For Cherubic Stephen Furst, Have Faith Could Be a Motto, Not Just His Parish Sitcom

updated 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He breezed into Los Angeles 13 years ago, rolling in off Highway 15 after a 2,356-mile trip from his hometown of Norfolk, Va., in a U-Haul truck with his bride beside him. Immediately calling his highest-placed Hollywood contact—a friend who worked as a busboy—he landed a role on a pizza delivery truck. Undeterred, actor-in-waiting Stephen Furst slipped pictures and résumés to his customers, along with the pepperoni special He never got a part, but when he was dispatched to a Hollywood orgy, he was offered a perk of sorts. "I said, 'Oh, gosh, no thanks,' " recalls Furst, now 35. "And, being from a Jewish background, I said, 'Look, you only have two pizzas, and there have to be at least 30 people here. Do you think you have enough?' "

That kind of enterprise became the secret of subsequent success. Since his 1978 movie debut as the dorky frat boy Flounder in Animal House, Furst has finished first by emphasizing his natural, nice guy charm. During five seasons of NBC's St. Elsewhere, as Dr. Elliot Axelrod, he provided the ingenuous foil for fellow medics. Now he's got a spring doubleheader—on the big screen as Albert, The Dream Teams gentle baseball freak, and on the ABC sitcom Have Faith as earnest rectory resident Father Gabriel Podmaninski.

Indeed, Furst is on his way to becoming a household name—at least in the houses surrounding his own. "I'm very big in Moorpark," he says of the antichic, desert neighborhood 50 miles north of L.A. where he lives with his wife, Lorraine, 37, and their two sons. "The cashiers at the market wanted me to sign their copies of TV Guide." If the locals don't notice him, his family gives them a nudge. "When relatives visit, they'll sit in a restaurant and ask, 'Don't you recognize him?' " Actually, if Moorpark residents do know Furst's friendly face, it's often from his weekend work coaching a boys soccer team.

He especially prizes his settled home-life because his childhood was so different. "My dad was a Willy Loman type," says Stephen. "He was a TV repairman, then a jewelry salesman. For a long time he ran a pawnshop." His mother drove a school bus. "We were the only poor Jews in the neighborhood. When bill collectors came by, my parents would send me to the door: Tell him we're not here.' "

Nonetheless he remembers those boyhood days as "a lot of fun" until, within a four-month period, the family was dealt a double blow. In 1970, when Stephen was 16, his father died of heart disease. A few weeks later his mother was diagnosed as having leukemia. Furst spent eight days in the hospital donating blood platelets, but the exchange was not successful and, a month later, his mother died. "Suddenly," he says, "I was on my own."

Furst's two older sisters had already married and left home; he moved in with a nearby aunt, burying his sorrow by becoming a "drama nerd. There was another crowd, the surfers, who always had toothpicks in their mouths. They'd throw them at us when we walked by." His size didn't help his status. "I weighed 320 lbs. then," says the 5'10" Furst, who's now 100 lbs. lighter. "I had no social life."

Romance came later, at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he met Lorraine Wright, a fellow drama student. "She walked into class on the first day, late, frustrated, her hair all a mess. But I mined to a friend and said, 'I'm going to marry that girl.' " Less than a year later he did, and the two settled down to support themselves filling vending machines. "Lorraine would ride in the back of the truck and eat all the food," he says. "We lived on vanilla wafers."

After scraping together $1,500, they set off on the cross-country honeymoon ride. He wanted a future in the movies, but their first way station was an $11-a-night room at Studio City's Hi-Ho Motel. Very reluctantly, Furst parted with $525, a third of everything they had, to get his Screen Actors Guild card.

The sacrifice eventually paid off when Furst won the Animal House role—after six auditions. Though the movie added considerable luster to John Belushi's fast-rising star, Furst fell back to a string of forgettable "youth comedies" before joining St. Elsewhere's staff. Soon after St. Eligius Hospital closed its doors, Furst found Faith—which, despite its ratings success, will not return in the fall. "We were in the Top 15," says Furst, "but I guess we fell off too much from Roseanne. I can't figure out the network."

While his career seems to be constantly shifting gears, Furst's family concerns are happily idling. Lorraine, a Catholic who converted, diligently oversees the children's Jewish religious instruction. She also insists that Nathan, 10, and Griffith, 7, take piano lessons ("They play TV and movie theme songs," Furst quips) and discourages them from eating red meat ("I sneak them to McDonald's," he admits). When it comes to her husband, actress-turned-homemaker Lorraine is more indulgent. "He's really a wonderful actor," she coos, sitting close beside him on their living room couch. "And he's cute."

Furst's reaction is worthy of Father Podmaninski. "Aw c'mon," he says.

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