July 22, 1996 12:00 PM

KEITH HAMILTON COBB IS A BUSY guy—on TV, at least. In the last six months, as Noah Keefer on ABC’s popular soap All My Children, the gentle desperado has been imprisoned, forced to flee to Jamaica and then fake his own death. But through it all he has remained devoted to his one true love, Julia Santos (played by Sydney Penny)—and, this being a soap, love conquers all. Last month, in a fairy-tale teleceremony, Noah and Julia tied the knot.

When it comes to his own love life, Cobb, 34, isn’t so steadfast. “I have several female friends,” he says, “and I see them occasionally.” He believes firmly, some might say naively, in open relationships. “Why shouldn’t the person you love come to you,” he asks, “and say, ‘I really need to sleep with so-and-so’ and you say, ‘I love you, and I want you to be happy, so go.’ ”

Like Keefer, whose new bride is white, Cobb scoffs at the notion that he should date only blacks. “Whatever package it comes in,” he says, “as long as it’s attractive to me, I don’t care.” The 400 letters he gets each month inevitably include a few tirades from what he calls “a fringe redneck contingent” and from African-American women who, he says, “feel betrayed.”

Most viewers don’t. This year, at the Soap Opera Digest Awards, which Cobb cohosted in prime time on NBC, he and Penny were named Most Romantic Couple. “He’s the hottest actor on soaps right now,” says Soap Opera Digest editor-in-chief Lynn Leahey. “He’s got this enigmatic, mysterious quality. It’s very intriguing to women.”

Growing up in Tarrytown, N.Y., with two sisters—Lane, 35, now a physical therapist in Baltimore, and Pamela, 30, a doctor in Philadelphia—Cobb says he was a loner, not a lover, whose parents, Mary Lane Cobb, a physician (now retired), and her husband, James, a mechanical engineer, force-fed him literature. At Sleepy Hollow High, he says, he “was tall and skinny and kind of strange-looking with no coordination, and horrible at everything.”

That changed. As an English major at Westchester Community College in 1981, he says, “I came into my sexuality, my strength, my size, my manhood.” After roles in campus plays, he got hooked on theater, transferred to New York University and graduated with an acting degree in 1987. For the next seven years, he taught acting at WCC and painted houses while struggling in regional theater. Then, in July 1994, he showed up at an audition for AMC.

“When Keith walked in the door, I almost fainted,” says casting director Judy Blye Wilson of his two-foot-long dreadlocks—eight years in the growing—crowning a 6’4″ frame. “His presence is so commanding.” His hair, raves Penny, is “like an octopus. A love scene is like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

Though AMC tapes in Manhattan, Cobb still lives next to his parents in Tarrytown, in a one-bedroom house that used to be his mother’s office. “I’m a country boy forever in my heart,” he says. After a long day on the set, Cobb works out with a trainer and tries to get home in time to study his lines. He recently bought a Mustang Cobra so he can drive to work. As a private person, he says, he used to spend his railroad commute “trying to hide.”

He’s not the only one. Living close to his folks, he says, makes female guests “a little nervous, waking up sleepy-eyed and encountering my dad coming back from a jog.” But his parents seem used to his ways. “My dad is so warm,” says Cobb with a smile, “he’ll say [to a visitor], ‘You want pancakes?’ ”

DAN JEWEL

DAVID COBB CRAIG in Tarrytown

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