Bruce Fretts
April 26, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Last summer, David Schwimmer was worried. After a spectacularly successful first season, Friends was being moved by NBC from its cushiony Thursday-at-9:30 slot between Seinfeld and ER to the riskier hour of 8 p.m. Eastern time.

”We’re definitely going to lose part of our audience — part of our intelligent audience,” Schwimmer, 29, fretted between takes on the Brooklyn set of his first big-screen vehicle, The Pallbearer. ”In Louisiana, where my girlfriend lives, the show’s going to come on at seven. Nobody’s gonna f—in’ watch it.”

Fans of Schwimmer’s perpetually kvetching Friends character, neurotic paleontologist Ross Geller, shouldn’t have a hard time imagining the actor distressed. They might even assume this is his natural state. But while he’s no stranger to angst, he mixes it with equal parts ambition.

On this day, it might have been the setting that was getting Schwimmer down; he was filming a pivotal Pallbearer scene at a cemetery in which he delivers a eulogy for an ex-high school classmate who committed suicide — a guy he doesn’t even remember. And a guy whose grief-stricken mother (Barbara Hershey) will lure him into a torrid, twisted affair. (Did we mention it’s a comedy?)

Eight months later, Schwimmer’s in a sunnier mood. Friends made the move — and got bigger. ”Those fears were unwarranted,” he admits, chowing down on a bacon-and-eggs breakfast at Ben Frank’s, a sort of upscale IHOP on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard. ”We’ve done what no other show has done in eight years — be a hit at 8 o’clock.”

All is not completely copacetic, however. In true Ross style, Schwimmer is experiencing romantic tribulations (he and his girlfriend, Louisiana lawyer Sarah Trimble, have just split up — ”I’d rather not talk about it, because it’s still too fresh,” he demurs) and finding the dark lining in Friends‘ silver cloud. ”The danger is if the actors become too confident,” says Schwimmer. ”The initial charm of the show is that these are six losers. The more the public perceives that these actors are all really successful, young, hot movie — you know, stars — the less charming the six characters are.”

Schwimmer may hesitate to declare himself a movie star yet, but Hollywood has no such qualms. The Pallbearer doesn’t open until May 3, but its studio, Miramax, has already signed Schwimmer to a seven-figure, multipicture deal. And the project seems like a perfectly chosen cinematic launching pad. ”I knew the first movie out there should be a comedy, and the character shouldn’t be too much of a stretch,” he says. ”Although I think he completely is. My greatest fear is people will see the movie and say, ‘Oh, there’s Ross again.”’

Well, there are some similarities. Both Friends‘ Ross and The Pallbearer‘s Tom are dweeby, sensitive guys who become sexually involved with women they’ve pined for since high school (on Friends, it’s Jennifer Aniston; in The Pallbearer, Gwyneth Paltrow). And both share Schwimmer’s mannerisms — the nervous nasal exhalation before a laugh, the tendency to over-enunciate. Although Tom is less emotionally mature than Ross, the role seems tailor-made for Schwimmer. ”David has great comic timing and a genuine sweetness that comes through,” says Matt Reeves, 29, the film’s cowriter and director. Yet the part wasn’t written for Schwimmer — or anyone in particular.

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