Brad Pitt has been the flavor of the month for so long he should start wearing a Baskin-Robbins uniform.

He has been one of Hollywood's hottest actors-on-the-verge-of-stardom since his celebrated, albeit brief, breakthrough role three years ago in `Thelma & Louise.' There were the inevitable `next James Dean' whispers.

`A River Runs Through It' was supposed to be the star-making vehicle that drove him to his destiny. His fans said he was terrific in the role, and the film was a sleeper hit but not enough of a hit to shine Pitt's star. (He was lucky that the dreadful `Cool World' didn't kill his career.) `Johnny Suede'' was another potential starmaker, but nobody saw it. Surely, it seemed, `Interview With The Vampire'' would take care of that stardom thing. As it turned out, Tom Cruise and the film's gore quotient got all the press.

Still, Pitt has received his fair share of publicity and hefty salary increases, at the same time as his career continues its climb. In fact, he says some of the trappings of almost-stardom already are starting to annoy him.

`You know what I read about myself the other day?' asked Pitt who stars with Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn in the Western epic `Legends of the Fall' `I read that I've been hanging out in these gay bars and that I donated my sperm to my friend (singer) Melissa Etheridge.'

Shaking his head in bewilderment (he denies the story, by the way), Pitt said he rarely does interviews anymore because of what has been written about him.

`I hate seeing those little quotation marks around words that didn't come out of my mouth. People want so badly to twist things. People want so badly to hear the negative and to gossip. I just don't understand it.

`I just wish they would be more creative in what they say about me,' he said. Then he paused and thought back to the story he had just mentioned. ``Actually that sperm one was pretty good.'

Pitt, 29, likes to downplay his reputation for wildness and his rising sex-symbol status, but his good looks, devilish eyes and sex appeal are undeniable. He walks into an interview with his shirt open three buttons, so he can't be too unhappy with the attention.

`That whole movie star thing confuses me,' he said.

Well, he might be a whole lot more confused after ``Legends of the Fall' opens. The film, which spans a half-century that follows the migration west and includes World War I, is the role of a lifetime for Pitt, and he knows it.

`This is the only character I've ever had where I felt that there was no one better to play him,' he said, without a hint of boasting. ``Don't ask me to explain it; that's just the way I feel. I like the wildness in him, I like the love in him and I like the hate in him. His whole journey makes sense to me.'

Pitt plays the middle brother of three siblings who grow up on a remote ranch in Montana after their career officer father (Hopkins) moves the family away from civilization in disgust over the government's treatment of American Indians.

Years later, the youngest brother (Henry Thomas) brings home his fiancee (Julia Ormond), who has a dramatic effect on all three brothers.

The film boils down to a lifelong battle between the oldest brother (Quinn), the straight arrow of the family, and Pitt's Tristan, the family's wild, free spirit.

`I started discussing this role two years before we started filming,' the actor said. `There was something spiritual in the character that I'm not sure I can explain.'

Director Ed Zwick said the film has been in development for eight years, surviving three different regimes at the studio that eventually made it. Pitt was always the first choice for Tristan, he said.

`Brad has a great presence on the screen that comes from within,' the director said. `He's not someone who exists only on the surface. It's something that exudes from him.

`He's enormously physical, and he always brings that physicality to his roles. That kind of physical presence was essential for Tristan.''

Pitt was born in Shawnee, Okla., but was reared in Springfield, Mo., where he led according to him a pretty normal childhood.

`I was a good kid overall,' he said. `I played sports, was active in school activities and got good grades. I was good at sports but not great. I didn't want to put in the time.''

Majoring in journalism at the University of Missouri, Pitt left school just before graduation and told his parents that he was moving to Los Angeles to attend a design and architecture school. That wasn't exactly true.

`I did want to be an architect, but it took too much time and I wanted to party,' he said. `I realized that wasn't what I wanted to do with my life so I came out to L.A. to be an actor.

`It had to be New York or L.A. because those are where all the opportunities are. I still love Missouri, but there are no opportunities there.'

Pitt worked a variety of odd jobs in L.A. he says he was the world's worst salesman while waiting for his break. He also signed on with three agencies that place extras in movies and TV, and he earned $325 a day when he could find work. A year after he hit town, he landed a two-minute spot on `Dallas.'

Although he was in too much of a hurry to get through college and design school, he said his career has been going at a fast-enough pace.

`My life is good, and it hasn't changed much since I started except that there are more opportunities now. And there are cameras showing up at my doorstep.'

His hair is long in `Legends of the Fall,' but it is now a bit spikey, sort of a long crew cut for his role as a cop in `Seven,' in which he stars opposite Morgan Freeman.

Then he will buck tradition (for a rising superstar, that is) and play a small role in the next Terry Gilliam film. He did the same thing in ``True Romance,'' in which he played a doper. Most actors at this stage in their careers would stick with the leading-man roles.

`I don't know why other actors don't like to play small roles,' he said with a smile. ``They're easy. Besides, I'm in no hurry. My career is going just fine.

`I've been watching some of the bigger guys, and it seems to me that they're picking films that fill some sort of format that they think people will want or that the studio thinks would be good for their career.

`I want to avoid that trap and keep doing movies that mean something to me.'