Brad Pitt could have made all the right moves and been a teen idol by now. Instead, he made interesting ones.

The actor's patience and taste may finally be paying off. His scary, funny portrait of a laconic serial killer in "Kalifornia" proves that he doesn't necessarily have to trade on his looks to carry a tough lead role. In "True Romance," he's a big hoot in a small part as a couch-bound, TV-addicted, pot-smoking, sort-of-likable slug.Pitt got his break as a sex kitten: the charming, larcenous, country-boy hitchhiker in "Thelma & Louise." At a Dallas preview screening, a woman gasped, loudly, as the camera panned down the actor's washboard stomach. A potential star was born.

But could he do more than ripple and smile prettily for the camera? The answer - yes - came in Pitt's next outing, "Johnny Suede," a low-budget independent movie that hardly anyone saw (it has been released on home video). In the offbeat, somewhat morose comedy, Pitt plays a struggling musician who wears a sky-high pompadour, worships Ricky Nelson and can't commit to his girlfriend. The actor brings a dreamy innocence to a character who otherwise might have seemed just pitiful.

As "Johnny Suede" was fading into obscurity, Pitt turned up in "Cool World," a high-profile adult cartoon felled by rotten reviews and audience indifference.

But he rebounded with a splash in Robert Redford's "A River Runs Through It." As the amiable fly-fishing brother with a streak of the devil in him, Pitt reminded audiences of Redford himself from way back when, and the camera absolutely loved him. The film made the critics happy; more important in Hollywood, it made money.

The actor's latest move was to grunge down for "Kalifornia" and "True Romance." The scraggly look seems more to his liking.

While promoting "Johnny Suede" a couple of years ago at Utah's Sundance Film Festival, he showed up for a morning interview looking unglamorously bedraggled. The night before, he'd been boogeying by himself at the foot of the stage at a Taj Mahal concert. Away from the lights, Pitt has the air of a loner.

A notoriously shy interviewee, he seemed game to talk about most anything other than show business (the troubles of Dallas' housing projects, for instance, a subject that got his attention on a TV news show).

Reporters who encountered him last year at Toronto's Festival of Festivals (for the premiere of "A River Runs Through It") were taken aback by the long hair and scruffy beard he was sporting for "Kalifornia." He clammed up when the questioning ran toward his background or anything personal. He seemed as embarrassed talking about his brief tenure as a journalism major (at the University of Missouri) as he was discussing his love life (he was, at the time, with "Kalifornia" co-star Juliette Lewis).

Asked after the media frenzy whether he'd felt like a bloody rag thrown into a circle of sharks, Pitt shrugged it off in characteristic aw-shucks style. "Aw, that stuff don't bother me," he drawled.

The actor was born in Shawnee, Okla., and grew up in Springfield, Mo. After switching from journalism to acting, he racked up a few TV credits Fox's "Glory Days," HBO's "The Image," a movie of the week called "Too Young to Die."

It was in 1991, when he hitched his ride with Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in "Thelma & Louise," that Pitt's star began to twinkle in earnest.

The actor should find an even bigger audience next year co-starring with Tom Cruise in the already controversial "Interview With the Vampire," to be directed by Neil Jordan of "The Crying Game." The casting has rubbed fans of the book and its author the wrong way. Anne Rice, who concocted the tale of ageless, sexy, decadent vampires, likened the duo of Cruise and Pitt to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

Pitt also is working on "Legends of the Fall" alongside Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn.

Whether those projects stumble or succeed, Pitt at least has done it his way so far. When he turns up in a buddy-cop flick or starts picking through Cruise's rejects, we'll know that Hollywood has dulled yet another promising career.