June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

If Enrico Colantoni’s parents had their wish, their son would be pardoning sinners, not portraying them on TV. “They wanted me to become a priest,” says Colantoni, who plays perpetually horny fashion photographer Elliott DiMauro on Just Shoot Me, NBC’s hit show about an ab fab fashion magazine. Even after he enrolled at New York City’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1983, his parents didn’t give up. “They told my friends and relatives to convince me not to go,” says Colantoni. “From Italy I’d get calls from cousins and aunts saying, ‘I don’t think you should act. It’s really tough. What are the chances?’ This was around the time Flashdance came out, and I was like, ‘What about your dreams? I’m a maniac.’ ”

Perhaps, but as his paesani have since learned, he wasn’t crazy. After doing the starving-actor thing in New York City for four years, Colantoni’s stubbornness has finally paid off. His role as Just Shoot Me’s libidinous lensman has ensured he’ll never have to bus another table or clean another toilet again. “I was not ready to be shot down by a business not ready for a balding 21-year-old guy,” recalls Colantoni, now 35, of those early, financially lean years.

The Just Shoot Me producers, however, were not exactly ready to cast an overweight actor for the arrogant but amorous Elliott. “They were looking for pretty-boy, ponytail types, and I was weighing in at 200 pounds back then,” says Colantoni of his 1996 audition. “But then they liked the juxtaposition of this heavy, balding guy women find attractive.”

Still, Colantoni was determined to trim down, and he began seeing Nancy Snyder, a Los Angeles nutritionist, who promptly reduced his pasta intake. But he soon developed a crush on his guru and asked her out. To his surprise, she said yes. “He was very different from everybody I was dating,” says Snyder, 37. “He wasn’t superficial. He was introverted and dark.” Three months later, in January 1997, they were married and now share a three-bedroom ranch house in L.A. with their 11-month-old son Quintin. By June 1997, Colantoni had shed 50 pounds through a regimen of exercise and eating right. “The show’s fat jokes went out the window,” he says.

But not the kudos for his work. Just Shoot Me costar George Segal, who plays Elliott’s boss, publisher Jack Gallo, on the sitcom (now airing on Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET in reruns) calls Colantoni the show’s “best actor. Off of him, we can get zany. He’s the fifth Marx brother.”

Growing up in Toronto in the ’60s, Colantoni was no Gummo—just Rico, the youngest of three children of an Italian immigrant couple, Quintino, a laborer and truck driver, and Gina, a garment worker who learned only a few words of English. (At age 73, both are now retired and living in Italy.) Their daughter Frances died of leukemia at age 10 in 1969. “Now that I have a son, I realize what my parents went through,” says Colantoni about his sister’s death. At age 8, young Rico saw his brother Hector (now 45 and a Toronto police detective) act in a high school production of You Can’t Take It with You. Emulating his big brother, Colantoni trod the boards at Father Henry Carr High School. At the University of Toronto in 1982, he took a drama course. “We did Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor,” he says, “and the acting bug bit hard.”

Reality, though, bit harder. After graduating from Yale drama school in 1993, he “was working but still starving,” he says. “I fell into a heavy depression. Thank God for therapy!” Later that year, he began to get some breaks. A guest shot on Law & Order was followed by a turn as Peter Boyle’s schizophrenic son in NYPD Blue and a supporting role as Louis Utz, the unenlightened ex-husband on NBC’s comedy Hope & Gloria (1995-96), where he was spotted by Just Shoot Me’s casting directors.

Colantoni is now shooting a feature film (costarring Gabriel Byrne) in which he plays, of all things, an evil priest. “I tell my dad this, and he goes, ‘No such thing!’ ”

Paula Yoo in Los Angeles

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