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For fortysomethings, a Firth-rate fantasy

Let's get one thing straight right off: Colin Firth's fans are not your stereotypical teeny-boppers.

They don't stalk. They're not crude. They cringe at the thought of sending the 44-year-old British actor panties in the mail or shouting, from the back of a crowd, that they want to have his baby.

No, no. Colin Firth's serious admirers have an unfanlike dignity. They are, most of them, women of a certain age with a relish for literature, period drama, and English accents.

And many swear they have never done anything like this before, i.e. taken such an, ahem, ''interest" in a movie star.

''I don't know what it was -- and I had never -- I'm happily married," says Marsha Boyd, a 42-year-old kindergarten teacher in suburban Atlanta, attempting to describe her initial infatuation with Firth. ''It was embarrassing."

In ''Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason," the actor reprises his role as Bridget's love interest, the staid barrister Mark Darcy. You know, the one who wore the ''the reindeer jumper" to ''Una and Geoffrey Alconbury's New Year's Day Turkey Curry Buffet in Grafton Underwood," and, in the end, wrapped a half-clad Bridget in his Saville Row overcoat and kissed her passionately.

Swoon.

Or maybe not. Firth's appeal isn't quite so obvious to most of America's ''In Touch"-reading female population -- if they even know who he is.

''He's not classically handsome," says Kathy Cobbs, 52, a Norman, Okla., real estate saleswoman. ''But there's just something about him."

Instead of Miami tan, Firth is London pasty. Instead of driving a race car in his spare time, he writes short stories. Instead of cozying up to fashion models, he's happily married.

To top it off, Firth's breakout role came in a six-hour television adaptation of a 19th-century novel, which ran on the A&E network. It required the actor to wear what Jerry Seinfeld would definitely classify as a ''puffy shirt." There were no sex scenes, no swear words, and only one chaste kiss.

But in the end, the BBC production of Jane Austen's ''Pride and Prejudice," which aired here in January 1996, turned out to be one of A&E's most popular presentations ever. And for women whose tastes run more toward subtle, fully-clothed eroticism than hot tub make out scenes, ''P and P" became the ultimate in fantasy entertainment and Mr. Darcy the ultimate fantasy man.

''First of all, not only do I think it's women of a certain age who are typically attracted to Firth," says Rhea Keenan, a Firth fan and marketing research consultant in Evanston, Ill. ''I think it's women who are more intellectually oriented. The women I know who are enamored of him are readers and have this sense of . . . well-developed characters in novels."

In other words, Cobbs notes, ''We like to call him the thinking woman's sex symbol."

Firth might not be the ever-alluring bad boy (a la Hugh Grant, with whom he co-stars in ''The Edge of Reason" and with whom he is frequently compared), but Firth does possess the ability, say his fans, to ''smolder": the emotive eyes, the 6-foot stature, the tousled brown locks, the commanding British voice.

Oh, yes. He's talented, too.

As an actor, Firth ''can do more without talking than most people can do with a thousand lines of dialogue," says Mary Findlay, 37, the Vancouver-based moderator for the Firthden fanlist.

Firth fans like to think of themselves as a sorority of smart, discerning women. Hundreds of them -- most in their 30s, 40s, and 50s (and at least one in her 80s) -- frequent fanlists, such as Firthlist and Firthden, where the actor is referred to maternally as ODB (Our Dear Boy).

''We want people that are fairly educated and who want to talk about him and about ourselves and not," says Cobbs, the Firthden librarian, ''the sweaty stuff."

The women have bonded over their Firth habit, exchanging hard-to-find movies and articles, sending a group donation to a charity that Firth supports, and traveling en masse across continents to see Firth in person.

And they don't just effuse over the man's talent and ''je ne sais quoi." They also swear he's just about the most admirable actor around: a dedicated father, an activist for the rights of indigenous African tribes, a celebrity who hasn't let stardom go to his head.

''Obviously, he's dishy," says 26-year-old Emma Bellenes, who runs The Firth Factor website from her home in England. ''But it's more than that. Everything I've heard about him was just so nice. He was just this genuine bloke."

Firth, who has been acting since the early '80s, was a known commodity in Britain before ''Pride and Prejudice." And since then, roles in ''Love Actually," ''What a Girl Wants," and ''Girl With a Pearl Earring" have brought him greater recognition on this side of the Atlantic.

But his brooding portrayal of the archetypal Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, the haughty English gentleman disarmed by love, is what forever drives the Firth fandom.

In the now famous ''episode four" of six, Mr. Darcy dives into a small lake, fully clothed, after a horseback ride on his Pemberley estate. He emerges with his white shirt clinging to his chest -- sopping, vulnerable, and steamily sexy.

(Firth fans will be ecstatic to hear that ''The Edge of Reason" makes reference to the white-shirt scene not once, but twice. After all, Firth's Mark Darcy is the modern-day Mr. Darcy.)

The Firth bug is a potent one. Keenan once threw a Firth fan-club party at her home with Firth's picture on the place settings. Cobbs, in Oklahoma, boasts a license plate holder that reads ''It's a Colin Firth thing. You wouldn't understand."

And an Oprah website chat room recently was swamped with Firth fans after the announcement that Firth, Zellwegger, and Grant would be her guests in October.

The fact that Firth was relegated to supporting roles in both ''The English Patient" (as Kristin Scott Thomas's cuckolded husband) and ''Shakespeare in Love" (as Gwyneth Paltrow's jilted fiance), irks Firth fans to no end.

''We're very angry because he is so underrated," says Houston teacher Linda Waldrop, 55. ''Everything he does is better because he's in it."

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