March 10, 1997 12:00 PM

Michael J. Fox looks up to the 6’4″ actor

HE’S BEEN A STAR OF STAGE (THE original Grease), screen (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and TV miniseries (War and Remembrance). Still, Barry Bostwick admits that he was worried last winter when he auditioned for the role of fictional New York City Mayor Randall Winston, Michael J. Fox’s boss on the hit ABC sitcom Spin City. His anxiety, it turns out, was all in his head—and how it towered over Fox’s. “I was nervous,” says the 6’4″ actor, “because I was so much taller than Michael,” who stands 5’5″. “During the reading, I tried to sit down as much as possible,” he recalls. “But it soon became apparent that my height was not a problem.”

Indeed, the pair’s stature gap has inspired more than a few sight gags. “We have a lot of fun with the Mutt-and-Jeff aspect,” says Fox. “It’s fertile ground.”

Bostwick agrees that portraying his character is a blast. To research the part, he pored through the writings of former Big Apple honchos Ed Koch and John Lindsay and even followed flamboyant San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown around for a day. “That was a gas,” says Bostwick, “because he’s so out there as a personality. I try to bring that energy to Randall. He loves being mayor,” says the actor. “He’s like a child with a new toy.”

In that regard, Bostwick, 52, speaks from recent experience. Three years ago, the gray-haired performer wed Sherri Ellen Jensen, a then-33-year-old aspiring actress. It was the second marriage for both. Their son, Brian, 22 months, was born in 1995, and last October his sister, Chelsea, arrived. “I’m atypical,” admits Bostwick, “because most 50-year-olds aren’t starting a new family—they’re empty-nesting it and looking to retire. I did it all backwards.”

Though juggling fatherhood with Spin’s 12-hour days is, he says, “exhausting,” Bostwick is often back at the family’s toy-strewn, two-bedroom Manhattan apartment by 7 p.m. to play with his kids. And while a nanny helps out, Bostwick claims to enjoy Chelsea’s 2 a.m. feedings. Now the family is moving into a new, more spacious abode, a four-bedroom farmhouse outside Nyack, N.Y., 36 miles north of New York City. “I think this is going to keep me young,” he says, laughing, “or kill me at a very young age.”

While growing up in San Mateo, Calif., Bostwick and his older brother Peter (who died at 34 in a 1972 car crash) were encouraged to be creative by their father, Henry, who retired from the city planning board to become an actor, doing bit parts in commercials and movies, and mother, Betty, a homemaker. The two boys sang and staged puppet shows and, at San Mateo High School, performed in folk groups with friends.

After majoring in acting at San Diego’s United States International University in 1967, Bostwick headed to New York to pursue graduate studies in drama. But, distracted by Off-Broadway job offers, he left academia and made his Broadway debut in the 1969 drama Cock-a-Doodle-Dandy. Three years later he won the first of three Tony nominations as high school gang leader Danny Zuko in Grease. But it was as nerdy Brad Majors that he endeared himself to fans of 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a cult classic that Bostwick proudly calls “one of the high points in my career.”

Even greater recognition—and a bigger paycheck—awaited him on TV. He went on to star in more than half-a-dozen miniseries—three of them based on Judith Krantz novels. Lured back to Broadway in 1991’s Nick and Nora, Bostwick felt defeated when the $4.3 million musical closed after nine performances. He has shunned the stage ever since. “My insecurities just peaked,” he says. “I would go out and give a performance, but I just never felt like I was going to be able to. Doing it is hell,” he concludes. “Heaven is the walk home.”

Along the way, Bostwick’s love life was also a patchwork of hits and misses. A four-year relationship with Knots Landing’s Lisa Hartman ended in 1984—a casualty, he told PEOPLE at the time, of their hectic careers. His 1987 marriage to actress Stacey Nelkin (which Bostwick chooses not to discuss) broke up in 1991.

A year later, he met Sherri Ellen, herself divorced, at an L.A. party. They married at a Japanese tea garden in San Mateo in 1993. “There was a sweetness about her and an old-fashioned quality that is just endearing,” he recalls. Sherri Ellen was similarly enamored. “Barry’s a homebody kind of person, and I like that,” she says, noting their mutual interests in cooking, gardening and ceramics (Bostwick’s pottery is so good it sells at some Los Angeles craft stores). Bostwick is also a believer in Zen meditation. According to Sherri Ellen, it works: “You don’t really argue with Barry. If I get upset, we’ll always go and sit down, and he’ll make you talk it out.”

“He’s always been pretty cool and calm,” agrees a friend, actor Jeff Conaway (Babylon 5), who once shared a loft with Bostwick during his Grease days. “Barry becoming a father,” Conaway adds, “is the greatest thing. You can see the child in his eyes.”

At this moment the child Bostwick happens to be gazing at is Brian, who just minutes ago had wandered, beaming, into his father’s study and has now inexplicably burst into tears. Sighing, Bostwick calls out to the nanny: “Has he had his nap yet? I think it’s time!” But as Brian quietly dozes off in the next room, Bostwick insists he doesn’t miss being a bachelor. “I really consciously made this decision to have this cocooning experience,” he says, smiling contentedly. “Everything has fallen into place.”

MICHAEL A. LIPTON

NANCY MATSUMOTO and ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABREBA in New York City

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