As he tells it, Bradley Cooper in 1999 is just another awestruck theater student in the audience of James Lipton's interview show Inside the Actors Studio.

Then the hunk with the laser-blue eyes seizes the chance to ask a question of Robert De Niro, his idol, his lodestar, the guy who inspired him to be an actor. De Niro tells him it's a good one. It exceeds Cooper's wildest dreams.

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Considering what happens next, those dreams are pretty tame.

In Limitless, opening Friday, Cooper, the heartthrob from the Philly burbs best known for The Hangover, not only holds his own opposite De Niro, but also in two scenes his character wipes the carpet with his idol's.

The dark-comic thriller stars Cooper as Eddie Morra, a writer who gets hooked to a drug that lets him use 100 percent of his brainpower. Before long, Eddie gets the attention of a Wall Street titan (De Niro), the Russian mafia, and some long-stemmed socialites. Given the spectrum of Cooper's performance, not only is Limitless the title of the movie, it's also the career forecast for a certain 36-year-old from Rydal.

As a student he wasn't exactly stalking De Niro, Cooper says with a laugh during an interview Monday in the conference room of WMMR. But the Four Degrees of Robert De Niro is one way to tell his story.

See the 11-year-old Rydal Elementary schooler who watches Raging Bull and The Elephant Man on Prism cable in his parents' bedroom, and decides to pursue acting as a career.

Fast-forward to the apprentice who asks Mr. "You-Talkin'-to-Me?" about his technique in Awakenings at the Actors Studio taping.

Enter, screen left, the journeyman, riding the bounce from Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, who sends De Niro a homemade audition tape to get cast in the actor/director's Everybody's Fine. (The tape earns Cooper a brief audience with the monosyllabic mumbler, who tells him, "Not gonna happen," and then dismisses him.)

Behold the actor infamously caught between a tiger and Mike Tyson in The Hangover and between Jennifer Connelly and Scarlett Johansson in He's Just Not That Into You. This player gets the lead in Limitless, a part coveted by Heath Ledger and Shia LaBeouf, and billed above De Niro.

Wait, it gets sweeter.

Cooper and the laconic actor become peers, and more. During production, much of it shot in Center City Philadelphia (doubling for Midtown Manhattan), "we send each other mozzarella every day."

"I've been so fortunate to work with him," says Cooper, who can't quite grok that though he's lost an idol, he's gained a friend.

Rare is the actor who looks better in person than on screen, but Cooper is that uncommon guy. He's very present, a good quality in an actor and a man.

At 'MMR Monday morning as he charms Preston & Steve, a flock of young female interns coo outside the studio. "You'd think there was a Beatle here," a producer quips. The joke of Limitless is that this 6-foot-2 Adonis would need the help of drugs to be catnip to women.

Cooper grew up in a cabbage/cavatelli family, that is to say, Irish-Italian, just north of Philadelphia on the Jenkintown/Rydal line. He is the younger child and only son of Gloria Campano Cooper, a homemaker, and the late Charlie Cooper, a Merrill Lynch stockbroker who passed away in January at 71.

"Dad was a film buff who showed me movies like Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now," Cooper recalls. Still mourning his father (for whom he arranged a cameo in The A-Team), he is grateful that Dad lived to see his success.

Growing up, the younger Cooper "practically lived" at the Eric Baederwood movie theater. "I loved what films did to me emotionally." Emotional is the operative word. Recently, he told an interviewer that he grew up in an environment "where being emotional was not something that was seen as honorable."

Movies let him go there. They took the self-described "shy kid" out of himself. If watching De Niro loosened the tight lid that was the pubescent Bradley Cooper, Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt opened him up. "I was watching The Elephant Man when I was 11," Cooper recalls. Something clicked.

"When I saw Treves" - Hopkins, the Victorian surgeon who sees the humanity in disfigured sideshow freak John Merrick - "look at Merrick, I thought, 'I want to do that.' It felt wonderful knowing what I wanted to do."

He deeply identified with the sideshow freak: "I felt that Merrick and I were so similar. The way we both hold one hip higher." Cooper's thesis project at the Actors Studio was on Merrick and Bernard Pomerance's play The Elephant Man.

The fledgling actor played the role of Inspector Fix in the Rydal Elementary production of Around the World in 80 Days. But in high school, the stagestruck youth had stage fright. "I didn't do any acting when I was at Germantown Academy - probably more out of fear than anything else."

"Fortunately, I always had a lot of love from my family and was blessed with great friends." One of them, Brian Klugman, the screenwriter of TRON: Legacy, has completed a script called The Words in which the actor hopes to star.

After transferring from Villanova University to Georgetown, Cooper appeared in a Hoya production of Dangerous Liaisons and was a member of the medal-winning crew team. He enrolled at the Actors Studio, where while a student he won parts as Carrie's man candy in Sex and the City and as a closeted camp counselor in Wet Hot American Summer (2001). Recurring roles on television's Alias and Nip/Tuck followed.  

Unlike the parade of sharks and instigators and adulterers he so incisively plays, Cooper is without visible cockiness or swagger. He is soft-spoken and unassuming, the opposite of Eddie Morra, who announces, "I don't have delusions of grandeur, I have a recipe for it!"

Despite what he obliquely references as his "history with chemicals," if he had a chance to take NZT, the drug that makes Eddie omnipotent, Cooper says, "In a heartbeat."

Actors speak of their instrument, of how to tune face and body to express emotion. Cooper relies on his translucent eyes, both to disarm and to discomfit.

The eyes beam when he talks about food. Friends describe him as a terrific cook and a prodigious eater. But, he confesses, he has been too busy working (he made Limitless and The Hangover 2, which he refers to as "the Apocalypse Now of comedy," back-to-back last year) to spend time in the kitchen.

The eyes beam when he describes his best date: "One with a lot of laughter, where I'm amazed at how relaxed I am, where I have a sense of time changing."

But ask after actress Renée Zellweger, with whom he has kept company for nearly two years, and it's as if the eyes have retractable steel doors that slam shut. Graciously, but firmly, he says, "I can't answer that."

Monday marks another milestone on the road to his own personal Cooperstown: He is the first graduate from the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University to be invited as James Lipton's guest on Inside the Actors Studio. (It will be shown at 7 p.m. on Bravo.)

If you watch, note that in the audience are Cooper's mother, Gloria, and Zellweger, who looks like a younger version of her.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/.