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AS HARRY SOLOMON, ONE OF FOUR EXTRATERRESTRIALS on NBC’s new hit sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, French Stewart has a role to die for. In fact, “I almost killed myself,” jokes Stewart, 32, recalling a particularly breathtaking moment as the show’s doltishly endearing oddball. While rehearsing an episode spoofing ER, Stewart playfully wrapped a blood-pressure cuff around his neck, started to squeeze the pump—and pretended to choke. “We just howled,” says co-executive producer Terry Turner, who knows a good gag when he sees one. “We said, ‘Let’s put it in the show.’ ”

To Stewart, the real surprise was that he was put in the show to begin with. An Albuquerque native and a 1985 graduate of the Pasadena (Calif.) American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Stewart has seen more hard knocks than hits in his 11-year career. Despite Shakespearean training, he did his first professional acting from inside a Yogi Bear costume. It took Stewart, the son of a microfilm technician father and a homemaker mother, eight years of bit parts in plays just to get a manager. He finally found his niche “playing freaks, losers and perverts,” he says, in films like Leaving Las Vegas—and assorted nuts on Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show and other sitcoms. But, he admits, “I thought endlessly about giving up.”

Recently, he celebrated his newfound success with a new Mustang. The never-wed Stewart (now shooting McHale’s Navy in Mexico) says he may even buy his first house. With 3rd Rock orbiting in TV’s Top 20, “I plan to ride this out until it stop,” he says happily.