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Anthony Edwards took off for stardom as a Jerry Lee Lewis-spouting flyboy in

"Top Gun" but didn't land widespread fame until he began cutting into people on NBC's "ER."While the careers of the other "Gun" stars - Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer - soared afterward, Edwards' film career went in a different direction.

"It's not necessarily fair," said John Wells, "ER's" executive producer. "Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer were very pretty boys and also talented actors. But Tony is also a really talented actor with much more complex looks. He doesn't have those kind of standard cover of GQ looks that are required of younger leading men. So he's gonna get those quirky roles and supporting roles. Frankly, it's a shame."

Wells can't be that bummed for Edwards right now. A successful film career may have prevented the actor from working on "ER," the hugely successful Thursday night medical drama that stands as the most popular show on TV. Nearly 28 million households tune into the weekly smorgasbord of emergency room foibles and triumphs, artfully managed by a colorful crew anchored by Edwards' Dr. Mark Greene.

So what if it's not the big screen? These are still glory days for the adorably impish Edwards.

" `Top Gun' doesn't really interest me at all," Edwards told reporters recently. "I find it really jingoistic. . . . We all do things to help us do other things that we want.

"As an actor, I prefer to do those other films that not a lot of people saw. But because of cable, they stay around. I mean, I've made 10 movies since `Top Gun.' When I was on `Northern Exposure' last year they were like, `Welcome back.' I haven't stopped working . . . it's just no one ever sees (the old movies)."

To be sure. Some of his later flicks had their share of sheen, but they didn't reap the kind of box-office bonanza that was enjoyed by "Top Gun." Some of his best work included "Miracle Mile," a 1989 film about a guy who truly realizes the end is near, and "How I Got Into College," a 1989 movie in which Edwards played an admissions officer eager to look beyond grades and good behavior. He also was recently seen as Susan Sa-ran-don's assistant in "The Client," starring Tommy Lee Jones.

TV has kept him busy, too: Last year, he had a continuing role as a sickly guy who was allergic to everything on CBS' "Northern Exposure." If not for his success on "Top Gun," Edwards said, he wouldn't have gotten such a wide variety of roles over the past decade.

"I did a television series 12 years ago with Helen Hunt and Richard Crenna and Patty Duke," Edwards said. "And Richard Crenna said a great thing then. He said, `You don't have a career. A career is something you have when you're 70 and you look back and `that was a career.' So for me, to be here now on this hit show seems like a natural progression."

When the show was first created, Wells said, he and his clan didn't feel a need to cast big-time stars since big names were already associated with the show - writer Michael Crichton and producer Steven Spielberg. As a matter of fact, Edwards and the other actors weren't at all recognized by some of the early audiences who screened the show, Wells said.

"I think Tony is very visible within the acting community, where he is respected," Wells said. "But if you went out and asked a couple hundred people on a street in mid-America a year ago, they couldn't have placed him."

In many ways, that lack of fame played into the producers hands when casting the role of Dr. Greene.

"We were looking for a very unusual quality for the lead part of Greene," Wells said. "We wanted someone you could immediately empathize with. And we wanted to present a more complex character than a good-guy character, someone who does not have the genuinely conventional leading-man looks. That's not something you find often in television."

Not that playing a doctor is a walk in the park, Edwards admitted. Most of the time, the actors are rattling off lines they don't even understand.

"We're getting a little better," Edwards said. "It's a whole other language on top of this physical ballet of being a doctor. . . . There's this kind of a weird poetry to medical-ese. And it's starting to make sense, and you know what it means.

"But there's been some pretty good tongue-twisters. Our gag reel is pretty hysterical . . . ordering KGBs instead of EKGs. Throw in a few commies. It gets crazy."

But you can't beat the comfy costume - a pair of green scrubs that Edwards almost always wears. And yes, he had them on during a recent press conference.

"It's great. It's like doing a western. You have one outfit and you just throw it on and go in."