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Lance Henriksen is Chris Carter's secret weapon in "Millennium," the compelling, creepy, controversial Fox drama that will begin scaring the nation at 9 p.m. Friday on Channel 29. Carter, the director-creator who had to fight with Fox to hire Gillian Anderson for "The X-Files," has again chosen an actor without typical good looks to front his good and evil vision of the future.

Henriksen certainly has a distinctive appearance that epitomizes the phrase "weathered look."

With more lines in his face than there are on most maps, Henriksen looks as if he has traveled the world.

And he has.

It was part of a long journey of self-discovery on a Swedish freighter that finally ended up where Henriksen expected it to end -- with his becoming an actor.

A very busy actor. His face is more recognizable than his name, though his credits include "Dog Day Afternoon," "Aliens," "The Right Stuff," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Terminator" and "Powder."

In a private interview in Los Angeles, Henriksen told me that he failed miserably in his first attempt at becoming an actor. He also revealed a secret.

"I was illiterate," he explained. "I only had three years of grammar school. I wasn't ready yet. I went into the Actor's Studio at 16 not knowing how to read. You couldn't hear my voice even. I was 16 and I could still get into the movies for 12. I had a baby face."

That's a surprise, because Henriksen now has a distinctive deep voice that makes a viewer stand up and pay attention. And the idea that this wrinkled actor ever had a baby face is as strange as some of the goings-on in "Millennium."

"I realized I had to do some living," Henriksen explained. "I've got to get myself together, because I knew acting was going to be it. I used to run away from home as a kid and go to the movies and sit there."

He is careful not to reveal too much, but his home life sounds less than ideal.

"When I was a child, if you didn't get certain goods, you're left with longings. And the longings I was left with were, I wasn't seen and I wasn't heard. So those longings became part of my character study.

"If you're not seen or heard, if you don't give that attention to a child, they're going to be seen or heard one way or the other. My whole life now is being seen and heard as an actor."

Boy, did he do some living.

"I went to sea and went around the world, painted pictures and made pottery and made a lot of metals and pulled my life back together," Henriksen explained.

"I went to sea to find out what my father's life was like. He was a seaman his whole life. To me, it was a difficult experience. He went to sea when he was 16 until the time he retired at 70."

Henriksen's journey included working in the Colorado mines, an odd choice because he's claustrophobic. But perhaps his oddest job was putting fuzz on artificial peaches.

"I did every job you could imagine, and all I kept thinking was, 'It's OK, you've got time.' "

He happily recalled some advice that some of his smarter relatives gave him: "Everybody's on their own schedule and it will be all right."

At 30, Henriksen decided it was time to go back to the Actor's Studio. "I passed my preliminary audition and got in as an observer," he said.

Once he learned to read, he consumed literature.

"I didn't realize that acting was about literature," Henriksen said. "I thought it was living and . . . that you experience these things and you react. When I finally realized it was about written material, I started buckling down and learned how to read. I did Shakespeare before I understood what the hell it meant."

His career took off after he landed the lead in a Eugene O'Neill production, fittingly called "Three Plays of the Sea."

In films, he is mostly remembered for playing a helluva bad guy.

"First you end up playing the bad guy, then you start playing the guy that everybody thinks is bad and turns out to be good, and then you end up playing the good guy. If you look at (Jimmy) Cagney's carer and (Humphrey) Bogart's career, they always started that way, because there is no other way to get into the business."

In "Millennium," he's definitely the good guy. He plays Frank Black, a former FBI agent who tracks serial killers with his ability to read their minds.

After years of gruesome work, the character escaped to Seattle with his wife, Catherine (Megan Gallagher), and young daughter, Jordan (Brittany Tiplady), to protect them from evil. He works for the Millennium Group, an underground group fighting the growing forces of darkness as the turn of the century nears.

While Carter's "X-Files" is concerned with the enemy from without, "Millennium" deals with the enemy within. The Group doesn't believe that the world necessarily is coming to an end, but they aren't willing to "sit and hope for a happy ending."

Is Henriksen happy to be a good guy?

"Everybody wants to," he said. "I always wanted to be a good guy with an edge, because I don't think anybody is good all the time or bad all the time.

"The most outrageous thing that has happened to me is, I'm starting to see 'Millennium' as a kind of human proving ground. To realize we have all these things in us and it all depends on what kind of parenting (we had) or if we were safe. All those psychological things. A lot of it is based on, did you get the warmth when you needed it? So we're all not that different."

Henriksen is pleased that Black is a different kind of TV hero.

"I'm thrilled about not carrying a gun," he said. "I don't shoot anybody. I'm not a cop. I don't arrest anybody. It's a guy who cannot let up a responsibility for what he sees."

Of course, Henriksen never wanted to do television. Carter courted him by slipping a note under his door when the actor was filming a movie in Vancouver.

"When Chris put the note under my door, I didn't answer," Henriksen said. "I wasn't interested. Then we met and I read the script."

He realizes the violent content of "Millennium" makes the show highly controversial. (It has made almost as many worst-show lists as best-show lists.) He wouldn't let his 9-year-old daughter watch it.

"You can change the channel," Henriksen said. "We have to be responsible for ourselves and our children. My daughter won't always not be able to see it. There will be a time when I'll say, 'Yeah, you can see it.' We're not out to damage people with this. There is an uncovering, a discovery . . . about the human condition. I don't think that's inappropriate. All I know is my limits."

If "Millennium" strikes it big with Carter's considerable fan base, one suspects the sky's the limit for Henriksen.