Simon baker is cooking

LOS ANGELES — I suppose if I had Simon Baker's looks, or just his hair, I'd be the strong, silent type, too.

After all, there's really no need to advertise yourself when the ladies instantly swoon at your close-up.

"I spend 19 hours a day on the set with him and another three hours talking about him," said co-star Robin Tunney. "People stop me at the grocery store. I feel like I should have a list of answers: 'Yes, he looks like that in person.' 'Yes, he's happily married.' 'Yes, he's straight — sorry!'"

Baker, an Australian camera magnet, has starred or co-starred in a string of CBS shows — The Guardian, Smith and now The Mentalist, the highest-rated new series of the season — without having to open his mouth very much. When he speaks, it's in the seldom-raised voice of a man who knows there's a microphone picking up his words.

For a while, it seemed as if having a low profile on a network of outsize male leads was working against him. The network canceled The Guardian after three seasons. Then he played a nutty sharpshooter on Smith who whistled while he worked — in his case, killing people. CBS pulled the plug on that one after three episodes.

But network executives knew they had a good thing in Baker, and kept throwing ideas at him. Now The Mentalist is the third-biggest show on CBS, behind CSI and NCIS.

"Of the hundreds of scripts I looked at since The Guardian, I went with this one because Bruno gets it," Baker said.

That would be Bruno Heller, best known as the creator of HBO's $100 million toga party, Rome, who rose to an even greater challenge with The Mentalist: Write a crime procedural that doesn't bore viewers by looking like all the other crime procedurals.

So Heller created Patrick Jane, onetime TV psychic, now a crime-solver. A man who used to make big bucks communicating with "the other side" but now uses his powers of observation to catch suspects off guard and exploit their weaknesses to create confessions. There's nothing terribly original about The Mentalist, but it all works.

The Mentalist was such an easy sell that some people predicted last summer that it would be an out-of-the-gate hit. Still, it came as a surprise the first week of December when The Mentalist finished as the No. 1-rated show in all the land; that hadn't happened to a first-year program since Desperate Housewives four years earlier. The show drew another huge crowd after CBS scheduled it to follow the AFC Championship football game last month, and has been renewed for a second full season.

Heller said the challenge now is to keep the show in "dynamic stasis," not tinkering too much with the formula that's bringing 17.8 million viewers to the telly every week.

Still, I couldn't help but notice that Heller had resorted to one gimmick so soon in the show's first season: Patrick, who hates rules for reasons never entirely made clear has already threatened to walk out on his by-the-book boss (Tunney).

How many times, I asked, can Patrick play the "I quit" card before it gets to be tiresome?

Baker thought it a moment. "I think seven," he said. "I've threatened to quit once this year. Seven, then. One a year."

The Mentalist, a seven-year hit? You don't need to be Kreskin to tell you that Baker's probably right on the money.