By Karen S. Schneider
Updated January 15, 1996 12:00 PM

Brad Pitt IS ON HIS KNEES. NO, HE’S not offering thanks for the abs and orbs that have made him Hollywood’s come-hitherest hunk. Nor has our reigning Sexiest Man Alive been bowled over by the accolades he is receiving for his performance in 12 Monkeys, the new futuristic thriller that casts him as a psychotic soothsayer and has already earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor. At the moment, he of Interview with the Vampire and Legends of the Fall fame is simply putting in his time as John Doe, Citizen.

Pitt, you see, has taken his girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow‘s black Lab out for a trot through the streets of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, and, well, even to heartthrobs, things happen. “Gwyneth educated him about New York City’s cleanup laws,” says Pitt’s friend, director Tim DiCillo. “So he got down with a plastic bag over his hand like any other New York dog owner.”

Ah, what even a young superstar won’t do for love. In the year since PEOPLE bestowed the Sexiest Man title on a kicking and screaming Pitt—hey, after his breath-takingly bare-chested turn as Tristan Ludlow in Legends, what choice did we have?—much has changed in the life of the 32-year-old actor. He boasts a new buzz cut (to the chagrin of millions of fans who had swooned over his long, bleach-blond locks), a new tax bracket (his asking price is now a reported $8 million) and, most importantly, a new romance—with the 22-year-old actress he began dating last winter while filming Seven, a huge hit this fall with Pitt as a know-it-all cop tracking a serial killer, Paltrow as his devoted wife and Morgan Freeman as his seasoned partner.

“They are very much in love,” says Seven producer Arnold Kopelson of Pitt and Paltrow, daughter of actress Blythe Danner (To Wong Foo) and TV producer Bruce Paltrow (St. Elsewhere). “The chemistry between them is very obvious.” Confirms casting director and longtime Pitt friend Marcia Schulman: “I met her, and when she was out of earshot, Brad said, ‘So, do you like her? Isn’t she incredible?’ ” Seven director Terry Gilliam says yes: “She’s highly educated, encouraging him to read more. They make a wonderful couple.”

Their teamwork was delightfully evident a few weeks back, when Pitt took Paltrow to Springfield, Mo., to spend Christmas with a his family. Evidently the pantry in the large, gated home that belongs to Pitt’s parents—Bill, a former trucking-company executive, and Jane, a high school counselor—was insufficiently stocked. At Smitty’s supermarket, where the young couple picked up $40 worth of groceries, Pitt was instantly recognized despite his wool scarf and long dark coat—and after signing a few autographs stepped outside for a smoke. In her high-top tennis shoes and a stocking cap, Paltrow, who remained inside to pay the bill, passed virtually unnoticed. “That was Brad Pitt,” the checkout girl breathlessly declared.

“Who?” asked Paltrow with mock bewilderment—and then a real laugh.

The actress, who previously dated Robert Sean Leonard (Dead Poet’s Society), would likely have been no more fazed a few days later when Pitt lifted his dark sunglasses long enough to treat a female fan—unable to stop herself from staring in a local Venture discount store—to a quick blue-eyed wink. “Gwyneth is very confident,” says Kopelson. “A strong woman is not threatened by the attention Brad gets. It’s a reaffirmation of her selection.”

Her boy Brad, though, does have a habit of falling hard for his leading ladies. About a year after the 23-year-old University of Missouri dropout rolled into Hollywood almost a decade ago, with little more than $325 in his pocket and the silver Nissan he called Runaround Sue, he landed a small part in the ABC sitcom Head of the Class. He went on to date its star, Robin Givens, for six months in 1988. Next came a role in the 1989 slasher flick Cutting Class and a brief romance with costar Jill Schoelen. In 1990 he met then-16-year-old Juliette Lewis while they were filming the TV movie Too Young to Die? They were still a couple when they costarred as coldblooded killers in 1993’s Kalifornia—but had split by that February.

Lewis was followed by raven-haired model Jitka Pohlodek, 26, who spent a lot of time with Pitt in his turn-of-the-century Hollywood Hills mansion (previously owned by campy TV horror hostess Elvira) until about a year ago. Her two pet bobcats fit in nicely with his menagerie: three dogs—Todd Potter, Saudi and Purty—and an assortment of chameleons and iguanas. Yet Pitt seemed sometimes to be thinking of Lewis. “I still love the woman,” he told Vanity Fair in November of 1994, while dating Pohlodek. “The problem is, we grow up with this vision that love conquers all, and that’s just not so, is it?”

Perhaps not, but love had to conquer quite a bit when it came to Pitt and Paltrow, who grew up on different sides of the same career track. Born in L.A. and raised in Manhattan, Paltrow came of age with her younger siblings Jake and Laura in an artsy household where the dinner conversation would likely have touched on her mother’s stage role as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire or her father’s dealings with CBS as creator of the series The White Shadow. In the Pitt household (brother Doug, now 29, and sister Julie, 27, are rearing families of their own in Spring-field), the talk over supper—quite often, Pitt has said proudly, macaroni and cheese—would sooner have focused on the most recent sermon at the South Haven Baptist Church or the latest make-out party with the gang from—no kidding—Kickapoo High.

While Gwyneth was tackling arithmetic as an elementary student at the tony Spence School, Pitt—then a University of Missouri journalism major and Sigma Chi fraternity boy—was knocking back beers with his buddies. When he got his first big break, in 1987—a five-episode stint on Dallas—the 12-year-old Paltrow was a several-year veteran of summer productions at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

And yet, by the time they began work on the L.A. set of Seven last December, the two were ready for each other—her upper crust the perfect complement to his humble pie. The electricity between them, says Morgan Freeman, “was real.” To an extent, Paltrow was able to take Pitt’s mind off his other worries: namely, the stud-muffin image that has stuck to him since he seduced, then robbed, Geena Davis’s character in 1991’s Thelma & Louise. “Beefcakes,” he has noted, “are a dime a dozen.”

But shucking that image hasn’t been easy. On the downtown L.A. set of Seven, so many women wanted to peek at Pitt that the crew had to erect barricades. Meanwhile, during the Philadelphia-based shoot for Monkeys, radio stations conducted “Brad watches”—complete with prizes for anyone who managed to sneak into his hotel room and swipe something, anything, belonging to the actor. (Apparently no one took up the challenge.) Eager to deglamorize himself, Pitt told Monkeys director Gilliam that he wanted to wear brown contact lenses to mask his baby blues. The director agreed, though Gilliam says he doesn’t think Pitt fans will be fooled. “It’s like he’s caught in a body owned by the public,” says Gilliam. “He’s been sold as the hot new bimbo. But he knows there’s more to him. He doesn’t want to feel trapped by people’s expectations.”

Once Gilliam accepted him for the part, Pitt made sure to deliver. “He threw himself into the role,” says producer Charles Roven. In order to better play a manic-depressive, the actor spent two weeks in group-therapy sessions in a Philadelphia hospital and checked into a psychiatric ward for a day; only the ward director knew who Pitt was. “He was fully in character,” says Roven. “He is a perfectionist.” Through it all, Paltrow, who was preparing to shoot the forthcoming films The Pallbearer and Emma, provided support. Says Roven: “She keeps him straight and aware of reality.”

The couple got a crash course on just how unpleasant celebrity-style reality can be last April. While they were vacationing in St. Bart’s, a photographer used a telephoto lens to capture Pitt and Paltrow sunbathing—privately, they believed—in the nude. To their mortification, the shots were published in European magazines and on the Internet, available for downloading worldwide. Pitt has filed suit in France against the photographer, the photo agency and two French publications. “I wonder about the rights of privacy,” he told Us magazine. But otherwise Pitt wants to move past the embarrassing shots. Said he: “I mean, it all ends up in the litter box anyway.”

The fact is, Pitt and Paltrow have better things to focus on. Like sinking the eight ball at Hogs and Heifers, a country-music bar in Manhattan’s meat-packing district where women sling their bras on the resident buffalo head, the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” blares loud and the Harleys are parked in a row outside. “Brad knows every word on the jukebox,” says owner Alan Dell. “He was howlin’ and hootin’ when my wife, Michelle, was teaching Gwyneth to two-step on the bartop.”

Evenings often find the pair nuzzling privately: holding hands over dinner at Villa Mosconi, an intimate Italian restaurant not far from Paltrow’s Greenwich Village apartment, or playfully embracing as they wait on line to buy a late-night snack at the nearby Opera Deli. But when daylight comes, the two turn to more serious tasks, like finding a home for Pitt in Manhattan, where he just finished work on his next film, Sleepers, a crime drama co-starring Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. So deep is his bond to the East Coast-based Paltrow that he has all but abandoned the L.A. home he bought in 1994 and decorated with copper walls and antique Arts and Crafts furniture. “I just saw Brad,” says casting director Schulman. “He told me, I’m homeless.’ ”

What the future will bring—in real estate or in romance—is anyone’s guess. Paltrow’s 10-year plan: “Hopefully,” she told Interview magazine in September, “I’ll be married, with three or four children.” Last month, Pitt gave USA Today a similar 10-year scenario: “Married with bambinos and at home.” For now, though, both are living for the moment—his contribution, it seems, to the Paltrow-Pitt pact: She nudges him to pick up the clothes he is wont to leave strewn on the floor; he eases what she has called her neurotic tendencies.

“[My] happiest day,” Paltrow said recently, “was with Brad at a little coffee shop. We woke up late and were having a lazy morning, and we went around the corner and had these big bowls of latte and sat there all sleepy.”

Nodding in his Java—or scooping up after his gal pal’s pooch, for that matter—may not constitute the High Romance the public expects from Pitt, but the picture of domestic bliss makes perfect sense to his friends. “There’s depth to him that people don’t suspect,” says his True Romance costar Christian Slater. “As a guy he’s pretty grounded; he’s funny, just all right.” This year, call him the Luckiest Man Alive—and Paltrow the Luckiest Woman. Or maybe it’s time to give the hype a rest. “Everybody tries to inflate him,” says Gilliam. “But he doesn’t need to be inflated. He’s good, solid stuff, our Brad.”