From Cad to Dad

updated 08/18/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Like Sandy Cohen, the Bronx-born Los Angeles public defender he plays on the new FOX series The O.C., Peter Gallagher is something of a fish out of water. And a magnet for neighborhood sharks. "People just come up knocking on my door all the time," says the Manhattan-based actor, who is currently staying in a beach-side rental in L.A. "The other day this guy came by and told me, 'Hey, I'm on a championship soccer team, and we need money. Can you help me out and buy some magazines?'" How much would it cost? "Oh, about $270," Gallagher was informed. "Listen, buddy," he barked, "I'm from New York, so I don't believe a word you're saying. But you got a lot of [nerve], so here's 20 bucks. Now get out of here."

Gallagher, 47, may be a seasoned New Yorker, but don't be fooled by his bluster. "He's like an excited schoolkid on the Set," says Doug Liman, director of The O.C. (which stands for Orange County, the upper-crust community in Southern California where the idealistic Cohen resides with his wealthy wife and two kids). A Broadway veteran, Gallagher "can also be counted on to break into a show tune for no apparent reason," says Liman. "It's mind-boggling how unjaded he is."

Especially for an actor best known for playing cads, connivers and malcontents in movies like 1989's sex, lies and videotape and 1999's American Beauty. "I've played so many lowlifes," Gallagher says, "many of whom were essentially plot devices, that I had to work overtime to make the audience believe they might actually inhabit this planet." Gallagher's more comfortable in his real-life role as dad to Jamey, 13, and Kathryn, 10, his children with wife Paula, 48, a former video producer. "I look up to him," says Adam Brody, 23, who plays his teen son Seth. "The other day I told him I thought about buying sex, lies and videotape but I couldn't. I never want to see him having sex, because I picture him as my dad now, and it would be weird."

Growing up the youngest of three siblings in the Bronx and suburban Armonk, N.Y., Gallagher greatly admired his own father, Tom, an advertising executive who died in 1999 (mom Mary is a retired bacteriologist). In fact, despite impressive turns in high school plays, Gallagher majored in economics at Tufts. "My father was paying for my education, so I wanted him to get his money's worth," he says. Plus, "I was scared to study acting because I was afraid I'd lose my passion for it."

That wasn't his only anxiety. At Tufts, he met classmate Paula Harwood. "I thought she was so cool, but I always got nervous around her," he says. "It took her seven years before she'd go out with me." Says Paula: "I think we were [both] just young and shy." After dating for 2½ years, they wed in 1983.

It took Gallagher far less time to succeed as an actor. While at Tufts he had taken on roles in community theater, and within months of graduating he made his professional debut in the 1977 Broadway revival of Hair. His unsparing portrayal of a man sleeping with his wife's sister in Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape was hailed by critics. Still, major stardom eluded him. Gallagher shrugs. "I don't think I ever aspired to be a household name," he says.

His own household takes priority. For the past 20 years his mother has been suffering from Alzheimer's disease. "Now you just ache for her to say your name," he says of Mary, who receives home-nursing care. "But I cherish those moments when I'm dancing with her or singing to her, and I can feel her lighting up."

"He has a great passion for whatever he's doing," says wife Paula, "whether it's his work or teaching his kids how to boogey board." His kids, being kids, are impressed by other things. "The other day I mentioned that I had seen [American Idol's] Justin and Kelly at the studio," says Gallagher. "You should have seen their faces."

Michael A. Lipton
Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles

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