Nobody ever seemed to know quite what to do with Ed Burns, least of all Ed Burns.

The actor -- or is he a writer? Or a director? -- made a splashy debut way back in 1995 with his independent hit "The Brothers McMullen," a romantic comedy that he wrote, directed and starred in, then thrust into the willing hands of indie rainmaker Robert Redford.

For a second, a new kind of star was born: He was handsome, he could write, he had working-class street cred. In Hollywood, agents and studio suits loved his unaffected guyness; they called him "Eddie." Magazine editors, from the makers of Cosmo fluff to the sweaty palms at Maxim, seemed permanently smitten. Even Steven Spielberg gave him a shot at the big time with a supporting role in "Saving Private Ryan."

But the public -- that would be us -- never quite knew where to place the guy. Over the years we wondered: What is it about Ed Burns? He seems like a leading man, but he's never starred in any movies of note. He still writes and directs but has yet to score a hit since "McMullen."

A couple of years ago, after flailing about between unsuccessful acting jobs and unsuccessful writing-directing projects, Burns made a decision to start over. To commit to one thing: Acting. He signed up for "Confidence," a small, noirish drama in which he plays a con man working the angles in Los Angeles (it opens Friday). It's a film in which, for the first time, the audience gets a sense of what the actor can really do. For the first time, Burns got the same sense.

"I didn't know I could do it, I'll be honest," he says, grasping a Heineken in the darkened bar of the Hotel Bel-Air, a secluded paradise in the lush suburbs of Los Angeles. "I wasn't 100 percent sure I could pull it off."

While the critics have yet to weigh in, the enthusiastic reaction from audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film debuted in January, suggests that he did. Burns, 35, is the son of a cop from Long Island. He's tall and lean with just enough muscle in his face to suggest generations of working men; more than that, he sits with an unguarded ease, unlike a lot of Hollywood figures. He likes to smile, and his eyes -- the color of faded denim -- crinkle when he does.

"Every other part I've played I've been able to draw from past experience, play a version of myself," he goes on. "This was one character I couldn't pull from my own background or experiences. I had to create the character from scratch, use my imagination."

That wasn't the only new feeling for Burns. "I felt things I'd never experienced before," he goes on. "While I was acting in scenes, I understood it. It clicked. I was no longer Eddie Burns. A bigger part of me was Jake Vig. And in the past, Eddie Burns was always dominating."

Of the great actors, he has concluded, "They commit. They commit. You gotta commit."

Another round, please.

'Still a Regular Guy' The most distinctive thing about Eddie Burns -- now we all can call him Eddie -- was always his voice, a whispery New York rasp that sounds like sandpaper softened by a shot of Jack Daniel's. It helps make him seem accessible to men. It makes him irresistible to women (ask former girlfriend Heather Graham, or supermodel Christy Turlington, his longtime current girlfriend).

It also works well in "Confidence," in which Burns plays Vig, a small-time con man forced into a deal with a much more dangerous hood, the King -- played by Dustin Hoffman with a menacing little laugh and spectacles. Vig has to assemble a team of con artists, among them Rachel Weisz and Paul Giamatti, to rip off a major player.

The story is told backward, from the moment when Vig is discovered by the audience on his knees with a gun pointed at his head. There are various twists and turns -- it's a con story, after all -- but the most surprising moments come from watching Burns go head to head with an actor of Hoffman's stature.

Burns holds his own because he "has an innate, masculine self-confidence that's devoid of a hint of macho," says James Foley, who directed the film. "I really believe that . . . this is the first time he's being presented in a way that exploits that.

"When I look through the lens at certain characters, at stars, it's a different experience than when I'm seeing a stage actor," the director says. "Eddie is definitely a movie star. He has that wide-screen surface glamour. To be a leading man you have to dominate the movie, and literally dominate the frame. You have to feel his power, sitting in the theater."

Foley is not alone in Hollywood in seeing a movie star in Burns, who has yet to become one. But it's not the only reason why people in Hollywood like to work with the guy. "I like Eddie Burns because he's the most down-to-earth movie star I've ever worked with," says Tom Ortenberg, the head of Lions Gate, which made "Confidence." "Even though he's got good looks, charisma, he's talented -- he's still a regular guy who's very self-aware and likes to hang out."

While that sounds somewhat calculated, others confirm Burns's lack of pretense. Not many celebrities would agree to hang out in a bar with a reporter (few are allowed to do so by their publicists, for fear that the real person might seep out), and Burns is charming despite having just flown in from a 10-city, 11-day tour to promote "Confidence." His last stop was the Philadelphia Film Festival, and the next two days will bring the media junket phalanx of 40 to 50 interviews a day. At least, he observes wryly, "I'm rehearsed. I can go into autopilot."

To some observers, Burns has always seemed like he could be the kind of actor that, say, Ben Affleck was always trying to be. Burns just wasn't interested in trying.

He'll cop to that.

"Before 'Confidence,' I primarily thought of myself as a writer-director," Burns explains. "As much fun as acting is -- being part of an ensemble, it's a lot of fun -- when you're a writer and director, it's another thing. It's how you see the world, a part of your personality."

But the writing-directing thing wasn't going that well, to put it charitably. In fact Burns had written and directed three flops in a row, was out of money and not very happy about his career.

After making "She's the One," a sort of sequel to "McMullen" that was a box office disappointment, Burns made "No Looking Back" in 1998. The movie performed so badly that his friends nicknamed it "Nobody Saw It." It cost $6 million and made, in his words, "$13.25. Now it's sitting on video shelves forever."

In 2001 he made "Sidewalks of New York," a romantic comedy in documentary style about the interlocking love lives of six New Yorkers; it got shifted around and then mostly ignored in the wake of 9/11. Then came "Ash Wednesday" in 2002, a story of two Irish American brothers with a plot twist involving the mob. (A comment posted on the Internet Movie Database Web site: "Not good at all.") The film opened on two screens and netted $2,942.

Burns stares into his beer.

"I regret making it when I made it. I tried to make a film that was too ambitious, given the budget and the schedule. We didn't want it to look low-budget.

"We failed."

Burns had invested four years of his life making three films that made no money. He thought: "This isn't working."

And he decided to rethink the whole writer-director deal. "I spoke to the Big Guy. It was clean slate time. I'd failed. So: 'Let's start from scratch.' "

Scratch would mean being an actor, and only an actor. A five-year plan. After making this decision, the first script he read that he liked was "Confidence."

"I'd never been given the opportunity to play a lead before," says the actor, though the sentence isn't finished: "I'd never felt ready to take a lead in a film before."

Burns has no formal training as an actor, having scraped together his success through some inborn gifts, extreme likability and a whole lot of luck. But he'd worked with movie stars before, and learned a lot in every experience. He'd studied Tom Hanks during the making of "Private Ryan" and starred with Robert De Niro in the thriller "15 Minutes."

"I could feel myself getting better, working with De Niro," he says.

This time he got to rehearse with Hoffman, which was when he really found the character of Jake Vig. In one improvised scene the King offers to read Vig's palm, and Burns instinctively draws back. "It really clicked for me," says Burns.

There were other changes in Burns's approach. "Confidence" was the first film set to which he decided not to take a laptop and an idea for a screenplay. He wasn't going to multi-task, use his downtime for other projects. This time he immersed himself completely in his character.

When he watched the film, Burns thought: "Look, dummy, when you're present 100 percent of the time, the work shows it."

Itching for Family Life Burns remains an old-fashioned kind of guy. He talks an awful lot about basketball, the one true, unsullied love of his life. He played obsessively in high school, then was injured in college -- he attended Hunter, in Manhattan -- and never got to play college ball, an enduring disappointment. He considered coaching as a career before falling into cinema after taking a film course in American directors. That led to his shooting "McMullen" for about $15,000. He gutsily handed the film over to Redford on an elevator after the star had been interviewed by "Entertainment Tonight," where Burns was working as a gofer.

He loves kids; that's the other thing he talks about a lot. He's been attached to Turlington for three years -- for a time they were engaged but are now back to being "significant others." "We're very happy" is all he'll say on that score other than: "We're both Catholic, from New York, grounded." They live in a Manhattan loft that used to belong to John F. Kennedy Jr.

But Burns may not be long for the city; he is clearly itching to start a Burns brood. He says he fantasizes about building what he calls "the Burns practice facility" somewhere in Far Rockaway, a place for his still-unborn progeny to practice any sport they like, any time of the year.

For the moment, though, Hollywood calls. Since finishing "Confidence," Burns took a role in a science fiction thriller called "A Sound of Thunder," starring with Ben Kingsley. He spent four months in Prague in front of a blue screen -- used for special effects -- trying to look scared.

It was enough to make him consider going back to his career as a writer-director: Burns has a low-budget dramedy in the works "about loss." So much for the five-year acting plan. That's another thing he's learned: "You can't do five-year plans."

The man still is having a tough time deciding where he belongs. He won't deny it. His career? "I'm trying to figure that out myself," he says.

A smart, handsome leading man with working-class street cred: Burns plays a con man in his new film.With no formal acting training, Burns has learned the ropes from some of the best, including Tom Hanks (with Matt Damon and Burns) in "Saving Private Ryan," and Robert De Niro in the thriller "15 Minutes," below.Ed Burns with Jack Mulcahy, left, Maxine Bahns and Mike McGlone in 1995's "The Brothers McMullen," which Burns also wrote and directed."I wasn't 100 percent sure I could pull it off," says Burns of his role as an L.A. con man pitted against another hood, played by Dustin Hoffman, in "Confidence."