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Hot Under the Collar

The star is the heart of ABC's new clerical drama ''Nothing Sacred''

Going his way? Well, how many red-blooded American women wouldn't? As the lead priest in ABC's new Nothing Sacred, Kevin Anderson is the sort of hunky Catholic cleric who'd send Saturday Night Live's Mary Katherine Gallagher into spasms of parochial-school lust. And the century-long crush Hollywood has had on dashing priests places Anderson in a fine lineage ranging from Bing Crosby (Going My Way) to Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds).

But Anderson has a few humanizing factors Der Bingle didn't: Nothing Sacred's Father Ray broods, fights, flirts, questions the existence of God, and wonders if abortion might not be the better option sometimes. What his man of God might prove most mortal in facing down, however, is one tough time slot: Thursdays at 8 p.m., opposite NBC's twentysomething juggernaut, Friends. Which certainly qualifies Sacred as must-pray TV.

''I definitely don't think it's a kids-in-their-20s show,'' says Anderson. Lacking confidence in his own sex appeal to convert that demographic, Anderson instead places his faith in the maturing faithless. ''A big, strong audience, I would think, is lapsed Catholics, or people who have lost faith — which might be people around my age [37], maybe a little older, maybe a little younger....''

Sacred — frequently dubbed the season's best new drama — can also count TV critics among its devotees. The Catholic League, a conservative organization, is another story. The group has already raised a stink about the show's sympathetic voicing of Vatican-defying dissent on sexuality and unplanned pregnancies. In the pilot (written by a Jesuit), for example, Father Ray gets in hot water for counseling a pregnant teen to ''follow your conscience.''

On the other hand, in a subsequent episode, again dealing with abortion, Father Ray is upbraided for that ambiguity by an older colleague who's allowed some surprisingly good, traditionalist licks. ''We're not trying to imply that Father Ray is always on the side of the angels,'' says cocreator David Manson, responding to claims that the show favors ''progressive'' clerics. ''We're not trying to create arch characters in which the liberals are good guys and the conservatives bad guys. It doesn't make for interesting drama.''

For all those agnostics out there, the producers also claim they weren't trying to create a ''Catholic show'' per se. According to coexec producer Richard Kramer, Sacred is like any ''workplace show,'' where ''things happen in a highly pressurized way, like the police station or hospital.''

But inasmuch as the series is aimed at baby boomers reevaluating their spirituality, Anderson is the perfect lead. Raised in rural Gurnee, Ill., the actor, along with his siblings, attended parochial school, then easily lapsed into Easter-'n'-Christmas Catholicism after taking off for Chicago's Goodman School of Drama. A stint at the Steppenwolf Theatre led to work on Broadway and the London stage (as the male lead in Sunset Boulevard) and a spotty career in the movies (Sleeping With the Enemy, A Thousand Acres). Only lately has he flirted with...un-lapsing.

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