updated 03/11/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/11/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST
He should. The 27-year-old actor was just promoted from recurring character to full cast member on the top-rated NBC drama. "I took him to lunch in the commissary, and he was grinning from ear to ear," says costar Laura Innes. "He was looking around like, 'Wow! There goes Jennifer Aniston!'"
The son of lawyer David and museum executive Jacqueline, both 54, Atkins grew up in Chicago with sister Makeba, 25, a mechanical engineer. High school musicals led to a theater degree from Northwestern University in 1997; then in late 2000, after working as a waiter and a Victoria's Secret stock boy, he moved to L.A. to pursue acting full-time. A failed pilot he did for ER producer John Wells led to his being cast on the show last fall.
Although his hiring came as costar Eriq La Salle quit, Atkins brushes off speculation that he's the show's African-American replacement. "My skin color is what it is," he says. "Hopefully I'll have my own unique presence." He already has his own fan base. After his first episode aired last November, he scored calls from old friends across the country and a hug from a T-shirt street vendor. "They tickle me pink," says the actor, who is single. But, as ER executive producer Jack Orman points out, "if Sharif is going to be recognized around America, it's time to invest in a bed."