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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Christian Clemenson on the virtues of playing Socrates to ‘Brisco’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Christian Clemenson’s prep school/Ivy League background suits Socrates Poole, his character on “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.,” quite well.

Clemenson attended the Phillips Exeter Academy in Andover, Mass., and then went on to Harvard and Yale. Socrates, a kind of Sancho Panza to Brisco’s (Bruce Campbell) Don Quixote, is a skittish, snobby attorney. But the gentle Clemenson says modestly of himself: “Nothing defines me quite so accurately or compellingly as Iowa,” where he grew up.

The 35-year-old actor manages to maintain his solid Midwestern roots and apply a prep school-like attitude toward his role in Fox’s irreverent Western--and still have fun.

It may be hard to believe, but the 6-foot-2 actor dropped 100 pounds between filming 1987’s “Broadcast News,” in which he played the unflappable video editor, and 1990’s “Bad Influence,” where you may remember him as James Spader’s pot-addicted brother with a conscience.

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The weight loss, courtesy of “eating responsibly,” led to a whole new set of roles, including “Brisco’s” Socrates. Still, Clemenson acknowledges, “I don’t go out for romantic leads. I still think of myself as a character actor. I’m not the handsome leading man. I have too many quirks.”

Clemenson jokes that he now auditions for roles of “the boyfriend who screws up or the boyfriend who gets dumped.”

One perk of shedding pounds he really enjoys is, “You get a much better wardrobe.”

Even though his “Brisco” wardrobe consists of prissy suits instead of traditional cowboy garb, he’s thrilled to be working on a Western. “It was always my dream to be in a John Ford Western, shooting in Monument Valley,” he says. The Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank may not fit that bill, but “since I’m blessed with great powers of imagination, at least when I’m on a horse, it’s tremendous.”

Carleton Cuse, executive producer and creator of “Brisco,” praises Clemenson’s “tremendous range of acting talents. You can’t give him anything he’s not capable of doing. He adds the voice of intelligence and caution to balance our cast. He’s also a lot of fun, a gifted comedian and a good dramatic actor.”

Growing up in an “idyllic and rural” existence on the outskirts of Humbolt, Iowa, Clemenson never entertained any thoughts of acting as a profession. At 14, he went to prep school at Exeter. Contrary to his expectations, he found the boarding school to be a progressive place. But he developed an interest in acting to ease his homesickness. “My mom said, ‘Do something fun--audition for a play,’ ” he says dryly. “I blame her for my career.”

After graduating from the Yale School of Drama, he went on to NBC’s daytime drama “Another World.” Soaps, he says, are “one of the hardest things to do. We struggle (on “Brisco”) to do seven to eight pages of script a day, and they do an entire hour with up to 90 pages.”

Clemenson’s no stranger to working at a variety of paces. His university theater background helped him land the role of the stage manager in Broadway’s “Noises Off,” which he played for a year.

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Despite turns in series television and the movies “Heartburn” and “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Clemenson continued to live low-rent, “in a pretty bad area of Hollywood.”

Recently, however, the bachelor bought his dream home in Los Angeles. “I was always working and saving pennies,” he says wryly. “Really, one of the basic components of my personality that I bring from the Midwest is my incredible cheapness. This is the classic case of the worst house in a great neighborhood.”

Another basic Midwestern trait is steadfastness, which Socrates offers on screen: “A lot of what Socrates does is provide a lot of information for Brisco,” the actor says.

Off-screen, says a Fox representative, Clemenson is “the glue who holds the show together.”

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“The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on Fox.


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