With his deep dimples and blinding smile, Mario Lopez quick-stepped his way onto millions of TV screens as a finalist in the hit show "Dancing With the Stars."
Three-time Super Bowl champion Emmitt Smith went home with the mirror ball trophy, but Lopez scored a whole new set of fans, who can now see him make his Broadway debut in a revival of "A Chorus Line."
"I haven't been in a play since the sixth grade, and it was, like, a Christmas play and I was ... a tree in the corner! So this is a big jump," the 34-year-old says.
It was the hunky, muscular actor's appearance on "Dancing With the Stars" that grabbed the attention of Bob Avian, who directs "A Chorus Line." Avian cast Lopez — known to an entire generation as A.C. Slater from TV's "Saved by the Bell" — as demanding director Zach in the hit revival that has been running since October 2006 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
"It was a total fluke," Avian said. "We were dealing with his agent and talking about another actor, and the agent brought up Mario's name, and I jumped on it. I went, ‘Oh my God, Mario Lopez! What a great idea! I wonder if he'd be interested?' And then one thing led to another, and he was interested. You know, none of us had ever thought of him for the part because he's not in the theatrical sphere, so to speak."
Avian had seen Lopez dance on "Dancing With the Stars," and thought "he was a wonderful dancer," he said.
"And I'd seen his ... television career and I thought, ‘I'm going to take the chance. I'm not even going to audition him. And I think he's a perfect fit.'"
Lopez arrived at an old theater district hangout, Joe Allen, straight from rehearsal for an interview with The Associated Press. He was casually dressed in a headband and sweats that did not hide the great definition of his arms and chest. He devoured a plate of chicken and greens and talked excitedly about his stage debut.
"It's going to be exhilarating," he enthused.
"A Chorus Line" opened on Broadway in 1975, winning a Tony Award for best musical and the Pulitzer Prize, and running for more than 6,000 performances. The new revival largely preserves the vision of creator Michael Bennett, who taped interviews with real dancers to enrich his story about a group of performers auditioning for eight spots in a Broadway musical.
Lopez said the show-within-show wasn't easy to walk into.
"It's like I'm ... cramming for a midterm," he said. "Most people get ... four or six weeks to study. I got two (weeks) to learn a whole thing. ... It's a little overwhelming."
Lopez has been wearing a hodgepodge of hats: He's a host for the syndicated entertainment TV show "Extra" and MTV's "America's Best Dance Crew." He's producing a pilot for Lifetime called "Salsa in the City," which he describes as "a docu-soap sort of like `The Hills' but set in the salsa world." He's an author of a new book, "Mario Lopez's Knockout Fitness," due out in May.
He said he previously turned down roles in "Chicago" and "The Producers" because of scheduling conflicts. When "A Chorus Line" came calling, he took the opportunity: "Timing wise, this seemed to work out. ... Plus, I was a big fan of the play, it being an iconic play (with) a lot of dancing."
Avian, who called Lopez the "most gracious actor" with whom he's ever worked, said he expanded his role to add extra stage time.
"Where many times (Zach is) buried near the wings, I'm putting him more center stage. ... And I'm having him dance in the opening number, which this director doesn't do," he said.
Avian said that Lopez brings a "macho swagger" to the character, who asks the dancers to tell their life stories and reveal why they want to dance. The part was originated by actor Robert LuPone, brother of Broadway diva Patti LuPone.
"He has natural authority and natural command of the stage, and he's very macho. ... You know, we've always had the part played by a very articulate kind of man," he said. "Mario's quite different than that, and he's got the girls all excited."
Lopez was nervous to meet the "Chorus" company, he said. "It's a strong ensemble cast and you think, 'Oh, are the people going to be cool? ... Are they going to think I'm a dork?' So, you know, I didn't want to disrupt their flow at all."
As a boy growing up in Southern California, Lopez studied dance. Rehearsals for the show were more intense than learning new steps for the TV dance competition.
"This is more serious. I was, like, messing around and having fun on ‘Dancing With the Stars,'" he said.
But he gets a real kick out of the show and likes that it's a period piece.
"Takes place in 1975, so I got some cool mustard tight pants with a chocolate shirt with a big collar," he said, grinning. "It's funny."