As he introduces David Schwimmer to several hundred Northwestern University students, theater professor David Downs brushes past a certain sitcom called "Friends," as if Ross, Joey and the rest of the eternal NBC adolescents were just another fast-food joint on the pop-culture highway. "The man I want to introduce to you tonight," Downs says into the microphone, beaming with a mentor's pride for a protege who made good, "is the David Schwimmer who founded the Lookingglass Theatre."

Having talked a reluctant Schwimmer into making this rare personal appearance one night in May by promising that the university would give his speaker's fee to Lookingglass, Downs is on a mission: He wants to reclaim his famous former student as an ambassador for the high arts.

"It is my pleasure," Downs says, "to introduce to you a man of the theater."

Schwimmer ambles onto the stage and grins. A palpable jolt goes through the room. Several students squeal. Few "men of the theater" evoke such a response. In this time and place, Schwimmer is a man of the big fat hit sitcom.

But like Downs, Schwimmer has a serious agenda for this evening. "I thought I'd tell you what kind of a person I was when I was a student here at Northwestern," he says.

His parents, highly successful and intensely left-wing Los Angeles lawyers, had sent their well-disciplined son to Hebrew school and Beverly Hills High, and instilled in him a mix of progressive ideas, artistic taste, social responsibility and driving ambition.

"I was a walking contradiction," Schwimmer says of his student years in Evanston, Ill., his voice making the briefly falsetto cracking sound familiar to his millions of television fans. "Was I a conquering capitalist or a socialist activist?

"I still don't know," he says, his voice trailing off.

Schwimmer looks up from the lectern at a sea of star-struck young eyes. He's brought up the central quandary of his life. Sadly, no one in the room seems to care.

"Did you ever have a crush on Jennifer Aniston?" asks a student.

The Millionaire

There are not too many socialist activists -- or even too many people of the shamelessly capitalist persuasion -- who can earn in excess of $1 million for a single 30-minute episode of television. It's an unprecedented figure. At the age of 36, Schwimmer made more than $25 million over the past year for a show with arguably more than its share of wit, glamour and charisma but little demonstrable ideological underpinning. In fact, "Friends" runs scared from religion, sexuality, race and politics. On the other hand, what other sitcom star at the peak of his earning power would want, as Schwimmer does, to come back to Chicago to adapt and direct a difficult new play in an unproven theater with fewer than 300 seats? Especially a theater where he is not the star but merely one voice among many strong and ambitious personalities. Especially when the source material is "Race: How Blacks and Whites Feel About the American Obsession," a 1993 work of oral history by the liberal icon Studs Terkel on that most agonizing, complex and utterly thankless of subjects. As many have found, plays even remotely about race almost always end up being political and dangerous, regardless of intent.

In early May, Schwimmer's production of "Race" officially opened the new home of Lookingglass Theatre in the Water Tower Water Works, an important event in his life. But on this awful night at Northwestern, the target demographic of "Friends" sees only a mixture of glamorous celebrity and a young man named Ross, the sweet, quirky, vulnerable one from the most successful network sitcom of the current era.

The painful questions come thick and fast.

"How was Matt LeBlanc's wedding?"

"If I were to pay your cover, would you come to the Keg with me tonight?"

Schwimmer gamely plays along.

Then an African American student asks if he could play the first black character on "Friends." "I could deliver your newspaper or something," the young man says, to raucous laughter.

It is a challenging and provocative question, and Schwimmer takes it seriously, noting the lack of diversity on network television.

"I've long campaigned," he says, "for a woman of color to be my love interest on the show." Last April, those entreaties appeared to pay off when Aisha Tyler joined the show in a recurring if unlikely role as a paleontologist and an object of lust for both Ross and Joey. Schwimmer clearly took some pride in her addition.

But then the student sandbags him, saying that the question was just a joke. And then it gets worse.

"Would you say something as Ross?" someone asks.

Schwimmer's face changes. "I came to talk to you guys as myself," he replies, with pain in his voice.

Character Actor

"You are always cursed by a character you play on television," "Friends" director Jim Burrows says in a phone interview. "You are always known as that character."

"I was so sad on my drive home," Schwimmer says over a beer in the back room of a tavern a few days later. "You would have thought they would have taken advantage of an opportunity like that. I was so disappointed in the level of stupidity of the questions. It was all like, 'Who's the best kisser?' "

The reaction to his appearance was "too weird," Schwimmer said. "All they saw was Ross. That moment when I came out onstage? It was a moment when I didn't even exist. My feelings were hurt."

This matter of identity and entitlement is a complex one for a man who talks of "mourning the loss of the relationship between the Jewish and the African American communities."

"My life has been a life of good fortune," he says. "I'm also really aware of how random these things are. I guess I've always felt compelled to try and even the scales."

After nine years of "Friends," Schwimmer seems grateful for the big income and the good times and the solidarity of the ensemble, but he appears entirely over most aspects of the experience. The 10th and final season of the show begins this fall. And that, Schwimmer repeated several times during a series of recent interviews, will be that.

There will be no movie, no Ross spinoff, no grand reunions, nada. "That would just diminish the ending," he says.

Schwimmer does not just want to move on from a character; he wants to move on from a genre. "I am not interested," he says, "in doing any more frivolous comedies. And I now have the luxury of not taking a job unless it says something I want to say."

The Next Stage

There's nothing especially unusual about stars from film and television declaring their affection for working in live theater. Indeed, the occasional dalliance with the stage is regarded in the business as evidence of an interest in craft and a desire to recharge one's creative batteries. Even big-name actors often feel a lack of autonomy in the money-driven world of film and television, and they like doing their own thing on the stage in a world they can control.

But none of this adequately explains Schwimmer's commitment to Lookingglass.

Schwimmer was the spiritual founder of the company, which germinated in 1988 when he was a senior at Northwestern.

Joy Gregory, his co-adapter on "Race," says Schwimmer came up with the idea of a group of college friends producing a version of "Alice in Wonderland." Schwimmer directed. That production was followed by David Kersnar's production of "Through the Lookingglass," the show that gave the company its name.

"It was David who very much initiated our trademarks -- literary adaptation, physical theater, the stress on ensemble," Gregory says. "And after we all graduated from college, we were feeling very much like David was our director."

They did bold material right from the start. In 1989, Schwimmer appeared in "Of One Blood," ensemble member Andy White's play about the three civil rights activists who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964.

In 1990, while still barely out of college, Schwimmer was responsible for directing a hugely successful adaptation of Upton Sinclair's leftist treatise "The Jungle," wherein the near-naked hero was strung up by his heels in an evocation of a side of beef on its way down the slaughter line at a stockyard.

That show cemented Schwimmer's reputation.

Before "Friends," Schwimmer was known as a serious and intellectual Chicago artist. His persona was nothing like the lovable goofball Ross. That's what people tend to forget.

Terkel, though, has a long memory. "Upton's intention," Terkel says, "was to aim at people's hearts and hit them in the stomach. This guy Schwimmer caught all that." It was seeing Schwimmer work on "The Jungle" that made Terkel entrust him with "Race" some 13 years later. He couldn't care less about the rest of the Schwimmer resume.

Terkel admits that he and his new collaborator have been having heated discussions about how the adaptation should end.

"Sure I hollered at him," Terkel says. "When you're adapting something by some guy who wrote it, he's gonna cause you problems. That's the cross he has to bear."

Schwimmer wants a darker climax that he believes will lead the audience to a deeper understanding of their own racist assumptions, whereas the book has a more optimistic climax.

"I don't know if I want the audience to leave the show just hopeful," Schwimmer says. "I don't want to let them off the hook."

Going West

While other Lookingglass members also wanted to try their hands at film and television, Schwimmer migrated to the West Coast especially quickly.

"It became clear to us all very early on," Gregory says, "that David was going to have a career in L.A. It was something he was cut out for and something he very much wanted."

In many ways, Schwimmer's interest in Los Angeles was a good thing for Lookingglass. It facilitated the rise of Mary Zimmerman, whose style became an integral part of the troupe's self-image. It allowed other directors to emerge, including Heidi Stillman and David Kersnar and the current artistic director, Laura Eason. "We found out," Gregory says, "that we also had other strengths."

By 1994, Schwimmer had made his splash in "Friends." Even a year before that, reviews of his appearances in Lookingglass shows like Eason's "In the Eye of the Beholder" referred to him as "back from Hollywood." And when he showed up that year in the troupe's memorable adaptation of "The Master and Margarita," he already was the television actor coming home.

Actually, Schwimmer had never really left Chicago. He remained a fixture at Lookingglass shows and benefits. In 1998 he appeared in Dostoevski's "The Idiot" at the Jane Addams Hull House Theatre. He bought a condo in Chicago six years ago and still lives there much of the year. Because of that, and because he helped create Lookingglass at the very beginning of his career, most of his colleagues in the troupe seem to see him pretty much the way they always have: as a genial, ambitious, talented, creative, pushy, warm bigmouth.

But there are differences.

Lookingglass has an annual budget of about $2.4 million and its new theater has a construction cost of some $5.5 million.

For Schwimmer, that's five episodes of "Friends." The rest of the ensemble knows he could pay for the whole theater. He knows plenty of other people who could pay for the whole place, too -- or a good chunk of it.

What Gregory calls "cash infusions from accounts belonging to David Schwimmer" have been numerous over the past several years and, at times, pivotal to the theater's survival. But all parties are acutely aware of the dangers here.

"We don't want to exploit him," says Andy White. "And we also don't want the company to be eclipsed by his presence. We have to be affirmative in our efforts to make it about Lookingglass."

Even if Schwimmer were willing to fill Lookingglass's coffers by himself -- which he is not -- such dominance would torpedo the internal dynamic of the troupe.

"The idea of us being equal partners has always driven this company," he says. "No one person has any more of a voice than any other person. That is the secret of our success."

Schwimmer has signed a two-year development deal with NBC that calls for him to create half-hour or one-hour pilots. The deal comes with a budget, meaning he can hire writers and develop ideas. He's also trying to put together a feature film about Internet predators.

He says he would like to be one of those "A-list actors" who can pick and choose their directors and their scripts.

"I haven't reached that place in the power structure of Hollywood," he says.

But he has another dream. "When I am here working, I do have this fantasy of having a family here and just doing [theater] all the time," he says. "Maybe I could put my hat in the ring for artistic director of the company."

Schwimmer directs "Race: How Blacks and Whites Feel About the American Obsession," which opened in May at the Chicago theater the actor founded.Schwimmer with Studs Terkel, whose 1993 oral history provided the source material that Schwimmer transformed into the stage production.