VENICE, CALIF. -- You'd never recognize 31-year-old Kyle MacLachlan if you bumped into him on the street. For one thing, he's too tall, over six feet, much taller than he appears as Special Agent Dale Cooper, MacLachlan's character in the ABC cult hit series "Twin Peaks."

Then there's the hair. It stands straight up. And it's heavily peppered with gray. And those eyes, the key to Cooper's madcap soul, are guarded with a pair of platinum-colored spectacles. Where Cooper is exuberant, MacLachlan is circumspect. Where Cooper seizes the moment, relishing the Douglas firs with the same zeal as he devours berry pie, MacLachlan lets life take him. While Cooper has been described as "Dick Tracy on acid," MacLachlan looks like a Forest Service employee who buys millet in bulk.

"I'm just an old hippie," he says.

On this day, MacLachlan is dressed in a denim shirt and jeans. He has just unloaded a new mountain bike from his Jeep, and has wheeled it around to the backyard of his sun-splashed adobe-style bungalow. It is for his live-in gal pal and "Twin Peaks" costar, Lara Flynn Boyle, 20, who plays the ethereal Donna Hayward, the late Laura Palmer's best friend. The two met while making the series.

Whereas MacLachlan seems larger than his on-screen self, Boyle seems smaller. She is tiny, freckled and layered in stretchy exercise clothes. Boyle and MacLachlan wear matching silver bands with etched characters that look variously like Oriental words and stick figures. He wears his on his right ring finger, she on her left middle finger. She climbs on the bike and pedals off obediently, although she's not comfortable on it and seems irritable. He, however, is unperturbed by her girlish pique.

Is this relationship serious?

MacLachlan says, "You never know. I don't know. It's a pretty great relationship. We'll see."

MacLachlan has created an indelible character in Dale Cooper, a persona so real and likable you expect the man standing in front of you to break into a grin and offer you a cup of coffee. Instead, he brews a pot of tea in his homey kitchen and offers to make espresso or cappuccino, something Dale Cooper wouldn't dream of doing, at least not now, before Audrey has gotten to him.

He has lived in this house for about a year. Venice appeals to him because of the bohemian quality he feels here. After decorating his house in Southwestern fashion, he has gotten around to planting vegetables and herbs.

"The best way to do it is to start it," he says about his gardening. "Not get all involved reading about it and figuring it out, but to actually start it and find out what goes wrong and what right and then learn from that."

That philosophy seems also the key to MacLachlan's success as an actor. He plunges right in. Says Mark Frost, who along with filmmaker David Lynch created and executive-produces the show, "He's got a kind of a Clark Kent quality. He's mild-mannered, well-behaved, good-humored, patient ... I don't think Kyle thinks of acting as an intellectual process, though he's very bright. It happens at an intuitive level with him. I think the best actors have that quality."

"Twin Peaks" is David Lynch's most recent voyage into the darkness that spreads like bruises under suburbia's skin, and MacLachlan is happy to be a part of it.

" 'Twin Peaks' is its own invention," he says. "It's never been seen before. Even the other shows whose settings are more unusual, like 'China Beach,' are basically derivative. Another TV drama. But 'Twin Peaks' isn't anything like that... . You don't know what mood or tone you're in. It's David Lynch's style, and it works."

From Fantasy to 'Dune'

MacLachlan grew up in Yakima, Wash., the first of three sons. "My family was very conservative, Republican WASPs," he says. His father is a lawyer and stockbroker who studied classical piano as a child. MacLachlan's mother also received training in piano and voice, and, MacLachlan says, considered a career as a singer. MacLachlan himself studied piano from age 9 to 14, when he also began to study voice.

His mother got him into the theater; she was music director for one of the community theater's summer musicals, and she needed singers. She prevailed upon her son to try out. He didn't want to go at first, but then he realized the stage offered something he wanted: girls.

"How do you get yourself around a female was always a big question, and I didn't know how to do it, but at the theater, the whole approach thing was completely removed. I was in heaven."

Pretty soon, he cottoned to the acting and singing as well. Now, he thinks, he might have been acting out a fantasy hidden deeply in his parents' family dynamic. "In a way," he says softly, "I sort of imagine myself living a dream, a part of a dream they had when younger. I was sort of able to fulfill it to a certain degree, because they stopped it and went in a different direction."

After high school, MacLachlan enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle to study liberal arts. But in the summer of his freshman year, he did some summer stock in North Carolina, had a romance with an older actress and realized that a life in the theater was possible.

The summer stock experience marked the first time he had been exposed to elements of the counterculture movement of the '60s. As he describes it, "the bohemian thing, bread making, candles, long skirts."

The woman who was his guide "had come through the '60s. And she had been a big part of the free-spirit quality of the times. She had traveled cross-country in a bus and was very into nature -- living in nature -- very into organic eating, all those things that we sort of mock now, but at the time, for me anyway, in the late '70s, I had not experienced, coming from a conservative family and community."

At home, says MacLachlan, "that whole element of explosion, of expression, of whatever it was that happened in that era, was threatening. I was most impressed by the reaction of my parents and I adopted their fear."

After graduation from college, MacLachlan landed a part in a production of "Tartuffe" at Seattle's Empty Space. When a casting agent working for Dino De Laurentiis was scouting for the lead in the mega-movie "Dune," all signs led her to MacLachlan.

He auditioned, and the nationwide search for the character of Paul Atreides came to an end. "Dune's" director, David Lynch ("Eraserhead," "The Elephant Man," "Blue Velvet"), says he chose MacLachlan because, "Number one, he was a very good actor. ... Plus, he looked very intelligent and could be a little bit mystical and he kind of had a very good, pure energy."

The hype for the movie was amazing. "Everyone was saying, 'This is a major movie,' there was so much press, so much attention focused on me," MacLachlan says. "I did photo shoots with Time to be on the cover... . And what people were saying to me gradually began to set in. You get expectations."

"Dune" bombed.

"I was pretty much laughed at," he recalls. "I was dismissed, and suddenly everything just turned and I had a real hard time coming back from that."

Even the plans to make "Blue Velvet" fell apart.

MacLachlan jumped into his Jeep, and drove from Seattle to Los Angeles, where he tried to find work. But no one was interested in seeing him. "It was really a tough time for me."

Toward the Other Side

MacLachlan recovered, and so did David Lynch. "Blue Velvet" got made, and became one of the most talked-about films of the decade. MacLachlan played Jeffrey Beaumont, a young man from a town in the Pacific Northwest who discovers a severed human ear in a field. His find leads him to the underside of the town, a setting and theme not dissimilar to that of "Twin Peaks."

Lynch knew he wanted MacLachlan to play Jeffrey while they were working together on "Dune." "He had that innocent quality," says Lynch. "He was someone you could identify with."

And MacLachlan had had a glimpse of the darkness by then. He had felt what it was like to be a stale commodity. He had also been forced to realize that life back in his protected, conservative community was not exactly as it seemed. Soon after he went off to college, his parents divorced. They accompanied him to his "Dune" premiere with their new spouses. Four years ago, his mother died.

He began to veer away from mainstream characters. "I love doing the stuff that's offbeat," he says. And he loves to work with Lynch. "David comes in and speaks in terms of mood, or a certain twist of behavior. Like the smile I do in the premiere, when I'm interrogating {Laura Palmer's boyfriend} Bobby. Bobby starts to get hot, and instead of heating up and putting the pressure on him more, I just sort of took a turn, took a left turn," he says. "I turned to Sheriff Truman with a big smile on my face. That for me sums up a big part of Cooper's mentality. It was just sort of a game. Something that just struck Cooper at that moment."

He also enjoys the other side of Cooper's personality. "He's got that weird culture thing, that mysticism," he says.

What will keep Cooper in town after the solution of the murder? Says MacLachlan, "Something develops."

Is it a love interest?

"It's a little different, of course, because it's Dale Cooper."

There are rumors that the murder won't be solved this season. "I'm sure they've got something in mind," he says. "They haven't told me."

MacLachlan, like Cooper, has enthusiasms, but they don't have the same ferocity. "I'm a seeker, of sorts," MacLachlan says. "I go through stages. There are stages when I'm more actively involved and sometimes when I'll just float along." He continues reading Eastern mysticism, which he began during his flirtation with the '60s. And he still meditates.

The Actor at Home

The front door opens. Brett Cullen, a neighbor and fellow actor, sticks his head in the door.

"Brettster!" says MacLachlan, playful.

They banter about the evening's plans. Cullen reprimands MacLachlan for not showing up for a recent gathering at his home.

MacLachlan apologizes: "We shot until dark."

"Okay, {so} you've got a hit series."

"Speaking of hit series, have you heard anything?" asks MacLachlan. Cullen is in "Young Riders," an ABC series that occupied the time slot now home to "Twin Peaks." The network announced later that it is renewing the series.

"Actually, I was talking to a producer last week who said he was worried because your show is doing so well."

Cullen adds in a Western accent, "My neighbor, he's in my time slot." He slips behind the door, steps away, out into the Venice noonday heat, where neighbors are sprinkling their flowers.