For a guy who has won three Tony Awards, Boyd Gaines is self-effacing in the extreme. Speaking by telephone one afternoon while his two-year-old daughter, Leslie, is napping, the star of Contact and the winner of the 2000 Tony for Featured Actor in a Musical pooh-poohs every effort to portray his talent as unique. When it's suggested that he could join Audra McDonald in a "Triple Tonys" club, he demurs, "I don't think I'm in her league." Asked if he has to work at being a bad dancer after almost 300 performances of Contact, he says, "Never--dancing poorly comes second nature to me." The irony of having won two of his Tonys for musicals isn't lost on Gaines, either: "It's ironic to me, certainly, for someone whose [musical] talents are so limited." (For the record, he expected Stephen Spinella of The Dead to win this year.)

Well, if Boyd Gaines won't brag on himself, we'll do it for him. This Atlanta-born, Juilliard-trained actor excels at bringing humanity and a sense of longing to the characters he plays. As Peter Patrone in The Heidi Chronicles (Tony #1, 1989), Gaines joined Joan Allen to paint a touching portrait of male-female friendship. As Georg Nowack in the Roundabout's revival of She Loves Me (Tony #2, 1994), he and Judy Kuhn made a deliciously awkward pair of made-for-each-other shop clerks. And as Michael Wiley in Contact (Tony #3, 2000) Gaines embodies the pain of a midlife crisis as he follows the specter of Deborah Yates (a.k.a. the Girl in the Yellow Dress) into a downtown dance club.

"My agent called and said that Susan Stroman had asked if I wanted to do this," Gaines says of Contact, which was planned as a limited-run "dance play" at Lincoln Center's Off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse Theater, but rode its rave reviews to a Best Musical Tony and a sellout run upstairs at the Vivian Beaumont. "I read the outline and said, 'Gee, this sounds fascinating, but I think they need a dancer.'" No, Stroman insisted, what she needed was an actor, and Gaines couldn't resist the challenge. "How many chances am I going to get to be in a dance piece? One! So, as afraid as I might be, I had to do it."

Fear is a recurrent theme in Gaines' conversation, particularly when he talks about his current character, a man whose success in the advertising business can't fill the emptiness he feels when he comes home alone from yet another awards dinner. "I know so many people like this, don't you?" the actor says, describing Michael as "single-minded about success. The majority of people who live in New York are here because they want to achieve. They're here to work, and sometimes the work becomes an excuse or a way not to deal with things that are really important. He's afraid of rejection, and I can really identify with that because I'm a very fearful person."

Fearful of...? "I'm afraid of taking chances and afraid of being humiliated," Gaines says, slowly. "Most actors are, I think. Acting is a refined form of masochism--I'm serious!" If so, stage actors must be the most masochistic of all, presenting themselves for instant approval eight times a week. "I'm actually more afraid and more self-conscious in front of a camera than I am on stage," says Gaines, who actually broke into film 20 years ago as an acting student who ends up as a waiter in Fame. TV fans will also remember Gaines as Valerie Bertinelli's dental student husband, Mark, in One Day at a Time. Gaines' other New York stage credits range from The Comedy of Errors in Central Park (where he met Leslie's mom, Kathleen McNenny) to The Show Off and Cabaret for the Roundabout. "I've had an unusual career in that I've dabbled in virtually every theatrical environment," he says. "I'm very lucky that way."

Not that his Tonys have opened any doors: "The first time I won," he says, "I thought the Tony might transform my career in some way, but it didn't. Certainly after three, I don't anticipate my career changing at all. Were I a star, I might be able to say, 'I'd like to do this for a while,' but like most working actors, I'm a migrant laborer. I go where the work is."

Surely Gaines considers himself a star of the New York theater. "Not really," he says. "I don't sell tickets--and that's really what makes a star. Bernadette Peters is a star. Audra McDonald, Victor Garber, Nathan Lane, Mandy Patinkin--I'm leaving out tons of people, but there are actors whose presence on the marquee sells tickets. This year, with True West, we had two wonderful actors, Philip Hoffman and John Reilly, doing a play. At the various Tony functions, I noticed that the press swarmed around them because their film work is so visible. That's not to say they didn't deserve it--they certainly did--but the attention tends to go to the more recognizable folks."

Gaines adds that he doesn't mind remaining relatively anonymous himself. "Actually, it's kind of great for me because you don't have to deal with all the crap [that comes with fame]. I live a fairly normal, middle-class life, except for the fact that I work in the theater at night. That's unusual, but it's just an occupation like any other."

Away from the stage, Gaines dotes on Leslie, who will enter nursery school this fall. After pausing to tell McNenny "You look great!" as she leaves for an audition, he muses on the power of parenthood. "Everyone says that it provides a perspective on life that you can't get any other way, and that's true. It also makes your life infinitely harder than it was before, but the good far outweighs the bad."

The success of Contact has left Gaines with a huge appreciation for Yates ("an amazing talent and a great gal") and the other dancers with whom he shares the stage. "This has been a very difficult show," he says. "Most big roles tend to be like running a marathon. This is more like sprinting--it's going as fast as you can for an hour and 10 minutes, which can be frustrating when you don't feel that you're on top of your game. It's a tremendous challenge."

No wonder Gaines doesn't spend time worrying about his next role. "My fantasies," he says, "are all about a vacation."