Kevin Peter Hall was a struggling actor managing a health food store when a producer walked in and asked him to be in his new movie.

It was a variation on "We're going to make you a star." It was more like "We're going to make you a monster."

That was the role of a deformed bear in "The Prophecy" -- or, as Hall and his friends remember it, the dripping pig-bear since the monster had the nose of a pig and a bear's body covered in petroleum jelly. He describes the experience as claustrophobic:

"Do you know how hot it is in a monster suit?" says Hall.

It also paid his bills and got him into the Screen Actors Guild.

Now, he's standing at the Tilghman water reclamation plant in Burbank, and it's hot and flat and dusty. But it's better than being in one of those monster suits.

Hall, who stands 7 feet 2 -- yes, he will tell you, the weather is just fine up there, and no, he doesn't play basketball (anymore) -- is on the set of his first television series, "Misfits of Science," which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 4. After putting himself through George Washington University on a basketball scholarship and putting himself through the early years of an acting career on monster movies, he is getting his first taste of recognition at 30.

"I always knew," he says about acting. "Ever since I was watching television as a little kid, I thought, 'I want to do that.' "

Hall slides his towering, lanky frame into his trailer -- which is really two trailers put together -- during a lunch break on the set. "Kevin gets a double because he's bigger," says Jay Fenichel, Hall's friend, comedy team partner, manager and most ardent cheerleader. This could be a joke or this could be true, but in any case, Hall has a deadpan sense of humor to go with his unusual height.

"I knew that being different had its advantages," Hall says, "once they realized it wasn't impossible to shoot me in a scene. The biggest thing I got from people was 'What angle can we shoot you from? How can we put you in a two-shot?' Once they realized you put me in a two-shot the same way you shoot Gary Coleman, it was no problem."

In the series, Hall plays Elvin Lincoln, a doctor and anthropologist who has developed a serum that can shrink his 7-foot frame down to 10 inches.

"I'm always getting big and getting little in embarrassing places," he says. "I shrink out of my clothes and then I grow and I'm not in my clothes, and I've got to find my clothes. My number one objective is to get to where my clothes are."

Hall says his diminutive character shops in the doll department. "I usually wear Ken's clothes but my clothes got lost in the dryer, so I wore Michael Jackson-doll clothes."

Dean Paul Martin plays a young scientist who, along with Hall, works in a company called Humanidyne and assembles a group of "superhumans with unusual powers" to thwart unscrupulous powers.

"We're not worried about 'Dallas,' " Hall says valiantly, referring to the competition in what will be the series' Friday 9 p.m. time slot.

He describes "Misfits of Science" as funny and offbeat -- a yuppie show: "We're young doctors who are very nonconventional. We're not the typical doctors. We deal with the weird. We don't drive yuppie cars. We don't wear yuppie clothes. We can't afford them. But that's our generation."

Home in Pittsburgh, his father, who once wanted him only to play basketball, now happily goes to the 7-Eleven, opens up TV Guide to the picture of Hall and tells everyone that's his son. Hall himself has been known to go to a certain Hollywood newsstand and open all the issues of Ebony to his picture. And leave them opened.

Meanwhile, accolades -- of a sort -- pour in: "One night I came home and found a message on my tape machine from one of my coaches in college. He said, 'I'm sorry I said you'll never play anything but a tree.' " (Hall played a tree in a play at GW.)

Hall was born into a very tall family of seven boys and one girl where 6 feet looked shrimpy. His mother (6 feet 2) is a health-care professional. His father (6 feet 6), who owns a house-painting business, would sew for all the children. "It gets too expensive to buy clothes for all those kids who grow every two days."

Being black and tall, Hall says he was virtually forced to play basketball.

"The pressure was unbelievable," he says. " . . . I had to play. I didn't think of it any other way . . . Otherwise I was just subject to more ridicule than I could stand." He played center at Penn Hills High School and won a basketball scholarship. "You know how much it costs to go to GW? That was working my way through college."

But he majored in theater arts. "It was rough. I could only do plays in the offseason." And when his mind wandered from basketball during games, he says his coach would bark, " 'You're an actor. Act like a basketball player!' "

But he persevered. "I couldn't be in all the plays, so the way I learned was to go to every rehearsal," he says. "Everybody knew who I was -- I was that big tall black guy who sat in the theater for every rehearsal."

It was during a rehearsal of "The Miser" that Jay Fenichel heard someone laughing appreciatively and went to the back of the house to meet him. The two talked for three hours. "Then I had to leave . . . and he stood up," says Fenichel, who is 5 feet 6. "And I thought, 'Oh, my God, could we be funny.' " They formed a comedy team and work together when other acting jobs don't get in the way. "We want to be Laurel and Hardy; Laverne and Shirley," Fenichel says.

After graduation in 1977, Hall joined a Venezuelan basketball team called Los Caribes de Anzoatogui. But five months and contract problems later, he set off for Los Angeles, temporarily bunking with Fenichel, who had moved there a year earlier.

The monster movies started soon afterward. There was the alien in "Without Warning" and a dragon in the television movie "Mazes and Monsters" -- "Instead of hot and sweaty, that was cold and wet."

Last -- and probably least -- is the unreleased "Monster in the Closet," a spoof on the genre about a monster who can only live in closets. "I've seen it and it's not very good," Hall says. In one memorable scene, the monster carries a man across the Golden Gate Bridge on his way to San Francisco.

But what got him noticed was his theater work -- the role of Queequeg in the Mark Taper Repertory Company's production of "Moby Dick Rehearsed" last year -- as well as a guest appearance on an episode of "Night Court."

Now, Hall says he works 12 hours a day on "Misfits," then goes to sleep. However, he did get to meet his hero, Bill Cosby, at one of those receptions for NBC stars. Says Hall, "I told him that my dad would fall apart if he knew I was meeting him. He said, 'Bring him here. I'd like to see that.' "