By John Stark
Updated February 03, 1986 12:00 PM

His face is a mystery, more haunting than pretty. Pale skin. Deep-set eyes. A nose that rivals Ichabod Crane’s. This is not the kind of face that movie careers are traditionally built on. But this is the face that Steven Spielberg selected after a three-month search for an actor to play the title role in Young Sherlock Holmes. Some critics think the reason Nicholas Rowe won the part over several thousand other hopefuls is—well, elementary, my dear Watson. The 19 year old, they say, looks like Spielberg, who produced the reported $18 million film, directed by Barry (Diner, The Natural) Levinson. “I have never had anyone tell me I look like Spielberg before,” says Rowe. “All of a sudden I hear this and I don’t know what to think. I don’t think I look like him at all. I’m 6’4″. [Spielberg is about 5’10”.] I’m English and he’s Jewish. It’s silly. As far as I know, Spielberg doesn’t like his looks much anyway.” Rowe is less self-critical. “I don’t think of myself as a pretty boy like Matt Dillon or Rupert Everett. But I think I’m not unattractive to look at. I don’t mind the way I look, I mean.”

Blame it on his upper-crust British accent. Or the way he takes a sip of his room-service tea before announcing, “It’s drinkable.” But Rowe, with his penetrating, deep blue eyes, seems mature beyond his years. For someone who’s achieved a major break so fast, he’s remarkably low-key. “Do you find me boring?” he asks, pushing his long, light brown hair out of his face. “I think that we Brits have this rather snooty image. But we are not like that through and through.” Looking from his hotel window at the shops along Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, Rowe pronounces his own verdict on fake friendliness. “When you go into those stores people say, ‘Hi, I’m Pat and I’ll be serving you.’ Europeans tend to view Americans as a friendly lot. But I just feel they’re rather phony. Nice, friendly, but phony all the same.”

An only child, Rowe was born in Edinburgh, where his father, Andrew, edited a business journal. His mother, Alison, was a singer with the Edinburgh Choir. “I never really needed anything,” Rowe says. “Everything was provided.” When Nicholas was 7, his parents separated, he was shipped off to boarding school, and his sugar-glazed world fell apart. “I was really shocked,” he recalls. “It seemed to happen so suddenly. It’s still a subject I avoid talking about.”

Until he moved into his own flat in January, Nicholas shared digs in London with his father, who, like his mother, has remarried. Two years ago Andrew Rowe gave up his job publishing a small London newspaper and ran successfully for Parliament. “I really admire Dad because he’s a Tory Wet,” Nicholas says. “He’s not opposed to Prime Minister Thatcher, but he’s not a sycophant to her, either.”

As for dating, Rowe says, “I haven’t had time to get serious with anyone. I am not, to be perfectly honest, in love. Sometimes I would really love to have somebody to just hold or whatever. I really do have the urge to spend time with someone special.” Right now, he says, “Most of my close friends are girls. I don’t know why. Girls have a certain kind of sympathy. A sense of understanding that a lot of boys don’t.”

Even though he completed prestigious Eton in 1984, Rowe doesn’t rub it in. “I’m not one of those good old boys who had great-grandfathers who went to Eton,” he says. “It was just my father who went. He put my name on the list when I was born so I’d be assured a place.” Although Rowe excelled in languages, studying Spanish and French, he admits, “I was very much at the lower end of the academic scale.”

It was Rowe’s drama master who told the lad that Hollywood casting agents were coming on campus looking for a “proper young gentleman.” Rowe, who had a bit part in the 1983 British film Another Country, tested for the role of young Holmes. “It was the worst experience,” he says. “When I went into my dressing room to put on my Holmes outfit, in came this other guy dressed just like me. Real live Hollywood competition!” Reading with Rowe and the other finalist was Alan Cox, then 14, who had already been cast as young Watson, Holmes’ pudgy sidekick. “I felt comfortable with Nick, there seemed a chemistry between the two characters,” says Cox, who may have helped Rowe get hired. “I told the casting people, ‘I like the tall guy with the big nose better,’ ” he says. Rowe’s screen test was then sent to Spielberg. When his agent called in January, Rowe asked, “Did I get the role?” The reply: “Brilliant deduction, young Mr. Holmes.”

Young Mr. Rowe’s next step will be off the beaten path. “It is socially correct to earn a college degree,” he says. “But I would find it emotionally and mentally difficult to spend four years in a tough university. I was accepted at Bristol but am not going to attend. After Eton, most graduates go on to college after a year of traveling. It is a tradition. One I intend to break. Rather, I plan to go on with acting until people don’t want me anymore. I’m excited about the challenges that, I hope, lie ahead.” Putting all the clues together, Rowe could very well be headed for stardom. Never mind his lanky build and un-movie-star looks. As any Sherlock Holmes fan knows, never, never suspect the obvious.