March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

Actors often draw on painful life experiences in their work, but for 10-year-old Luke Rossi the exercise was especially wrenching. At the same time in 1990 that he was playing Ethan, the troubled son of ovarian-cancer victim Nancy Weston on the ABC hit thirtysomething, he was watching his father battle a brain tumor. “The directors used to tell me, ‘Use what you can,’ ” recalls Rossi, now 21. “Well, in those scenes where I had to cry, I’d just think of my father and what he was going through.”

Thirtysomething was canceled in 1991, and three years later Luke’s optician father, Douglas Rossi, died at age 46. Luke, then 14, sought solace in life outside Hollywood. “I thought maybe the best thing would be to stay away from acting for a while,” he says. “It was time to start living a life without auditions.”

Thanks to some savvy investing of his thirtysomething earnings, Rossi has been able to do just that. Since graduating from high school in 1998, he studied business at Santa Monica College and settled into life far from the camera. Last year he and a friend created a Web site to sell cast-iron furniture, and with his brother Chris, 34, he now works designing handcrafted leather wallets, handbags and other accessories, which they will soon sell through an online boutique, “I love doing craftwork,” Rossi says. “I feel I have a good eye for style, and I like seeing things built from nothing.” On weekends he delivers pizzas for a Malibu restaurant where some pals work. “It’s something to do,” he says. “It’s spending money and we have a great time.”

Rossi, the youngest of four children, started acting at age 4, when his mother, Kathleen, 54, a real estate agent, took him and sister Jenny, now 24 and a fashion buyer for a Malibu boutique, on auditions for commercials. (Sister Ali, 26, is now an optician in Seattle.) Soon he was landing spots for products including Skippy Peanut Butter.

Then in 1987 thirtysomething came along. When the child actor who was cast to play Ethan in the show’s pilot didn’t work out, producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick cast Rossi, then 7, after his audition. “Luke had this remarkably open face—a gravity and a sadness about him [that is] so rare in a kid that age,” says Herskovitz. “He was a sweet boy, a cooperative soul who liked to come to work.”

Even if that meant getting up at 4:30 a.m. for the 45-minute drive from the family’s Malibu home to the Studio City soundstage, where Rossi would rehearse his lines with his mom and meet with a tutor. But it wasn’t all work and no fun on the set, “My son is the same age as Luke, and I would bring him in so Luke could have someone to play with,” recalls Timothy Busfield, who portrayed Rossi’s thirtysomething dad, Elliot. “They loved commandeering the golf carts and driving around the studio.”

But Busfield says he understands Rossi’s decision to quit acting after the show ended. “He needed to go to school and play with his friends,” he says. “No one should grow up being a child actor. You don’t want the greatest moments of your life to be as an 8-year-old.”

No chance of that for Rossi. These days he is surfing, mountain biking or spearfishing near the Malibu house he shares with his mother and her second husband, Harrison Ward, 51, a computer programmer. Or heading to the family’s four-bedroom cabin in the mountains northeast of Los Angeles to snowboard or fish. It only follows, then, that the type of woman he’s attracted to is “down-to-earth and outdoorsy”—not that he’s looking, having just ended a two-year relationship. “Breaking up was hard,” he says, “but [I’m] enjoying the bachelor life right now.”

Meanwhile he’s toying with a return to acting—”I spent so many years doing it and it was such a positive experience,” he says—going on auditions and taking classes. He even read for a role on Zwick and Herskovitz’s new ABC series Once and Again. Though he wasn’t right for the part, they were impressed. “He looked very different,” Herskovitz says, “but that gravity and seriousness in his face is still there.”

Rossi’s siblings think it’s only a matter of time before he’s back in front of the cameras. “We got together a few months ago, and all he could talk about was his acting class,” says Jenny. “He said, They really respect my work.’ And Luke liked that.”

Elizabeth O’Brien

Lorenzo Benet in Malibu

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