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Tom in the Eye of the Storm

The former TV actor has a scene-stealing role in ''True Lies'' while his personal life heads in a new direction

In the day after his wife, Roseanne, filed a stack of papers against him in Los Angeles Superior Court and the day before the opening of the movie that now stands to save his professional butt, Tom Arnold is marking time in the blandly luxurious L.A. condominium he has been subletting while his wife sues to keep his personal butt out of the nearby gigantic house they own together. It's a hot July day, a flat white light fills the panoramic living room window, and Arnold the attractive costar of the hit movie True Lies is making a huge effort to distinguish himself from Arnold the unattractive TV personality the world has met before: He is trying not to blab.

The effort is taking its toll. A big, loud, 35-year-old man dressed in a forest green Polo shirt and gray sweatshorts, almost unbearably nervous, with a precisely landscaped hairline and a chalk-dry mouth, he plops uncomfortably onto a beige, pillowy couch he does not appear to plop on often. He shifts one way and then another to find a good position from which to jiggle his meaty, bare legs. He calls out to two unseen assistants for absolute quiet. He calls out to an unseen cook for bottled water. He scratches drastically at his arms, which have become an exhibition corridor of tattoos; one design on display is a circle in which is a triangle in which are the letters AA, possibly alluding to Alcoholics Anonymous, the granddaddy of all 12-step recovery programs. (Tom has talked, not very anonymously, about how such organizations got him off cocaine around the time of his marriage.) His eyes shift and he licks his lips and he rakes his flesh with his nails as if he could claw his way out of his own skin.

Good fortune, it seems, is as tough for him to take as bad. Because just when Tom Arnold might have been written off as a grating opportunist whose time has finally gone, he appears in True Lies in a scene-stealing role as Arnold Schwarzenegger's likable, wisecracking spy buddy who does the unglamorous in-the-truck logistical stuff while the bigger star tangos in a tuxedo. Whereupon it turns out that this compulsive, recovering drug abuser who styles himself as a former Iowa meat packer really does have talent. As a result, critics have called him ''surprisingly winning'' and ''hilarious.'' And audiences who have known only his boorish TV persona, and who have booed his name when it appears in the credits at the beginning of the movie, are cheering him at the end. After six years of working in television with his wife's powerful support but with little critical validation — first in his various maritally bestowed capacities on Roseanne, and later on The Jackie Thomas Show and Tom, two maritally bestowed sitcom bombs of his own — after six years of being Mr. Roseanne, Tom's calling is not on TV at all. It's in the movies.

And just when he's being hailed, he's being hauled into court.

On a day when he is in professional heaven and personal hell, Tom Arnold speaks like a man who has tattooed over his feelings for so long that he has no idea anymore what naked emotions feel like.

First Arnold says, ''I'm moving on with my life. I'm fairly I'm pretty happy. I don't want to talk about how I feel. I think you can draw your own conclusions.'' (Furious elbow scratching.)

Later he says, ''No matter what happens now, I'm doin' better than I was yesterday and the day before. There's nothin' that anybody can do that can take away from how I feel about doing this movie.'' (Excited lip-licking.)

And then: ''I am not with Roseanne anymore. Anyone who is with her will probably become famous and in the media. You know, I did a lot of stupid stuff and acted out in a lot of stupid ways. And I've learned from that.'' (Active knee-bouncing.)

And, eventually: ''Hey, is something on fire??!!'' The question is shouted to the unseen cook; the answer is that he is experiencing the normal aroma of garlic cooking. ''Oh. Is that what it is? I thought it was an electrical fire. Okay. Good. Thank you.'' (Scratch, jiggle, scratch.)

After 10 minutes with this revved-up, mixed-up composite of swagger and low self-esteem, a visitor wants to scratch too.

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