May 07, 1990 12:00 PM

As the title character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, actor Michael Rooker chills more than his victims in the movie; he puts a freon freeze into audiences as well. Cast as an introverted drifter, Rooker murders as casually as a man carving a holiday turkey, and his cool-blooded portrayal has been heating up art-cinema box offices around the country.

Rooker is no rookie when it comes to on-the-edge characters. He played a bribe-taking baseball player in Eight Men Out, a lynch mob leader in Mississippi Burning and a psychopathic repairman in Sea of Love. Ironically, the role now drawing the raves was his first, filmed before any of the others. Henry was inspired by the story of Henry Lee Lucas (now a death-row inmate in Texas convicted of eight murders and suspected of scores more), and it was shot back in 1985 on a Brownie-camera budget of $125,000. Its backers had planned a straight-to-video slasher flick, but Rooker’s unnerving performance prompted a trial release in Chicago, Boston and eventually elsewhere. The New York Times praised the actor’s “astonishing calm and control” in portraying a man “who kills as simply and naturally as he breathes.” Says Rooker, 35: “I was connected to the character. The loneliness, the paranoia, you can’t play a role like that without knowing those feelings.”

Born in rural Alabama and raised in Chicago, Rooker learned about life’s hard knocks early. The oldest child from a broken family, he staggered through high school while supporting five younger sisters as a part-time truck driver, punch-press operator and auto-parts delivery boy. Then in 1978 he enrolled at Chicago’s Goodman School of Drama and found a mentor in veteran acting teacher Bella Itkin.

Mindful of his past hard times, perhaps, Rooker still lives in a modest three-bedroom rental in Sunland, Calif., with wife Margot, 34, and daughter Alynne, 4. Not even Henry’s success, he says, has erased all the old fears, even in the master fearmaker himself. “Now that it’s opening around the country, I’m open to public judgment,” says Rooker. “That’s scary.”

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