"What I find funny is that people will say things like, 'Oh, fame is awful,' you know? What are you talking about? It's awesome! People knowing you, and making people happy . . . being able to walk down the street and get a smile out of someone just by showing up in their life -- that's awesome."

Paul Michael Valley knows whereof he speaks. For 51/2 years in the '90s he was Detective Ryan Harrison on NBC's "Another World," one of the nobler characters to stride across a TV screen. And until the gig ended in 1997, he enjoyed -- hugely, from the sound of it -- the renown reserved for denizens of daytime drama. That same year he scored with a new audience, playing Thomas Jefferson in a very popular and well-regarded New York revival of the musical "1776."

So what's he doing here in a dressing room at American University's Greenberg Theatre, looking thoroughly collegiate in jeans, work boots, blue shirt and fashionably messy, albeit thinning, hair? Or, to raise a different question, what is a 40-year-old formerly famous actor supposed to do with himself?

There are as many answers to the latter question as there are formerly famous actors. Still, in Valley's case, the answer was an unusual one: He moved from New York to Washington and enrolled at AU to finish his undergraduate degree in theater. It's something he still loves -- "I really do believe that the world can be changed through theater" -- but in the future, he hopes, that love will take a different form.

(He's at the Greenberg because he's in rehearsal for the AU production of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods," which will run this weekend and next.)

He sounds committed to his endeavors. But didn't the face light up a little brighter, the voice rise a tiny bit, a moment ago when he was remembering his glory days?

Doesn't he miss the fame?

Deep breath. "Uhhhh, I had some, so I don't miss it as much as you would think," he says earnestly. "And every once in a while someone will say, 'Oh my God!' That's enough. That's nice. What gets old is, you know, 'What are you doing now? So what happened?' "

That said, he warms to his story. His early years were spent in the Midwest -- his father worked for IBM and was frequently transferred -- but when he was 8 his family settled in Greenwich, Conn. When the time came for college in 1984, he chose AU because "I knew I really wanted to be an actor, but at the same time I was aware that it was kind of a silly goal, a little bit of a pipe dream. And AU -- it offered everything that I wanted -- foreign policy, political science. It had a literature department, it had high-level classes.

"I had a ball here, but after two years I had sucked the marrow from the [theater] department, and I knew I wanted acting and nothing but."

The young performer landed a one-year apprenticeship under Michael Kahn, then beginning his tenure as the Shakespeare Theatre's artistic director ("Basically I just carried spears and understudied great actors") and then moved on to Juilliard in New York.

"I suggested he audition," Kahn says. "I thought he had talent, and he was very handsome."

Valley loved it there. And every summer, just like students everywhere else, he'd have to find a job. After his third year, he was thinking he really didn't want to tend bar.

And what luck -- as it happened, "the soap industry needed a bunch of young guys . . . and I walked out of school saying, 'Sure, I'll take a job.' It wasn't anything that I strove for. And if anything it already carried a pejorative from Juilliard. It was like" -- his voice grows mock-lofty -- "certainly beneath a classically trained actor to walk into a soap opera sound studio. But they're offering you $2,100, $2,800 a week, for Christ's sake. How do you walk away from that?"

You don't, apparently, at least not for a while. (And Kahn says he encouraged Valley to take the job, thinking it was a good match.)

"It's a lot of work," Valley says. "You're memorizing 40, 50, 30 pages of dialogue a night. And . . . when I really was in my prime, you know, you're memorizing three or four dozen non sequiturial questions, because I was facilitating a lot of other people's story lines because I'm a cop." He slips into character. " 'So how'd you feel?' 'So when John brought you out of the' -- and you can literally almost turn to the camera at that point in time, you know -- 'So when John brought you out of the burning car, two and a half weeks ago for those of you who haven't been watching, how did you feel?'

"I learned a lot and I failed a lot. I think that's one of the things that a lot of actors don't get a chance to do -- just fall flat on their faces. Making a choice that's just . . . bad."

After a few years of bad choices and good, he felt "tired -- used." He asked for a hiatus, but the producer "was kind of nice about it" and offered to let him out of the show entirely.

Valley moved to the stage. He pleased critics when he tackled the difficult role of Bertram in "All's Well That Ends Well" at the Shakespeare Theatre. And later the Roundabout Theatre's "1776" proved so popular that it moved to Broadway. He remembers the show as "my seminal artistic event."

In the years that followed, he worked in regional theaters and played guest roles on such series as "Third Watch," "Law and Order: SVU" and "Ed."

But "about five years ago I decided that I couldn't focus on acting anymore because it was not providing results," he says. "Monetarily, and I wanted to get off the road. . . . I was engaged to a wonderful woman" -- he married his wife, Lisa Karmen, in 2003 -- "and as much as she supported my career and my life, I really needed to do something. And not to be grandiose, but it needed to be something of value."

He'd been deeply moved by a speech given by Ben Cameron, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group in New York. He sought Cameron out.

"We talked about arts advocacy . . . and finally he said, 'Get the actors involved. Go advocate for the arts, but get the actors involved. That's one of the biggest problems we're having. Get more people like you.' "

It inspired Valley but led to more questions. "How do you advocate for the arts?" he says. "Other than finding out how to say, 'Art's good'?"

When Cameron gave him a reading list -- marketing strategies and other how-tos -- Valley "realized my skill sets weren't good. . . . I needed to go back to school."

Leaving Lisa in New York, where she continued with her job at a hedge fund, he enrolled at AU for the spring semester. "And had my [butt] kicked by academia."

But he persevered. Over the summer Lisa decided to take a sabbatical and joined Valley in Washington. He hopes to complete his degree in December and begin a "dual existence," establishing an arts-advocacy firm and dividing his time between here and New York. He has a lot of his spiel ready: attendance figures, percentages of the population that want to go to the theater, the amount of revenue generated throughout the economy by the theater.

"None of this is new," he says. "But getting the actors involved in becoming better advocates -- that is new. I think we're the most underemployed, overtrained, passionate people on the planet."

The financial rewards of this are uncertain. Kahn says that in his observation "you can make a living, but I'm not sure how much money we're talking about."

Valley envisions teaching a two-week course for actors, funded through grant money, private donations and a theater itself. He hopes to impart skills that will enable the actors to lobby effectively for government grants as well as private donations.

Does he worry about starving? "I don't think anybody ever embarked on a career in the arts with an idea that he's going to make money," he says brightly. "I have the luxury -- I have a wife, I don't have a family -- to try this. . . . I said to my wife, 'If I'm making $30,000 or $35,000 a year doing this, would that be all right?' And she said, 'Fine, it's a lovely idea.' "

Over the summer Valley participated in a workshop of a new John Kander-Fred Ebb musical called "Curtains." He says he left with a sense that even at that level, acting is losing some of its allure.

"I'm not going to pursue it," he says firmly. "The pursuit of acting, or an acting profession, is so full-time, where you're going on three to four auditions a day, the preparation for those auditions, the amount of time you need to spend in sound studios working your voice, the amount of time you need to spend dancing or stretching, physically keeping yourself in shape, keeping the weight off if you want to maintain some kind of TV or film career -- all that is a full-time job. . . . I don't want to do that."

In fact he hasn't wanted to for a while now.

"I reauditioned for soap operas several times," he says with a smile. "And it was like, 'No. You're not good-looking enough, you've gained too much weight, your hair's a problem.' " He breaks into laughter. "I'm bald when it comes to TV Land."

Paul Michael Valley, who is finishing up his drama degree at American University, is performing in "Into the Woods" at the Greenberg Theatre.Back in the day: Paul Michael Valley (with Jensen Buchanan) as Ryan Harrison in "Another World."