When William H. Macy's friends come over to his house, they play . . . charades.

It's one of those inside Hollywood secrets. Pals like Helen Hunt and Hank Azaria, Kristen Johnston from "3rd Rock From the Sun," high-powered executives like Jamie Tarses, who until recently ran ABC's entertainment division, her brother, writer Matt Tarses, director Jon Turteltaub--Macy has them all playing charades.

"It's so completely queer, we love it," he says, leaning back in a chair at his dining-room table and turning bright red with mirth. "Turteltaub, he's a god."

Unhip? Extremely. But at Macy's modest Spanish-style house just off Melrose Avenue, nobody gives a good goldarn. Among actors and directors, the man is venerated as a master of his craft.

"Everybody wants to say they knew Bill Macy before everybody else did. That's a testament to how cool he is," says Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer-director of Macy's latest film, "Magnolia." "He's very simple. I mean that as a huge compliment. Very direct. He doesn't have a lot of sugar, flour and cherries on top of it. . . . He is so [expletive] reliable. It's very comforting to see him in a movie. Every time he comes up, he's [expletive] Bill Macy and he's gonna rock the house."

And in the past few years, he's been rocking the house pretty often, usually--and most potently--as the loser, the oddball, the dork. He was a bumbling car salesman who put a hit out on his wife in "Fargo," a performance that got him an Oscar nomination three years ago. Last year he was an anti-hero in "Mystery Men" and a lonely gay sheriff in "Happy, Texas." And now, in "Magnolia," which opened Friday, he's whiz-kid-turned-failed-adult Donnie Smith.

Macy has had seasonal gigs on "ER" as Dr. David Morgenstern and now does guest spots on "Sports Night." He's a staple in anything David Mamet creates, from "American Buffalo" to "Oleanna." Basically, he pops up everywhere and is reliably riveting.

So when some actor Macy has never met comes over, "They'll say, 'I'm soooo in awe of your work,' " he says. Then he suddenly thrusts his face in your direction, the massive blond eyebrows go up, the cheeks puff out and his eyes have a glint of Howdy Doody: "Ten minutes later, they're screaming, 'Be specific! What are you, stupid?' " Pause. A big, goofy grin. That's charades for you. "You go insane."

What kind of guy is this, anyway? We're sitting with a couple of steaming cups of coffee he's just made, Mission-style furniture along the wall and some smooth wooden bowls he crafted himself on the table, a hobby he picked up in Vermont. Macy, 49, is dressed in a white oxford shirt and brown corduroys, his dark blond hair graying at the sideburns, his eyes a lively blue.

He has renovated much of this house with his own hands, tiled the kitchen, vaulted the living room ceiling, redesigned the bathroom, installed the picture windows that look out onto the vine-covered back yard.

He seems so impossibly un-Hollywood. The phone rings. He answers it, basso profundo: "Macy here." He says corny things like "I'm hip to that." He'll say "That's jive, man." He refers to his wife, Felicity Huffman (best known as tough-as-nails producer Dana Whitaker on "Sports Night") as "the cat's pajamas." Truly.

Until four years ago when his career got too crazy, Macy was a scoutmaster. Aha! we think. All of this is starting to make sense.

"I like Boy Scouts," he says, utterly disarmingly. Who in this cynical town would confess to such a thing? "I love the idea of 'Be Prepared.' If you have to have a slogan, isn't that grand?"

The Character's Bidding

Don't go jumping to conclusions. Macy is a country boy, and he'll be the first to admit it. But in about five seconds, he will start giving you his Short Course on Acting, and his ideas will have such resonance and such piercing clarity that you forget the Macy of tag-team charades. Why his work leaves an indelible imprint immediately registers.

Start with the idea behind why Macy usually plays losers--like "Fargo's" Jerry Lundegaard, an inept, self-pitying sleazebag, or "Magnolia's" Donnie Smith, another damp sack of pathetic dysfunction, who, in one of those memorable Macy moments, tearfully begs an Iranian store owner not to fire him and then asks for a loan. As the multi-character "Magnolia" unfolds, we learn that Smith went from being a quiz-show genius to a hapless, forlorn man who blames his parents for his failures and gets braces in the vain hope of attracting a barkeep who also has braces.

"Magnolia" writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") wrote the role for Macy. "Something about Macy made me want to write the smartest, dumbest guy," says Anderson, who's 29. "Donnie is the most brilliant guy, but he can't tie his own shoelaces."

Anderson intended to push the actor into uncomfortable territory with the role. "I wanted to see him tear his heart out in that bar. He doesn't like to do it much, that kind of acting. I knew he didn't like it, but I thought he could be great at it. So I wrote that, thinking this is either really evil of me or something that could be really good for him."

But even in such moments of profound humiliation (and Macy's characters have many), the actor manages to project an organic kind of sincerity, lending empathy to his most unlovable losers. You find you care about them even though they never see themselves as the world sees them.

He says that's only natural.

"One of the rules of acting is never cop an attitude about a character," he explains. "You must do the character's bidding all the time. You can't say he's a loser. Or he's evil. There's never been someone who thought of himself as evil. Even despots thought they were doing the right thing.

"Oh--and never give up," he continues. "You can't ever give up. It's always compelling to watch someone who won't give up."

Even when the viewer knows the character's effort is utterly futile, as with Lundegaard, falling ever forward toward disaster? Or the gay sheriff in "Happy, Texas," in love with a straight criminal? Or the lovelorn Donnie Smith, a lost cause if there ever was one?

"Look," says Macy, warming to his topic. "An actor's job is to create calm, stasis. A writer's job is to create disorder. The writer is constantly throwing traps, little disasters."

He grabs a script that happens to be sitting at one end of the table. He explains: A good writer gives an actor just what he needs and no more. Most scripts don't do that. "I read these scripts, and it just drives me to distraction," he says. "They torture us with this garbage." He reads a lengthy introduction about some man driving home in a neighborhood where the women drive Mercedeses and the men are relegated to driving Volvos.

"If you took out the garbage that can't be lit, can't be acted, can't be directed, this is what you'd take out," he says, clutching about a third of the script in one hand. And he reads, whining: " '[Camera] Angles of Volvos--no, not new Range Rovers and Mercedeses--these are the mules and drones on their way to work and on their way home.' " Snoooore. "You know what the shot is? A car pulling into a driveway. I cannot drive that car in such a way that it's clear that my wife is driving a Mercedes. I can only drive into the parking spot. The audience wants to know one thing and one thing only: What Happens Next? Tell me a story."

But surely an actor like Macy spends a lot of time on preparation, on back-story, on the character's inner life?

Uh, not necessarily.

"The demands on a person when they're acting are: Speak up, remember your lines--that's a huge thing--and you have to hit your mark," he says. "That's not a big thing, but it takes up one more bit of your attention. You take the director's notes; that's one more small piece of your mind. Then you've gotta put all the attention you have left on the other person [in your scene] in order to get them to do what you want them to do."

That's it? And real acting just comes out? "You cannot stop it," Macy insists. "The emotion will come out unbidden. Astounding stuff. If you let it. If you do it consciously, your performance will be as smart as you are. If you say, 'Here I'm angry, here I'm sad, I'll avert my eyes here,' the first time you do that, you can fool people. It's all technical, all made up at home." He shakes his head knowingly. "If you're really good at that, you'll be a mildly amusing actor at best. But the stupidest person I've met can see through it ultimately.

"See, here's the issue for an actor." He stops, groans, hits himself in the head and mutters, "I swore I wouldn't do this." Then he picks up where he left off. "Lookit. I'm playing the king of England. A technical actor will say, 'This is how the king walks, this is how he talks, this is how he's different from me, la-da-di, la-da-doo.' I think it's jive. Limited. You'll see through it. The real answer is: There is no difference between me and the king. I got the role. I am the king. It's a trick. Magic. A parlor game. Give me a costume, put me on a set, on a throne. How does the king talk? He talks like me. The king is me. It's good to be king. The end."

So William H. Macy, Jerry Lundegaard is you?

"Totally."

And you're Donnie Smith?

"Totally. 'Cause I got the role." A wan grin. "Donnie Smith is black marks on a page. The question for an actor is, what can I do that's real? I was trying to get the bartender to love me. I can really look him in the eyes and get the bartender to give me respect. I can work at that. I can put my attention on that--and all this stuff comes flooding out that I never knew about.

"It's like magic. Your subconscious comes flooding out."

Linking Up With Mamet

Macy's wandering childhood prepared him well for the role of observer. He was born in Miami and lived in Georgia until he was 9. His father, an insurance salesman, a failed contractor and a decorated World War II bomber pilot, then took the family to Cumberland, Md. When Macy was about 15, his life started to take a turn toward the theatrical when his brother Fred taught him to play the guitar. Macy found that he loved playing for others, and that it made him popular.

He began acting in high school but decided to study to become a veterinarian at Bethany College in West Virginia. It was the '60s; he transferred to Goddard College, an alternative-style school in Vermont, where he met professor and playwright David Mamet, who became his mentor, collaborator and promoter. Eventually, Macy became Mamet's teaching assistant and a willing vessel for the playwright's terse, talky, psychologically bruising style.

By the 1970s, Mamet had moved to Chicago, and he, Macy and actor Steven Schachter formed the St. Nicholas Theatre Company, staging contemporary plays and some of Mamet's works. Mamet created the central role in "American Buffalo"--an arrogant loafer who plans a robbery--for Macy. Then Macy moved to New York, where he had success in off-Broadway productions and commercials. He gradually won roles on Broadway--he was in a revival of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town"--and larger roles in film, including Mamet's "Homicide" in 1991, about a detective embroiled in a conspiracy that leads him to question his identity as a Jew.

He was often typecast: the callow youth--"dead or weeping by the end of the play"--or the boy genius with the solution to the play's central conflict. And when he first moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s to pursue a career onthe silver screen, he was mostly the villain, the child molester, the sleazy lawyer, the good cop gone bad.

It was Mamet's incendiary "Oleanna" in 1992 and Macy's portrayal of a professor falsely accused by a female student of sexual harassment that got many people talking. (He did the play in Washington at the Kennedy Center in 1993.) "The play made the audience so angry [that] they would yell at the stage, they would yell at each other--they would just yell," recalls Macy.

In Boston a man stormed out of the theater in mid-play, shouting, "My God! My God! It's inhuman!" Mamet was in the house and wrapped his arms around the man to calm him down. Macy marveled at the response: "He was so enraged by the play, this guy almost burst into flames."

Though Macy had some success in television in Los Angeles, he finally tired of the hackneyed guest roles he was offered and stopped taking them. He began to find more mainstream characters, on "ER," in "Mr. Holland's Opus," co-writing television murder mysteries such as "Above Suspicion" in 1995.

But after "Fargo," his life changed dramatically. "You go from invisible to high visibility," he says. "That character was so indelible in people's consciousness that I got hired to do that a lot." The press called. He shot his mouth off. He called friends to apologize. Oops.

But he's been working like a madman since. In 1997, he was in "Air Force One," "Wag the Dog" and "Boogie Nights." The next year, he was in "Pleasantville," and he co-wrote and starred in the TNT movie "A Slight Case of Murder," playing opposite Huffman, who finally married him two years ago. (They had dated for years, then broke up for five--"I was miserable every minute"--and he finally gave her a ring and no wiggle room.)

Is he exhausted? Well, he has been working too much, finishing a film on Friday and starting another one on Monday. "Too many times, the only thing that's gotten me through is sheer talent," he confesses, and he isn't bragging. "I've always had 18 balls in the air, but I need to watch the bottom line. Do better work. I want to see my wife."

Playing the hangdog isn't easy. "There is a toll. Everyone wants to be a hero. I do." Pause. "Playing characters that are creepy to people--after a while, it makes you feel bad," he reflects. "It's hard to play losers all the time. Especially onstage. To be humiliated eight times a week." Sigh. "That's rough. It wears you down. You stop wanting to go to the theater."

But back he'll go for a new Mamet production of "American Buffalo" in London, then in New York.

Heading for the Hills

Brrring. Brrrring. "Macy here." The actor picks up the portable phone in the kitchen that he tiled, then crumples in half onto the counter as he listens. "Mmm-hmmm. Oh, [expletive]."

The payoff for Macy's success of recent years has been his attempt to move from his handmade house to a property on two acres in the Hollywood Hills, his first and only attempt at living like a movie star. Unfortunately, it's not going well. You might say it's been a demoralizing experience not unlike those endured by his characters: an difficult architect, an untrustworthy contractor, a Kafkaesque zoning commission. He's fired everybody and started over. Now the real estate agent is on the phone with yet another snafu.

He swears some more and shoots that forlorn expression across the room. "The whole thing is just poison," he says rather plaintively.

Clearly the guy is not cut out for the Hollywood life. "We're gonna miss this house," he deadpans. "But not any time soon."

And certainly not before Macy throws his wife a birthday party. His coolest friends will be there. Guess what they'll play? Musical charades. Macy's already rented tubas, trombones, a squeeze box and a ukulele.

"It'll be great," he says, brightening. "We'll drink like fish and howl at the moon."