State senator Peter Hollister is “sort of a young Alexander Haig gone California beach boy,” as Hunt Block puts it.

Block, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and graduated from Harvard, is a lot more interested in real-life politics than nine out of 10 of his actor counterparts, but Alexander Haig(Ronald Reagan’s former Secretary of State and a current candidate for the Republican presidential nomination) could take severe offence at the joke if he ever watched Knots Landing(CBS, CHCH). After all, Senator Hollister, according to the actor who plays him, is a smarmy, back-stabbing, skirt-chasing politico. (Come to think of it, at that rate he’ll probably wind up in Congress.)

In any event, the character is at the centre of the cliffhanger finale (May 14) for Knots Landing this season. As bad boys will, Hollister has managed to get himself involved with too many women. There’s Abby(Donna Mills), who’s understandably upset that the senator has been romancing her own daughter, Olivia(Tonya Crowe), who’s just 15. (“Sordid stuff,” says producer Lawrence Kasha, relishing the possible soapdish consequences.) And then their’s Paige(Nicollette Sheridan), who’s been in cahoots with Hollister, in bed and out, but you never know how long that’ll last. So the senator, the catalyst so far in terms of the plot, may end up being more the effect than the cause in this year’s final episode.

In the midst of these plot twists, Huntington MacDonald Block, 32, scrapes up every shred of evidence he can find to convince himself that something decent lurks inside Peter Hollister.

“I couldn’t approach it every day if I thought he was inherently evil,” Block says. “I don’t think even the worst guys wake up in the morning thinking, ‘I’m going to do something really evil today.’ I think they feel what they’re doing is right. Peter does have morals-they’ve just been misplaced by ambition for a while. And he started out sincerely working to avenge the wrongs that were done against his parents and family; their money and propery were taken away (by the Galvestons). But somewhere along the way he’s lost focus and overstepped his bounds.”

Actually, the character may be at least as dumb sometimes as he is untrustworthy. “Peter’s done some pretty stupid things, like giving an inscribed locket to Olivia. When I raise questions with the producers and writers and ask, ‘Why would he do this?’, there’s not much they can tell me. They’re wedded to the plot and where that’ll take the characters. So my job is to just do what’s written-to flesh Peter out as best I can.”

“Hunt asks a lot of good questions,” says Kasha. “He does take it seriously.” In the beginning, though, without that many acting credits behind him as a late starter in the business, Block’s visage was what interested the show’s producers.

“He has a very interesting look,” Kasha says. “We wanted the character to be outwardly charming, but to have a sinister quality when we needed it. Hunt had a nice balance of that. There’s a look there that implies mystery. It makes you think, ‘What’s going on inside that guy’s head?’ He looks like he’s got a secret. It’s not a Huck Finn open face where everything is right up front. I have the feeling Hunt has a secret himself.”

A secret? Block, sitting in his publicist’s office in Hollywood, shrugs and tries to help. “I don’t know,” he says. “I used to be a lot more introverted. I was painfully shy growing up. That’s not a secret, though.” One thing that changed him, he says, “is that in becoming an actor, your job is to evaluate yourself, try to plumb whatever depths are there for any particular character. That process overwhelms shyness. I’m still relatively conservative in my behavior, but I don’t come off shy.”

“I don’t think of Hunt as at all shy now,” says Ted Shackelford, who stars as Knots’ Gary Ewing. “He does have sort of a reserved, Ivy League eastern quality. He sort of holds back and observes before he jumps in. Maybe that translates to some people as a littly mysterious.”

Block would like to correct some published impressions that he was born into a blue-blood, filthy rich family. “My father has a very successful business insuring artworks for museums and galleries, but he started it out of a phone booth and he worked incredibly hard, seven days a week. I hardly saw him as a kid. But he was a great provider, my mother was a great emotional cornerstone, and I never wanted anything.”

The proximity to proceedings in the national capital gave Block some rare memories of movers and shakers. “As a kid I was wandering around our street one day, and here comes Lyndon Johnson. He shook my hand. Biggest guy I ever met, or maybe he just seemed that way. And when my sister and I went trick-or-treating in our neighborhood one Halloween, we happened to go to a house and the lady who opened the door looked familiar. It was Mamie Eisenhower. Then I looked inside, and there’s this kind of Buddha-looking guy-Ike. That’s while he was in the White House. The Eisenhowers were there visiting friends.

As he got older, Block’s own political learnings were more Kennedyesque. “I did homework listening to Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio in the ’60’s. It was moving. I remember hearing one of his last addresses before he was assassinated. All of the things that happened in this country in the ’60’s- unbelievable. We’re still recovering from all those shocks.”

As a teenager, Block tried his own version of Peace Corps activity, working one summer with the Sioux Indians in South Dakota and another with a family in Bolivia. Later he took a year off from Harvard (and a spot on the track-and-field team) to live with islanders in Fiji and New Guinea. “I got a lot of perspective living around men in skirts with bullet-shaped hair and women with no skirts or anything on. That experience helped get rid of my shyness, too.”

After working as a bar bouncer, a garbage man and an assistant cameraman on a film, Block shocked his family by announcing he was going into acting. He recalls his first acting lesson vividly: “I was in a chair under a little spotlight, kind of like a police grilling. The teacher would turn the spotlight on and off as it came your turn to do a line. Light on, go. That was the first sensation of what it was going to be like to be an actor-all right, you’re on. Fascinating. I’ve read the metabolic stress an actor endures before he goes onstage can be close to that of an astronaut sitting on the launch pad. I believe it.”

Block moved quickly from off-Broadway work to playing a boardsailor in a TV-movie (“Summer Girl”) to starring in “The First Olympics-Athens 1896,” a two-part TV-movie in which his 6-foot-3 frame and pole-vaulting background came in handy portraying the first gold-medal winner in modern Olympics. After the producers of Knots Landing saw him in a Hill Street Blues episode where he played a bad guy for the first time in his short career, they picked him to play pretty bad guy Hollister full-time, first introducing the character on the show last season.

“In terms of television, this is a very good job,” Block says. “If it wasn’t, I’d probably go into another line of work. But this isn’t an easy business. I keep evaluating whether it’s all worth it.”

“For anyone as relatively inexperienced to come on a continuing series and shoulder as much of the plot as Hunt has this year is really unusual,” says Shackelford, who’s been on the show since the beginning of Knots Landing. “He obviously has something going for him, or he wouldn’t be used by the producers this much. He’s getting costar status and a training ground at the same time.” Shackelford adds. “Come to think of it, the guy’s been on more than I have.”

“I knew I had to get a series shot, because it gives you visibility and name recognition in the business,” says Block. “And fans-their loyalty is unbelievable. Some come up to me who’ve seen every episode since 1979.” Even at that, Block adds: “I’m not real comfortable doing Peter. Playing him is more like going to a trade convention than to Disneyland. Bill Devane(Sumner, Peter’s older brother) has helped me a lot-the old pro teaching the kid some tricks. But I’m still frustrated at not lifting the material farther off the page; I’d like to be able to get deeper into what makes Peter tick.”

Hearing this, producer Kasha sighs and says, “Like a lot of young actors, Hunt is very intense about his work. I’d like to see him laugh more, take a lighter viewpoint about all of it. That’s my only criticism. He can afford to take himself less seriously.”

Block sometimes does that with a witty turn of phrase(“Peter and Paige are loin-locked”)-or going off to Hawaii to surf.

At home, “it’s not exactly getting visited by Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Block says. “I’m investing my income for the future. I live in an apartment in Santa Monica. There are no big expenses-I don’t have a drug habit, I don’t have a fascination with fast cars.”

His girlfriend for a couple of years has been Nouri Morgan, an actess and dancer-“a very strong woman I can talk to straight. I’m not much for small talk.”

As far as Los Angeles goes for this Ivy Leaguer, “This place is so insular-people talk on the phone and pass each other in their cars-you miss a lot of human contact.” He adds: “I meet a lot of ‘victims.’ Lonely people, people who have been wounded in relationships and have withdrawn. More than anywhere I’ve lived, people here aren’t always what they seem. When you try to get close to someone in this town, you can’t be sure what you’re getting into.” Sounds a lot like another California place called Knots Landing.