aspiring actor, he laughed incredulously. "You came to Princeton" he remembers saying. "Why are you acting?"
Yet by 1985, Duchovny was asking himself just the opposite. By then he was a second-year teaching assistant at Yale, contemplating his Ph.D. dissertation ("Magic and Technology in Contemporary Fiction and Prose") and hanging out with Yale Drama School students. One friend suggested that he audition for a TV commercial casting agent. Soon, Duchovny found himself playing a bar patron in a Löwenbräu ad. "I was terrified," he says. But after a few takes he loosened up and quickly began pursuing bigger roles—as well as finding a kind of catharsis. "I had grown up in a very controlled academic environment," he reflects. "But here people were saying, 'Yes, it's good to scream, it's good to cry.' "
The benefits weren't bad either. Flown to L.A. over Christmas break to test for three TV pilots, he was whooshed by limo to the posh Sunset Marquis hotel and, realizing he wouldn't make it back in time for the start of the next semester, called in sick from poolside. But he knew he couldn't go on playing hooky, so in 1987 he dropped out of grad school. At first, he jokes, "my family thought I was an idiot." But after a nearly yearlong dry spell, the offers started pouring in. He was a phone-sex Lothario in the art-house flick Julia Has Two Lovers, Charlie Chaplin's cameraman in Chaplin, a ruthless yuppie businessman in Beethoven and a vacationer taken hostage by Brad Pitt
in last year's Kalifornia, Duchovny's biggest movie role to date. His weirdest role ever has to be Denise, the transvestite detective he played on David Lynch's Twin Peaks in 1990-91. "Those pantyhose!" he recalls. "My bra was cutting into my skin! You poor women. Men just throw on a pair of jeans."
The never-wed actor has a girlfriend, Perrey Reeves, an actress he met in L.A. a year ago. But she flies up only for occasional weekend visits. For solace, he can always turn to the Post-it notes affixed to his fridge. On each, Reeves has inscribed one of mind-body guru Deepak Chopra's 10 tips for attaining the Fountain of Youth. But there's also an 11th: "Think about Perrey."
"I'm not sure," says Duchovny, adopting a Mulder-like deadpan, "that last one is going to help me stay young."
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
KAREN BRAILSFORD in Vancouver