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Profile : D.B. Sweeney's Lucky Role of the Dice

October 22, 1995|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Starring in one of the season's most intriguing new series was a classic luck of the draw for D.B. Sweeney.

The deck wasn't always stacked in the actor's favor, mind you. For awhile he wasn't able to find the right script for features or TV. One day, while randomly sifting through a pile of scripts, he flipped a page and uncovered "the best character I've come across."

In Fox's "Strange Luck," an eerie series that leads appropriately into the network's Friday night smash hit "The X-Files," Sweeney plays Chance Harper. As the sole survivor of a plane crash as a child, unusual things begin to happen to the adult Chance. He is condemned to coincidence or belittled by bad timing; in other words, "strange luck."

Native New Yorker Sweeney is on a quick visit to L.A.--the show shoots in Vancouver--and agrees to meet for an interview at a Marina coffee shop. Ninety minutes after the scheduled meeting time, Sweeney drives his rental car up on the curb and nearly into a newsstand in front of the restaurant.

Sweaty and anxious, Sweeney, 33, rushes into the restaurant and over to the table. He is apologetic and downright sweet. "I was sure you'd be gone," he says, explaining he drove around in circles nearby, going into the market across the parking lot even. "I talked to four different departments. But no one heard of this place."

When Sweeney's told the restaurant has been there for more than 20 years, he shakes his head. "At least I found it." Without realizing, he adds, "I guess it was luck."

That takes a nanosecond to sink in. "Yeah, I believe in luck," he says, returning a smile. "My luck's real streaky . I know when to stop." Between bites of a meatloaf and potatoes dinner, he talks about how, after a 13-year career of mostly theater and features, working in TV is invigorating.

"When you do a play or even a movie, you have weeks to finesse your character," he says. "You really understand why they do what they do. In TV, you get new material weekly about your character.

"I also had no idea what's involved in a series," says Sweeney, who appeared in the miniseries "Lonesome Dove" and the TV movie "Miss Rose White" "On a movie set there's so much down time, adjusting the lighting. It gave me time to nap, call my friends, relax, work out. But with TV there's no break time. None."

Despite the success of the 1992 film "The Cutting Edge," in which the sports-minded Sweeney played a hockey player turned figure skater, enough elements turned him on to TV.

"I really like the way Fox handles their shows," he explains. "It wasn't like here's the concept: You're a lawyer and you have this monkey

Executive producer Karl Schaefer says Sweeney has "that regular guy, credible thing going, like this could happen to anyone," but he also "brings his real-life intensity to the role." Schaefer and Sweeney "get into it creatively sometimes," the producer says, "but out of that conflict comes a really cool, interesting show."

In the series opener, Chance learns during hypnosis that he has a brother who was not on the plane with his mother and other sibling. Sweeney equates Chance's dogged search for his brother with "The Fugitive's" search for the one-armed man who killed his wife. "He may find him in the last show, so everything builds to it."

Before he considered acting, the Long Island native had high hopes of becoming a pro-baseball player. He accepted a Navy scholarship to a New Orleans college with a good baseball team. But a knee injury laid him and his sports-hero dreams out. He headed to New York to be an actor, he says, "the same way a lot of high school seniors say, 'I wanna backpack in Europe.' "

With his Navy-issue haircut, Sweeney quickly landed a fortuitous Army commercial. "I made more on that [long-running] commercial than on any movie until 'The Cutting Edge,' " he recalls. He had one line in the 1983 Broadway play "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," opposite hero Joe Namath. Sweeney was hooked.

His biggest break was the lead in Francis Ford Coppola's 1987 "Gardens of Stone," which had a lot of buzz but fizzled next to the other Vietnam War releases of the era--"Full Metal Jacket" and "Platoon."

"I got my next film, 'No Man's Land,' before 'Gardens' came out and there was a lot of hype on me. Then, after the movies were released, Charlie Sheen was very hot. They wanted me to now take second billing. They offered to double my salary if Charlie's name was above mine, and I said, 'Sure, but what'll you give me if I take third?' "

Good-natured Sweeney took on other notable roles: "Memphis Belle," "Eight Men Out," "A Day in October," "Fire in the Sky" and, most recently, "Roommates."

When hiatus comes, he'll look for a feature where "I'm gonna run around and punch the bad guys. Chance doesn't get to do much of that." Sweeney says he's completed two screenplays and has another in the works.

"You always love to fantasize you'll get your dream role," he says. "But I've actually known this for years now--the one you end up with is a combination of a lot of things. Maybe it's the best thing that came your way at that time. So I don't like to project too far into the future."

Just rely on that "Strange Luck."

"Strange Luck" airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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