By Michelle Tauber
Updated March 10, 2003 12:00 PM

When dirty dishes pile up at tin-Santa Monica home shared by Luke and Owen Wilson, “the brothers grab a basketball and start shooting, “We have competitions over who has to clean up the dishes, and when it gets horrible, Owen and I play H-O-R-S-E,” says Luke, sipping a latte at a neighborhood coffee shop. “Six months ago we had a small crowd watching us,” Luke says of the pair’s back-alley rivalry, “and the loser had to clean the kitchen.”

At 31, Luke Wilson may still have a loudness for playground games, but these days he has his mind on higher education—sort of. In the new big-screen comedy Old School, Wilson costars with Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn as adult buddies who decide to start a college fraternity. The lead role is a change of pace for Wilson, who usually plays second fiddle to his sexy costars (in 2000’s Charlie’s Angels and ’01’s Legally Blonde) or to his quirkier big brother Owen, 34 (in ’01’s The Royal Tenenbaums). “Luke,” says Vaughn, “is the guy holding the movie together.”

With his cowboy jaw and Texan drawl, it’s no wonder Wilson was big man on campus while filming Old School at UCLA. “Luke would get all these girls coming up to him,” says Ferrell, “giggling, ‘You’re so cute!’ ”

Several of Hollywood’s hottest leading ladies seem to agree: Wilson dated Drew Barrymore from 1996 to ’98 and came off a yearlong relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow in ’02. He remains friendly with both, and Barrymore, 28, cast him as Cameron Diaz‘s love interest in Charlie’s Angels. “That’s Drew—she didn’t let the personal stuff get in the way,” says Wilson.

As for Paltrow, 30, his costar in The Royal Tenenbaums, Wilson praises “her goofy sense of humor.” Notes Kate Hudson, Wilson’s costar in the upcoming romantic comedy Loosely Based on a True Love Story: “He’s chosen wonderful women to be with, and he doesn’t hold a grudge.”

That easygoing quality is one that Wilson learned early on as the third son of Robert, 61, an advertising executive, and Laura, 63, a photographer. “I was the youngest of three brothers [Andrew, 38, is also an actor and writer], and all we did was kid each other,” recalls Wilson. “We were best pals growing up.”

As a football and track star at the all-boys St. Mark’s School in Dallas, “Luke was a stud,” says his former coach Jerry Reese. Maybe so, “but Luke is very shy,” says Alan Schoellkopf, 30, one of Wilson’s best friends since their St. Mark’s days. “So going to a bar and picking up girls is not what he does. He gets girlfriends by girls coming up to him.”

After high school, “I wasn’t one of those guys who knew what he wanted to do or even thought about it,” says Wilson, who jumped between brief stints at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University. In 1993 he moved to L.A., where Owen was already pursuing a showbiz career; three years later the pair appeared in their first film, the critically acclaimed Bottle Rocket, which Owen cowrote. Though his paychecks have since risen steadily along with his star, “I’m a pretty frugal guy,” he says. “I’m not out there buying Italian suits.”

Which isn’t to say that he’s at home counting his pennies. So far this year Wilson has journeyed to Cuba with his brother Andrew, caught three Rolling Stones concerts, played in a PGA Pro-Am event in Maui (he has a 12 handicap) and been spotted nuzzling actress Joy Bryant (Antwone Fisher) in Las Vegas. “She’s a friend,” he says of Bryant, adding, “I don’t talk about that stuff when it’s going on.”

Eventually, though, “it’s definitely something I want out of life—a family,” says Wilson. But between work (including the sequels to Charlie’s Angels and Legally Blonde) and play, Wilson scarcely has had time to move into the two-bedroom bungalow that he recently purchased just a few miles from Owen’s house. (Andrew also lives nearby.) Besides, doing the dishes just isn’t as much fun without a H-O-R-S-E partner. “When I get married,” muses Wilson, “I’ll be told I already have an ‘E.’ ”

Michelle Tauber

Lorenzo Benet and Ruth Andrew Ellenson in L.A. and Ellise Pierce in Dallas