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If you saw "Cactus Flower" or "Marooned" in movie theaters back in 1970, there's a good chance you caught Adam Arkin's acting debut in "People Soup," written and directed by his famous dad, Alan Arkin. "People Soup" was the short that screened before those main features.

But then again, perhaps you wouldn't remember Arkin. "I turned into a sheep dog," says the congenial 36-year-old, relaxing in the lobby of a Beverly Hills hotel. In "People Soup," Arkin and younger brother Matthew "were doing a general kind of childhood experiment using every ingredient in the cupboard. In this case it works, and I end up a sheep dog and Matthew ends up a chicken."

Arkin, who is best known for his recurring role as Adam, the sociopath gourmet chef on CBS' "Northern Exposure," recalls that making "People Soup" was a difficult experience.

"I had a lot of self-induced pressure," says Arkin, who is nominated this year for an Emmy for his work on "Northern Exposure." "I wanted to act so much that I was very self-conscious. It was tense for me." The problem was that he wanted to please and impress his father too much, "rather than just doing it and having fun doing it. I have worked with him many times since then and it has been of late, nothing but a joy.."

No sooner did Arkin graduate from high school than he headed for Hollywood. "I had an agent I signed with in New York who had a West Coast office," Arkin says. "I didn't want to go to college. Literally within two weeks I had a job." And within a year, Arkin was starring in his first TV series, the short-lived CBS comedy "Busting Loose."

Arkin's newest sitcom, "Big Wave Dave's," premieres Monday on CBS for a six-week tryout. The comedy finds Arkin as Marshall Fisher, a Chicago attorney who has just been fired from the law firm his father established. Marshall and his two buddies, Dave (David Morse) and Richie (Patrick Breen) have long dreamed of retiring from the yuppie rat race and opening a surf shop on the north shore of Oahu. After Marshall is fired, they decide to pursue their dream. Even Marshall's wife (Jane Kaczmarek) tells him to for go for it. So the trio buy a rundown shop and move lock, stock and barrel to Hawaii.

Although Arkin had been reading a lot of pilots, he was reluctant to commit to a series. His New York theater career had been going well. Two years ago, he received a Tony nomination for his Broadway bow in the comedy "I Hate Hamlet" and recently appeared as Nathan Detriot in the hit Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls." Own of Arkin's dreams was also fulfilled last season when he got to direct a 'Northern Exposure" episode.

"But when people send stuff I always like to read it," Arkin says. And he found himself laughing a lot while reading the "Big Wave" pilot. The humor, he says, came out of the characters and their relationships. "The characters and their friendship seemed familiar to me, and the husband-and-wife relationship seemed familiar."

While in Los Angeles, he met with producers David Isaacs and Ken Levine. "I had a really nice meeting with them," he says. "They told me what they wanted the show to be about."

"We didn't necessarily write it with him in mind," Levine says. "There is a lot of me and my partner David in these guys. We were having a tough time casting it. It was a very fine line because it is a character who is neurotic but somebody the audience likes. Adam came in and just nailed it. Adam plays me better than I do."

At that meeting, Levine and Isaacs decided he was their leading man. "Unfortunately," Arkin says, "they wanted to take me to the network immediately and I was unable to make that decision that quickly."

Arkin felt he couldn't map out his future under the gun. "So I basically passed at that point," he says. But the producers didn't. Levine had a long phone conversation with Arkin during which the actor told him his reservations.

"He really listened to them, and in the interim, I also found out that my friend, David Morse, was going to be cast," Arkin says. "It was a chance to be working with a friend."

CBS approved Arkin without meeting with him. "That was one of the issues," the actor says. "I felt like I had been on 'Northern Exposure' for 2 1/2 years, and the idea I had to prove to the network that I was worthy of being on a series seemed strange to me."

Levine and Isaacs also sweetened the pot by promising Arkin he could direct some episodes if the series was picked up after its initial order of six. "I looked at everything that was in front of me and said, if I say no, I will say no based on prejudice, not on the reality of what's there. There are too many components I really liked."

"We were so thrilled Adam was interested," Levine says. "Not only was he just perfect for the part, he was a very nice person."

If "Big Wave" makes a splash, it's doubtful Arkin will have time to play Adam on "Northern Exposure."

"People really like that character," Arkin says of Adam. "They strongly associate the character with the show. People are constantly surprised to hear I have only done like six or seven episodes."

Adam, Arkin explains, is a real "gas" for him. "I have never played a character with that much of a mask," Arkin says. 'He is so much of a character. The discovery of how much freedom comes from playing someone who is obviously not a representation of you--you feel like you have tremendous license."

"Big Wave Dave's" premieres Monday at 9:30 p.m. on CBS.

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