November 23, 1998 12:00 PM

As Dharma & Greg’s Thomas Gibson waits to tee off on the 10th hole of L.A.’s Bel-Air Country Club, another golfer—Jack Wagner of Melrose Place—strolls by. The two greet each other warmly. Then, Wagner, a twinkle hidden behind wraparound shades, asks, “What do you play on that show again?” Gibson proceeds to explain that his character Greg Montgomery, a blue-blooded U.S. attorney in San Francisco, is married to Dharma Finkelstein (Jenna Elfman), a ditzy, ex-hippie yoga teacher. “Haven’t you ever seen it?” Gibson asks. “Oh, sure,” says Wagner. “I just shut it off when you come on.”

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Gibson, 36, a five handicapper with steely concentration, bogeys the hole. After all, he knows that Wagner’s teasing is good-natured. Still, when the hit ABC sitcom premiered last fall, Gibson couldn’t help but wonder if it might wind up as Dharma & Whatshisname. “The show began as [the story of] a couple,” he says, “but it really was conceptualized around Dharma’s character. Greg is the everyman, the audience’s window on her.”

This season, however, viewers are getting a better peek into Greg’s character. The writers, says Gibson, “are letting me be goofy”—as in one show last season in which Greg, his dad and father-in-law got tanked on a guys-only outing.

For her part, Elfman is happy to share the spotlight. Pals on and off the set (they and their spouses have double-dated), she and Gibson occasionally commute to work in his silver Mercedes, working on their lines and talking about this and that. “There are no egos,” says Elfman. “It’s a real buddy system.”

One reason for their good chemistry may be that there’s more than a little Dharma in Gibson’s real wife, Cristina, 32, a UCLA grad student in classics. When the couple first met six years ago, she didn’t shave her legs—a vestige of her own hippie days in Austin, Texas. “He objected,” she says. “I figured [shaving them] was a sacrifice I could make.” At the same time, there’s a lot of Greg in Gibson. “You can always tell which side of the closet is his. Everything is absolutely perfect,” says Cristina, who shares a three-bedroom Hollywood Hills home with her neatnik husband. “He’s got all of his shirts arranged by season: linens together, cottons together and wools together.”

As a child, Gibson got his acting together. The youngest of four children of Mac, a now-retired Charleston, S.C., lawyer and state senator, and Beth, now a social worker (they were divorced when Thomas was 7), he began taking acting classes at 9. After high school he went to the College of Charleston for two years before winning a scholarship to New York City’s prestigious music-and-acting college Juilliard, graduating in 1985. Shakespearean roles and a 1990 stint on As the World Turns followed.

Then, at 29, Gibson made his film debut in 1992’s Far and Away. As Tom Cruise‘s foppish rival for Nicole Kidman, he didn’t get the girl—but in Paris soon after filming wrapped, he won the heart of a fellow tourist, Cristina. “He was funny, self-effacing, tall, dark and handsome,” she says. “What more could you want?” They wed in 1993 and a year later moved to L.A., where Gibson landed the role of Dr. Daniel Nyland on CBS’s Chicago Hope. But after three years he yearned for bigger parts. Finally, says Gibson, “I said, ‘I think it’s time to move on.’ ” A few weeks later he nabbed the role of Greg.

Last summer he and Cruise reteamed in London on Stanley Kubrick’s still-unreleased thriller Eyes Wide Shut. Under Kubrick’s orders, Gibson can’t discuss his role, but he’s happy to talk about his pal Cruise. “Tom took me go-cart racing and humiliated me,” says Gibson. “So I had to take him to the [Bel-Air] golf course.” Gibson pauses, sounding almost guilty. “Not that I wanted to shoot any lights out,” he says. “I mean, I didn’t mean to eagle the first hole…”

Michael A. Lipton

Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles

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