January 08, 1996 12:00 PM

ASK GEORGE NEWBERN ABOUT HIS first time alone with his infant daughter, Emma, and his eyes widen with terror. It was last July, three weeks after Newbern’s wife of five years, actress Marietta DePrima, 31, gave birth to their first child. Eager to do some shopping, she confidently drove away from the couple’s two-story colonial in West Los Angeles. “Marietta left me for about four hours and told me where the milk was,” says Newbern.

Having read all the parenting books, Newbern, 31, thought that was all the instruction he needed. Besides, during the first few months of Marietta’s pregnancy, he had played a new father, Bryan MacKenzie, the boyish son-in-law of Steve Martin and Diane Keaton in the new comedy Father of the Bride Part II, offspring of the ’91 Disney hit in which Newbern also appeared.

His daughter, however, was not impressed. “Milk, playing and changing diapers weren’t enough,” he says. After a peaceful hour or so, Emma started having a bawl. “She was freaking out. I was holding her, going, ‘What, what can I do?’ Naturally, when Marietta walked through the door, the crying stopped immediately.”

By some accounts, Newbern can be rather a big baby himself. Like his idol, Jimmy Stewart, “George has often been cast as the nice, responsible guy,” says DePrima, referring to Newbern’s screen debut as a college fraternity brother in 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting and his role as Hal Linden and Suzanne Pleshette’s happily married son on CBS’s short-lived 1994 sitcom The Boys Are Back. “And he is that. But I can’t tell you how many places we’ve been where Mr. Pratfall has dropped his pants.”

Kimberly Williams, who reprises her Bride role as Newbern’s screen spouse, Annie, agrees. “He has a 5-year-old’s sense of humor,” Williams says. “He’ll throw food at the dinner table. Last time I went out with him, he was putting things in his nose.” Newbern just shrugs. “I’m really an idiot—it’s just fun to cut loose.”

Even as a boy growing up in Little Rock, “he was a clown,” says his sister Murry, 33, a Chicago housewife. “In all the family movies, he’s the one sliding down the banister, sticking out his tongue.” (Newbern’s two other sibling costars were Gordon, now 35 and a Little Rock surgeon, and John, 30, a local coffeehouse owner.)

As a teen, Newbern began to channel his rambunctiousness into acting, starting at 12 in a community production of Life with Father and winning a summer scholarship at 14 to the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre. His father, David, now 65 and a semiretired radiologist, was not pleased. “He told me, ‘Stop this play thing and get a job!’ ” Newbern recalls. But his mother, Betty, a professor of Spanish at the University of Arkansas, offered encouragement. “She was the actress, the outgoing person in the family,” says Murry. “George’s genes are strongly tied to hers.”

When he was 15, Betty, then 45, died of cancer. “I was numb for a while,” says Newbern. “I cocooned myself.” He put his acting dreams on hold until his senior year at Little Rock High School, when he landed a bit part as a Union deserter in the locally filmed CBS miniseries The Blue and the Gray. As a freshman at Northwestern University in 1982, he took on the title role in the musical Pippin. He also began dating one of his castmates, DePrima. They wed in 1990.

By then, Newbern and DePrima had moved to L.A., and he was playing opposite the then-unknown Sandra Bullock in an ill-fated NBC version of Working Girl. He was cast in the original Father of the Bride because “we were looking for the sweet, perfect guy,” says director Charles Shyer. “George fit the bill.” Afterward, though, too many other actors were nabbing the sweet-guy roles, leaving Newbern with sour low-budget dreck like 1993’s Doppelganger. The Father sequel was like a family reunion. Between takes, Newbern hung out with Martin and Keaton in their trailers, playing cards and watching the O.J. trial.

Lately he’s been bonding with a new film family—the cast of Evening Star, due out next Thanksgiving, a sequel to’ 1983’s Terms of Endearment, in which Newbern finally gets to play a bad guy: Shirley MacLaine’s drug-dealing grandson. “Shirley has a really strong spirit,” he says. “She reminds me of my mother at her best.”

These days, Newbern’s thoughts are mainly on his daughter. When she was born last June 26 (at 9 lbs., 4 ozs.), he says, “she was so beautiful, with this full head of hair. Tears started coming—I couldn’t help it.” Now, glancing at Emma sitting quietly on Marietta’s lap in a puffy white dress, he smiles. “I tell her, ‘Get ready for the convent,’ ” says the protective papa. “She’s never dating—and never driving.”

MICHAEL A. LIPTON

JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

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