Fated with Sam Shepard good looks and a daredevil spirit, Brad Johnson is one of the fortunate Hollywood wannabes who didn't spend long trading his past life for starring movie roles. In fact, the genuine Southwestern cowboy took a mere two years.

"It was a challenge for me to be from a background so far removed from Hollywood and go in there and bump elbows with the Hollywood types," says Johnson, co-star of the Vietnam adventure "Flight of the Intruder," who broke into movies with Roger Corman's "Nam Angels" and Steven Spielberg's "Always." Paramount has signed him up for two more pictures."It's a bit like Eddie Murphy's deal," he quips, "but subtract a zero or two."

His background: Johnson was born on a ranch near Tucson, and despite a baseball scholarship in college, he turned rodeo pro in 1984 for four years. Directors first spotted him for commercials, including one as the Marlboro man, and for ads for Busch beer and Calvin Klein.

Words of wisdom: "The difference between confidence and nothing to lose can be very thin."

How he learned: "I was basically away from home (in the summers) since I was 13. I was a pack-trip guide, I repossessed cars, I worked in a meat-packing plant. My dad encouraged that - to make it on my own."

Doing a war film: "If a person wants to see what it's really like, we take you into the cockpit in `Flight of the Intruder.' `Top Gun' did very well for Navy recruiting, but it wasn't accurate. . . . I went through Naval flight physiology, the procedure all aviators go through, the high-altitude survival . . .."

Off-hours entertainment: "Being a dad." He and his wife, Laurie, a model, have a 15-month-old son and a baby on the way.