January 15, 1996 12:00 PM

DAVID PAYMER WAS FEELING restless. At 28, he had spent three years struggling in small TV roles and standup comedy. So when he was cast as Dr. Wayne Fiscus in the 1982 pilot for NBC’s St. Elsewhere, he was sure his luck had changed. Then, just before the show went on the air, the producers gave Paymer the boot—and cast Howie Mandel in the role. “I was like, ‘Ohmygod!’ ” says Paymer. ” ‘How am I going to bounce back from this?

At 41, he has bounced with a vengeance. This holiday season, he was all over the Cineplex: As the money-laundering dry cleaner Leo Devoe in Get Shorty; as Michael Douglas’s politically savvy pollster in The American President; as White House press secretary Ron Ziegler in Nixon. Next month he’ll play a chief of staff opposite Al Pacino’s mayor in City Hall.

Sitting in the modest four-bedroom Santa Monica home he shares with his wife of seven years, Liz, 37, and their year-old daughter, Emily, Paymer hardly seems like a guy who has made it big. The Oscar nomination certificate he earned for Best Supporting Actor in Billy Crystal’s 1992 film Mr. Saturday Night hangs in a nonprominent corner of the guest room. “I didn’t want to make a shrine,” he says. “The whole thing was so surreal. When they said, ‘The nominees are Pacino, Hackman, Nicholson, Paymer,’ I was like, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ ”

According to Crystal, nothing. When he was casting the role of Stan Yankelman, the long-suffering brother of Crystal’s acerbic Buddy Young Jr., the studio wanted him to hire a big-name star. “I said I wanted the best actor,” recalls Crystal, who befriended Paymer on the set of 1991 ‘s City Slickers, in which he played ice-cream maven Ira Shalowitz, a role he repeated in the sequel. “David was just the guy.”

Paymer grew up in a household of performers. Father Marvin, who ran a scrap metal business, composed classical music and played piano, and mother Sylvia, now a travel agent, wrote lyrics and acted. They performed at the community theater in their hometown of Oceanside, N.Y. David and older brother Steve tried the stage at Oceanside High, though when David entered the University of Rochester in 1972, he decided to play it safe and study psychology. The next year, his parents divorced—and, at age 50, his father sold his business and entered a Ph.D. program in musicology. Watching him pursue his dream, says Paymer, “freed me to follow my own.” He transferred to the University of Michigan, where he took up theater—but kept his psych major. “I wanted something to fall back on,” he says.

After graduating in 1975 he moved to New York City and six months later won the part of Sonny in the touring company of Grease. The role allowed him to use what he calls a good musical voice, and because the character falls downstairs early in the show—and doesn’t dance—it didn’t expose Paymer’s confessed lack of nimbleness. A year later, he moved up to the Broadway production. Seeing fellow Greaseers Patrick Swayze and Peter Gallagher move to film encouraged Paymer to head for L.A. in 1979, where he joined his brother in a comedy act. But standup seemed a lonely way to making a living. “It was,” says Paymer, “like being a salesman. When the audience isn’t laughing, you can’t blame anyone but you.”

Steve turned to writing (now 44, he coproduces NBC’s The Single Guy); Paymer refocused on acting. After losing the Elsewhere role, he briefly enrolled in a master’s program in psychology. But he continued auditioning and winning small roles. Then came the part in City Slickers—and a lasting friendship with the star. “He seems timid at first,” Crystal says. “But he’s very strong and very funny.”

Paymer insists that wife Liz, who does voice-overs for cartoons, is the timid one. They met in 1985 on a blind date; after dinner, says Paymer, “I went to give her a kiss good night. She ran around the car. She wouldn’t let me near her!” Admits Liz, who says she simply wasn’t ready for romance: “He thought I was weird.” Today they share parenting duties. “There’s a rule,” he says. “I can’t be away from Emily for more than 10 days.”

That may be difficult. Paymer, who just finished Carpool with Tom Arnold, is surveying a slew of scripts—and loving it. Last year, at a studio meeting, he ran into one of the Elsewhere producers. “Good to see you,” Paymer told the man warmly. “You’re the guy who got me out of TV.”

DAN JEWEL

KAREN BRAILSFORD in Los Angeles

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