11/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
DON'T LET THAT BEGUILING SMILE fool you. Newcomer Paolo Montalban will roll right over anyone who gets in his way. Yes, Jason Alexander, that means you. Last July, while rehearsing ABC's $12 million musical version of Cinderella (airing Nov. 2), Prince Charming (Montalban) had to sidestep his valet (Alexander), whose fall had impeded the prince's pursuit of the title's curfew-challenged damsel (Brandy). After Montalban tiptoed gently over Alexander, director Robert Iscove stopped the action. "Paolo," he commanded, "just step on him. Step on him!" When the cameras rolled, Montalban flattened his crumpled courtier like a pancake. Cut and print!
Even so, Montalban remained starstruck for much of the 28-day shoot, surrounded as he was by such costars as fairy godmother Whitney Houston ("I was completely slack-jawed upon meeting her," says Montalban) and Whoopi Goldberg as the queen ("How wonderful is it," he ponders, "to look into those eyes so honest and true?").
When Montalban suggests "it's a rags-to-riches story," he isn't talking about Cinderella. Before his turn as Prince Charming, the 24-year-old actor toiled in the chorus of the Broadway revival of The King and I for 15 months. But while the gig paid the rent on his small apartment in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, Montalban yearned for something more.
Last spring his agent told him to brush up on Cinderella songs for an audition he'd heard about. "I didn't know what it was for," says Montalban. "I thought it was for some public-access thing." He was the last actor to try out on the last day of a series of auditions that had failed to produce a single promising candidate. "We were desperate and slumped over," says Debra Martin Chase, one of four Cinderella executive producers (including Houston). "But he sang the sweetest sounds, and everybody's head shot up. We were like, 'He's it. The search is over.' "
Indeed, the dashing Montalban seems born to play Prince Charming. When he greets a woman, he's likely to sniff her neck and remark, "I love your perfume." The first time he recorded with Brandy, he presented his 18-year-old costar with a dozen red roses. "Paolo was so kind," she says. "When my throat was hurting, he bought me a whole bag of lozenges. He made it like a fairy tale." Houston agrees. "We all absolutely adored Paolo," she says. "He's gracious and graceful. Strong but tender. He has Cary Grant-like charisma." Not even men are immune to it. "What more would you want?" quips Alexander. "He's handsome, tall, can ride a horse and carries a slipper well."
Not to mention a tune. After his chemist parents—Vivian and Paul—moved to New York City in 1974 from their native Manila, the precocious 4-year-old Paolo and his sister Gloria, then 5 (now a dentistry resident in Jersey City), enrolled at the Lincoln Square Academy, a school specializing in the arts. As a third grader he landed the lead in a school production of Jesus Christ Superstar. At St. Peter's Prep in New Jersey, Montalban, who had already mastered the piano and violin, learned to play the sax, bassoon, flute and piccolo. He entered Rutgers University in 1989 at age 15 on an academic scholarship and quickly encountered ageism of the worst kind. "All through college I couldn't get a date," he says. "Girls would say, 'What? What do you mean you're 15?' "
Montalban instead poured his energy into school productions of Godspell and Closer Than Ever. Signed by a New York City agent, he was cast in 1993 in a national tour of Man of La Mancha, which led to the role in The King and I. "That first night onstage, I wasn't on very long, and all I did was carry a torch," he recalls. "But my parents saw me. My mother was out there, tears streaming down her face. I didn't do a damn thing in the play, but I was on Broadway."
Now, the actor formerly known as Prince Charming says he'd like the fairy tale to continue. "I would love to do a memorable film," says Montalban. "I want to keep learning. I've got the bug."
MARY GREEN in New York City and ELIZABETH LEONARD in Los Angeles