Man Among Men

updated 08/07/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Two days after X-Men's July 14 opening, Hugh Jackman couldn't help himself. He had to see how audiences were reacting to his brooding portrayal of the talon-tipped Wolverine. Leaving his Manhattan apartment with 2-month-old son Oscar in tow, he headed for a nearby theater, only to discover the perils of starring in a hit movie. "There was a huge queue going around the corner," Jackman says. "I'm thinking, 'I either have to go to the front and say who I am, but that's really not me, or wait at the end, but those people weren't going to get in anyway.' So I failed."

Hardly. X-Men pulled in almost $55 million that weekend, the highest-grossing opening for a non-sequel in history. Drooling X-philes are already dubbing the Sydney-born Jackman the latest "Down Under wonder," and even his costars can't stop swooning. "He's the perfect man," says Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who plays the shape-shifting, blue-hued Mystique. "He's talented, bright, sweet, charming and gracious. Everyone loves him, and he's sexy as hell."

Persistent, too. Jack-man, 31, first vied for Wolverine in January 1999 while he was playing Curly in a National Theatre revival of Oklahoma! but lost out to Dougray Scott. After Mission: Impossible 2's protracted shooting schedule forced Scott to bow out last September, Jackman swooped back in and nailed the part. "After the screen test," says director Bryan Singer, "I offered him the role on the spot, which is the first time I've done that since I offered Usual Suspects to Kevin Spacey."

The chance to don Wolverine's claws came with one caveat from Singer: "Your life is going to change forever." But even as Hollywood bigwigs take notice, Oscar is keeping Jackman humble. "It seemed whenever I was on the phone too long, Oscar would be like, 'Feed me!' " Jackman says. "I thought, 'He's got the right idea. He's got his feet on the ground.' "

Jackman, on the other hand, wasn't above trying to elevate himself over his two older brothers and two older sisters while growing up in a posh Sydney suburb with father Chris, now 63. (In 1977, his mother, Grace, a homemaker, now 60, left her accountant husband.) Putting on magic shows and Grease dancing contests as a child, Jackman "was determined to get the attention," says sister Sonia, now 35 and an actress in London. "He was confident to be in front of a crowd, even at that age."

While Jackman majored in radio journalism at Sydney's University of Technology, he opted for a drama theory class during his senior year ("It was the easiest course going") and was hooked. A year later he enrolled at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, which led to a 1995 role as a violent inmate in the TV prison drama Correlli opposite future wife Deborra-lee Furness, who played the prison psychologist. They soon began dating ("He cooked me crêpes suzettes," says Furness), and they married in 1996.

Meanwhile, Jackman also became wedded to life onstage, thanks to roles in Aussie productions of Beauty and the Beast and Sunset Boulevard, which led to 1998's London Oklahoma! revival. "Women, men, children and dogs completely went to pieces when Hugh took his shirt off," says Oklahoma! costar Maureen Lipman.

Now it's America's turn. In addition to Animal Husbandry, his romantic comedy with Ashley Judd due out next year, Jackman is signed to play Wolverine for an X-Men sequel. Still, his cinematic success pales in comparison with his new son, whom he and Furness adopted in May. "I feel blessed," says Jack-man. "Tired but blessed."

Jason Lynch
Elizabeth Leonard and Shelli-Anne Couch in Los Angeles, Pete Norman and Suzanne Male in London and Fannie Weinstein in New York City

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