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George Lopez, sitcom are the picture of health

Actor says kidney transplant has made him a better man
/ Source: The Associated Press

When George Lopez received a new kidney this year to replace his failing ones, it didn’t just restore him to good health. The transplant ended up enriching his comedy, he says, not to mention making him a better man.

It’s also given an energy boost to his ABC series, “George Lopez,” although illness isn’t a theme in the life of the fictional George, a working-class plant manager.

“I’m more connected. I go to the writing room,” Lopez said. “We got Antonio (Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa) on the show. ... I went to the writers and pitched it, and I wouldn’t have done that before. I would have been home asleep.”

Lopez isn’t exaggerating. A kidney condition, caused by a genetic defect of the urinary tract, had become so debilitating that he was in bed 12 hours a day and could barely drag himself to the studio or focus on his wife, Ann, and their daughter.

“When I left the house in the morning, I’d feel like people do at the end of the day when they come home thinking, ‘God, I’m glad that day’s over,”’ Lopez said.

Kept working, hid illnessHe kept working even as his condition worsened, filming a Showtime comedy special, “George Lopez: Why You Crying?” — just out on DVD — and writing his 2004 autobiography (also titled “Why You Crying?”, a catch phrase from his difficult childhood).

Lopez kept his illness secret to avoid being cast as the “sick guy” in an industry that tends to lack sympathy for the weak. “In this business I’m in, there’s not an incredible amount of loyalty,” he said.

He put on a comedy game face on the show’s set, keeping up appearances for the cast and crew. As a cover, he told them he was anemic.

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“I think I joked more when I was ill, but it was all false. It was all adrenaline-based. Now I’m actually more into the work and I’m not as fun-loving as when I was sick. That was all fake,” he said.

No need anymore for pretense. Rehearsing an episode for the series’ fourth full season (it debuted in March 2002 with an abbreviated two-month run), Lopez moved easily between his duties as star and executive producer. He’s slimmed down, part of the effort to safeguard his newfound vitality.

“George Lopez,” which premiered this season as the top-rated show in its new 8 p.m. EDT Wednesday time slot, is even providing coattails for newcomer “Freddie” (8:30 p.m. EDT) starring Freddie Prinze Jr.

(It irks Lopez that the sitcoms, both starring Hispanics, have been referred to as a “Latino block”: “If you had ‘Yes, Dear’ and ‘Still Standing,’ they wouldn’t call that ‘the Anglo-Saxon hour.’ It tells you where we are, that we still categorize everything by color when content and funny and ‘I like this show’ is what counts.”)

Lopez’s wife is behind his productivity. As his kidney function dwindled, Ann Lopez offered to serve as donor without hesitation. Tests showed she was a suitable match and, after the successful transplant last spring, word quickly got out among friends and acquaintances.

“Larry David said to me, ‘I would have gotten a kidney from anybody but my wife. I would never go there,’ Lopez said, recalling his conversation with the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star.

“Sam Jackson called and left a very Sam Jackson message: ’You’re a strong guy, you didn’t tell anybody. I respect that, man,”’ Lopez said with a grin.

Within two weeks, the golf fanatic was back on the course with buddies Cheech Marin and Andy Garcia, claiming that his surgery incision forced him into a stance that improved his game.

Lopez puts all joking aside when he talks about his wife’s devoted act.

“I told her if it was the other way around I’d do it for her. I (joke) a lot in life, make fun of people; that’s how I get my love across. But when I told her that I really meant it,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m being as truthful as I’ve ever been in my life.”’

‘Poured out my heart’Honesty is the underpinning for Lopez’s comedy. He draws heavily on painful memories of youth in his standup routine and on the series. Abandoned by his parents, he was raised by a tough, acid-tongued grandmother, the model for his sitcom mom, Benny (Belita Moreno).

“With this show, I’ve poured out my heart,” Lopez told The Associated Press. “I’ve cried out there, real tears, about my childhood and where I came from, in front of strangers who just happened to be at City Walk (a nearby entertainment center) or called in for tickets.”

He said he has yet to experience that same release with his grandmother; they don’t discuss the past.

Viewers shouldn’t expect a softer approach to the fictional mother-son relationship because of his brush with mortality, Lopez cautioned.

“If anything, I think there’s more to uncover. And a healthier George just means we’re going to get more jokes in,” he said. He plans to focus on another character, an estranged half-sister, mirroring another difficult real-life relationship.

Lopez said his stage routine more directly reflects his health crisis. The best comedy goes beyond a barrage of punchlines, he said, as exemplified by heavyweights like Richard Pryor and George Carlin.

“I wanted it to be about something,” he said of his humor. “So it became about prevention of illness and caring for people and how we react when things go bad.”

He’s also getting the message out about kidney disease as a spokesman for the National Kidney Foundation, with Ann Lopez joining him.

Lopez knows his priorities.

“It’s funny to see all this (success) and still think the best thing that’s ever happened to me was meeting Ann and having her love me, even when I was trying to figure out how to love someone. ... As much as I love the show and golf and cars, a woman falling in love with who I was and who I could be was absolutely the best thing that ever happened.”