Ten years ago, Malcolm Gets was hoisting boxes as a stock boy at Barneys New York. Today, on a blustery October day, he's walking in Manhattan carrying a Barneys shopping bag which contains a new outfit to wear on Conan O'Brien's show. Gets' triumphant return comes thanks to his break-out performance as acerbic cartoon colorist Richard Karinsky on Caroline in the City. But Gets' coup has cost him more than his new duds: ''I cannot say I like living in L.A. at all,'' he laments. ''I come back here every hiatus. I have nothing else there except for the show.''
At least Caroline gives him a taste of the city. Gets' Richard is one of the few TV New Yorkers who actually seem to live there he's got the downbeat attitude down. Which is surprising, since Gets, 31, grew up in Gainesville, Fla., the child of a British couple. At 19, he abandoned a budding career as a classical pianist to set out for Broadway but wound up on Sixth Avenue as an actor-puppeteer in Radio City's Christmas show. ''I would stand on that stage with camels and sheep and donkeys, kicking my legs and singing 'Christ is risen,''' Gets recalls. ''And I would think, This is not my life.''
A stint at the Yale School of Drama helped change that life. He won two Obies for his work Off Broadway and played F. Scott Fitzgerald in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. After reading Caroline, Gets was drawn to Richard even though he felt they were nothing alike. But now, says Gets, ''I think, 'Oh my God, I'm so much like him it terrifies me.''' How, exactly? ''I'm angst-ridden. I create the most unbelievable situations in my head.''
The role has its advantages. ''It's so great to go to rehearsal feeling like s--- and I can stay that way!'' Gets exults. ''In Hello, Dolly!, you have to be fabulous! Screw that.'' Spoken like a true New Yorker.