It was just shy of 5 a.m. on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, and although in a few hours the sprawling fantasy factory would be a blur of activity, nothing stirred the predawn blackness.
Almost nothing. In a cramped office just off Stage 4, a light was burning. Comedian George Lopez, who had been caught up in a writing meeting on the lot until nearly midnight the night before, was back at it again, chatting up his second-season ABC sitcom "The George Lopez Show" for a string of drive-time radio programs from across the country. And as onetime host of his own such gig here in Los Angeles on 92.3 FM -- the first Latino to helm an English-language morning radio show in the Southland -- the turnabout nature of the situation was not lost on him.
As the interviews were winding down and his normal sitcom workday was gearing up, Lopez sailed through the transition without missing a step.
"This show may go one more episode or 100, but it's not going to fail because I didn't give enough of myself," he says. "No one expected me to get this far, and so I want to see how far I can take this. I'm giving my time, my life, my stories -- good and bad -- to this show, and after I don't have any more stories to tell, I'll walk away, having really done it.
"I'd walk away now," he adds with a faint smile, "but I don't have enough money."
For a 41-year-old stand-up comic who once thought his role as Eddie in the 1990 movie "Ski Patrol" might end up being his chief contribution to the acting profession, these are good days indeed. His series, based more than loosely on his life growing up in the San Fernando Valley's Mission Hills neighborhood, returned from a monthlong holiday hiatus on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with a new episode. The show has consistently won its time slot this season, and Lopez also has a small but key role in the current well-received indie film "Real Women Have Curves." So regardless of the ungodly hour set on his alarm clock, Lopez says he never has a problem jumping out of bed.
"After struggling through the '90s just to feed my family and pay my bills, this is a pretty good time," he says at breakfast recently in a Toluca Lake coffee shop, just down the street from the house he shares with his wife of nine years, Ann, and their 6-year-old daughter, Mayan. "If you consider being a road comedian a career, good luck."
Yet it was his years on the road that helped build the buzz that resulted in Lopez getting his big break.
An influential fan
Actress Sandra Bullock, who had been interested in putting together a TV project with a Latino story line for some time, was given one of Lopez's comedy albums to listen to, and she was impressed enough to check out his act at the Brea Improv in August 2000. And it was love at first sight.
"I fell in love with his life story," says Bullock. "He had a real likability, and the material runs deep. It was ripe for comedy, but in a loving way."
After the show, Bullock went backstage and made her pitch.
"She said she wanted to be in the George Lopez business," the Mexican American comedian recalls with a blissful grin. "I owe everything to her, because she didn't have to do this. She's a movie star, and even when her agents at CAA told her, 'We really don't see a show here,' she never gave up. She told me, 'Let me worry about that -- you just worry about being funny.' She did this out of a love for the culture and because of a lack of visibility for Latinos on TV."
At a recent taping, Bullock was a roaming presence, huddling with cast members and watching scenes on a monitor while surrounded by production staff. "When I'm out of town, technology helps me stay in touch," says Bullock, who also guests on the show as a goofy, accident-prone recurring character named Amy. "I can still watch run-throughs and give notes. And seeing how hard everyone is working just makes me want to work harder."
In Lopez's act, he managed to wring humor from the real-life stories of his father leaving his mother when George was 2 months old, and how they lived with her parents until his mother remarried when George was 10 and moved away with her new husband, leaving the boy to be brought up by the grandparents. Lopez, who had always been told that his father was dead, learned about that time that he was probably still around, but that no one had seen him in years.
Those details went on to form the framework of his domestic sitcom, even down to the aerospace firm where Lopez and his grandmother once worked together. For TV purposes, his grandmother's gruff character became his mom (played by Belita Moreno), with Constance Marie ("Tortilla Soup") portraying wife Angie and Masiela Lusha and Luis Armand Garcia featured as daughter Carmen and son Max.
The real-life Lopez didn't spend much time with physical labor jobs. The night of his high school graduation in 1979, he performed at an open-mic night at a Los Angeles comedy club, but the experience so spooked him that he didn't return to performing for four years, doing various odd jobs in the meantime. Since deciding to devote his career to comedy, he's worked steadily in stand-up, with occasional acting roles and the DJ gig.
It was during that performing apprenticeship that he first hooked up with his TV wife. Marie, who also stars in the PBS series "American Family," says she and Lopez met eight years ago, and he wanted to do a 'Honeymooners' kind of thing. "We did improv for about 20 minutes and it was amazing, it just worked. Nothing came of it, but here we are again. When I found out that I had gotten the job, I said, 'Finally -- we're Latinos on TV, but we're not in the barrio! And we're successful!
"And it means so much that all our shows are about something," says Marie. "They touch you and they can make you laugh."
But Bullock believes the series can dig deeper, adding that she and Lopez want to begin blending in some of the darker humor that is so much a part of his nightclub act -- and indeed of Lopez himself -- into future episodes.
"It's going to get heavier and more risky," says Bullock. "You build to that and let the people get used to it. If it turns out that they can't get used to it, well, we'll go out with a bang."
Lopez says he has no shortage of material available from mining his own back pages.
"I didn't come from a background where I saw a lot of loving couples," he says. "All my aunts and uncles were either split up or fighting all the time. The only healthy relationships I saw were on TV."
Because of that, Lopez says his sense of family suffered mightily. Even now, he says he sees his grandmother occasionally (his grandfather is deceased) but his mother very rarely.
"She lives alone now in Sacramento," he says. "I don't not love her, but one of the things that's vital to any parental relationship is that nurturing connection, to having that person make you feel safe.
"I've never felt too safe around my mom," he says with a rueful laugh.
Other relationships have fallen by the wayside as well. Although one of the characters in the series, Ernie (played by Valente Rodriguez), is based on one of his best friends while growing up, Lopez hasn't talked to him in years. In fact, says Lopez, he doesn't really keep close tabs with any of his pals from his younger years.
"They're still out there, but I think my friends are comfortable in their lives. We don't talk much, and this is the time when we should be talking, when we can look back and remember all the stuff we used to do and say. But for whatever reason, it doesn't happen."
Lopez says the single-mindedness with which he pursued his dream of becoming a stand-up comic after seeing Freddie Prinze in the 1970s TV series "Chico and the Man" may have contributed to some loner tendencies.
But seeing that Latino face on TV, a young talent who could also make him laugh like no one else, made Prinze an idol to Lopez, a feeling that really hasn't gone away, he says. He has a shrine of sorts to the late comedian in his dressing room, and Lopez even bought his house from a Realtor, Carol Novak, who used to be Prinze's assistant. And Prinze's ex-wife, Kathy, who was divorced from the troubled comedian just months before he committed suicide 26 years ago this month, lives four doors away from the Lopezes in Toluca Lake.
"After I saw him for the first time, it changed my life," says Lopez. "I went out and bought his album and I remember reading the back cover, where he thanked his manager, Ron De Blasio."
Want to take a wild guess who Lopez's manager is?
"I've been with him for about four years now," says De Blasio. "He was up for a job opening for a musical attraction I was representing, but he wanted a lot of money. I finally agreed, but I told him I had three conditions: He had to do 40 minutes, he had to work clean and he had to be funny.
"Well, he was absolutely fantastic. I had gotten out of representing comics after Freddie [earlier clients included Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and George Carlin], but I decided to take a chance on him, and things have moved along even faster than I thought they would."
"I think audiences have responded because I'm just a regular guy, with all the nicks and cuts of anyone else who has had to struggle to get by," says Lopez. "I've really only begun to feel things emotionally in the last few years, and I think that's because of my wife and daughter. Being in a loving relationship used to frighten me because I was always worried something would go wrong. But now I know that she loves me and I love her, and I don't want to do this thing without her."
Lopez met his Cuban American wife Ann, a former casting director who is now an independent producer with a film in the works, at the premiere for "Ski Patrol."
"We ended up talking for hours about the problems of Latinos in show business, and before long we were all over each other in the car. I said to myself, 'If this is how it's going to be, this is pretty good.' "
A protege of Cheech
Cheech Marin, who guest-starred in an episode earlier this season posing as George's long-lost father, says it's been gratifying to see a fellow Latino take such a show through its second season.
"It's been like seeing my own son graduating from college and getting a job," he says. "I've known him a long time, from 1985 when he was a Cheech and Chong fan. It's hugely rewarding."
Marin will be following his protege back into prime time. He recently got a green light from NBC for a sitcom pilot titled "The Ortegas," in which he'll play the patriarch in a boisterous Latino household.
"I've seen the tide come in and then go back out again for Latinos on TV," says Marin. "I remember being at an awards show and looking around the audience and seeing about a dozen people like Jimmy Smits, Hector Elizondo and Benjamin Bratt, and then the next year, everybody was gone. But this time I think it's a tidal wave. The numbers and the talent are just too great to stop it." Lopez says he's proud to have been able to do his part.
"I think the success of our show is directly responsible for networks taking the plunge on shows like 'The Ortegas' and 'Greetings From Tucson,' " he says. "They may have already been in development, but it took our show to get the executives to push the button.
"But the bottom line is that the shows have to appeal to everyone to survive, and I've had white women from Russia come up to me and tell me they have a grandmother who's just like my mom on TV. That's when I know that I'm doing something right."