LOS ANGELES (AP) – A grungy man with a stubbled face and lank hair enters a homeless shelter. Moments later he’s locked in mortal combat with a priest, the pair hurtling through shattering glass to the street below.

At the start of TNT’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot,” the priest’s patrician profile is easily recognizable – actor James Cromwell. But it might take a second glance to realize the grungy guy, Ben Mears, is the usually clean-cut Rob Lowe.

Mears, the protagonist of King’s 1975 novel, is a writer driven to explore hidden horror in his small Maine hometown.

Back to his boyish self, Lowe has taken over a hotel suite to discuss the four-hour miniseries, which airs June 20-21 (8 p.m. EDT).

He offers his view of horror shows: “I like ‘em if they are smart. I hate them, HATE them, if they’re not. I don’t like slasher movies. I don’t like gore, but I love unrelenting, uncomfortable suspense and terror.”

Stephen King books fall into the latter category for the actor.

“”Salem’s Lot’ was the first adult novel I read,” he said. “I remember being really creeped out and unsettled by the fact that the vampires weren’t in some ornate coffins, but they were like vermin, hiding in the crawl space of your basement, maybe in the attic, in that pile of leaves in that dark corner.”

As a King fan, Lowe actively sought the role of Nick Andros in the 1994 TV adaptation of King’s “The Stand.”

This time TNT approached him, although co-executive producer Mark Wolper acknowledges he wasn’t certain the 40-year-old actor would be ideal as Mears, willing to “scruff himself up.”

But Lowe was immediately in sync with Wolper’s concept of not looking at all like he did as smooth presidential aide Sam Seaborn on NBC’s “The West Wing.”

“He put his vanity aside. There’s not much you can do to make him unattractive, but he was certainly willing to get down and dirty,” says Wolper.

The miniseries was shot near Melbourne, Australia. The exterior of the ominous house on the hill, which seeps its evil over the town, was constructed in a sheep meadow. Fences had to be put up to keep out not just sheep but kangaroos.

The book previously was adapted as a TV movie in 1979, starring David Soul and James Mason. This time, Lowe’s co-stars include Donald Sutherland, Andre Braugher, Rutger Hauer and Samantha Mathis.

When Lowe vacations this summer with wife Sheryl and their two young sons, “I’ll lie on the beach, wrestle with my boys, and get ready for the war that is network television,” he says, laughing.

On the new CBS fall series “dr. vegas,” he plays Dr. William Grant, a Las Vegas physician with a “double nature” – “William when he’s the doctor and Billy when he’s out burning the candle at both ends.”

The “provocative” milieu of Las Vegas provides an opportunity to tell “really cool stories in a really organic way,” says Lowe, and Grant gives him a chance to play “a guy with flaws … to have some fun as a guy who laughs … a guy with a gambling issue.”

He says he was a fan of James Garner in “The Rockford Files” and Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce in “M*A*S*H” and they are his “touchstones” for the “dr. vegas” role

Lowe has coped with his share of highs and lows in life. Initial success, earned from films such as “Oxford Blues,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “About Last Night” in the mid-’80s, stalled when he was sentenced to 20 months of community service after a videotape revealed him having sex with a minor while attending the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

His climb back seemed secured by his “West Wing” role, but he quit the show toward the end of its fourth season amid rumors of financial demands and a bruised ego.

He politely declines to elaborate: “It all ends up being for the better and you move on, but you will always know you were part of real magic.”

He’s philosophical about the failure of last year’s NBC series “The Lyon’s Den,” which he produced and starred in as idealistic lawyer Jack Turner. But he’s hoping to get “a little lucky” with “dr. vegas.”



On the Net:

www.tnt.tv

AP-ES-06-14-04 1504EDT



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