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“I said, ‘Well, you can’t smile every day,’ and she answered, ‘Oh, come on! ’ ” Experiences like that make Vel Johnson, 47, eager to shed his “funny, nice guy” image, which he honed as the Twinkie-loving cop in the first two gig.“I think it would be cool to play a murderer,” he says.

“Bad guys have more character.” His former television costars would probably disagree.

“Of all the people I’ve ever worked with, he’s the most special,” says his wife, Jo Marie Payton. We’d laugh so hard together that I couldn’t breathe.” Adds director John Tracy: “He’s a sweetheart of a guy—a real and happy person.” That likability helped Vel Johnson land his current spot in MCI’s 10-10-321 advertising campaign, but last year a New York City theater production of —in which he played the Ghost of Christmas Present—allowed him to explore his edgier side.

Vel Johnson admits there are probably some types of behavior he won’t ever be able to pull off.

“I can’t flip the bird at another driver,” he claims.

“And the studio had a different point of view.” In 1997 she left the series, and producers filled her role with another actress, Judyann Elder. with her third husband, Landrus Clark, 49, and her daughter from her first marriage, Chantale, 16—has rebounded with recurring roles on “had been stagnating my creativity,” she says.