Tackling JFK Jr.

updated 01/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

What can you say when you're an unknown actor who has been chosen to play John F. Kennedy Jr. in America's Prince, the first TV dramatization of the life of the dazzling, doomed political scion? "I hope I did a sensitive job," says Kristoffer Polaha, 25. "I would love a letter from the family saying, 'Thank you very much.' But I doubt that'll happen." You could sooner expect the postal rate to drop. The Kennedys haven't given their blessing either to TBS's Prince, airing Jan. 12 and based on Christopher Andersen's 2000 biography The Day John Died, or to CBS's upcoming rival movie American Son.

Kennedy was only 38 when he perished in 1999 along with wife Carolyn Bessette, 33, and her sister Lauren, 34, while piloting his plane to Hyannisport, Mass. Prince's principal concern, though, is with the frustrations JFK Jr. encountered in life, from the tensions with his mother, who scotched his dreams of acting and insisted he uphold the Kennedy creed of public service, to the pressures of editing George, his unsuccessful magazine mixing politics and celebrity. "Like Hamlet," says Polaha, "John was genuinely conflicted—he literally had a political career in his hands, and it was his choice to be or not to be, to do or not to do."

The Reno native and youngest of three sons—his father, Jerome Polaha, is a local judge, and mother Esther is a registered nurse—wants to be prince of neither Denmark nor America. He just hopes to break through to mainstream stardom after guest parts on shows like Angel, Roswell and Birds of Prey. Chosen from more than 150 Kennedy wannabes in August 2001, Polaha "has the humor, intelligence and special warmth" the role demands, says casting director Robin Lippin. He also has "the chiseled face," adds Lippin, "but we helped with the hair," using lots of spray and a small hairpiece to create the famous Kennedy helmet.

Unlike JFK, Polaha has been able to enjoy love without paparazzi always on the prowl for the clinch moment—which came Dec. 7, when he proposed to his girlfriend of 18 months, Days of Our Lives actress Julianne Morris, 34, while the sun was setting over scenic Big Sur, Calif. Polaha is a genuine romantic, she says. "He's constantly picking me wildflowers."

Until they wed this spring, they're keeping separate apartments in Los Angeles. "We want to live together after we marry," says Polaha. "I'm old school."

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