A Real Bud : Fox sitcom About Working-Class Pals Wears Well On Matt LeBlanc

It's "Married ... With Children," except they're not married. It's "Laverne and Shirley," except they're two guys. It's "The Odd Couple," except they're both messy.

"Vinnie and Bobby," premiering Saturday on Fox, is a buddy-buddy sitcom that's not afraid to be working class. These guys are carpenters. For them, tools are not a hobby and wealth is not an option.

Matt LeBlanc, playing the marginally brainier of the two roommates, actually was a carpenter in another life, back in Newton, Mass. LeBlanc has the kind of face on which designer stubble actually looks like he lost his razor. When he drives a truck, it seems like a habit, not a pose.

Vinnie, LeBlanc says, "is a guy who always wants to do the right thing. Have fun, but follow the Golden Rule. Always brush your teeth before you go to bed. His friend Bobby (played by Robert Torti) is the opposite. He believes in doing whatever you can get away with and what people don't know won't hurt them.

"Vinnie works construction because he wants to be able to leave his job behind when he goes home. Don't aspire. Get by. One thing he does want to do is go to night school to better himself a little."

The producers of "Vinnie and Bobby" come direct from "Married ... With Children," so don't expect much gentility. Any message? LeBlanc answers, "Have fun in life. Laugh for half an hour."

This is actually the second crack at playing Vinnie for LeBlanc, a muscular 24-year-old with puppy-dog eyes, an appealing grin and a quietly funny way of presenting himself. He was Vinnie last year in Fox's "Top of the Heap," co-starring Joseph Bologna as Vinnie's social-climbing Dad.

"We did six shows and they canceled us. My option got picked up and they did a revamp. Before, I was 'the Gracie Allen of the '90s,' one critic said. Now they told me to raise Vinnie's IQ 10 points. But the dialogue was still coming out of a dumb guy's mouth, so there had to be some adapting in the writing. There was some stress. I think we finally dialed it in pretty good."

LeBlanc brings a no-nonsense workingman's attitude to his career. His how-I-got-into-showbiz story shows the importance of both dumb luck and persistence. As he tells his story, remember those liquid brown eyes and the smile hiding among the whiskers.

"My grandfather was a carpenter and my dad's a mechanic, so that's why I chose carpentry. It's a pretty good gig. You can build things people are going to live in for a long time. They lie in bed nights and look up at the ceiling molding you put in.

"But I got ants in my pants. I thought there must be something more than swinging a hammer all my life. Some cousins of mine gave me the idea of trying modeling. I went to New York, but I found out I was too short. I'm 5-11 and you have to be 6-1. Actually, I'm not quite 5-11 but you can put that.

"On the way to the train station after finding out modeling wasn't going to pan out, I ran into this real cute girl on Park Avenue. She was on her way to audition for a soap opera and asked if I'd like to come along. I said sure. After that, she had to go see her manager and, 'Would I like to come along?' I said sure again, not thinking I'd get a manager, thinking I'd get to spend more time with this chick.

"The manager asked if I'd ever considered acting in commercials. To tell the truth, I hadn't, but I thought it sounded cool. She gave me some ad copy to read out, I guess to see if I could read. It was something about zit pads.

"I sat in the hall memorizing this stuff about zit pads, thinking, 'This is stoopid!' Then I thought, 'So what if it's stupid? I'll never see these people again. I'll give it my best shot.'

"So I went in and did it and she said 'great' and handed me a five-year contract. I went home and my stepdad broke the news that the contract meant the manager would have me by the short and curlies for five years. I decided to go for it.

"I began driving down to New York for auditions. Four hours each way for a 10-minute audition. It got to be three or four auditions a week, and I ran out of sick days and excuses. So I quit my job, sold my truck and moved to New York. I got an apartment with two stewardesses named Irene and Melanie. But it was totally platonic.

"Then the money ran out and I got a job at Fatburger and went to live in this 6-by-12 room in a hotel on 17th Street. I was there for over a year. It was very cultural. There was a junkie over here, a hooker over there and a lot of older people squeaking by on Social Security. One guy there had been Errol Flynn's stand-in once. He showed me a picture.

"But I got some work. I got some checks. It began to feel like home. My mother came and spent a weekend with me. After hearing all the normal screaming and crying all night, she begged me to come back to Newton. It was my on-the-ropes period.

"Once I got jumped walking through this druggie park. The guy didn't get my money, he got a busted-up face. He was a victim of my adrenaline, I was that petrified."

Just about the time LeBlanc had finally got down cold the best way to hold a soft-drink can, he began getting appointments to go up for TV parts. He tested for a teen show called "TV 101," got the part ("I was the jock, the comedy relief") and moved to California and did 18 shows.

Now he's done seven episodes of "Vinnie and Bobby." "We're hoping for a 22 pick-up, but aren't we all," he says. "Maybe I'm destined for greatness. Maybe 'Vinnie and Bobby' is it." Pause. Cue the grin. "I bleeping hope not."

"Vinnie and Bobby" airs Saturdays at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.

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