NEW YORK -- William Hurt is pointing to a smallish black object in a stationery store window. "Look here, do you see that?" he says with excitement. Sitting high up on a shelf is one of those fashionable pocket computer diaries. "See that button? The red one?" Finally, the button comes into focus. It says "Secret." "Wouldn't you just love to know what happens when you push that button?" William Hurt wants to push all the buttons, to know all the secrets. The reputation that precedes the actor, whose new film is "The Accidental Tourist," is that he is a serious man. And if by serious you mean earnest, if by serious you mean concentrated, if by serious you mean passionately, unapologetically sincere, then Hurt may be one of the most serious guys around. It's normal in a crowded restaurant like this one on the Upper West Side for your eyes to dart away with the movement of passersby. But Hurt's never stray. His gaze is fixed on yours, focused in, and under the circumstances you don't dare look away for fear that it might signal a lapse in interest -- even a violation of trust. After five minutes, you forget about your club sandwich. Hurt doesn't know the meaning of small talk. He's a marathon rapper, a metaphysical explorer. You can almost see him sitting in the bathtub before lathering up, pausing to contemplate the essential nature of soap. Albert Brooks, who played opposite him in "Broadcast News," puts it this way: "Bill Hurt is to serious what I am to funny." There are genuine insights in Hurt's meta-philosophizing, but you have to fight through an avalanche of words to get to them. He's smart. But he also has a daunting capacity for grandiloquent bull-slinging, for rambling, puzzling soliloquies and obfuscating digressions. Hurt is forever in the process of defining himself. The most mundane inquiry will fire off cosmic associations, the way it often does for dormitory mystics when it's late at night and the hookah's smoking. Words are Hurt's bridge to other people and his protection from them. Intellectualization is his deflector shield. But words have also been his enemies. Few performers have been less well served by their own public statements. Once, in 1984, when describing his relationship with dancer Sandra Jennings and their infant son Alex, he said, "They are the vessel in which my love sails." And he's said even more appalling things. Just check the press clips. For this reason the media have found him easy to deride. For interviewers, the standard reaction has been to titter behind the hand when Hurt launches into one of his rhetorical flights. Still, though gale force winds of pretension blow through his broadcasts, he stays on the air, hoping to make a connection. "I have this relentless need to express myself," he says, wincing slightly. Yet one of his favorite lines belongs to Molina, the homosexual prisoner he played in "The Kiss of the Spider Woman." " 'I never explain my movies -- it just ruins the emotion.' I love saying that line. There is a point to explaining what I do, but at some point you just have to do it. The work is the best that I have to offer. That's what I want to be eloquent at." His best talking, he insists, occurs when he is not talking. "In the work I can humble myself. There I can listen." For Hurt acting principles and life principles are interchangeable; when he talks about one he invariably talks about the other. "Acting is about actions," he explains. "It's not pretending. Acting is not looking like you're doing, it's doing. The problem begins when you get into adjectives in acting. Acting is not about adjectives. It's about verbs and adverbs." Talking about the particulars of his craft -- actions, objectives, spines of characters, obstacles -- is what sparks the actor's true enthusiasm. The character of Macon Leary in "The Accidental Tourist," for example, was a "wonderful opportunity" because "Macon's 'spine' is to learn how to change. And he doesn't want to do that. What I kept saying to myself as Macon is 'I've got to get out of here, I've got to get out of here, I've got to get out, I've got to get out, I can't, I can't, I can't, I can't.' And what I liked most about it was that it was like life." Hurt's intensity about his work has earned him a reputation for being demanding and difficult, but as one of his directors commented, "Anybody's who's any good is called difficult at some point." Lawrence Kasdan, who has directed Hurt in three films -- "Body Heat," "The Big Chill" and "The Accidental Tourist" -- says that Hurt's fervency pays off. "Bill has absolutely unshakable integrity in his work. He cannot do something false. When your instincts are so strong toward what's true, that's an enormously powerful thing to have. For an actor, that's everything." The key to Hurt is that he would prefer to remain private, but experiences his feelings too intensely to keep them to himself. This isn't a particularly rare trait in actors, but it seems more pronounced in Hurt. Somehow the nerves seem closer to the skin. "I get accused all the time of being hypersensitive," Hurt says, tapping his finger against a pack of cigarettes. "But how can I be too sensitive? That's all I am. I'm no good at controlling things and I'm less good at understanding them. What I am is a creature of sensibilities." If Hurt is "a creature of sensibilities," he's one who shops from the Land's End catalogue. His style of dress is casually well-groomed but unremarkable: brown plaid sports jacket, slate blue cotton slacks, subtly striped white button-down shirt, a wool sweater vest the color of summer squash, some sort of low-cut waterproof shoes, wire rims. It's not as self-consciously worked out as most preppy uniforms, but that's what it is. The only traces of eccentricity are the trout cuff links at his wrists. Basically, he looks like somebody you'd see down at the hardware store on Saturdays pricing storm windows -- the kind of guy all the checkout girls at the Safeway have a crush on. "I'm a nerd," he says, laughing. "I'm very flaky." He pauses for a second, thinking, then finally adds, "I don't know what kind of guy I am. I'm a human being, just like everybody else. I fart. I ... I ... I'm just a lump of clay." With these words still hanging in the air, a woman, very short, suddenly appears at Hurt's side. "I just wanted to say that I think you're a great actor," she says. Hurt takes the compliment graciously, then as she walks away says, "Great voice. Very sexy. And coming out of that woman! That's counterpoint. That's what I love." Hurt was born in 1950 in Washington, but because of his father's position in the State Department with the Agency for International Development, his earliest years were split between Guam and Hawaii. When he was about 6, his parents' marriage faltered and he moved with his mother and two brothers to the Yorktown section of Manhattan. For the next phase of his life he lived at a jumble of addresses -- a year and a half with his father in Pakistan, back to New York, then summers in the Sudan, Somaliland and Greece. In 1960, Hurt's mother married Henry Luce III, the son of the founder of Time Inc. All of a sudden the public school in New York was replaced by the Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., the four-room walk-up in Yorktown by a 22-room duplex on Madison Avenue. "That was a big switcheroo for me," Hurt remembers, "and I think my head went around one too many times there. By the time I switched from public to private school I was 12 and a loner and I didn't have too many friends." Hurt's only relief from his adolescent travails was singing in the school chorus. "At the time, it was about the only thing I could do. I was a lousy athlete because until I was 16, I was short and chubby. Then I grew six inches in one year and I was tall and gangly, so I couldn't find a niche." Eventually, an observant teacher at Middlesex who had noticed Hurt's ardor in the chorus suggested that he try out for an upcoming play. He did and was given a smallish role. "I played the guy who comes on in 'The Crucible' and says, 'The lieutenant governor has arrived.' That was my first line. And apparently in a dress rehearsal -- with a full audience -- I came on, said the line, then looked out at my director in the audience and said, 'Did I do that right?' " From the start, acting for Hurt has always been an arena of personal questing. "When I started to act, I was desperately trying to find something ... that I could respect about myself," he confesses. "That was very important to me. I didn't feel I was worth very much." Still, when Hurt finished at Middlesex and enrolled at Tufts it was as a theology major, not a drama student. "There were a lot of things going on there," Hurt explains, taking a sip from his cranberry juice. "In some ways I was boxed. I had a legitimate spontaneous interest in theology, in trying to come to a faith. But I also had another motive -- to attract attention, especially the attention of a stepfather who was very religious." Eventually, after devoting most of his time to secular rather than divine pursuits, Hurt left Tufts to spend his senior year as a theater student in England with his then-wife, actress Mary Beth Hurt. (Afterward, he graduated with honors.) Then, following his return home, he was accepted at Juilliard, where he studied for three years before abruptly leaving and riding cross-country on a motorcycle to accept a role as Edmund in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 1975 production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" -- a play that, he says, "I used to carry around with me." The adventure paid off in what Hurt has called "the best Edmund there ever was." For the first time, he says, he felt that he knew what he was doing as an actor. "I had been working at it for about 12 years," Hurt recalls, the excitement building in his voice, "and I can remember exactly when I started working well. I did it well and I knew I had done it well and for the first time I knew exactly how I had done it. I knew how I built it, I knew what went into it, I knew the whole thing!" Following this breakthrough, Hurt left Oregon, living in his car with his dog for two months, traveling around to just about every theater in the country, trying to get work. "I auditioned for everybody," he remembers, "and the general consensus was that I stunk." Feeling demoralized, Hurt returned to New York, where he began to attract attention in a number of off-Broadway roles before finally landing the lead in the Circle Repertory Company's 1977 production of Corinne Jacker's "My Life." The performance won him an Obie, and the following year he claimed leading roles in three of that company's productions, most notably in Lanford Wilson's "The Fifth of July." Asked about Hurt's work for him at Circle Rep, Marshall Mason, who directed the actor in seven plays, including "Hamlet," "Childe Byron" and "Richard II," blurts out, "He's one of the greatest actors in the world and I love him desperately." It was Mason to whom Hurt went for advice in 1979 when he was offered the role of the recklessly adventurous scientist in "Altered States." "Bill went into the movies very hesitantly," Mason recalls. At the time, he says, the project featured a script by Paddy Chayefsky and was to be directed by Arthur Penn. With this lineup, Mason encouraged Hurt to take the plunge. But by the time the film was completed, Chayefsky had removed his name and Penn had been replaced by Ken Russell. In his first love scene, Hurt stares into the glowing coils of a space heater and his costar, Blair Brown, asks him, "What are you thinking about?" "God. Jesus. Crucifixions," he answers, bathed in the orange light of the heater. As Mason puts it: "He could hardly have started out worse." Still, the actor's work was striking. What Mason remembers most is all the hype about Hurt being "the new Robert Redford" -- something, he says, that his friend couldn't have been less interested in. "It was terrible to watch Bill suffer through his first experiences in Hollywood," Mason says. "The process of making movies very often turns people into commodities, and for someone like Bill that can be very painful. All too often, this has been his experience." Even so, Hurt's style as an actor seems tailor-made for the movies. Hurt works in miniature -- he's a lacemaker, and his performances are delicately detailed, fragile, embedded in silence. As Macon in "The Accidental Tourist," Hurt seems to strip nearly everything from the surface of his performance and, in doing so, creates a kind of droll, minimalist comedy. "Playing Macon," he says, "I felt that I was in there working with very tiny tweezers." Hurt's meticulous, hilariously melancholy performance in "The Accidental Tourist" may be the fullest articulation yet of his style. In his movie roles, Hurt is both mannered and naturalistic -- this is what gives him his singularity onscreen. After his debut in "Altered States," he was sweetly obsessed with Sigourney Weaver in "Eyewitness" and played patsy and boy-toy to Kathleen Turner in "Body Heat." As Nick, the damaged Vietnam veteran in "The Big Chill," he uses a video camera in one scene to conduct a brief self-interview, caressing his lines as he delivers them, building strange rhythms and pauses into his readings to sketch out a sort of generational portrait of self-absorption. In "The Kiss of the Spider Woman," Hurt turns a towel and a faded flowered bathrobe into a star's boudoir haute couture, and the sensuous unexpectedness of his gestures conveys much more of his character's faded exoticism than his hennaed hair, rouge and scarlet lipstick. The performance won Hurt an Oscar. When he accepted the award his speech was -- to the surprise of some -- brief, generous and elegant. "I accept this with Raul," he said, referring to his costar Raul Julia. "I'm proud to be an actor." He hadn't planned on going to the ceremony until Steven Spielberg talked him into it. "The first moment was like someone has plugged you into an electrical socket," Hurt says, leaning back in his seat. "Then I walked up to Sally Field, who handed it to me, and I said, 'How do I handle this?' And she said, 'Live with it.' " The following year, Hurt was onstage at the Oscars again, this time as both a presenter and a nominee. Also nominated that year was his costar in "Children of a Lesser God," Marlee Matlin, with whom he had become romantically involved. And in a story that seems to come right out of the movies, it was Hurt who tore open the envelope for Best Actress and, before millions, read off his girlfriend's name. "That was really something," he says, shaking his head slightly. "And to have this happening to you in front of all these other people." Hurt describes the moment as a "cacophony of beautifully and carefully choreographed ironies," admitting that perhaps a little competitiveness was mixed in with his joy. "I had worked with Marlee real hard on 'Children of a Lesser God,' and I'm this really well-trained actor. And she ... she's not. But she's like a found gemstone. She's got all the essentials. Yet who was to say that we both didn't deserve it? It was a real lesson for me." At this point Hurt becomes more subdued. Before continuing, he lights up another cigarette. "A lot of the miracles in my life started around that time," he says, finally. What kind of miracles, he is asked. "I haven't had a drink in two years and three days." He checks his watch. "Yeah, two years and three days." Sometime around Christmas of 1986, Hurt checked into the Betty Ford Center to get help for his problems with alcohol. "I'm an alcoholic -- a recovering alcoholic. I'm finally admitting that I needed help with that. I'm finally admitting what it was -- which is a disease, like diabetes or cancer. And accepting that has meant the difference between a happy and an unhappy life. The most important day in my life was the day I asked for help." He takes another drag on his cigarette, another sip of his cranberry juice. "I was utterly miserable and, finally, I had been miserable enough, long enough, and I said, 'I'm finished, I can't hack it, can't do it.' " Another drag, another sip. "I don't have any idea why so many wonderful things have happened to me," Hurt says, seeming genuinely amazed. "I don't know why I'm sitting here. Except it's a gift. I do consider it that." Apart from the help he received at the clinic and from friends, Hurt's salvation, he says, has been his work. "Very seldom, strangely enough, did the 'acting out' in my private life affect the acting," Hurt says. "I used to think of it as something that I loved so much that I couldn't wreck it. It was the one thing I've always had. Even during the worst of times I could always go to it as a place where there was a structure. It was the one place, strangely enough, that I could tell the truth." The changes that have come as a result of Hurt's reformation have not gone unnoticed by his friends. "Bill is well-named," says Marshall Mason, "but he told me last month that he's happier than he's ever been." Larry Kasdan agrees. "Bill's more patient with himself. And more patient with other people. He was so hard on himself that sometimes he would be very hard on other people too." Hurt says that he has changed, that he is happier. "I like myself," he says. "I spend time enjoying my own company. Among others. I'm starting to trust other people more. And be trusted by them. I love to go home -- to go back to my house." Was that not always true, he is asked. "No," he says, laughing. "No no no." In the likely event that Hurt receives a Best Actor nomination this year for "The Accidental Tourist," it will be his fourth consecutive nomination -- an accomplishment that only Marlon Brando can lay claim to. (In addition to "Spider Woman" and "Children of a Lesser God," Hurt was nominated last year for "Broadcast News.") The prospect, however, barely registers for him. "I'm a person who can tell you that I've been to the top of some supposedly desirable mountain, and it can mean nothing," he says. "It doesn't bring you peace." Hurt seems to realize that his statement has a melodramatic ring to it. "I don't want to characterize my life as a tragedy," he says, sternly. "It's not a tragedy -- though a lot of tragic things have happened. But a lot of great things were going on, too." Now that he's learned the difference between "acting and acting out," the Hurt melodrama is over, he says. He rang in the New Year, he says, eating ice cream with a buddy. "It was pretty sane," he says. "We ended the evening by 12:30." Though Hurt has said that he would like to take a year off, he has a small part in a comedy that Kasdan is shooting. He is also trying to decide which of three one-acts he will use to make his debut as a director at Circle Repertory. "Finally, after thinking about this for 10 years, I'm going to do it." And he is thinking a lot again about playing Hamlet -- though, he says, "the physical dexterity required to do that play is astounding. I'm not sure I could pull it off. I burned the candle at both ends for a long time." When it's suggested that he has come out the other end of a long, dark tunnel, he says, "Who knows?" The focus of today, he says, is today. This said, a final thought comes to mind. "I love the line from the play 'Everyman,' " the actor says. "This is great -- the play 'Everyman' was written by Anonymous. The preface, instead of the habit of the time, which was to make this long-winded, circuitous incestuous use of language, was a single line. 'Death thou camest when I had thee least in mind.' "I don't want to have death in my mind. I want to live. Death is nothing. I hate nothing."