06/04/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
When a villain pointed a gun at his character's head in a recent episode of CBS's hit series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, George Eads didn't play the scene like a typically stoic TV tough guy. Instead, as the Las Vegas forensics unit's gung ho investigator Nick Stokes, he reacted the way a real victim might: whimpering and begging for his life. For inspiration Eads drew on his own terrifying experience more than a decade ago, when he was a college student working nights at a Dallas hamburger joint.
"These two guys came in wearing sweats and hoods and one of them put a nickel-plated .38 to my forehead," says Eads, 34. "I could see the bullets and the hammer was back and his hand was shaking."
Though the thieves ran off without harming him, "he used that experience [to play the CSI
scene] and was so scared the tears just came," says costar William Petersen, who is also one of the show's producers. "You have all [sorts of] feelings—humiliation, embarrassment, fear. He is very sensitive and in tune [with his emotions]."
And something more, as female fans of the Top 5 show have already noticed. "He's cute, let's face it," says castmate Marg Helgenberger, 42. On the set, she says, they flirt with each other. "It's an ego boost [for me]," says the happily married actress with a laugh, adding that Eads, who is unattached, can also be cranky when he shows up. "George is the first to admit that he's no morning person," she says. "I don't pepper him with, 'How are you doing?' or 'How was your weekend?' "
Understandably, since the 10-hour daily grind of CSI plunges cast and crew into a gruesome milieu of horrific homicides and decomposing corpses that "gives me really bad nightmares," says Eads.
It's hardly his first exposure to dead bodies, though. Growing up in Belton, Texas, where his father, Arthur, now 59 and retired, was a district attorney, and his mother, Vivian, 60, is a junior high school principal (divorced, each has remarried), young George would sometimes get a look at the chilling crime-scene photos his father brought home with him.
The fear of "disappointing my dad," says Eads, prompted him to shelve his early ambitions as an actor—he performed in plays at Belton High School despite razzing from football teammates—and to major in business at Texas Tech University. But after graduating in 1990, he proved a washout as a copy machine salesman—"I couldn't seal the deal," he says—and quit in 1992. Soon after, on a friend's recommendation, he enrolled in a Dallas acting school.
Encouraged by his mother and his sister, Angela, now 36, Eads won modeling and commercial gigs in Texas before driving in 1994 to L.A., where he slept on floors and scrounged meals while making audition rounds. I "It was a lonely time," he says. "Of course, with sales jobs I was used to rejection." His break came in 1996, when he nailed the part of wily scoundrel Travis Peterson on Aaron Spelling's prime-time soap Savannah.
TV movie roles followed, and in 1998, after losing out in a bid to play Laura Dern's husband in the Showtime movie The Baby Dance, Eads received a consoling phone call from executive producer Jodie Foster. "She told me how much potential I had," he says. "You don't quit when you have that kind of inspiration."
Shortly after, in fact, Eads found himself going mano a mano with George Clooney
in several episodes of ER that had the two hunky docs vying for the affections of Nurse Hathaway Julianna Margulies). Recalls Eads: "George would joke, 'Are you trying to steal my girl?' I'd say, 'You don't mind, do you?' "
Rather than as a rival, William Petersen saw Eads's Nick Stokes as a potential sidekick for his own CSI character and cast Eads after just one meeting last year. Today the two are friends and golfing buddies. As for his romantic life, Eads, who shares a cottage-style two-story house in Hollywood with his blond Labrador Maverick, says, "I do want to get married and have a family." But his career comes first these days, accompanied by those work-related nightmares. In one, "there is just blood spattering—no screams," he says. In another, "big block letters—DOA—kept coming up." Hmmm. Might be time for a vacation from CSI—ASAP.
Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles