July 15, 2002 12:00 PM

In the movies, “meet cute” is easy. Add one part Meg Ryan to one part Tom Hanks, mix with witty friends, stir in the piquant spice of troubles overcome, top with a perfectly lit kiss and—voila!—Happy Ending. But how about un-reel life? How do stars hook up without help from a good script? Sometimes, as Ray Romano points out, the answer can he dead simple: “Anna was the first one I asked out to say ‘Yes,’ ” he says of his wife of 15 years. Other times, of course, Cupid needs a hand—or a cattle prod—from friends: Ashley Judd and race-car driver Dario Franchitti owe their marriage to a stealth setup arranged by pals. Then there’s Uma Thurman, who didn’t seem to pay attention the first time she met husband Ethan Hawke. (He did; see page 82). No matter; the first encounter is only prelude to the far more critical First Actual Date—which can occur a day, a week or, in the case of Ozzy Osbourne, several years later. “I never thought she’d fall for me,” he says of the stranger named Sharon who knocked on his door 23 years ago to collect a debt. In the following pages, find out how they and other celeb couples made that all-important love connection.

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston
met through their manager

Why he couldn’t pick up the phone and ask her out himself is unclear. But he didn’t. Instead, the first date between Pitt, 38, and Aniston, 33, was brokered in ’98 by their reps. Still, you can bet he did his own wooing from then on, starting with the first public kiss he planted on her at a rock concert in D.C. soon after. “Yes, he opens the car door for me, he brings me flowers,” says Mrs. Pitt. “He’s a gentleman.”

Ashley Judd and Dario Franchitti

met at a wedding

Race-car driver Franchitti, 29, didn’t know Judd, 34, was the reason buddies talked him into tagging along to the Miami wedding of Jason Priestley in 1999. Later, says a pal, all he talked about was “this very cute girl I met. ” Judd, meanwhile, was “like a little girl, giddy, on the phone with him all the time,” says her stepdad, Larry Strickland. After 18 months of marriage, she is still grateful for the setup. Said Judd: “The result was ultimately us.”

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith

met at an audition

When she tried out to play Smith’s girlfriend on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1990, the 5-ft. Pinkett was judged too short for the 6’2″ star. No love lost there: “I thought he was a big goof,” she says. When they struck up their romance in ’95, “he’d matured,” says Pinkett, 30, who wed Smith, 33, in ’97. Almost, anyway. Says the mom of Jaden, 4, and Willow,I: “He always makes me laugh, even when I’m angry at him.”

Lisa Rinna and Harry Hamlin

met at a restaurant

In 1992 Hamlin was dining with a pal who owned an eyeglass shop when staffer Rinna stopped by to drop off the store keys. “She had a glass of wine with us,” says Hamlin, 50—and soon he only had eyes for her. The parents of Delilah, 4, and Amelia, 1, wed in ’97. “I knew,” says Rinna, 39, “he was going to be the father of my children.”

Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke

met at an ATM

She had no idea who he was when he tried to strike up a conversation at a cash machine in Manhattan’s East Village in 1992—and didn’t give him a second thought. But when Thurman, 32, reconnected with Hawke, 31, on the set of the sci-fi thriller Gattaca in 1997, says her brother Ganden, she became “enchanted.” Still, he adds, she couldn’t believe she had found such a smart, funny, good guy. “She kept asking everyone, ‘What do you think of him?’ ” A wife and mom within a year, she no longer doubts her first—er, second—impressions. Says Ganden: “They have a big old time together.”

Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar

met on set

At first the costars of 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer “really didn’t dig each other,” Prinze told People last year. “Then one day I gave her a ride to the gym. We talked on the way up, and she was a cool chick.” Engaged since last year, Prinze, 26, and Gellar, 25, are “perfect for each other,” says Scooby-Doo costar Miguel A. Nuñez Jr. “He gives her everything she wants.” Says Prinze: “She shines.”

Pete Sampras and Bridgette Wilson

met on a blind date

Sampras, 30, left the 1999 comedy Love Stinks dreaming about a date with its star. But when his pal John Black, an exec for the LA. Lakers, called with her cell number, he was, says Black, “shocked.” A year after they met for drinks, Sampras promised eternal love to Wilson, 27—and everything else to Black. “You can have my jet, my Porsche, my house, anything,” Sampras said. “I’m indebted to you for life.”

Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne

met through her dad

In 1979 Sharon Arden was sent by her father, Don, Ozzy’s manager, to collect a business debt. She ended up helping the wasted rock star into rehab. Three years later they made it to the altar—barely. “We had five engagement rings, because we’d have arguments and I’d throw them away,” says Sharon, 49. Today, they have “a pact,” says Ozzy, 53. “She’s not allowed to die before me. I couldn’t live without her.”

Halle Berry and Eric Benet

met at his concert

When she met singer Benet, 35, at L.A.’s House of Blues in 1997, there “weren’t any sparks,” Berry, 35, has said. But their e-mail chats turned to friendship, and one day a year or so later, “I turned to him and said, ‘You know what? I think I love you.’ ” She credits their marriage to a lack of initial lust: “That’s why I know it’s the real deal.”

John and Elaine Mellencamp

met at a photo shoot

No sparks flew when the model posed for Mellencamp’s Whenever We Wanted album cover and performed in the video for “Get a Leg Up” in 1991. But seeing sexy ads showing the two of them inspired him to invite her to a concert. Wed since ’92, Mellencamp, 50, says of Elaine, 32 (mom to sons Hud, 8, and Speck, 7), “She’s sexier by accident than most women are on purpose.”

John Stamos and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos

met at a fashion show

Joining Full House pal Lori Loughlin at a ’94 Victoria’s Secret show, Stamos, now 38, was ill-prepared to meet the model, now 29, backstage. “I’d never seen her in magazines, and it was pretty incredible,” he says. “I just knew at that moment she was it.” After a first date at Disneyland, they wed in 1998. It works so well that “my favorite time is when we’re on a plane, stuck for six hours,” says Stamos. “We laugh so hard.”

Ray and Anna Romano

met at a bank

Since the first two coworkers he’d asked out had said no, the new guy at a Queens branch of the Williamsburg Savings Bank took it slow with fellow teller Anna Scarpulla. His first line: “Hi, how do you sign off the computer?” She thought of him as a kid “with a big L on his forehead” but notes, “he kept the job funny.” Two years later, in ’84, Romano quit the job and asked her out. Married in ’87, the father of four, now 44, says the gamble on a nerdy unknown comic paid off for Anna, 39. “She went with the loser guy,” he says, “and ended up with a 10,000-sq.-ft. house.”

George W. and Laura Bush

met at a barbecue

Midland, Texas, hosts Joe and Jan O’Neill knew their matchmaking had paid off when the early-to-bed oilman chatted past midnight with librarian Laura Welch. Both 31, they wed just three months later in ’77. “He promised me I would never have to give any speeches, and I promised him I would exercise with him,” the First Lady told People last year. “Neither of us kept our promise, yet we’re still happy together.”

Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe

met at a party

“It was like the old cliche where you see somebody, lock eyes across the room, and time stands still,” says Lowe, 34. For these two, wed since ’97, that moment came at a ’92 Hollywood Athletic Club bash. “I said, ‘I would love just to take you to lunch.’ Then I worked my way up to dinner. We had lunch, we had dinner and then some.” Swoons Swank, 27: “It was love at first sight.”

Cindy Crawford and Rande Gerber

met on a blind date

Rande Gerber had the blind-date advantage. “I knew who she was, and I knew she was beautiful,” says the model turned nightclub owner, 40. So when Crawford’s agent Michael Gruber, a pal of Gerber’s, suggested he escort the supermodel to his wedding, it was a no-brainer. “We decided to meet the night before and get to know each other,” says Gerber. “I was surprised at how cool and down-to-earth she was.” They forged a friendship, and after Crawford’s three-year marriage to Richard Gere ended in ’94, she and Gerber reconnected. They wed in ’98. “When she’s lying next to me,” Gerber says of Crawford, 36, now mom to Presley Walker, 3, and Kaia, 10 months, “she looks incredible. That’s the best part: waking up with her.”

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