Playing Reba McEntire's estranged husband, Brock Hart, on the country singer's self-titled WB sitcom has put Christopher Rich in the hot seat. But he would be the last person to complain: He's doing a lot less squirming now than he was in the 1980s, during his five-year run as hustler Sandy Cory on the daytime drama Another World.

"The soaps were just insanely popular," he tells TV Guide Online. "I went down to open a mall in Alexandria, Va., and [they] expected 500 people, but 5,000 people showed up.

"I couldn't get on or off the stage," he continues. "It was just like Elvis Presley — every time I moved my sunglasses, a sigh would ripple through the audience. It was a sight I was not prepared to deal with. It was kind of fun — a little bit — but mostly it made me incredibly uncomfortable."

Even weirder, fans of Rich's soap-stud alter ego seemed to have a difficult time differentiating him from his on-screen counterpart. "They come up and tell you things about storylines that are happening on your show that you are, of course, well aware of," he recalls, "but they want to protect you. They would record the audio off the show [then send me cassette tapes] and say, 'See? I told you that b**** was talking about you.'"

Luckily, those days are long passed for the 48-year-old, who rose to post-suds celebrity with his casting as "male blond bimbo" Miller Redfield on Murphy Brown. "The deeper into primetime you get," he observes, relieved, "the more people realize you are not your character."

That said, the actor does feel a certain kinship with — and protectiveness of — his Reba role. As such, the onetime law-school hopeful is only too eager to mount a defense for Brock. "It was a natural thing for me," he explains, "to be an advocate for this guy."

Besides, he adds, "Brock doesn't approach the world in a bad way — he's a flawed character. And I think just because you have character flaws doesn't mean you can't also have some genuine love for the world."

Ah, but will Brock ever let that affection manifest itself? As Rich might have intoned on Another World, tune in tomorrow.