By Tom Gliatto
December 04, 1995 12:00 PM

WELCOME TO THE SHAM!” SAYS Dave Foley as he greets a visitor to the furnished, four-bedroom house he and his family have been renting in West Hollywood for three months. “There is nothing you will find here that reflects my character,” explains the 32-year-old comedian and star of the hit NBC sitcom NewsRadio. Lining the walls downstairs are black-and-white photos of a pregnant, naked woman caked in mud. The living-room sofas are black leather. Out front is a lawn of bleached gravel and cacti. It is all intimidatingly stark and arty. Foley, wearing a white dress shirt and jeans, is, on the other hand, pointedly bland—in looks, clothes, voice. As he once told his future wife, explaining his nondescript hairstyle, “I don’t like fashion rebellion. It takes too much energy away from true rebellion.”

On NewsRadio, one of the most critically acclaimed new sitcoms of the past year, Foley plays a deadpan, slightly anxious news director to Saturday Night Live alum Phil Hartman’s pompous anchor. “Dave is a very diplomatic and peaceful personality to have on the set,” says Hartman, describing his humor as cerebral and quiet. In fact, if Foley were any more self-effacing, he probably wouldn’t exist. “I always assumed that famous people have something about them that made them more recognizable than ordinary people,” he says. “Now that I am, I guess, a famous person, I realize that, no…it’s just being on television.”

Foley was almost destined to be part of the prime-time parade. “My family was always very, very aware of TV, particularly comedy shows,” says the actor, who grew up in Toronto, the third of four children. When he told his parents—Michael Foley, 60, a steamfitter, and Mary, 68, a home-maker—that his new sitcom was directed by James Burrows, a co-creator of Cheers, “they knew who he was and every show he’d worked on.”

As a boy, Foley watched The Dick Van Dyke Show obsessively, daydreaming of a life in show business. But he had to overcome his shyness first. “Dave would run away if he saw a camera,” says his mother. “We thought he’d write.” His idea of fun, after all, was reading the dictionary. He finally came out of his shell when schoolmates liked the stories he wrote and read aloud in class.

But Foley was a chronic truant, and, at 18, he dropped out of an alternative high school for smart but less than ideal students. Soon after, he enrolled in an improvisation workshop at the Second City theater group, a breeding ground for new comics. On the first day, he was paired off with Kevin McDonald, who promptly invited Foley to join his improv team. By 1984, the group had evolved into Kids in the Hall, a five-member troupe that starred in its own cult-hit series, first on HBO in 1989 and then on late-night CBS and the Comedy Central cable channel. As Canada’s answer to Monty Python, the Kids specialized in outrageous, sometimes surreal sketches. (They formally disbanded in 1994 but last summer shot a movie, planned for a spring ’96 release.) Also in the Python tradition, there was lots of cross-dressing. “Dave looked like Isabella Rossellini at times,” says colleague Scott Thompson, who now plays Jeffrey Tambor’s assistant on The Larry Sanders Show. “And he’d always argue for subtler comedy. If he had his way, all his characters would wear suits, including the females.”

That’s no problem on NewsRadio, where Foley is at his low-key best playing a buttoned-down Bob Newhart-ish guy. It’s certainly a more comfortable experience than his first foray into Hollywood, playing Julia Sweeney’s indeterminately-sexed lover Chris in the miserable movie flop It’s Pat.

But Foley doesn’t expect to ever call Los Angeles home, especially when he can retreat to a three-story Victorian in Toronto’s funky Cabbagetown neighborhood. Says wife Tabatha Southey, 29: “We can see cows from our bedroom window.” Southey was a salesperson in a vintage clothing store when she and Foley met at a bar in 1983. “We fought,” he recalls, “about whether Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs had a great voice.” They wed eight years later. Their two children, Ned, 2, who addresses his father as “Daddy-O,” and Basil, 4 months, have their mother’s last name, instead of Foley. “My idea,” explains Foley. “I’m a bleeding-heart liberal.”

And yet, despite such political correctness, he claims to have so far attended only one A-list party. “I saw John Malkovich at the feet of Madonna,” he remembers. No one made any move to grovel at his. “I was happy,” he says, “to discover I was completely alien.”