05/06/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
MITCH PILEGGI WALKS DOWN THE streets of Vancouver, B.C., where his hit TV show, The X-Files, is filmed. A baseball cap and dark glasses shield him from recognition but do nothing to dispel the sense that this is a man with bad intentions. "I have that kind of malevolent look about me, I guess," he says in his steely baritone.
For much of his career, Pileggi, 44, has played psychopaths like Horace Pinker, a convict who returns from the dead in Wes Craven's 1989 Shocker. For the last three years, however, instead of breaking heads he's been turning them as Skinner, an FBI assistant director on The X-Files. The uptight Skinner is both the nemesis and savior of his subordinates, agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), as they pursue the paranormal through the maple leaves. "Though he plays a stern disciplinarian," says the show's executive producer, Chris Carter, "Mitch has a certain gentleness viewers really took to."
Gentleness isn't the only thing they took to. "A lot of women want to kiss my head," he says, doffing his cap. Ironically, Pileggi's baldness nearly kept him from getting the role. "He looked a little extreme," says Carter, recalling the actor's first two auditions. By his third try, Pileggi had stopped shaving his head and grown out what hair he does have. "I went in with this surly attitude," he says. "Maybe they were just trying to piss me off so I'd be that way."
Those who should know say this crossness is pure acting. "Mitch is a tough, honest, standup guy," says Anderson, "but he can get really goofy." Adds Duchovny: "He's been known to suddenly break into show tunes."
Clowning around is how Pileggi found his love for performing. The fifth of six children of Vito Pileggi, an operations manager for a defense contractor, and Maxine, a homemaker, he remembers that as a fourth grader in San Antonio, "during recess on rainy days I'd sing Elvis songs for everybody." Soon afterward his father's company got a new contract and the family moved to Ankara, Turkey. One day in chorus at his American high school there, he wowed his teacher with "Maria" from West Side Story and was soon playing the lead in school musicals. After graduation, he drifted away from the stage and wound up getting a business degree from the University of Texas. Later, he got a job in Iran as a housing accounting specialist for another defense contractor, moving there with Debbie Andrews, an Army brat he'd met while studying in California. They married in 1978 but moved back to the U.S. during the Iranian revolution and settled in Austin, where Pileggi began acting again, doing community theater and small parts on TV. After a 1983 divorce, Pileggi took his act to Hollywood, playing villains in such ersatz epics as Death Wish 4.
Even though he's got a steady gig now, Pileggi still hasn't settled down. He isn't in a relationship, he says, and he splits his time between a one-bedroom apartment in Valencia, Calif., and a hotel room in Vancouver. "But," he says, "at least now I get to be somebody who's not a maniac and can hold a normal conversation."
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Vancouver