The World on a String

updated 12/20/1999 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/1999 01:00AM

Poor Pierce Brosnan. As if all those steamy James Bond love scenes weren't tough enough, the star found himself sloshing around in a water tank with curvaceous costar Denise Richards last June while shooting 007's latest field trip, The World Is Not Enough. "Those three weeks were just her and me getting in wet clothes and staying wet all day," Brosnan says. "We had fun, but it was bloody hard work."

Only Bond could be so blasé. Among mere mortals, Richards, 28, who plays nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones, is triggering a meltdown. Who cares if her onscreen job is as much of a stretch as the tight tank top she wears for the part? Not Bond fans, who so far have shelled out more than $90 million in ticket sales, putting the movie on track to become the top-grossing Bond film. For Richards, who won many a fan's undying lust with her role in 1998's Wild Things, Bond may mean breakout. "At first, people will think she is just a beautiful girl," says John Papsidera, who cast her in last summer's Drop Dead Gorgeous. "But she is a very well-defined actress."

And, by all accounts, an all-around sweetheart. Says Casper Van Dien, her costar in 1997's Starship Troopers: "She's one of the most beautiful women in this business and also one of the kindest." Boyfriend Patrick Muldoon, 31, first met Richards in a 1990 acting class. "I caught her out of the corner of my eye," the former Melrose Place actor says. "Once I sat down, I had to turn back, pretending like I was stretching, to make sure that what I saw was as beautiful as what I thought I saw." The pair dated on and off until earlier this year, when Muldoon finally moved into Richards's L.A. townhouse, which they share with two cats and two dogs. Domestic bliss is ensured by a weekly housekeeper ("[Denise] is kind of messy and I'm a complete slob," says Muldoon), a mutual love of Vanilla Swiss Almond Häagen Dazs and the fact that Richards, says Muldoon, is "real, and she always has been."

Just don't call her "fish lips." Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, Richards, the older daughter of Irv, 50, a phone company employee, and his wife, Joni, 46 (now owners of a coffeehouse in San Diego), was teased for her puffy pout. A skinny kid with glasses, "She was fairly quiet," recalls Jon Fellows, 28, an investment analyst who claims to have shared her first kiss in seventh grade. "You wouldn't have thought she would become a star."

But by the time the family moved to Oceanside, Calif., when Denise was 15, she was working part-time as a model. After graduating from high school in 1989, she headed for L.A., appearing on shows such as Melrose Place before landing a film role as a pilot in Starship Troopers.

Her career may have taken off, but friends say Richards remains earth-bound. Screenwriter Bruce Fierstein recalls going for a coffee with her on a Sunday afternoon in London, where she was filming World. Just as they arrived, the cafe closed. "As they slammed the door in our face," says Fierstein, "Denise turns to me and says, 'Yes, I'm a big movie star!' "

Anne-Marie O'Neill
Elizabeth Leonard and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles and Hayes Ferguson in Downers Grove

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