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UltimateTV Who's Hot -- James Franco "Freaks and Geeks"

James Franco "Freaks and Geeks"
By Jessica Wallensfels, UltimateTV

James Franco looks like death micro-waved. At 10 in the morning, the star ''Freaks and Geeks'' (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC) is sweating profusely, paler than tissue paper, and holding a paper cup of Chinese soup absent-mindedly in his right hand. But even under the weather, Franco is
one handsome actor. Where other guys' cheekbones are sculpted, Franco's appear to have been scraped out by a dentist's plaque-removing tool.

Franco puts his devilish good looks to work as ''Freaks and Geeks''' resident bad boy Daniel. ''They don't want it to be another cool kid, Franco says about his character. ''They really just wanna display all our faults out there in
the open and just make them more real people, not some icon. Even though I's for the best not to go towards the 'cool guy'...When they write stuff that makes you look so, like you're full of sometimes it's hard. You know, 'cause you wanna be redeemed and everything. But they don't redeem you on this show.'' Franco may be used to playing a ne'er-do-well, but he's new at playing a well-rounded one.

Franco's 21-year ride to TV stardom has been alternately harrowing and hilarious, and he's more than willing to tell all, once he warms to the idea of being awake. He'll tell you about his ex-Mr. Universe friend from Michigan who became obsessed with Jewel when dreams of acting didn't pan out. He'll tell you about the odd picture of Marlon Brando that inspired him to keep acting when he was a disgruntled cafeteria worker at UCLA. He'll tell you about picking up a ''cute little girl'' at the drive-thru window while slinging burgers at McDonald's. It all started in Palo Alto, California, where his 7th grade girlfriend almost ruined acting for Franco. He'd co-written and starred in a play (about golf) when she voted against him in a drama competition. He'd get back on the acting horse in high school, seeking revenge on a (different) girlfriend.

A native of Palo Alto, Calif., Franco hit the UCLA campus at age 18 where he
enrolled as an English major. He soon dropped out to study at Playhouse West, a Los Angeles acting academy. He was, officially, homeless. ''When I left UCLA I actually didn't have a home. I'd travel from friend to friend...sleep in my car, sleep on the docks, underneath the docks.'' One couch-surfing stint had Franco holed up in deep Hollywood, across the street from Mann's Chinese Theater, where local unsavories ''would be shouting drug deals to each other...bums would be pulling their girlfriends across the parking lot.'' Not to mention the ''two insane roommates, who'd like, bash each other's cars when they got in fights.'' After walking off the UCLA cafeteria job, Franco headed for the golden arches, where the drive-thru window was all the stage he needed to showcase his talents.

''I picked up girls, got in fights,'' Franco says easily. ''If I didn't take their order right, people would call me out to the parking lot...I had a club for my steering wheel, so I carried that with me...I used to do accents too,'' Franco offers.''I' doing an Italian accent or something. And it would be like, really bad. And [girls] would be like, 'Oh, I'm taking Italian, can you give me lessons?'''

After landing an agent, Franco got a gig on ''Pacific Blue,'' then landed a Pizza Hut commercial which lead to a pilot and, finally, the role as a Trans-Am driving, class-cutting stud for ''Freaks and Geeks.'' ''They weren't expecting me to wrap myself around the character,'' Franco says of his introduction to the project. ''They were gonna get a bunch of actors that they liked and arrange all the scenarios around those people.'' Good thing for Franco: Daniel was originally conceived to be played by a Latino. When he's not acting, you'll find Franco spray-painting giant canvases, or banging
out screenplays, or apprenticing under 'Freaks' director Lesli Glatter. He also has some feature film work on tap, including a modern-day adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac opposite Marla Sokoloff. Franco warns, ''I'm not like the Christian in the book, who's sort of just naive and tongue tied, I'm this malicious doofus who can't win over an intelligent girl.'' Or, you might be able to hunt him down at McDonald's. ''I go back, cause it's right by my house,'' Franco admits with a big smile. ''So whenever I want to feel good...I drive through the McDonald's parking lot.''

"Freaks and Geeks" airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

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