April 16, 2001 12:00 PM

As a struggling young actor, Benicio Del Toro erred on the scruffy side of suave. At his audition for a scholarship at L.A.’s prestigious Actors Circle Theater in the mid-’80s, Del Toro surprised judges by turning up in “a dirty, wrinkled T-shirt and ratty jeans,” recalls the school’s artistic director, Arthur Mendoza. A few years later, he showed up for the formal wedding of high school pal Brian Bushwell with only everyday shirts and pants. “He didn’t even know what black tie was,” recalls Bushwell, 34. “My mother had to rent him a tux.”

These days, designers just send them—and they’re getting plenty of wear. Fifteen years into his acting career, Del Toro, 35, has blitzed this year’s statuette season, taking home a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild award and an Oscar for his role as a Mexican cop in the drug drama Traffic. And while he would happily lose the monkey suits such occasions require—”I can’t do this every day,” he said at the Oscars—the Puerto Rican-born actor is enjoying his time in the sun. “It feels pretty good,” he exulted backstage at the Oscars. “It feels really good, my friend.”

Recognition has been a long time coming for Del Toro, a favorite among film buffs since his mumble-mouthed turn in 1995’s The Usual Suspects. “He caught everyone’s attention, and now he’s coming into his own,” says veteran casting director Michael Fenton (E.T.). “He is such a complex actor.” Critics aren’t the only ones swooning over the 6’2″ star with the sleepy hazel eyes. “There’s a secret behind those eyes, and that’s always a magnet,” says Juliette Lewis, his costar in last year’s The Way of the Gun. Elizabeth Hurley was drawn in too. “See?” she reportedly told Pamela Anderson while pointing him out at a post-Oscars party. “There’s the guy I fancy.”

The never-wed Del Toro (his romances have included French actress Chiara Mastroianni, 28, daughter of the late actor Marcello and Catherine Deneuve) isn’t sure what to make of the sex-symbol tag. “It’s part of the game, you know?” he has said. Certainly it hasn’t changed the way he lives. Home base is a one-bedroom condo in L.A., decorated with a 4-ft. hanging airplane model and stacks of books, DVDs, and Rolling Stones and jazz CDs. “He’s been driving the same SUV since the early ’90s and it has a broken bumper,” says Suspects coproducer Kenneth Kokin. “He’s not into the flash.”

He is, however, heavily into his work. To prepare for Traffic, Del Toro, who oil paints as a hobby, pored over books about the drug war, met with Tijuana cops and labored to perfect a Mexican accent. “It’s almost like mixing your colors before you do a painting,” he says. On location he rarely drew attention, says costar Jacob Vargas. “Maybe it was what he wore—this goofy trucker’s hat with mesh in the front and back and these really tight jeans. I wanted to say, ‘Hey, man, I’d like to give you some fashion tips.’ ”

Good luck. Sartorially, Del Toro has been a mess—and a mop top—since childhood. “That boy did not know what a comb was,” recalls Angel Cintrón, a science teacher at the Academy of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Catholic school in San Juan that the popular prankster, nicknamed “Beno,” attended through eighth grade. But Del Toro’s comfortable boyhood—his father, Gustavo Del Toro, is a prosperous lawyer—was touched with sadness when his mother, Fausta, also a lawyer, died at 33 of hepatitis contracted through a blood transfusion. Benicio was 9; brother Gustavo was 11. “The performances I would do to make her laugh were probably my first acting efforts,” Del Toro told the Miami Herald in 1997. “Incredibly, I took her death very well. When things like that happen at such an early age, you accept them as a fact.”

To soften the blow of his wife’s death, Gustavo Sr. built a lighted basketball court across the street from the family’s house, where Del Toro threw himself into the sport. At Mercersburg Academy, the Mercersburg, Pa., boarding school Del Toro attended from age 14, he was cocaptain of the basketball team in his senior year but scored just average grades.

It was by avoiding schoolwork that he fell into acting. As a freshman planning to major in business at the University of California at San Diego in 1985, “I wanted to make my schedule a little easier,” he says, “so I took an acting class.” Two more theater courses persuaded him to drop out and try his luck professionally. “My father was not ecstatic but was tolerant,” recalls Del Toro’s brother Gustavo, 37, a Manhattan physician. “The more distant members of the family were up in arms.”

Back then, Del Toro’s talent was matched only by his temper, says Mendoza, who recalls once having to dissuade his high-strung student from hurling a chair at him. After landing parts in TV shows and films including 1992’s Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, Del Toro won raves in The Usual Suspects and the indie films Basquiat and The Funeral. But ’98’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for which he gained 45 lbs., drew pans. That, he told the Chicago Sun-Times, “was one of the most depressing times in my life.”

Now he faces one of the busiest. Currently shooting the thriller The Hunted in Portland, Ore., Del Toro “is swamped,” says friend Bushwell. “But he seems to be enjoying it. He’s succeeding at something he loves.” If Del Toro has his way, the recent round of awards won’t be his last—despite the dress code. “I like to keep growing,” he says. “I haven’t gotten anywhere, as far as I’m concerned.”

Samantha Miller

Alison Gee and Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles, Matt Birkbeck in Mercersburg and Juan Antonio Del Rosario and John Marino in San Juan

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