By Julie K.L. Dam
Updated May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

Unlike his brother John, ex-tennis pro Patrick McEnroe controlled his emotions on court. Onscreen, though, it’s a different story. In the romantic comedy Life or Something Like It, McEnroe—making his movie debut—appears in a ballpark scene as the date of his real-life wife, actress Melissa Errico. His inexperience showed—”I was trying to jump up and down in the stands,” he says—so Errico provided a distraction. “I figured if we were kissing,” she says, “he wouldn’t overact.”

Not that they need an excuse to smooch. Childhood pals, McEnroe and Errico went their separate ways, with him joining the pro tennis tour and her landing roles on TV and Broadway. Reunited decades later, they married in 1998. But with packed schedules—McEnroe, 35, is the U.S. Davis Cup team captain and a sports commentator for ESPN and CBS; Errico, 32, is preparing for the Kennedy Center’s fall production of Sunday in the Park with George—they have a hard time finding time to hang out together in their Manhattan loft. So when the Life script called for a love interest for Errico, she got selfish and volunteered her husband. On the set the couple “were walking around taking pictures of each other and holding hands,” says director Stephen Herek. “It was the kind of excitement you get with a high school romance.”

More like grade school. At Buckley Country Day School on New York’s Long Island, McEnroe was best pals with Errico’s brother Michael, now 35 and a musician. “I used to hang out at her house,” says McEnroe, “and I would tease her.” Consider, for example, what he wrote in Michael’s yearbook: “Dear Mike. Beat Melissa up for me. Pat.” She scribbled in his: “You are a great kid, from Melissa your girlfriend. Just kidding. Ha ha.”

Fast forward to 1996, when McEnroe was winding down an eight-year career and Errico, a Broadway veteran by her early 20s, was moving into TV and movies. Recuperating from shoulder surgery in New York City, McEnroe was urged by his mother, Kay, 65, to look up Melissa, whom he eventually saw at one of Michael’s gigs. Afterward, “I hugged him—and then I hugged him again,” she recalls. “There was just no guard because we had a lot of history.” They stayed up talking so late that the next day Errico had to rest her voice—which meant no phone calls. So he faxed her an invitation to go to a movie. “That was pretty much it,” says McEnroe, who popped the question two years later.

When it comes to marriage, they don’t have to look far for inspiration. “Both our parents have been together over 40 years,” Errico says. “I want to be role models like that.” The middle child of Michael, 62, an orthopedic surgeon in Manhasset, N.Y., and Angela, 62, a sculptor (sister Melanie, 20, is a college student), Errico was a boisterous kid who found an outlet at age 11 after attending On Your Toes on Broadway. (During the show she started crying, Errico recalls, and asked her parents, “How do I get up there?”) Enrolled in dance classes, she scored roles Off-Broadway and on the early ’80s kids TV show The Great Space Coaster, while keeping up a 4.0 GPA at Friends Academy on Long Island. Then, as a freshman at Yale in 1988, she won the lead in the touring production of Les Misérables. On the road for a year, she did her studies by correspondence before returning to school and graduating with a degree in art history in 1992.

Professionally, the years since have been varied if not quite so meteoric. She managed to impress the producers of the 1993 revival of My Fair Lady, who came to see her in Broadway’s Anna Karenina on the night a hoop skirt got stuck on her wig. “It was so ludicrous,” she says, but “it caught their eye.” Next came a stint in Sex and the City producer Darren Star’s first Manhattan soap, 1995’s tiresome Central Park West. She later suffered as the leading lady in the critically panned 1998 musical High Society. “I needed time after that to regroup,” she says.

McEnroe could relate to career ups and downs. “I used to tag along with my brothers,” says the youngest of lawyer John Sr., now 66, and nurse Kay’s three sons. After brother John started taking tennis classes near their home in Queens, Patrick did too. He later followed John to Stanford University. Patrick finished; John left after a year. (Middle brother Mark, 40, is an attorney.) “While John went on to win 17 grand slams, the high point of Patrick’s pro career was reaching the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 1995. His tennis-playing days may have been “clouded by his big brother,” retired player Jim Courier, “but he didn’t let his name run his own life.” Says Patrick: “Being John’s brother has helped a lot, but I also think I have taken advantage of opportunities.”

Which led him away from playing. “I wasn’t that fast or strong, but I was smart,” McEnroe says, “which I think makes me a pretty good coach.” The U.S. Tennis Federation thought so too, tapping him to coach the Davis Cup team last year after John, 43, quit the post. “We have had our moments, because we’re both competitive,” Patrick says. “But we are at a point where we both feel good about what we are doing and what the other one is doing.”

One thing Patrick won’t be doing any time soon is pursuing an acting career. When his wife is performing, he insists, he prefers the view from the audience. And she likes her outlook from the stage. “I can see him across a room of 250 to 300 people in a crowd,” Errico says. “I look, and he is looking at me. That feels as intimate as a screen kiss.”

Julie K.L. Dam

Rebecca Paley in New York City