Bruce Fretts
May 16, 1997 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Sensitive is not the first word that springs to mind when describing Dr. Peter Benton, the brusque surgeon played by Eriq La Salle on ER. Yet with the premature birth of Benton’s child, TV’s hardest hard-ass has started to reveal a kinder, gentler side. ”This shows a vulnerable part of someone who is used to being in control,” the soft-spoken La Salle says from L.A., where he just wrapped ER‘s third season (the finale airs May 15). ”He has to sit by and let everything rest in God’s hands.”

That’s no easy task for Benton, who seems to suffer from a God complex himself. ”People call Benton arrogant because he honestly doesn’t give a f— what people think of him,” argues La Salle. ”But this man doesn’t have time to be arrogant. He’s harder on himself than anybody else could possibly be.”

Will fatherhood dull Benton’s rough edges? La Salle says no: ”He has more complications than ever. Once he becomes a sappy Joe Niceguy, then I would lose interest.”

Benton, a nice guy? Not a chance. After all, he barely communicated with his child’s mom (Lisa Nicole Carson) during her pregnancy. ”It’s realistic that this guy who only knows how to focus on his career would be reluctant in the beginning,” says La Salle. Still, he’s determined not to turn Benton into a stereotypical absentee black father: ”It won’t be the fairy tale of ‘Let’s get married,’ but Benton wants to be part of his child’s life. That’s a big step for someone like him.”

Playing such a prickly character hasn’t made La Salle the most popular actor with ER‘s fans (Rosie O’Donnell often rants on her show about how much she ”hates” Benton). ”Some people take stuff a little too seriously,” the actor shrugs. ER exec producer John Wells puts it more bluntly: ”People walk up to Eriq in the supermarket and say, ‘Why are you such a s—?’ That’s a difficult thing to deal with.”

La Salle’s status as the most publicity-shy ER star probably hasn’t helped his case. ”I don’t like doing fluff,” he explains. ”That’s one thing Benton and I definitely have in common.” Adds Wells: ”Eriq’s not interested in doing the Hunks of ER photo shoot. That’s not how he perceives himself.”

So how does the 34-year-old Hartford native perceive himself? ”As a serious actor and an aspiring director,” says La Salle, who shot his first full-length film, the acclaimed HBO basketball drama Rebound, during last year’s hiatus. Although he has no projects lined up for summer (”I can’t say it’s 100 percent by choice,” he admits), he’s busy developing Ambushed, his big-screen acting-directing debut, which he describes as ”The Defiant Ones-meets-Witness-meets-The Fugitive.” La Salle’s character — a detective who protects the 9-year-old son of a murdered KKK leader — may be a hard pill for ER fans to swallow. And that’s fine with La Salle.

”I have a future career beyond ER,” he says. ”Benton is such a strong character that I could easily become pigeonholed. That is not what I have in mind.” In that sense, La Salle is a lot like Benton: Just when you think you’ve got him pinned down, he surprises you.

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