The Sacrificial Man : Christopher McDonald's new series is his 'T&L;' vindication

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Geena Davis' dimwitted, chauvinistic Southern pig of a spouse in the much talked-about hit film "Thelma & Louise," Christopher McDonald was the man America loved to hate last spring.

This winter it will probably happen again: "Thelma & Louise" hits video stores this week, where it will surely be a Top 10 rental.

But in person, the tall, affable McDonald--dressed in jeans, flannel shirt and cowboy boots--has nice guy written all over him. He's friendly, solicitous and funny, chatting in his small dressing room at the set of the NBC mid-season series "Walter and Emily."

Happily married to actress Lupe Gidley, whom he met three years ago while they were performing together at New Mexico Repertory, McDonald melts at the mention of his year-old son, Riley. "He's a little darling," McDonald cooed, proudly showing off snapshots of a plump baby boy. "He's a glorious, beautiful boy. He is soooo cute. Look at that face! He smiles and the world lights up."

On "Walter and Emily," the nice guy theme continues. McDonald plays Matthew Collins, the sportswriter son of Cloris Leachman and Brian Keith who asks his parents to help him raise his 11-year-old son. "He is a regular guy, a normal guy," McDonald said of Collins.

Which was exactly what McDonald wanted to play after "Thelma & Louise." Not surprisingly, the film brought him countless offers to play oafs.

"I had to turn them down because it was the same type thing--'Get him. He's a jerk,' " McDonald said.

"I was looking for something completely different from what I had gotten all of this attention of late."

The attention has included some less-than-pleasant encounters with the public. McDonald recalled one incident that occurred while driving around Los Angeles in his father's Cadillac soon after the film's May release.

"There were these two girls driving along next to me," McDonald said. "I could tell they recognized me. One said, 'Oh, my God. It's that guy from 'Thelma & Louise'! Shoot him' "!

His wife is much easier on McDonald. His "Thelma & Louise" performance made her laugh. "He was having so much fun doing it," Gidley said. "It was a part he could roll around and let loose. It was great because he needed to get fat (McDonald gained 36 pounds) and I was pregnant, so we just ate and ate. He is totally different (in real life). He is a great guy."

"My actor friends thought I was terrific because they know I'm not like that in the least," McDonald said.

McDonald, previously known to TV viewers for his recurring role as Laverne's husband on NBC's "Empty Nest," said he chose his clothing carefully when auditioning for "Thelma & Louise."

"I wore something that made me feel like a carpet salesman guy would feel," he said. That included wearing a gold chain with a Roman numeral one as a charm, which he ended up wearing in the movie.

"So I put this No. 1 on and this leisure suit on," he said. "I just bouffanted my hair up because I know people like that. You see them at the airports--just a little bit full of themselves and missing it completely--and lots of polyester, but sensible shoes because he is on his feet a lot."

When he won the role, McDonald found himself playing opposite his ex-fiance, Geena Davis, whom he was engaged to before she met and married Jeff Goldblum (now her ex-husband).

"We were together for a while," he said, good-naturedly. "We were playing house and we were going to do the old marriage thing. She was wearing the ring. Then she went off to do her first film on location ("Transylvania 6-5000") and (Davis and Goldblum) hooked up."

Making the movie with his old flame, though, "was great," he said. "It was really cathartic."

"Walter and Emily" airs Saturdays at 8:30 on NBC.

"Thelma & Louise" is available on MGM/UA Home Video ($94.99) on Wednesday.

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