Short Climb Up

updated 08/19/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/19/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AS RECENTLY AS THIS SPRING, JULIE Warner's career seemed like it had already gone to the dogs. She was appearing in living rooms everywhere in an Alpo commercial, rendering plaintive lines to a panting dalmatian: "Someday, Jesse, we'll have a big house and a yard for you to play in...."

Then—almost faster than you could say "Here, boy!"—Warner, 26, a product of private school and the Ivy League, a hitherto unknown who had been struggling in L.A. for a year and a half waitressing and working for a caterer, landed the starring role in the good-humored romantic lark Doc Hollywood.

The cherubic, sensuous beauty beat out 80 other actresses for the chance to play a down-home ambulance driver who rescues plastic surgeon Fox from his shallow dream of a lucrative nip-and-tuck practice in Beverly Hills. "She's really, really sexy," says Fox, who agreed with director Michael Caton-Jones's selection of his sultry costar, who first appears fetchingly nude from a chilling skinny-dip outdoors. "Of course, the fact that she's naked in one scene probably doesn't hurt. And she's also a couple of inches shorter than me, which was a happy coincidence." Says the 5'2" Warner with a chuckle: "We were like Mickey and Minnie, but onscreen, who can tell?"

Offscreen, Warner's romantic interest is 6' actor Hank Azaria, 27, with whom she has shared a sunny, commodious two-bedroom West Hollywood apartment for the past year. Azaria does gruff and goofy voices on The Simpsons (including the 7-Eleven manager Apu the Indian and Mo the bartender), and this fall will star as a magazine writer in the Fox series Herman's Head.

Azaria, who worshiped Warner from afar in acting class for six months before he dared to ask her out, remains astonished by the brass beneath the beauty. "You don't expect someone who looks like her to be so tough," he says. "It knocked me for a loop." For her part, Warner credits her beau for her levelheaded attitude. "He made me feel like I belonged here," she says.

"Here" is a long way from Warner's comfy East Coast childhood. Raised on Manhattan's Upper West Side, she is the older of two children born to Neil Warner, a successful jingle composer (hummable ditties for Tic Tacs and Dunkin' Donuts, among others), and Naomi, who works as a licensing director for art book publisher Harry Abrams. (Julie's 16-year-old brother, Jim, is a junior at Manhattan's prestigious Dalton School.)

As a teenager at Dalton, Julie caught an acting bug no Doc Hollywood could cure: Other victims included schoolmates Jennifer (Dirty Dancing) Grey, Mary Stuart (Immediate Family) Masterson and Tracy (Bright Lights, Big City) Pollan. Pollan, of course, just happens to be Michael J. Fox's wife, though Warner says that they hardly knew each other at school, and Pollan had no part in her getting the role. "Dalton was for the rich and famous," says Warner. "I can remember Robert Redford coming to talk to his daughter's teacher and a bunch of 12-year-olds chasing him down Park Avenue."

As a child, Warner never acted in any commercials her father worked on, but when she was 15 she landed a two-day cameo on The Guiding Light, playing a girl who had a crush on then-cast member Kevin Bacon.

A crush would not be an issue with her next major costar. After graduating from Brown University, Warner headed west, where she landed a part in Andrew Dice Clay's show, The Diceman Cometh. "I didn't know who the hell he was," she recalls. "I thought he was an Elvis impersonator. But he was the sweetest guy in the world."

The deep blush of sudden success recently came clear to Warner when she took her parents to a screening of Doc Hollywood in New York City. At the last moment her mom and dad switched seats, moving away from their daughter in the process. That spared Warner the awkwardness of watching her dad see her loom out of a lake like a Venus with goose bumps. "I didn't want him to feel like he had to avert his eyes if he were next to me," she says. "I think about people who do these sex scenes from hell, and I'd be really embarrassed to have my folks watching that. I'm not a nun, but still...."

And she's no trendoid either. After work, Warner prefers rearranging furniture with Azaria or renting videos to glitzy Bar One-hopping. "I'm not sucked up by the glamour of it all," she says pluckily. "Anything can fall apart at the drop of a hat. But no matter what, I know I'll be okay."

J.D. PODOLSKY
MICHAEL ALEXANDER in Los Angeles

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