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CORBIN BERNSEN WHEELS AND DEALS BEYOND 'L.A. LAW'

Corbin Bernsen has probably made as many movies as Bruce Willis, but everyone still remembers him as the wheeling and dealing Arnie Becker on "L.A. Law." And that's fine with him.

It was a part so coveted that Bernsen boarded his Jeep and drove cross-country to talk the producer into giving him the role.

"Other than the smarmy guy, I get cast as the guy who looks like he has it all but there's something missing," he says. "I don't ever play the guy who really has it all. I play somebody who has a huge vacuum in his life, which makes it interesting. That's what Arnie Becker was."

That's part of what Bernsen is, too. "What's missing? . . . I love life, it's a magical experience, filled with beauty, God's creation is magnificent, but there's this other side where there's poverty, death, brutality and what's missing in my life is understanding what that is. Is it God or is it the devil? What is the answer?" he shakes his close-cropped head.

"A beautiful site will bring me to tears. The magnificence of creation will blow me away, and it's countered with what I see with injustice, what people do to one another, acts of God that kills hundreds of thousands. I question: what is that combination? I don't get that," he says.

Bernsen was to the manor born, so to speak. He's the son of actress Jeanne Cooper ("The Young and the Restless"), and his father is a still a producer at 78. He remembers visiting the set of "Bonanza" with his mom when he was about 9 and being entranced with the make-believe he saw in front of him.

Later, armed with a master's degree from UCLA, he was determined to become an actor. "The only thing my mother said -- and she says it to this day -- 'You have to love what you do.' And in those days she said, 'If you want to do this, that's fine, but you must study. You must study it and learn it. I don't want it to be just because I'm in the business, you're in the business. I want to you to understand it.' "

On May 7, Bernsen will be honoring his mother's wish once again when he co-stars with Jaclyn Smith in "Ordinary Miracles," airing on the Hallmark Channel.

"It's not a big part," he shrugs, talking fast. "The rule is I really have to like the character. I don't care if they want to use me for one minute or most of the film. I like to have some sort of empathy for the character -- that's something my mother taught me. The one rule I have, I don't care if it's one scene, it's something in the movie that affects the story. Otherwise it's vanity."

Married for nearly 17 years to actress Amanda Pays ("Max HeadRoom"), Bernsen has four sons (including a set of twins). He met Pays in a nightspot, and she did her best to avoid him by relinquishing her dressing-room phone number. "Which, to all intents and purposes, is like giving somebody a phone-booth number," he says.

"I called. She never picked it up. I was doing 'L.A. Law' and I used to walk around the lot at lunch. All these trucks outside one soundstage, I said 'What're they shooting?' They said, 'MaxHeadroom,' and I remembered everything about her. She was dating somebody else at the time. It took a while, but I wooed her away."

The secret to their successful marriage (this is his second) is that he vowed to commit only to her and, he says, she is still his best friend. "I'd rather do anything with her than anybody else in the world, any day. I don't need boys' night out, don't need the poker game. I go to a basketball game, she goes. I go to a baseball game, she goes. She wants to go house hunting, I go. She wants to go to design shops, I go. We like doing what each other does."

A journeyman actor, by last count Bernsen had done 105 movies and five TV series. Currently he's appearing on "General Hospital," UPN's "Cuts" and is producing his own film, "Car Pool Guy," in which he co-stars. Still, he admits there was a time when he was misdirected.

"I grew up in the '60s and the effects of pot and things like that made you think a little differently," he says. "I was never a drug addict or anything like that, but I saw things differently. I saw there's a different way to look at the world. I'm not ashamed of it, not proud of it, it was part of what was . . . I had some very cool times, and it opened my mind to a degree. It was at the beginning of college before I got serious about acting. I started working a bit and learned very early on that creativity that came of it was great in my own room and my own space, but it was not a thing for the work place. A lot of actors worked stoned. But I knew early on that was false."

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