David James Elliott uses shoes to get into character.

To transform himself into Lt. Harmon Rabb Jr., the totally charming and totally competent Navy lawyer he plays on the NBC action-adventure series "JAG," all he has to do is put on the thick-soled black shoes now sitting in the corner of his trailer. "These lovely numbers here, Navy-issue shoes," says Elliott, pointing to the closet where the shoes poke out beneath his character's starched whites and khakis. "Shoes are hugely important to who your character is."

Today, Elliott is wearing a pair of Nike high tops, so he's just being plain ol' David while knocking back an Evian on his lunch break from filming a "JAG" scene at the "embassy" (in reality, a nunnery in Los Feliz).

But many of Elliott's fans are looking beyond his feet. The disarmingly good-looking Elliott probably could be signed to model the Calvin Klein jeans he's wearing today. Yet the actor is down to Earth--greeting a visitor with a warm handshake and a huge smile. He hasn't a clue that the buzz is out: There's a new stud on the airwaves.

"That's surprising. I haven't experienced any of that yet," he says.

Maybe it's because he's been so busy. "I haven't really been out. It's been total immersion in this," he says of "JAG," the show from "Magnum, P.I." producer Donald Bellisario in which he plays an attorney for the Judge Advocate General.

The only adulation he seems to acknowledge comes from his 2-year-old daughter." 'Daddy. That's Daddy on TV,' " he says, imitating her.

For many, though, Elliott may be a new face. "Seinfeld" fans may recall him as Carl the Moving Guy. And "Melrose Place" viewers know him as the recurring football hunk (with a drinking and sexual addiction) who met Alison at a rehab center.

Elliott, who just recently hit the big time with his starring role in "JAG," also stars Sunday and Monday in NBC's "Degree of Guilt," a movie based on Richard North Patterson's suspense novels. Elliott plays a lawyer whose life spins out of control.

The actor is thrilled with the way his own career is swirling, although it might be in a different direction than he envisioned when studying at a prestigious acting school in Toronto. He later worked at Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where his favorite Shakespearean role was Richard II. "The poetry--it's so grand and so beautiful," he says. If "JAG" isn't quite Shakespeare, it's nonetheless a thrill for him. "To be working with Don Bellisario in a network prime-time series," he says, still in awe, "it's very exciting."

Bellisario is equally pleased with Elliott playing Harmon, better known as Harm. "He's a good actor with a wonderful charm to him. That's what I was looking for in this character, that Tom Selleck warmth and charm and vulnerability and sense of humor." But it took three auditions over three months for him to see that sense of humor in Elliott. "The third time he opened up. And I hired him."

Another thing that made Elliott just right for Harm: "He has a military bearing," Bellisario says of the 6-foot actor. "He brings great believability to the character."

Although Elliott, who is from Toronto, doesn't have a military background, he says he's starting to take on some military traits. "I'm starting to feel like I'm in the Navy," he says, putting on his character's white Navy hat and demonstrating a perfect, "Aye, sir."

The military discipline is carrying over into Elliott's real life. To stay in shape to hang out of helicopters, Elliott trains boot-camp style. Dumbbells sit on the floor of his trailer. "Every night at the end of the day I go home and work out. I watch my diet and drink a lot of water," he says.

Scott Bakula, star of Bellisario's "Quantum Leap," gave Elliott some tips on how to stay in shape at a launch party for "JAG." And at the same party, Magnum himself offered Elliott advice on developing his character. Selleck said, as recounted by Elliott, "You have to have something to hang your hat on." Adds Elliott: " He had those Magnumisms that I really enjoyed."

The "Jag" star hopes that Harm will be known for his own quirks, but says his character is still evolving. To give more depth to Harm, a Navy pilot before joining JAG, Elliott has done extensive research. "I'm reading about pilots in Vietnam. I'm reading Peter Arnette's 'Live From the Battlefield'."

Certainly not in Harm's way is his JAG partner, Lt. Meg Austin (Tracey Needham), with whom he enjoys some serious repartee. But Elliott won't reveal where the relationship is headed. "What I find interesting is surfing that line between being friends, being professionals and having the protocol within the Navy."

Elliott acknowledges it's hard to juggle a home life with wife and child and a hectic schedule. "You really have to be a bit of a Zen master to maintain your sanity and your relationships. Wherever I am, I just try to be there," he says.

Although he plans to segue into feature films, Elliott's very happy with where he is right now. "I hope 'JAG' has a long, full life because I see nothing but potential."

Not bad shoes to be in.

"JAG" airs Saturdays on NBC at 8 p.m. "Degree of Guilt" airs Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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