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Breakout:'Smallville' star Tom Welling
By Robert Bianco, USA TODAY

Who's hot? Tom Welling

Why now? He makes his TV star debut today as high school secret-hero Clark Kent in WB's reinterpretation of the Superboy story, Smallville.

The buzz: Began in earnest the instant WB plastered his photo bare-chested and with a big red "S" painted across his torso on billboards and buses. The show's three Superboy rules apparently are no flights, no tights and, as often as possible, no shirts.

If Tom Welling isn't the unassuming, soft-spoken nice guy he seems, he's one super actor.

He answers questions thoughtfully and politely and calls the reporter "sir," until he's asked to stop. He speaks fondly of his real father and his new TV dad, John Schneider. ("He and I were just instant friends.") He seems more like the Smallville-raised Clark than a 24-year-old rising L.A. star.

Then again, stardom is still new to him. Welling came to Los Angeles from Upstate New York with little acting experience, and within months landed a six-episode stint as Amy's boy-hunk boyfriend on CBS' Judging Amy. The role gained him attention, but nothing like the teen-idol status that may await him as the star of a WB series.

"I'm taking it day by day and just going with the flow. It's different."

It also has its drawbacks. As a superhero, he can't gain weight. He can't play basketball, his favorite sport, because he can't risk being injured. ("What would happen if I got a black eye?") He can't spend too much time in the sun, because the producers haven't decided whether Superboy can tan.

And while they are sure Superboy doesn't suffer from the cold, Welling does. Like when he was filming that shirtless scene depicted in the poster until 3 a.m. "Everybody's got jackets and hats on, and I'm in my underwear."Being impervious to the weather would be nice, but Welling says it's not the super-power he'd pick. "I'd like not to be able to be hurt. I wouldn't mind having the super speed. But you'd be all alone. You wouldn't have a friend to run with at Mach speed."

Welling says he doesn't dwell on such super things, though he knows others do. There are cultists out there who have read every Superman and Superboy comic book and can trace every detail of Clark Kent's life through every media incarnation. Welling just doesn't happen to be one of them. He says he has done no research for the role other than demanding to be Superman two Halloweens in a row when he was 4 and 5.

And, of course, he went through high school. "I wasn't the most popular guy. I was just normal, I guess."He does know, however, that the role of Clark Kent has not always been kind to actors, who find themselves trapped afterward by the public's image of them as superheroes. "My dad told me, you work as hard as you can, and the people who should know what you can do will know."

Away from the set, Welling says he has a "very special lady" in his life, but he won't say who. "I've chosen to be in this public position and she hasn't, so I'm going to try to respect her." And while he hasn't spent much time yet in the Hollywood social scene, there are a few people he's looking forward to meeting.

Like who? "Bob Saget. He seems like a great guy."

You don't get more unassuming than that.