It's a TV character who makes Max Headroom look like the boy next door.

It's a character who makes ALF seem no more unusual than the family dog.

He stands well over 6 feet tall and has the bone-crushing strength of 10 men. His appearance is vaguely feline, as if an alley cat had undergone some strange mutation. But at heart he's a pussycat, one of nature's noblemen if, indeed, one of its freaks.

The character is Vincent, the grotesque half of CBS's "Beauty and the Beast." The man who plays him is the seldom-seen actor on the cover, Ron Perlman.

Perlman has carved out a screen career in which some of his favorite roles have been played not so much in costume as in disguise. Few film aficionados would recognize him without his American Express card.

Now, the role of Vincent has brought him into a position in which he shares a starring role in a highly regarded television series -- at the same time retaining virtual anonymity. And that's just fine with him.

"It's a dream come true," said Perlman. "I could go through my entire career not being recognized. Fame to the point where you lose your privacy can be a drawback. I've been able to maintain a personal life with my family. It's great to be a star of a TV series and still be able to go shopping." Provided, of course, that he doesn't go to the mall in costume.

Ask Perlman to name his favorite parts, and he lists a series of characters from the unusual to the bizarre. He was in "Quest for Fire," heavily made up, mostly naked, playing a prehistoric tribesman. And there was the part of Salvatore, the facially-deformed hunchback in "The Name of the Rose."

"My forehead got me the part in 'Quest for Fire,'" said Perlman, acknowledging that the role was the takeoff point for his getting typecast as a prosthetic actor. "I took tremendous satisfaction in meeting the challenge of playing Salvatore ... You'd never believe the satisfaction I get out of taking these characters and finding the humanity in them." And shopping at the Safeway without any hassles.

"This character -- Vincent -- is similar to the others in fairly obvious and one-dimensional ways," said Perlman. "I'm unidentifiable in all of them. One dealt with a prehistoric character, the other was in the 1400s. These demanded research, fancy and imagination.

"But Vincent -- he's a soulful, human character. You just read the script and play it from the heart."

The result is a character who is compassionate, just, steadfast and trustworthy -- television's noble savage. And on top of that, he's in love.

This version of the beauty-beast fable began to take form when Kim LeMasters went to the movies.

LeMasters, CBS's vice president for programs, screened Jean Cocteau's 1946 surrealistic film version of "Beauty and the Beast" and came away impressed. Why not put it on television?

LeMasters put that question to Ron Koslow. "He came to us and wondered if there was a way to do it on a contemporary basis," said Koslow, the show's creator. "It was a case where ideas coalesced. I love New York and have always liked the idea of doing something magical about the city."

And he'd read of real people supposedly living in steam tunnels under the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Put all of these ideas together in a blender, add a dash of imagination, a whopping budget of more than $1 million per episode, and you have "Beauty and the Beast," CBS's entry at 8 p.m. Friday.

You also have a ground-breaking show for the traditionally conservative CBS. The network has come up with three shows that, in various ways, defy TV tradition ("Frank's Place" and "Tour of Duty" are the others). "Beauty" is the most defiant of the bunch. Pressed to come up with a description beyond the simplistic term "fantasy," Koslow called it a "reality-based, speculative drama ... I like to think of it as a contemporary fable," he said.

The story revolves around the relationship of Vincent with uptown lawyer Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton), who was attacked and left to die in the premiere episode and was found and nursed back to health by her new furry friend.

What she and the viewer are introduced to is an underground world populated by a variety of misfits and outcasts, some of whom have rejected society by choice. This is far more than a few bag ladies seeking shelter in abandoned steam tunnels. It's an obviously civilized band, highly cultured, led by Ray Dotrice in the role of Father, master of the elaborately (and expensively) detailed labyrinth.

Each shooting day, Perlman applies the many layers of makeup, prostheses and improvised attire that turn him into Vincent.

Putting on costumes is nothing new for Perlman, 37, whose acting background includes extensive stage work as well as his anonymous movie roles. But it takes him four hours to put on Vincent and one hour to clean up after him.

Born in New York, son of a jazz drummer who once played with Artie Shaw's band, Perlman began performing in high school, doing comedy before turning to acting. There was study and stage work at the City University of New York, and more of the same while he earned a masters degree from the University of Minnesota. There was work at the Classic Stage Company in New York, and roles in New York and regional theaters.

The role of the beast carries an added burden: He and Hamilton share the problem of keeping their characters -- and the show -- on track as a number of directors have rotated in and out of the early episodes. "I'm very busy trying to make this thing happen and to be a custodian of quality," said Perlman. "We're the two constants."

Perlman's free time is devoted to his wife, Opal Stone, a fashion designer, and their 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Blake. About two years ago Blake caught her parents looking at a cassette of "Quest for Fire" and figured out what her daddy does. She's also made the connection between Dad and Vincent.

Perlman and the production staff take the show seriously, maybe too seriously. "Characters serve to entertain," said Perlman, "and -- in the case of Vincent -- to move people. It's like playing Hamlet every week." Well, maybe not Hamlet, but definitely not "Manimal," either.

There is at least one running joke on the set. "If the ratings flag in the sixth season," said Koslow, "we'll have a marriage and cliff-hanger ending, with a child expected in the fall. Then we'll call the kids the Beastie Boys."