Somewhere on his way to becoming a surgeon, Bart Johnson became an actor.

Actually, Johnson - who's co-starring in the new WB drama "Hyperion Bay" - has known he wanted to act since he was a kid growing up in the Heber Valley. But he didn't actually commit to his chosen profession until he spent time at the University of Utah as a pre-med student."I went to a bunch of different schools," said the Wasatch High graduate. "I went to Ricks for a little while. I went to UVSC. I did a couple semesters at BYU.

"I kind of made the rounds at schools just to make sure I didn't like it," he added with a laugh. "I knew I didn't, but I had to make sure so I tried every school there was."

But becoming an actor necessitated some serious re-thinking of his life plans.

"My dad's a chiropractor so I was going to kind of follow in his footsteps and go to medical school. I was going to be a surgeon, actually," Johnson said. "Then I started doing theater and I loved it. I always had a passion for it.

"I did a lot of stuff in high school, and then after high school I started doing local theater in Salt Lake. I did a bunch of shows at Hale Center Theater and the Egyptian Theater - just working around Salt Lake."

He had acting in his blood - but he attended one last college, Yale's School of Drama, before giving it a shot as a professional.

"Then I made the move - packed up my car and headed to L.A.," Johnson said.

Actually, it was sort of a familiar move. He lived in Southern California until he was 12. His mother, Charlene, a makeup artist, worked on TV series like "Mork & Mindy" and "The Brady Bunch" as well as numerous films. (Her most recent projects include "Lethal Weapon 4.")

"My mom was in the business for, like, 20 years. And she got to the point where she was picking her features so they had the opportunity to move out of town. And as soon as they had the opportunity, they were out of here," Johnson said. "So they bought an old flour mill up in Midway - the old Johnson flour mill. It's 30 acres and a five-story, 100-year-old flour mill. A four-acre pond. A 30-foot waterfall. It was great."

His parents converted it into a home for themselves and their seven children.

"And then all the kids started moving away so they converted it into bed-and-breakfast," Johnson said. "And that's my escape. That's how I get the heck out of here."

And, while he loves his job, he isn't necessarily enthralled with Los Angeles. He called his move down there some seven years ago "very scary."

"It was pretty horrible at first," Johnson said. "I moved into a place with a bunch of actors who weren't working and hadn't been for a long time. A lot of bitter actors. But I was able to do a play right away, which was great."

Not that the L.A. theater scene is much to get excited about. Johnson called it "awful - really horrible."

"At the Hale Theater, we packed them in all the time," he said. "And then I come down to L.A. and I think, `OK, here's a great piece. Here's something really wonderful and original with celebrities in our cast. We're going to do some great business out here.' And nobody showed up. We had a great opening night and then 12 people a night after that."

Gradually, however, Johnson got more film and television work. "I just kind of worked away and little bit by little bit got a couple lines here and there," he said. "Just a bunch of guest-star stuff and a couple movies and recurring (roles) on a couple of shows."

His credits include roles on "Walker, Texas Ranger," "JAG," "Clueless," "Diagnosis Murder," "Babylon 5" and "Sunset Beach."

His first movie, a small part in "My Family" ("Mi Familia"), resulted in more than just another credit. He met actor Ernie Lively, who also had a small role in the film, and through Ernie met his daughter, Robyn - an actress whose credits include "Savannah," "Chicago Hope" and "George & Leo." And that meeting led to a "serious" relationship.

At a recent dinner party for WB stars, producers, executives and TV critics, Johnson and Lively did a bit of role reversal.

"I've been the sidekick with Robin on a couple of these things," he said. "We've been going out pretty seriously for a couple of years now."

As for "Hyperion Bay," which premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on WB/Ch. 30, Johnson said he "really hit the jackpot on this show."

"The characters are really great," he said. "You think they're going to do the same old cliche thing that you see in every show you turn on, and then right before they do, they make a little turn."

The show revolves around a pair of brothers - Dennis (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is a former high-school nerd who returns to his small hometown as a hugely successful computer whiz, and Nick (Dylan Neal) is a former big man on campus who stayed in town and whose personal fortunes have fallen.

Johnson plays Nelson Tucker, another big high-school star who used to beat up on Dennis - but discovers even his wife (a former cheerleader) has new respect for the former nobody.

While the pilot episode indicates that Nelson might still be a bit of a bully, Johnson said, "Well, maybe not. It looks like Nelson is going to show a little more of a sensitive side. He's been through a lot."

And the unpredictability of the characters created by Emmy- and Humanitas-prize winning writer Joseph Dougherty ("thir-ty-some-thing") is something that Johnson appreciates.

"It's interesting for us, too, because it gives us choices when we do our scenes. . . . There's some real conflicts in the scenes, and you don't find that in a whole lot of the stuff you do," he said. "It's usually so bland and boring and obvious and cliched. This is really refreshing."

Sort of like the way he feels about traveling home to Midway.

"I get back there as much as much as I can. I love it," Johnson said.