December 18, 1995 12:00 PM

IT’S A BRIGHT, SMOG-FREE Afternoon up at MountainGate Country Club golf course in the heights above Los Angeles, but Greg Kinnear isn’t feeling like the king of this hill. He’s already seven over par after four holes, and the two elderly gentlemen he has been paired with keep addressing him as “Craig.”

“Nothing keeps your ego in check like being called Craig,” says Kinnear, 32, who combines the irreverence of a David Letterman with the straight-arrow looks of a Dan Quayle. On the fifth hole, the golfers are politely informed that the name is Greg and that, by the way, he’s host of Later, NBC’s late-night talk show. Oh, says one of the golfers, isn’t that on at 2 a.m.?

“What do you mean, 2?” says Kinnear in mock horror. “I’m on at 1:35! Practically prime time!”

For Kinnear, major fame may be just around the bend. This week he makes his feature-film debut in Sabrina, the, $50-odd million remake of the 1954 romantic comedy, which starred Audrey Hepburn as a chauffeur’s daughter wooed by tycoon Humphrey Bogart and his playboy brother, William Holden. For this version, sub Harrison Ford for Bogie and fresh British star Julia Ormond for Hepburn. Guess Kinnear’s part.

With his golf hat and two days’ stubble, he certainly doesn’t look like a society-set roué. “I would never wear a white dinner jacket,” says Kinnear, whose previous acting experience ranges from community theater to a few smallish parts on TV. In fact, his name came up for the Holden role only after dozens of other actors had been considered. The challenge, says director Sydney Pollack, was finding “somebody who’s so charming you’re gonna forgive him his ne’er-do-well ways.” Then Pollack saw a tape of Talk Soup, the E! channel’s talk-show roundup that Kinnear fronted from 1991 to ’94. The director and his leading man were impressed. “Greg had a charm that was genuine, not smarmy,” says Ford.

After a week of daily auditions and two screen tests, he landed the role just a month before shooting began last January. He was initially in awe of his castmates, but Ford put him at ease over lunch. The veteran actor, says Kinnear, has no star attitude. “He’s not waiting in his trailer asking for more Jujubes,” Kinnear says.

Kinnear’s family is surprised that he is anywhere near the candy dish called fame. “I wasn’t sure how responsible he was going to grow up to be,” says his mother, Suzanne, a homemaker in Tucson, Ariz. “He wouldn’t clean up his room and was always late.” And, Kinnear adds, it seems as if it were only yesterday that his brothers—Jim, 38, executive director of the Corvallis (Ore.) Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, and Steve, 36, business manager for the Billy Graham Training Center in Asheville N.C.—”were regularly pummeling me in the backyard.” Although Kinnear was raised mostly in Logansport Ind., his family also spent time in Athens and Beirut His father Edward now retired was a trade officer with the State Department.

After college—he was a broadcast major at the University of Arizona—Kinnear moved to Hollywood and landed a marketing job at a B-movie company whose output included Space Sluts in the Slammer. His first on-air break came in 1987, chatting up flicks on the Movietime channel. When Movietime was revamped as E!, Kinnear became the Talk Soup guy, surveying talk-show clips with a look of bemused disbelief.

Now he’s living in a $1.4 million, four-bedroom villa in the Hollywood Hills and considering other movie offers while still having fun with the daily production “madness” of Later. But the usually unflappable TV host gets edgy when asked about his private life. Girlfriend? All he will say is her name is Helen, she’s a student, age 26, they’ve been together two years, and “she’s my full-time therapist.”

Recently, Kinnear saw a rough cut of Sabrina. He likes the movie, but “my ears look as big as golf bags!” He and Helen plan to see the movie, again, with a paying audience soon. “If you’re in a theater and a guy comes in wearing fake glasses, nose and mustache and howls at my joke lines,” says Kinnear, “it’s probably me.”

TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

You May Like