David James Elliott is learning to deal with the fact that some people think he’s gorgeous. The star of JAG, the CBS adventure series in which he plays a deft, dapper Navy lawyer for the Judge Advocate General’s office, says he’s flattered, and a little embarrassed, by “the stud-muffin letters” from fans. It’s the other mail that still takes some getting used to. “Occasionally I’ll get some pictures of naked people,” says Elliott, 37. “It’s kind of weird, I have to say.”
At the supermarket, fans generally keep their clothes on, but they have been known to push past his wife, actress Nanci Chambers, at the checkout counter to get a good gawk at their hero. And over at the Pentagon, real JAG officers don’t seem to mind at all that they’re portrayed in prime time as righteous, can-do officers who look really good in—or out of—uniform. “We’re like the Beatles there,” says Elliott. “Apparently we put them on the map.”
Elliott’s success is especially surprising given JAG‘s tangled history. NBC first aired the series in 1995, then jettisoned it, due to lackluster ratings, after one season. CBS, taking a chance, began airing it in January ’97 and has been gloating ever since: JAG now often cracks Nielsen’s Top 25. Among the reasons usually cited are a regular Tuesday berth (at 8 p.m. ET) and very few preemptions. Executive producer Donald P. Bellisario gives much of the credit to Elliott. “He’s a leading man like Tom Selleck was in Magnum, P.I.,” says Bellisario, who in fact created Magnum, P.I. “They have the same persona, a real warmth and humor.”
That charisma was not easy to spot in childhood. “I was tall and gangly and painfully shy,” says Elliott, a Canadian who grew up in Milton, Ont., the oldest of three sons of Arnold, a heating and plumbing wholesaler, and his wife, Pat, an office manager. Like his dad, though, he was a talented guitarist, and at 17 he dropped out of high school to play full-time in a band. “But the band kept breaking up, arguing all the time,” he says. Six months later he went back to school, where a teacher steered him toward acting. In 1993, after graduating from Toronto’s prestigious Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, he embarked on a two-year stint with Ontario’s Stratford Festival, which named him Most Promising Apprentice.
While starring as a cop turned private eye on Street Legal, a Canadian TV series in the late ’80s, Elliott met his future wife. Nanci Chambers had a small guest shot but developed a Saskatchewan-size crush on Elliott. “He could be very boyish and charming,” says Chambers, 34. Yet when he moved to Los Angeles in 1990 in search of more acting opportunities, she chose to remain in Toronto. One day, tired of long-distance love, Elliott appeared on her doorstep. “He just packed me up and moved me [to L.A.],” she says. The couple wed in 1992; daughter Stephanie, now 5, arrived a year later.
So did promising roles, including a TV remake of The Untouchables and parts on Knots Landing and Melrose Place. During Melrose‘s 1994-95 season, Elliott played the sex-addicted lover of Courtney Thorne-Smith, who even now recalls the bravura speech he gave while standing over a kitchen sink. “Here was this classically trained actor who could toss out the most ridiculous lines so convincingly,” she says, “and keep on washing the dishes.”
Elliott topped that with a 1995 guest shot on Seinfeld. His hunky turn as Elaine’s beau Carl the Moving Guy boosted his profile considerably. That same year, NBC tapped him for JAG, and the family moved into a three-bedroom, ranch-style house. And that’s where Elliott prefers to hang out when he’s not fighting for justice on TV. Growing up, he says, “I liked the idea of the military, the romance of it, but reality is a different story.” Now, he adds, “it’s fun to put on the uniform but then leave at the end of the day. You can yell cut when the bullets start flying.”
Michael A. Lipton
Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles