Ever since "Interview with the Vampire" hurled him toward superstardom, Brad Pitt has read a lot of crazy things about himself. But nothing compares to the report that he donated his sperm to his pal, singer Melissa Etheridge.

Asked about the rumor, Pitt laughs out loud, as if the idea is absurd. But it's not completely off the wall. He and women have had, well, a history, both on screen and off.

As the smooth-taking J.D. in "Thelma & Louise," he literally charmed the pants off Geena Davis. And in "Legends of the Fall," he and his witchy ways got the better of the strait-laced Julia Ormond.

In his new movie, "Seven," Pitt sports an unglamorous crew-cut and a gruff manner. But his tender scenes with real-life girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow provide a ray of sunshine in an otherwise gritty picture.

But back to Melissa for just a minute. Did he really do the donating thing?

"Nah," he says, "but that rumor cracks me up because it's so creative."

As it turns out, fatherhood has been on Pitt's mind quite a bit lately. "I can't wait for the day," he says, leaning back in his chair at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan. "I'll know when its right. It just hasn't been right yet."

Not that Pitt hasn't been practicing. The 31-year-old actor has been linked with four of his recent co-stars, including Juliette Lewis (TV's "Too Young to Die" and "Kalifornia"), Davis, Ormond and now, Paltrow.

"Gwyneth is the best actress in the world," he raves. "Hands down. No question. She has so much soul."

Pitt plans to follow "Seven" with "Sleepers," a grim tale about a quartet of Hell's Kitchen teens who barely survive reform school, and Paltrow graduates to a starring role in "Emma," based on the Jane Austen novel.

Says Pitt, "We'd like to work together again but who knows? We were joking around, adding up all the couples who have done stuff together, and we said, `Gee, it doesn't look good.' "

What does look good is Pitt's career. People magazine's reigning Sexiest Man Alive is being touted as the next Tom Cruise. He makes about $7 million a movie. And, in addition to "Sleepers," he'll be seen in "12 Monkeys" with Bruce Willis, "In God's Army" with Harrison Ford, and "Seven Years in Tibet."

Pitt's "Seven" co-star Morgan Freeman has no doubt that the Golden Boy is in for the long haul. "You look at Brad Pitt and you see a younger Redford," muses Freeman. "Brad's absolutely watchable. And natural. He's to the manor born."

In "Seven," which is scheduled to open next week in area theaters, Pitt and Freeman play big city cops on the trail of a serial killer who leaves his victims "enacting" one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The film is not a walk in the park by any means.

"I was talking to my mom the other night and she said, `I just saw the best movie called `Apollo 13,' " recalls Pitt. "She said, `You have to do more movies like this.' I said, `Mom, I turned that down for `Seven' and wait until you see the movie.' "

Pitt delights in bucking expectations. It's been his style ever since he dropped out of the University of Missouri two weeks shy of graduation to take a road trip to Los Angeles. "I didn't want to do what I was supposed to do," he stresses. "I looked around at people getting married and going off to their jobs. That's when I realized that I wanted to give acting a shot. And Los Angeles seemed like a good place to start."

At first Pitt bummed around Hollywood taking assorted odd jobs. He donned a chicken suit to plug a fast-food restaurant and got behind the wheel of a limousine to chauffeur Strip-o-gram artists. Work as a movie extra led to a number of TV movies. Then, Pitt lucked into "Thelma & Louise" after first-choice Billy Baldwin departed to make "Backdraft." Starring roles in "Johnny Suede," "Cool World," "A River Runs Through It," "Kalifornia" and "Interview With a Vampire" followed.

Why, with all his choices, did Pitt settle on "Seven"?

"I love movies from the '70s like `The French Connection' and that's what (director) David Fincher and I talked about during our first meeting. I was looking for something with a documentary feel. I wanted to play a character who has flaws, who has good intentions but makes mistakes. I also wanted to kill the mythic thing -- this, like, larger-than-life thing about me."

Pitt's "larger-than-life thing" may have reached its zenith in February when he was in Philadelphia shooting "12 Monkeys." Just a few months earlier, on the set of "Legends of the Fall" in Calgary, he had roamed the streets unrecognized. In Philadelphia, he never got outside his hotel room.

"Calgary was before the Tristan Ludlow Syndrome, as it will forever be known," says Pitt wistfully. "In Philly, I was holed up, trying to figure out what I was going to do in the movie. I didn't go out and about at all."

For the record, Pitt has a reputation for liking to party. It was his supposedly less-than-intense demeanor on the set of "Interview with a Vampire" that led to some tense moments with Tom Cruise, his ultra-professional co-star.

"That had nothing to do with it," insists Pitt. "I just didn't like the guy I played in `Vampire' because the movie was about being a victim. I felt like we did that movie in the dark for six months. `Seven' is dark too, but I had more fun making it. It's a dark subject matter, but for me personally, it wasn't depressing."

In other ways, "Seven" was a tougher assignment than "Interview." During one scene, Pitt slipped through the windshield of a car and severed a number of muscles in his right hand.

"When they asked me to run across these cars in the rain, I said, `No problem.' I think I might have seen too may `Mannix' episodes when I was a kid. I went right through the window of one of the cars. I thought, `I hope they got that' -- they didn't -- and I went running down this alley. I turned the corner, looked down and saw bones where you're not supposed to see bones."

Born in Shawnee, Okla., but reared in Springfield, Mo., Pitt now lives in Los Angeles. "I like to travel," he says. "but I like sitting at home too. I'm kind of a loser. I'm not too exciting."

A few other things Brad likes: his best friend and manager Cynthia Pett; the blues; reggae; Stone Temple Pilots; Elton John singing "Daniel"; dogs; authors Cormac McCarthy and Richard Ford; Brando in "Streetcar," Mike Leigh movies; "Planet of the Apes," and the expression, "That's so cheesy!"

At the top of his list of cheesy things: "Judge Dredd," his open-shirt Vanity Fair cover shot, Top 40 music, all tape recorders pointed in his direction, and people who tell him he's the biggest star in Hollywood.

"Now, they say `Brad Pitt is so hot!' But next year, those same people are the ones who will be saying, `Whatever happened to Brad Pitt?' Believe me, I'm aware of that progression."