November 02, 1998 12:00 PM

Born two years after the Bicentennial, Ashton Kutcher is slowly adjusting his mind-set—child of the ’80s, fan of Def Leppard—to that of the teenage goofball he plays on That ’70s Show. “You know, we’re saying ‘cool’ all the time on the show,” says Ashton of the new Fox sitcom, set back when no boy’s bedroom was complete without a Far-rah Fawcett poster and Peter Frampton on the turntable. “I didn’t think ‘cool’ was around then. It ticks me off. You think your generation came up with a word, and we didn’t!”

No matter the coinage, “cool” fits the show, a sort of hipper Happy Days, with a sharp eye for period detail (smiley faces, leisure suits) and an appreciation for the coming-of-age mishaps of some funnier-than-average teenagers in suburban Wisconsin, 1976. Kutcher, 20, plays one of them: Kelso, shaggy-haired, handsome and slightly spacey. But the actor is anything but clueless, says costar Danny Masterston, who plays his ’70s-sideburned buddy. “We found out how smart he was when we were sitting around talking about high-school science,” says Masterson. “He started rattling off stuff about chemicals and the body.”

Kutcher is definitely riding an accelerated learning curve. In a little over a year he has gone from tiny Homestead, Iowa, to New York City—where he modeled Calvin Klein jeans—to L.A. “In Iowa, it’s a big thing if you just get on the Channel Nine news,” says the 6’3″ Cedar Rapids native, whose father, Larry, 49, works for General Mills there. Kutcher himself had a summer job vacuuming cereal dust around the Cheerios line. “It was $12 an hour,” he says. “Can’t beat that! Except I’d come home looking like a battered tenderloin.”

But his fraternal twin, Michael, born five minutes after Kutcher, expected bigger things from him. “He’s always been good-looking, always got the girl,” says Michael, a business major at a community college in Cedar Rapids. “He’s more outgoing and energetic than I am. He always stood up for me.”

Never more so than when the boys were 13. Even as their father and mother, Diane, were divorcing, Mike underwent an emergency heart transplant after myocarditis, a viral heart inflammation, led to cardiac arrest. “Ashton never left my side,” says Michael, now healthy. “He showed me the love one brother has for another.” Says Kutcher: “If I could give him my heart so that he could live, I would have.”

Two years later their mother, 46, who works at the Procter & Gamble plant in Iowa City, moved the twins and their sister Tausha (now 23) to Homestead, a farm community, and built a home with the man who in 1996 became their stepfather, Mark Portwood, a construction worker. Small-town life was very small. “You couldn’t get away with anything,” says Kutcher, who played football, pitched hay and sang in the choir. “We’d go in the cornfields with a keg, and the cops were already there.” After graduating from a local high school, he began studying biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa, planning to specialize in genetics—or become a star. “I wanted to come to Hollywood,” says Kutcher. “But in Iowa it’s like, ‘How will I ever do that?’ ”

In Iowa, it turns out, anything is possible. An agent who spotted him last year suggested he enter a statewide modeling competition. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, do guys even do that?’ ” says Kutcher. He won a trip to New York, where in three days the Next modeling agency signed him up. Soon he was appearing in magazine ads and hitting the runways in Paris and Milan. “All I had to do,” he marvels, “was walk from here to the door and back.”

Then last spring, on a round of auditions in L.A., he impressed ’70s Show producers with “his enthusiasm and innocence,” says Terry Turner, one of the creators of the series (and of 3rd Rock from the Sun). Since taping began this summer he has taken to TV with the same ease he showed on the runway. “He does a great job,” says his brother. “You’re getting pure Ashton.”

Living in Los Angeles for three months, he recently landed a spacious, two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, where he drives around in his new Dodge Durango and hangs out (and occasionally bowls) with his castmates. “We’re all like buddies,” he says. But most of his time is spent on the set, savoring those retro ’70s pleasures. “I like bell-bottoms, they’re awesome,” says Kutcher. Cool!

Tom Gliatto

Paula Yoo in Los Angeles

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