By Dan Jewel
September 06, 1999 12:00 PM

Even before he played Julia Roberts‘s doomed fourth fiancé in the hit Runaway Bride, Christopher Meloni knew a bit about rejection. In 1981 he left his junior year at the University of Colorado at Boulder and “rode my motorcycle to California to be discovered.” By the time he arrived—without an appointment—at the office of an L.A. agent, says Meloni (who then sported long hair and a beard), “my jacket was splattered in bug guts from the ride.” When the receptionist asked for his resume, “I said, ‘What’s that?’ And she said, ‘You’re new in town, aren’t you?’ Six weeks later he was back in school. “I was,” he says of his aborted assault on Hollywood, “in way over my head.”

No more. These days, Meloni, 38, stars as brutal inmate Chris Keller on the HBO prison drama Oz and plays Det. Elliot Stabler in this fall’s new NBC series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. And he has found runaway success in Bride as Coach Bob, the gung-ho skipper of the high school football team.

When he auditioned, “I didn’t know him from Adam,” says Bride director Garry Marshall. His comic skill “was a surprise. We added a bunch of scenes with him because we liked him.” He even brings a sense of humor to the Victims set. Costar Mariska Hargitay says he is so funny, “he doesn’t just make you laugh. He makes you drool down your shirt.”

For most of his career, Meloni has made people shiver. In 1998, he played a relentless bounty hunter on Homicide: Life on the Street, and he was a “hotheaded Mafia brat” in ’96’s thriller Bound. But most people seem to recognize him from a recurring role in 1997 as sleazy Jimmy Leary, subject of Kim Delaney’s undercover investigation on NYPD Blue. “I had a woman come up to me at the grocery store and do a double take,” Meloni says. “She looks at me and says, ‘I hate you! You’re mean…but you’re sexy.’ ”

Even as a child in Washington, D.C., Meloni was equal parts class clown and class crook. “I did some bad things—a little vandalism, stealing stuff,” he admits. “I was the guy whose parents always had to come in for meetings at school.” A natural athlete, he played high school football (“I had to do something with all those hormones”); acting, he notes, did not seem viable to parents Robert, an endocrinologist, and Cecile, a homemaker, who wanted their kids to enter stable professions. (Meloni’s sister Michele, 43, is a Washington social worker; his brother Robert Jr., 42, is a Virginia accountant.)

He began taking drama classes at the University of Colorado; after graduating with a history degree in 1983—and a brief stint as a D.C. construction worker—he moved to New York City and began acting in Off-Off-Broadway plays. Meloni shared a cramped studio apartment with a series of roommates, supporting himself as a bouncer. “My mantra,” he says, “was, ‘I will either be an actor or I’ll die.’ When you place that much pressure on yourself, you tend to make something happen.”

Finally, in 1989, something did. He landed a season-long part on the HBO series 1st & Ten: Do It Again as “an ex-convict turned quarterback,” then was cast as Frankie Fanelli, “the big, dumb, lovable lunk” on the NBC sitcom The Fanelli Boys. He moved to L.A. for the role; though the series was canceled after five months, he has worked steadily there for the past five years. Still, he notes, “I learned more from [Julia Roberts] than anyone I’ve ever worked with.” Says Roberts: “He fulfilled every requirement and beyond. We had great fun.”

Offscreen, Meloni’s wife of four years, production designer Sherman Williams, 39, isn’t tempted to run away. They own a loft in Manhattan’s SoHo section and are building a home near L.A., where she works. They hope to have a child soon, but Special Victims keeps him working 16-hour days in New York City and New Jersey. “I’m having sperm cryogenically frozen,” he jokes.

With so many projects going on at once, he admits, “I’ve gone past tired to zombielike catatonia.” Still, he has no intention of taking a break. When he first met his wife, he says, he warned her, “I love to act. I need to act. It’s the big itch I need to scratch.”

Dan Jewel

Natasha Stoynoff in North Bergen, N.J., and Michelle Caruso and Kelly Carter in Los Angeles