SAVING GRACE. 10 tonight, TNT.

HIS NAME is Earl.

It seems to fit the folksy, rumpled angel on TNT's "Saving Grace" as well as it might the even more down-to-earth man who plays him, Leon Rippy.

The actor was in Philadelphia last week to promote the return of the series, which stars Holly Hunter as a volatile Oklahoma City police detective named Grace Hanadarko for whom Earl - a "last-chance angel" - represents God's attempt to get her attention once and for all.

Or something like that.

Truth is, I've never completely understood angels, especially the TV variety, who often seem more like social workers, or car mechanics, than they do those biblical bearers of often-uncomfortable tidings I learned about growing up.

If Earl seems a little closer to the latter, "I think that all came from [show creator] Nancy Miller," Rippy said. "She's brought up Catholic, very strong, and lost her faith for a period of years and rediscovered it with a passion. She keeps that pretty much to herself, but she's been able to release a lot of it through these scripts."

Rippy, a longtime character actor whose last TV series, HBO's "Deadwood," had him tending bar as the owner of the No. 10 Saloon, "can't believe I got this one, I really can't," he said.

"You know, look at my teeth, c'mon. I'm not going to get an angel. I'm not gonna get the girl, either," he said, laughingly pointing to his slightly disorderly mouth. "But I'm having the time of my life and I'm just so thankful."

When the part was first mentioned to him, "They said it was a second-chance angel for Holly Hunter. I said, 'You don't need to say anymore.' I said, 'That sounds great.' " It didn't hurt, either, that the series is set in Oklahoma City, where Rippy's North Carolina accent doesn't sound so out of place. "I can kind of be myself and talk like I usually do," he said.

"My wife [Carol] and I are very spiritual, but I didn't ever think I'd get a role like this. I've played so many characters in my career that had no redeeming qualities at all. I had to invent them, believing that if you can do a bad guy and make people love you, that's the key. But this one here . . . what's not to love? I mean, you're talking from the Lord," he said, laughing.

And, of course, from Miller, whom Rippy credits with seeing angels where so many others have seen villains.

"A couple of times in your career, you do an audition that's just not very good. And this was one of them," he recalled. "I read this and I went, 'This is pretty easy.' And I did it a few times and I thought I was confident and letter-perfect. And went in and opened my mouth and wasn't nothing but crap came out of it. I forgot what I was saying, and I forgot again. And my temperature is up another degree. I stopped in the middle of the audition and apologized. I said, 'I don't know what's happening.' "

He was told, "Hey, don't worry about it. It's just the dialogue."

"And I say, 'That's easy for you to say. You've got a job. I'm on this side of the table, looking for one.' But Nancy later told me, she said, 'When you walked in that door, before you ever said a word, I knew . . . In my mind's eye,' she said, 'I had a vision of Earl, when I wrote this and you were that vision come to life.' And I said, 'I'm so thankful,' " he recalled, laughing.

It is one of Earl's signature qualities that he can take anything Grace can throw at him, but Rippy, who calls Hunter "the most mesmerizing actress I've ever worked with," admitted he's sometimes a little too mesmerized.

"I'm as focused as she is, and I take my work that seriously and I feel we've got a great thing going. But I get lost in what she's doing, and all of the sudden, there's a pause. And I realize it's my turn to speak. And I try to disguise it with some clever nuance and then the next day, I'm usually instructed to pick the pace up," he said, laughing. "But it's because I'm lost in what she's doing."

And Hunter, who's also one of the show's executive producers, is doing a lot.

"To work with somebody who's that driven - she's involved in casting, she's in the editing booth every step of the way, she's the star in every scene, she's 50 years old with twin boys 2 years old . . . I watch her and I'm drained," Rippy said.

Grace isn't Earl's only charge. Another, a death row inmate named Leon Cooley (Bokeem Woodbine) whose life continues to intersect with Grace's, will be needing more and more of his attention in the next several episodes.

But does Earl have a favorite?

Rippy thinks he does, and it's Grace. "I think he admires her defiance. I think he loves that as much as he loves her heart. And Nancy at one point said, not too long ago . . . 'This is a terrific love story.' "

Teeth and all.

'Trust Me,' it's still there

Looking for "Trust Me"? With "Saving Grace" returning to Mondays, TNT's moved the ad-agency dramedy starring Eric McCormack and Tom Cavanagh to 10 p.m. Tuesdays, starting tomorrow. *

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