You can call him Chris

Special to The Times

Ashton Kutcher may look like a corn-fed pretty boy but he comes from a place that prides itself on turning out tough guys. And if it weren't for some extraordinary breaks, he might still be Chris Kutcher, hanging out with the farmers and factory workers in this isolated, rural town (population 100) where he grew up.

On the surface, the story of how Chris became Ashton -- rocketing from the cornfields to the catwalks to his current perch in the Hollywood Hills as the town's latest hunk-turned-baby mogul -- sounds like "Green Acres" in reverse.

"Guys around here are supposed to be farmers and badasses," says Ryan Fell, 20, a local bartender who attended the same small high school as Kutcher. "They're not supposed to be models and actors. Chris still takes a lot of a lot of (flak) for that."

His former high school principal agrees. "Modeling is not what our men do," says Tom McDonald, who also is the stepfather of Kutcher's high school sweetheart. "But I guess you make it any way you can. He's one in a million. No one from around here has made it like he has."

Kutcher, 25, the son of two one-time factory workers, switched to his middle name when he became a model. He has just signed a new contract worth a reported $5 million to remain on Fox's "That '70s Show" through 2005. On Oct. 26, he starts a second season as host and co-creator of MTV's hit hidden-camera series "Punk'd" and has four new movies coming up, including "My Boss's Daughter," a romantic comedy with Tara Reid that opens Aug. 22, and a film to be directed by Cameron Crowe called "Elizabethtown." Kutcher also is positioning himself off-camera as a powerhouse producer. His production company, Katalyst, is selling five new TV shows to the networks and developing six new feature films, according to his partner, Jason Goldberg. And the L.A. restaurant Dolce, in which Kutcher is an investor, seems to be thriving.

Kutcher unquestionably has been lucky (he was offered roles in two new TV shows the first day he came to L.A.), but he also by all accounts has a natural acting ability and entrepreneurial streak. Some actors make it big in a TV show, then try to cross over into movies and fizzle out, like Luke Perry from "Beverly Hills, 90210" or James Van Der Beek from "Dawson's Creek." But Kutcher is doing all he can to transcend the flavor-of-the-month curse. His romance with 40-year-old Demi Moore has gotten him the most attention, and he's probably gotten some free career advice from his nouveau Rat Pack pal P. Diddy. But Kutcher's real secret weapon may be his quite calculating sense of how to craft his own image.

"It's easy to get pigeonholed in this town," says partner Goldberg, 32. "But we had a very definite objective. We were on a mission to let the world know who he is. He is more than just charismatic. 'Punk'd' is what really put him over the top. He is the audience; he thinks like those people. But we're very clear on what he will and will not do. We've had a lot of money thrown at us for various projects that we've turned down. This way we've been able to control his career."

Kutcher and his publicists tried to postpone this story because the timing did not suit them; they wanted it to run in January in advance of the February release of "The Butterfly Effect," in which Kutcher is both star and co-executive producer. Though Kutcher was not well known until he began dating Moore this spring, he already is turning down the kind of press most young actors would covet. He did not participate in a coming Details magazine cover story. He also declined to be interviewed for this article.

Inspired by fraternal twin

Some of his old friends and acquaintances, to whom he always will be "Chris," believe the source of some of his drive and determination has been overlooked in the flurry of glossy magazine stories focusing on Kutcher and Moore. They say that Kutcher's relationship with his fraternal twin brother, who has been less fortunate in life, serves as much of his inspiration. "My brother is my hero," he said in a 2001 interview.

Michael Kutcher, born five minutes after Christopher Ashton Kutcher, had mild cerebral palsy at birth and endured numerous health problems and surgical procedures, culminating in a heart transplant when he was 13. He lives in a modest apartment in Cedar Rapids and recently left his job as a head bank teller at a local credit union to work at an insurance company across the street.

"I am very proud of my brother," Michael Kutcher says.

"Mike's more timid and quiet," says Joy Janda Curfman, 26, who attended Clear Creek Amana High School with the Kutcher brothers and was especially close to Michael. "What Chris has, Mike lacks. I think Chris has always had some guilt about that. Chris was always the class clown, he wanted a lot of attention, and he got it. He always acted off the wall and did crazy stuff."

Kutcher was known as a prankster well before his "Punk'd" days and in a Rolling Stone article in May was candid about his arrest and conviction on third-degree burglary charges for breaking into his high school late in his senior year to steal a test. It still makes for a good story back in Homestead. Principal McDonald and his stepdaughter were "shocked," the principal says, especially since the incident took place right after Kutcher had been at their house.

"Chris was a brilliant student," McDonald says. "He didn't need to do it. His excuse was he was stealing it for his cousin. We felt a little betrayed, but he's a great kid so we forgave him."

Curfman believes Kutcher's antics hid a deep concern about his brother.

"Chris always had to worry about his brother and he worried for his family," she says. "His family went through some very scary stuff when Mike had his heart transplant. Chris always had Mike's back, he protected him. By clowning around Chris lightened the mood around his brother and took the attention off him. In some ways, he's still doing it."

The Kutcher twins and their older sister, Tausha, 28, moved from Cedar Rapids to Homestead with their mother after their parents divorced when they were 14.

Homestead is part of the "Amana colonies," seven villages located in an area 15 miles south of Cedar Rapids that was settled by the Community of True Inspiration, a communal German religious group, beginning in 1855. . Not everyone in the villages follows the Amana faith, but some residents say the area, in the rolling hills of eastern Iowa, has retained an insular quality and the locals can be suspicious of strangers. The Kutchers are not Amanas, but Ashton's father was born in the area, and many of his relatives live nearby.

"The people around here can be standoffish," says Richard Lee, who owns Zuber's restaurant in Homestead and grew up in a neighboring town. "They call anyone who didn't grow up here 'the outsiders.' "

Some locals are so protective of Kutcher that, at one point, someone tipped off Kutcher's mother that I was at a bar asking questions about her son and she telephoned the bar to complain. In a scene that could be a bad outtake from Kutcher's MTV hit "Punk'd," the bar manager abruptly flew into a rage, threw my notebook across the bar, escorted me to the door and told me "to get out of town."

Kutcher's mother, Diane Portwood, who strongly resembles her son, is matter-of-fact about her dislike of the press attention. She lives with her second husband, a construction worker, in a small tract house in the middle of a cornfield on a dirt road here. In the driveway sits the Ford Explorer that, according to the local car dealer, was Ashton's present to her this past Mother's Day. "They still come up day and night and knock on the door," she says, during a brief discussion at her house before the incident at the bar. "I see them peeking through the front windows. It's gotten out of control."

His world isn't theirs

Some of the people Kutcher left behind have mixed feelings about his fame, mainly because it is so unfamiliar to them. Many graduates of Clear Creek Amana High School stay close to home, like those who hang out at the Alibi bar in the tiny town of Oxford, downing shots of grape Puckers and playing the German card game euchre. Typically the men work on farms, as laborers, in the nearby Quaker Oats factory or at General Mills, and the women marry young.

"Sometimes I see him on a magazine cover and I get a little jealous," says Casey Nichols, 20, who works two jobs as a waitress and a bartender.

Nichols, who attended the same high school as Kutcher, says she knew Ashton slightly but never met his twin brother. "It's like he's flying first class and I'm always going to be in coach. But sometimes it's just funny. I remember seeing some pictures of him modeling underwear or something and it was like, whoa!"

"I didn't really even know there were male models," says Rex Bryant, 26, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound construction worker who says he played football with Kutcher in high school. "I don't read a lot of fashion magazines, if you know what I mean."

Victoria Stewart, 22, who attended high school with Kutcher, had a shot at a modeling career in New York after Kutcher repeatedly encouraged her to enter the same modeling contest that gave him his start -- and she came in second. But she chose to stay in Iowa. She got married right after high school and has a 3-year-old daughter. Though she now is divorced, she has no regrets. "I didn't want to leave here and go to New York," she says. "That's not my world."

It wasn't Kutcher's world, either -- at first. Kutcher's Cinderfella-like odyssey from Homestead to Hollywood began in 1997 when he entered the Fresh Faces of Iowa modeling competition on a whim and won. At the time he was a biochemical engineering major at the University of Iowa. As part of his prize, he flew to New York for the International Modeling and Talent Assn. convention. He immediately was spotted by a modeling agent who called her friend, talent manager Stephanie Simon, and urged her to meet with him. "He came in to see me and he was wearing overalls," Simon recalls. "But the second I met him, I just knew. I knew he was going to be huge. I told him on the spot, 'You're moving to New York' -- and he did."

Kutcher spent much of the next year working the runways in Milan, Paris and London. Then he got a call to fly to L.A. to test for a TV pilot.

Simon, the co-owner of Untitled Entertainment, said she acted as Kutcher's driver when he tested for the pilot, called "Advances in Chemistry." He didn't get the part (and the show never was made), but while at the audition he met other casting agents and ended up auditioning for two more TV pilots that same day.

One was for "Wind on Water," an NBC drama set in Hawaii starring Bo Derek. The other was "That '70s Show." Simon says he was offered both roles -- and chose "That '70s Show" because "he loved the script and his character." It was the kind of prescient and savvy decision that has marked his career.

"Wind on Water" was canceled after just a few episodes. "That '70s Show" has just started its sixth season.

Tom Werner and his partners in the powerhouse TV production company Carsey Werner Mandabach watched as Kutcher auditioned for the role of the dimwitted Michael Kelso in "That '70s Show." "Right after we saw him we all said we wanted to make a deal with him before he left the lot," Werner says. "And we did. It was within just a few hours."

Exercising his 'comedy chops'

Despite his total lack of acting experience, Kutcher was good enough in the part of Kelso that 20th Century Fox executives decided to cast him in 2000's "Dude, Where's My Car?" They hired him again for "Just Married," the romantic comedy co-starring Kutcher's then-girlfriend Brittany Murphy, which came out this past spring. " Dude, Where's My Car?" cost $14 million to make and grossed about $46 million in the U.S. "Just Married" opened at No. 1 and has taken in about $56 million.

"It was all sort of a progression," says Hutch Parker, president of production at 20th Century Fox. "Ashton turned out to have the kind of comedy chops that are hard to find in a younger actor. He's also a remarkably astute guy; he's incredibly savvy about reading scripts and figuring out the best vehicle for himself. It's hard to remember this is a guy who came in by winning a modeling prize."

David Zucker, the director of "Airplane!" and "The Naked Gun" series, directed Kutcher in "My Boss's Daughter" opposite Tara Reid. (Kutcher plays an accident-prone young executive who hopes to impress his boss and his daughter by house-sitting their mansion for a night.) He was one of the few people who was not immediately impressed with Kutcher.

Zucker said that Kutcher was hired without an audition for "My Boss's Daughter" on the strength of his work in "Dude, Where's My Car?," which Zucker's partner, Gil Netter, produced.

But when Zucker watched Kutcher read his part with various actresses who were auditioning to co-star opposite him, he was not happy.

"I was shocked," Zucker recalls. "He wasn't good, and I was worried. I was envisioning this excruciating shoot ahead in which I was going to have to give him individual line readings and tell him how to accent every syllable."

To Zucker's relief, Kutcher's performance improved immeasurably once actual filming began. "Once the camera is rolling he glides right into it," Zucker says. "On the last day of shooting I told him what I had thought. I didn't do it in a mean way, I told him I thought he had done a really good job but that I had been so worried when he was doing those table readings. He was really offended. It threw him for a loop."

Tom Werner, however, has nothing but confidence in Kutcher. Kutcher recently brought him an idea for a movie to be called "Spike," about the characters involved around a girls' high school volleyball team. Kutcher wants to produce, not act in the movie.

"It's based on his observations growing up in Iowa," Werner says. "It's a very smart idea, and we're working on getting a writer and director."

Though Kutcher's relationship with Moore has given both of them a huge PR boost in recent months, there is a growing consensus in Hollywood that the affair is more substantial than a publicity stunt. And though overexposure sometimes is a concern, most think Kutcher will come out ahead -- with or without Moore.

"It's always risky when you're getting a lot of press," Hutch Parker says. "But the Demi thing? I don't know. Ashton and Demi are an interesting story, but ... I think it will taper off. And I think Ashton will just keep on going."

Some people back in Iowa are counting on it.

"I'm still hoping he's going to take me along as an old male model," says his former principal, Tom McDonald. "Even if all I can model is pajamas."

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