By Mike Lipton
April 18, 2005 12:00 PM

Even his friends laughed, but when Rob Morrow’s daughter was born in 2001, the actor wasn’t going to settle for naming her any old Sue, Jane or Emily. His choice? Tu Simone Morrow, as in Tu Morrow. “It’s a tradition,” says Morrow, whose wife is the aptly named actress Debbon Ayer. “She is debonaire!” says the actor. “And if we have a son, I want to name him Bone, but I don’t think Debbon will let me.”

Fortunately, Morrow has other means of channeling his excess creativity. Previously best known as Dr. Joel Fleischman on the ’90s cult hit Northern Exposure, the 42-year-old actor is back on TV, playing FBI agent Don Eppes in the hit CBS crime drama Numb3rs. “I forgot how hard, how consuming it is” to star in a series, he says. But he’s also grateful for the opportunity. After Exposure left the air in ’95, Morrow spent much of the past decade behind the camera, directing episodes of series like Oz and Joan of Arcadia. His last TV series, the ’02 Showtime drama Street Time, in which Morrow played a recent parolee, was canceled after just two seasons. “That was a heartbreak,” says Morrow. “I didn’t take for granted on Northern Exposure that I was making a living and I was a success, but I did take for granted how hard it is to make a show a hit.”

His home life is more secure. Married since 1998 to actress Ayer, Morrow says becoming a father has given him a new way of dealing with career ups and downs. “It’s the first inkling of real perspective that I’ve had,” he says. “It’s freed me up in a certain way. Now nothing matters really except that. And I know that it doesn’t matter even if, you know, I have to go work at Burger King. I’ll do it. It’s someone that you put your life on the line for.”

Morrow’s own childhood was complicated. His parents, Diane, a dental hygienist, and Murray, who worked in the lighting manufacturing industry, split when he was 9. “It had a definite impact on me,” says Morrow. “I started cutting school and I’d get caught in petty, stupid things—I stole a baseball glove once.”

With the help of a friend, he got a job at 18 as an extra on Saturday Night Live. “Ten years or so later, I end up hosting the show,” he says. By then he’d cut his teeth on Broadway, done commercials and TV work, and followed up with his 1990 breakthrough in Northern Exposure. Among his fans: Robert Redford, whom Morrow remembers “sticking out his hand and saying, I like you on that show.’ What a trip [to hear that],” says the actor, who got cast as a congressional investigator in director Red-ford’s ’94 drama Quiz Show.

There were other benefits of TV stardom. “I dogged around a bit,” he says. “I was just with lots of different women and so loving it.” Until Ayer came along. The two had first met in 1982 when he was a gofer for A Chorus Line creator Michael Bennett and she was the receptionist. “I instantly fell in love with her,” says Morrow. “But I was so young I could barely even talk to her.” Years later, when Morrow returned to New York after Exposure ended, and Ayer had split from her first husband, they reconnected. “I buy a loft and it turns out if s on her block, doors down. I decided to have a birthday party for myself and since she shared my birthday and was my neighbor, I called her up and said, ‘Come over.’ ” The couple clicked, and they now call Sept. 21 their “birth-iversary.”

These days, when Numb3rs is not shooting, the couple split their time between homes in Santa Monica and New York City. “Having a family has changed him,” says pal Fisher Stevens, who has known Morrow since they were struggling actors in the mid-’80s. “On the weekends, it’s no more, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ It’s, ‘Do you want to take my kid to the park?’ And yet he’s taken to it beautifully. The thing about Rob is he’s like a kid, his world gets opened up easily, and I think through Tu-y it’s opening his world again.”

Mike Lipton. Strawberry Saroyan in L.A.