By Carol Wallace
January 27, 1986 12:00 PM

Okay, we know what you’re thinking: Where’d they get this guy? They said the same thing about Travolta in 1975, Tom Selleck in 1980 and Mel Gibson in 1985. You may have heard of them, right? Well, in ’86 the new definition of sexy is being provided on the tube by Mark Harmon; he of the gleaming grin, chiseled pecs and piercing blue eyes (aren’t they always?). But Harmon, 34, is determined to spice up his image to make sure he doesn’t drown in a sea of pretty boys.

For more than two years he had been slaving over a hot scalpel as Dr. Robert Caldwell, St. Elsewhere‘s charming plastic surgeon, and early last year he asked for a much-needed character transfusion. Oh sure, the job had its off-camera fringe benefits. “Women would come up to me and show me their breasts and ask for my opinion,” says Harmon, incredulously. “And I gave it to them!” Still, he tired of being a nice guy and pleaded with the writers to unleash their creative hormones and “get excited about my character.” Boy, did they. This season the once monogamous medic has taken up furious philandering, hustling more pickups than Federal Express. Among other violations of the Hippocratic oath, he has had sex with a nurse in a bathroom stall at the hospital and insulted other nurses in front of patients.

In one startling episode he picked up a woman whose idea of inventive play after sex was to conceal a razor blade in her mouth and cut his precious puss into confetti. On Jan. 29 Caldwell’s decadent descent will end when he is told he has AIDS, apparently acquired during a fling with a prostitute. Caldwell will then suffer a nervous breakdown, attempt suicide and spend his final days in a hospice catering to AIDS victims.

You can just hear the show’s writers now: “Is this what you had in mind, Harmon, heh-heh-heh?” Well, it was, precisely, even though he knew it meant a hasty exit from the show recently nominated for an Emmy as TV’s Outstanding Drama Series. “I was really revved up by the AIDS idea,” he insists. “I never said, ‘I want out.’ I saw the choice of either accepting a dramatic, timely story line and exiting the show or walking down the hospital hallways saying ‘hello’ to the doctors for another three seasons. I’ll take as many dramatic shots in front of the camera as I can get.”

Harmon isn’t worried that he has the dubious distinction of becoming one of TV’s first heterosexual AIDS victims. (He played a herpes sufferer in a 1983 TV movie, Intimate Agony.) “I’ve never understood why sexually transmitted diseases are such taboo subjects. Someone dies from AIDS, and people can’t discuss it,” he says. “Someone gets done in with a knife and gun, and no one minds chatting about it.”

Agreeing to your own demise from a series that pays thousands a week may be considered grounds for a straitjacket by other actors. But wait. The cruel blow of unemployment will be cushioned by Harmon’s other projects. A TV movie, Prince of Bel Air, shown on ABC this Monday casts Harmon as a stud pool-cleaner who services the ladies of various mansions with more than his best judgment on acid-alkaline balance. (Translation: You’ll see him with his shirt off a lot.) He’s completed Let’s Get Harry, an action film with Robert Duvall. Next is the play Children of a Lesser God in L.A. and another TV movie. Then there’s that nifty nest egg of the near $1 million he’s raking in as the stubble-faced, rugged pitchman for Coors beer.

Along the way the 1972-73 UCLA football hero has become the object of at least a few women’s sexual fantasies. And they are fantasies with staying power. If Don Johnson is a fiery one-night stand, Harmon is the kind of guy they want to collect Social Security with. Dependable. Loyal. Romantic. And he knows how to fix a leaky faucet. In fact Harmon’s appeal may be that he appears to be the reincarnation of the strong, silent type. Why, one of his four “Australian shepherd” dogs is even named after the granddaddy of the genre, Gary Cooper, and the license plates on his 1956 Dodge pickup and 1984 Porsche read YUP and UH-HUH.

“Mark’s sensitivity shows through that handsome face, and women love that,” says Cristina Pickles, St. Elsewhere‘s nurse Helen Rosenthal. “I don’t think he is fully aware of his effect on women.” Donna Mills is. “Forget Mel Gibson,” gushes the Knots Landing vamp. “Whenever I see Mark, I think to myself, ‘Your place or mine?’ ”

“Married and unmarried women, strangers on the street, will hit me up for introductions to my brother,” reports older sister Kristin Nelson, 41. “Salespeople have asked me to have my brother pick up my dry cleaning just so they can meet him.” Joan Rivers sums it up best: “He’s made more American women hot than saunas.”

All of this fuss about his lean, 6-foot, 163-pound form is lost on the main dish, who has a refreshingly deflated sense of himself. “Mark once said to me, ‘How do you get girls to like you?’ ” remembers UCLA buddy Barry Axelrod, now a San Diego attorney. “I burst out laughing and said, ‘Let me borrow your body for an hour and I’ll show you!’ ” Counters Harmon: “If other people think I’m okay looking, that’s great, but I don’t see it myself. When I look in the mirror, all I see is a bunch of fake teeth and football scars.” Uh-huh.

Harmon bounds into the sprawling bedroom of his nine-room rustic-style home located in the Pacific Palisades carrying a jumbo jar of peanut butter. He gouges out a chunk, then eats it from a butter knife. “I could live on peanut butter and honey on pita bread, a baked potato and a salad,” he says. “Mark has a charming banter that acts as a facade,” says Norman Lloyd, St. Elsewhere’s Dr. Auchlander. “But there’s a reclusive quality, an elusive-ness even to his fellow cast members.” He’s never been much of a socializer, preferring Thursday night basketball games with his buddies, T’ai chi ch’uan and running (he ran 22 miles after finishing his final St. Elsewhere episode, to be aired Feb. 5).

In a town where roughing it means making do without a personal trainer, Harmon is also a throwback to the do-it-yourself breed. After buying his home, which was built in 1923, he promptly had it torn down, leaving three walls and a hand-carved oak kitchen counter. While he rebuilt, he slept under the stars for two months in a sleeping bag. “I had lots of rats to keep me company,” he remembers.

There is further evidence of his handiwork: Over his king-size bed is a skylight with shutters that are controlled by what looks like a large broom handle dangling from the ceiling. “When the odd female stranger happens to wander in here by accident, they always hit their head on that thing,” he says, grinning. No one’s threatened to sue yet, but then again, the traffic flow’s been mighty light. He’s currently unattached after his four-year romance with Flamingo Road co-star Cristina Raines ended in 1984. (They met while filming 1978’s Centennial miniseries.)

He took the breakup hard. “Tina taught me how to stop and notice the oak trees and smell the flowers,” he says. “She will always be a very special lady to me.” Then followed a not-so-special fling with Heather (Dynasty) Locklear. No endurance records were set. “It began around Christmas [1984] but was over by New Year’s,” he says. Heather, he adds, “was just an emotional cup of coffee to me.” These days “any woman without a blow dryer” is his type. But don’t get your hopes up. “I’m real monogamous by nature, and I’m fine being alone like I am now,” he says. “When I marry, I want it to be everything this town says it can’t be. I’m not into catting around.”

Harmon learned early that being the son of somebody famous—in this case 1940 Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon, who is now a broadcaster—meant always having to prove yourself. As a Little Leaguer, he had to show that his athletic skills were hard earned, not inherited. “Oh, it’s no big deal, that’s Tom Harmon’s son,” other parents would say when he hit a home run. As a star quarterback, “Charmin’ Harmon” had to prove he wasn’t as libidinous as the gossipmongers were saying. “People assumed that my life consisted of sleeping with the UCLA cheerleaders on Monday, the USC song girls on Tuesday and so forth. But I can only remember one time in college having a date after a game.” Now, as an ex-jock, he is obsessed with proving himself as an actor. He can still recite one critic’s vitriol: “If anyone cares, Mark Harmon can be seen in two movies this week. He’s boring in both as far as we can tell. Football was a better choice for him.”

Most of all Harmon had to prove himself to his dad. To an outsider the celebrated family appeared to personify one of those candy-coated, Leave It to Beaver-type life-styles. Harmon’s mother, Elyse Knox, now 68, was an actress; Dad, of course, a football legend. They lived in moneyed Brentwood, where young Harmon attended a private prep school. He was close to his older sisters, Kelly and Kristin, who alternately beat him up and asked him for advice on men. Kelly, now 38, appeared in commercials for Tic-Tac candy and was once married to John DeLorean; sister Kristin acted briefly before settling down with—and in 1982 divorcing—singer Ricky Nelson, killed last month in a plane crash.

But Mark’s relationship with his father was never a bed of Rose Bowls. Tom Harmon, now 66, was undemonstrative, strict and away from home a lot. “He raised me hard, and when I say hard, I mean hard,” recalls Mark. “I was taught to fight for everything and that the only way to go about getting something was with everything you had.” Though close to his father now, the early years are still painful to him. “We missed a lot of time together,” says Mark. His dad traveled frequently. On a rare Sunday at home, he would play catch with Mark in the front yard. “He wanted me to work on control. When I threw a wild ball—which I inevitably did—my dad went into the house,” says Mark. “Sometimes I did it on the first throw. But for him, that was it.”

To capture his father’s attention—and affection—Mark plunged into sports. “He wanted me to be self-motivated. He only saw me play football in high school once and didn’t watch again until 2½ years later at UCLA.” The elder Harmon makes no excuses for his strict style: “I never spared the rod, and he’d get whacked if he did something wrong,” Tom says. “But look at my kids now. They all know the difference between right and wrong, and there isn’t a druggie in the bunch.”

A turning point for father and son came in 1972 when Mark, only 19, led the Bruins to an upset win over perennial powerhouse Nebraska, a team with a 32-game undefeated string. Mark remembers the chaotic, post-game scene vividly. After the locker room had cleared of reporters, “I took off my uniform and started for the showers, and standing over at the far wall was my dad. He had been there for 2½ hours and he had not come into my cubicle. We locked eyes.” Mark pauses as his voice cracks. “He stood up straight and said to me, ‘Hey, great game!’ I burst into tears. Compliments from my dad never had been easy coming, and I reached out and we hugged each other. From that moment, I knew my dad.” Things are so good between them now that Mark’s Christmas present to Pop was a new Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL.

Harmon graduated from UCLA with a degree in communications (his senior thesis was titled “The Muscle Hustle”) but turned down offers of up to $40,000 to train as a pro. “It was never my desire to do that,” he says. “I stopped playing at that point; when the time comes, I’ll be able to pick up a football with my son. A lot of my friends who turned pro can’t do that.” He worked briefly at an advertising agency before accepting a job selling Adidas to athletes. The work turned him into a “glorified shoe salesman,” and finally, at 22, he said, “This is crazy. I want to give acting a shot.”

For counsel he turned to Jack (Dragnet) Webb, whom he had met months earlier. “I had long hair and a moustache, and Webb took one look at me and said, ‘I loved the way you used to fake the ball. I figured you’d make a good actor. But you’ll have to clean up your act!’ ” Harmon complied, and Webb rewarded him with a guest spot on Adam-12. Later he specialized in playing soon-to-be-dead TV cops. That was followed by a period of prime beefcake. “When someone needed the beefcake to swim across the pool and kiss the pretty girl, I did it,” he says. In 1978 he appeared with James Caan in Comes a Horseman; then there was the short-lived series 240-Robert and several TV movies. He also played Fielding Carlyle, the handsome—and adulterous—pol on 1981’s Flamingo Road.

The show did not make his list of Life’s Most Memorable Moments. “Egos were a problem,” he says. “I was worried about being a better actor, and people were worried about their hair being out of place.” When the show was dropped after two seasons, he and Raines toured the U.S. and Canada in the play Key Exchange. In 1983 he auditioned for Bay City Blues and St. Elsewhere. His instincts said go with St. Elsewhere. The other show flopped.

His deal with Coors was almost an afterthought—on the part of Coors. Answering a Hollywood cattle call, Mark turned up clean-shaven and dressed like Wall Street. They wanted Wyoming. His audition tape was rejected with a note that read, “Can you look more rugged?” Yup, he could. He hired a photographer, grew a fashionable stubble and resubmitted his photos. The ads, shot in the Rocky Mountains, have been a smash. Says Gary Naifeh, Coors’ marketing director: “Mark has established a credibility that is right up there with God and Walter Cronkite.” Not necessarily in that order.

Harmon wanders outside where his 1.3-acre spread is dotted with lemon trees and imposing Douglas firs. His dogs and one cat follow. Life is good. But not good enough. “I haven’t hit my stride yet,” he says of his 10 years as an actor. “I’ve merely started a slow jog. I haven’t even raised a sweat.” Suddenly, Harmon picks up a mini-football made of rubber and heaves a pass 30 yards straight up to Cooper, who leaps into the air and deftly catches the toss on the downfall. Harmon smiles. “Hey, isn’t that an incredible outfielder?” he says proudly. The dog looks up at him and barks. Probably just the canine versions of “Yup” and “Uh-huh.”