As he stirs a bowl of oatmeal in a genteel Los Angeles restaurant, Peter MacNicol eyes a reporter's tape recorder as if it were a gun. ''I'll pretend it's a kind of a pepper mill,'' he says quietly. A week later at a photo session, it takes a few beers to get MacNicol to relax in front of the camera. Though he's a veteran of Broadway and films (Sophie's Choice, Ghostbusters II) and holds a stand-out role on the CBS hit Chicago Hope, MacNicol seems oddly uncomfortable playing himself.
''Acting is about covering up traces of who you are and just being the character,'' says the boyish-looking MacNicol, 37, Texan who now lives in L.A. with his wife, Marsue. ''I think it's easier to accept people in roles if you don't know a lot about them.''
The success of Hope has led MacNicol to speak up. As the fiercely combative yet personally insecure hospital lawyer Alan ''The Eel'' Birch, MacNicol is playing one of the most intriguing characters on TV. But when the series began, his character was barely in evidence. At first he resisted complaining to Hope creator David E. Kelley. ''I've not wanted to be one of those whiny actors,'' says MacNicol. ''But in October I went to David and just sat in a chair with my arms up in the air. It was kind of a wordless cry for help: Please, attend to me!'' The writers came around.
During the Hope hiatus, MacNicol is subsuming himself in another unusual role, as the bizarre insectivore Renfield in Mel Brooks'Dracula: Dead and Loving It. ''Renfield has an alarming laugh,'' says MacNicol as a waiter clears away the oatmeal. ''I would do it here except that they would call security.'' And far be it from Peter MacNicol to create a stir.
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