November 27, 1995 12:00 PM

ERIC LUTES HAD A ROUGH NIGHT before his big break. In the predawn hours of the day he taped a career-altering appearance on Frasier, in September of 1994, Lutes tossed and turned on the floor of his brother-in-law’s L.A. home, where he and his wife, actress Christine Romeo, were crashing between auditions. “Her brother had this psycho cat that would attack us at night. My fear was that this thing was going to come claw my eyes out,” he says. “They say man is the only animal that will kill for no reason. I think it’s man and Max the Cat.”

Lutes, 33, survived the night—and turned in a hilarious performance as Kelsey Grammer’s gay boss on one of the most talked-about TV episodes of last season. The day after the show aired, Lutes’s agent tracked him down in Texas, where he was shooting a guest spot for another series, to say that offers to audition were pouring in. Guest parts for ABC’s Ellen, All-American Girl and The Commish followed. But the crucial conversation was between Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce and Marco Pennette, an executive producer casting the male lead for a new sitcom, Caroline in the City. Says Pennette: “The minute Eric came in, we knew he was right. It was hard to find somebody the right age with his looks who did comedy but wasn’t in the movies.” Now, Lutes is Del, the frenetic boss and sometime beau of haplessly romantic comic-strip artist Caroline, played by Lea Thompson. Lutes, says Thompson, “has a great attitude, especially when everybody is nervous. You need someone like that around, who keeps everyone loose.”

The actor, a confessed “hambone,” is the second of four children of John Lutes, an artist, and his wife, Claire, a psychiatric nurse and astrologer. He remembers cracking up his fellow 11th graders at Chariho High School in Rhode Island after school administrators tried to set guidelines for class portraits. “I showed up,” he says, “with this goofy spiked helmet and made a dumb face.”

While still in high school, Lutes got a part-time job parking cars at an outdoor theater, where he saw most of the plays and caught the acting bug himself. Soon afterward, Lutes and his friends began staging their own musical and variety Christmas shows. After graduating, he won the lead in a local production of The Pajama Game—even though he couldn’t sing. “After the show, I figured, ‘Imagine how much fun acting could be without the humiliation of singing,’ ” he says. So he enrolled in the theater program at the University of Rhode Island and completed his course work in 1985.

Heading to New York City, Lutes took a temp job at the Putnam Publishing Group, then a position at Grossett & Dunlap, Putnam’s children’s division. Unhappy with the work, he moved back to Rhode Island in 1986 to rethink his plans—while painting houses with his brother Kurt, 27. “Publishing was bad,” Lutes says, “but housepainting is a little lower on the food chain. I had to get back to acting.” In 1988, Lutes started commuting to Boston to be part of that city’s theater scene. There he acted in commercials and met Romeo, now 34, when the two were cast as a married couple in an industrial film for IBM. After that, she says, “whenever we went [to audition], we’d be called for the same half-hour slot. Eventually, casting directors just started pairing us together.”

In real life, it was casting Romeo initially resisted, since they were both involved with other people. But Lutes pursued her for weeks until a lunch date that seemed to lead nowhere. It wasn’t until they reconnected and started traveling to New York City to audition in 1989 that romance blossomed, along with Lutes’s career. Soon after their October 1990 wedding, he landed a three-episode stint on All My Children. For the next three years, Romeo acted in regional theater around the country while Lutes stayed in Manhattan, playing, he says, the “young male American” in a string of action pictures for the Japanese market. “I was clean-cut and very boring,” he says. “They really like that, and, luckily, I do boring well.”

Not on Caroline—and certainly not at the cozy San Fernando Valley, Calif., home where Lutes and Romeo—who just landed a guest spot on Sisters—cook dinner for friends, tend tomato plants and jog to relax. Sitting on a couch in their living room recently, Romeo smiled as she discussed the evolution of Lutes’s TV character. “The writers are starting to incorporate more Eric-isms into Del,” she says. “Now Del does things like balance objects on his chin.” On cue, Lutes tilts his head and puts a book on the tip of his chin. “I’ve actually gotten free drinks in bars for this,” he says. Romeo can only shake her head and giggle. “I’m married,” she says, “to a trained seal.”

DOUG HATT

CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles

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