HIS BIG SISTER ROSANNA HAD MADE A BREAKTHROUGH in Desperately Seeking Susan the year before, but as a sophomore at L.A.'s Fairfax High School in 1986, David Arquette was still naive about acting. He tried out for the school play (an original production called The Seventh Son) only because he misunderstood when some girls he knew told him about it: He thought it was a paying gig. So after the performance, he demanded his fee from the director, drama teacher Ben Debaldo. " `This is a school play. You don't get paid,' " Arquette recalls Debaldo explaining. But Arquette did not back down. "I got really mad," he says. "The next day he wrote me a check for $100 from his own account."

Today acting really does pay for Arquette, 25, who is getting laughs as the goofy Deputy Dewey in Scream, whose box office take of more than $70 million makes it the top-grossing teen-slasher movie of all time, according to ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. The actor also stars as a hustler in the drama johns. And to think that it all began with poor Mr. Debaldo, whom Arquette repaid when he first started getting real acting jobs. "It was so mean of me to take his money," the actor says sheepishly. "This guy gave his heart and soul to that drama class."

Though he's maturing as an actor, there's still a lot of little boy in Arquette. Toys (a kid's mushroom house, big fuzzy dice) are scattered around his three-bedroom Hollywood Hills home, and one of his best pals is the former pooh-bah of postponed puberty Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman. Arquette's kookiness on the set of Scream, colleagues say, caught the eye of costar Courteney Cox. "A guy gets a go-cart [to cruise around his hotel parking lot] and a lava lamp [for his hotel room] and he's suddenly irresistible," quips director Wes Craven. But Arquette says he's just friends with Cox, seven years his senior. "I'm a little too wild for her," he says. "She deserves someone who is more together than I am."

Tongues were also wagging about his relationship with Ellen Barkin, whom he met while filming Wild Bill in 1995. Asked about dating her in Details, Arquette said, "She broke my heart," but now he insists that he and Barkin, who is 16 years older, were "just friends." He adds, "But I really cared about her."

He also cares enough to keep in touch with his own clan, which he calls "a circus family." His great-granddad, Augustus Arquette, was a vaudevillian; grandfather Cliff Arquette played the comic character Charley Weaver; his father, Lewis, 61, acted in commercials, and his mother, Mardi, 57, was onstage in New York City and Chicago. Rosanna, 37, and all of David's siblings now work in the family business: Sister Patricia, 28, starred in True Romance; brother Richmond, 32, is an actor; and brother Alexis, 27, an actor and performance artist who sometimes works in drag.

David was born on a religious commune in Winchester, Va. ("weird people, kind of lost," he says), lived in Chicago as an infant and grew up in L.A. He and his siblings performed fairy tales around the house and once sang backup for their dad on a grape juice commercial. David, barely out of diapers, pouted because he didn't get the lead vocal, but Patricia says he was "adored by everyone. He's really the peacemaker of the family. He never wanted anyone to fight. He's my little one."

Sometimes he was a wild one. In high school, while his parents were separating (they only recently filed for divorce), he began getting tattoos and adorning buildings and playgrounds with graffiti murals (he still paints "thin, sickly looking people . . . and lots of devils and angels and question marks"). After graduating Fairfax, he skipped college to hit the auditions and within months landed his first professional acting job in the Fox TV drama The Outsiders in 1990. He went on to more TV work and movies such as 1992's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and Showtime's Roadracers (1994).

That part revved him up for his latest turn, as a car thief in RPM, a James Bond-esque Euro-caper shot in Nice, France. "Fast cars, beautiful women--I'm having fun with it," he says, taking a break in a cafe during the filming. But Arquette is preoccupied. Finished with the interview, he pops up and heads off to a shop where he has spotted a handmade porcelain clown doll. "I have always wanted to be a clown," he declares. "A partner is what I really want in the world," he has said. But for now a new toy will do just fine.


-- CATHY NOLAN in Nice and MARK BALLON and KEN BAKER in Los Angeles