May 31, 1999 12:00 PM

You can’t say Brendan Fraser doesn’t knock himself out for his craft. On the second day of filming The Mummy in the Sahara desert, Fraser was standing on his tippy-toes with a noose around his neck. “Make it tighter,” he told a stunt coordinator. “I want to make it look like I’m really strangling.” Then, says director Stephen Sommers, Fraser collapsed in a heap. “We had just met Brendan,” says Sommers, “so we thought, ‘Oh, he’s a real joker.’ But he was really out. About a minute later he stood up, saying, ‘Oh, sorry about that.’ ”

That refreshing combination of recklessness and good manners made Fraser, 30, a big cheese to the rugrats who made 1997’s George of the Jungle a surprise hit. The girls who first took to Fraser in 1992’s School Ties didn’t mind the loincloth look, either, and last year Fraser made a splash in the art-house drama Gods and Monsters. But with The Mummy earning a King Tutsized fortune (it dug up $81 million in its first 10 days at the box office), Fraser reportedly now commands $10 million a film. “He’s that magic combination of a really good-looking man who’s funny and yet a wonderfully serious actor too,” notes his Gods costar Lynn Redgrave. “He’s going to be big, big, big.”

But don’t look for this man with movie muscle to crawl through pubs or drape himself with models. He’s happily wed (wife Afton Smith, 31, is a former actress) and decorating their newly renovated contemporary-style house in Los Angeles—perhaps even contemplating a nursery. “We’re definitely talking about starting a family,” Fraser told The Edmonton Sun. “But I think it’s important that we get to know ourselves and each other better.”

The local playground may never be the same. Fraser grabs hold of every role—in movies and in life—with the intensity of George leaping to catch a vine. He photographs everything in sight, often with the vintage Polaroid cameras he collects. Even during a recent guest shot on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Fraser snapped away at Portia de Rossi (Ally McBeal) while Leno interviewed her. Sean Astin, his costar in 1992’s Encino Man, recalls that for a scene in which Fraser’s defrosted caveman cries at a museum’s Cro-Magnon display, Fraser “was so committed to doing it right, even if it was just a dumb caveman.” As a heavy-metal doofus alongside Adam Sandler in 1994’s Airheads, says director Michael Lehmann, Fraser learned to play guitar, and “he wanted to sing, so I said we’ll try it, and if it doesn’t work, no big deal. But he did it.” He showed off his dancing in Blast from the Fast, and George required him to work out “like a maniac,” says his choreographer friend Adam Shankman.

He thrives on the challenges. Born in Indianapolis, Fraser, whose parents are Canadian-Americans, “gets along great with everyone,” says his brother Regan, 35, who recently moved to L.A. and is looking for work. “He’s the youngest of four boys—the spoiled one.” The family (brothers Kevin, 38, and Sean, 36, live in the Seattle area) spent the boys’ childhood shuttling among Amsterdam, London, Cincinnati, Detroit and Toronto, thanks to father Peter’s job with the Canadian Tourism Commission. (Peter, 62, and Brendan’s mother, Carol, 62, a sales counselor, now live in Seattle.) “I don’t have friends from early childhood,” Fraser told Movieline. “The pattern of my childhood and schooling was always transition, transition, transition.” At age 13, Fraser landed at Toronto’s Upper Canada College Preparatory School, which introduced him to acting. “Even in grade 10 you could see something in him,” says Colin Lowndes, 48, who ran the theater program. “He knew at an early age that he wanted to be an actor.” Principal Doug Blakey says Fraser developed the athletic side he shows on film: “I remember looking out at him practicing, a solitary figure, heaving the javelin with grace and style.” In 1997, Lowndes recalls, Fraser returned for a class reunion but didn’t play the star: “He seemed very much the same guy—except he was interrupted every two minutes by young girls.”

Fraser should be used to wowing women. At Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts, “He had to put a T-shirt on in front of everyone, and everyone clapped,” says teacher Craig Latrell. “He was like Harrison Ford.” In Seattle, Fraser met Hollywood casting director Sharon Bialy, who was in town to scout for the film Bound by Honor. Bialy told the “very shy and very gawky” Fraser he was wrong for the part—a Latino kid. But after “he came alive when he started to read with me,” she suggested he visit her in L.A. Fraser borrowed his mom’s car and didn’t stop till he got to Hollywood and Vine—where his welcome to the big time came in the form of a parking ticket. Bialy introduced him to agents, and Fraser soon landed the lead in School Ties. “He had instant charisma,” says Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing, who was at his audition.

Not long after that, he landed an even bigger prize—his future wife. In 1993 Airheads director Lehmann brought Fraser to Winona Ryder’s Fourth of July barbecue, where he met first Smith’s Collie mix Wylie, then Smith herself. Fraser went on to spend the day with the long-haired beauty and her owner. Last fall, Fraser and Smith were married at L.A.’s Hotel Bel-Air. “When Brendan saw her, he was really emotional,” says wedding planner Mindy Weiss, who watched his eyes mist over during the ceremony. These days the pair enjoy having dinner parties at home—talking, says frequent guest Shankman, “about everything from current events to Afton’s latest obsession, and you can just see the delight in Brendan’s eyes because Afton’s so passionate when she talks. He’s just madly in love with her.” Dave Foley, Fraser’s Blast costar, who invited the couple over to watch old movies, says, “They’re one of those couples where you go, ‘I really can’t imagine them ever fighting.’ ”

Mr. Nice Guy won’t have to stretch much for his next role, Dudley Do-Right (coming in August)—especially since Fraser’s great-grandfather was a Canadian Mountie. Nor does Fraser have to fake his easy good cheer with fans, especially small fry. When tykes ask, “Can I take a picture of you?” says Shankman, Fraser always answers, “No, but you can take a picture with me.” Dudley costar Sarah Jessica Parker calls it the mark of someone “who was really well-raised.” Case in point: When Dudley director Hugh Wilson mentioned that his teenage daughter was feeling blue while away at prep school, former preppie Fraser gave her a call. “It made her an instant celebrity on the second floor of her dorm,” says Wilson. “But that’s typical Brendan. Brendan’s kind of a do-right guy.”

Kyle Smith

Julie Jordan, Irene Zutell and Michelle Caruso in Los Angeles, John Slania in Toronto and Tina Kelley in Seattle

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