His remade life is a work in progress

Times Staff Writer

America's squeaky-clean sitcom heartthrob is all grown up, recovering from a couple of personal hard knocks and about to launch his new ABC romantic comedy, "Jake in Progress." But none of these new turns in his life explains why people keep burning up his cellphone with messages that sound like rap lyrics: "Yo, yo, yo, P. Diddy, I'm your man." "You go, Puffy, I'm all for you."

Blame Paris Hilton, of course. Or whoever supposedly hacked into her Sidekick and posted her address book online. Thing is, the joke's on the crank callers: the "S. John" in Paris' phone book is a far cry from Sean John. It's John Stamos, the pretty-boy rock 'n' rolling singer-musician-actor who once played with a touring version of the Beach Boys and is still wooing girls all over the planet as Uncle Jesse on "Full House," the family sitcom that went off the air in 1995 but is experiencing a revival in syndication.

The less-than-salacious truth is that Stamos has known Paris since she was a little girl, when her parents would take her and her sister, Nicky, to watch the Beach Boys perform every New Year's Eve. The two girls were thrilled to meet the band's teen-idol drummer, who also played Blackie Parrish on "General Hospital" from 1982 to 1984.

These days, the newly single actor has been going out on the town more, and going out in Hollywood means inevitably running into the girl who was his biggest fan way back when. One recent night she took his cell number to call him about a party, and the next thing he knew he was part of blogging history.

Surprisingly, given his recent efforts at reinvention, mentions of his famous corny but lovable roles -- especially Uncle Jesse, a rocker who loved the ladies but none more than his three nieces -- do not make Stamos wince.

"I'm very proud of what the show did for me and for family television," he said on a recent afternoon, relaxing in the Spanish-style Hollywood Hills home he's been renting for a month. Stamos was just back from a two-week vacation in Brazil and nursing a cold as he served up steak and salmon skewers he had grilled. "Although it has been a difficult time trying to separate myself from that mullet-headed, guitar-playing, motorcycle-riding dude. It's been a double-edged sword. I don't blame people for their perception of me because that's all they have been given for the last 10 years, 'Full House' reruns. Obviously, I think I'm capable of a lot more. Everybody sees me as a kid, still."

At 41, Stamos became an adult a long time ago, but it's only in the last few years, after some painful setbacks, that the actor who was raised in Cypress and always dreamed of stardom, feels he became a man. When his father, William Stamos, who owned a fast-food restaurant chain in Orange County, died in 2001, Stamos became more introspective, wanting to spend more time than ever at home with his wife. But then last April his five-year marriage to model-actress Rebecca Romijn-Stamos came to an end, and Stamos found solace in a period of soulful reflection.

"I've had a fairy tale life," Stamos said. "I had a perfect family, a beautiful childhood, an incredible upbringing. I lived a lot of life but a lot of good life. There was very little darkness, which I'm grateful for. But in the last few years, losing my father, going through a divorce and not getting some jobs I really wanted, is making me a much more interesting person, I think.... This all really does feel like a rebirth, a new chapter. Everything feels sort of fresh."

After "Full House" ended, Stamos threw himself into musical theater, winning critical acclaim for roles on Broadway in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "Cabaret" and "Nine." He also went behind the scenes in Hollywood, producing TV movies and short films, and in 2001 starred in the ABC drama "Thieves," canceled after eight episodes.

Stamos' new show, "Jake in Progress," has been a chance to redefine himself for a new audience. Filmed like "Sex and the City" and "Scrubs" -- and unlike traditional sitcoms -- with one camera and no studio audience, "Jake in Progress" centers on a celebrity publicist, Jake Phillips, who has everything going for him except a lasting love, and his two friends, one married and suffering from grass-is-greener syndrome, the other single and a believer in love at any cost.

"These stories are ripped from the headlines -- only these are from the headlines of 'Us Weekly' and 'Entertainment Weekly,' " said creator Austin Winsberg, previously a story editor on 'Still Standing.' "In the last few years, the celebrity mill has become huge news, so I try to find the good gossip fodder and poke fun at that a little bit." Jake, for instance, represents actor Vin Diesel, who has created a scent "that comes in a bottle shaped like a fuel pump."

A rare opportunity

With split screens and no laugh track, the stylish romantic comedy underscores ABC's willingness to take chances at a time when few sitcoms have fared well and network executives have been unwilling to air comedies. Nontraditional comedy shows such as Fox's award-winning but low-rated "Arrested Development" have been inspiring to writers such as Winsberg but still scare off executives.

Stamos had only done traditional sitcoms, and he'd decided that he'd go back on TV only for a single-camera comedy show.

"Single-camera work is very difficult," Stamos said. "It's one of the reasons I wanted to do it -- it's an arena I'm not that skilled at. I grew up doing sitcoms and theater and even playing with the Beach Boys, where you're programmed to perform, your body gets into a rhythm and you know it has to perform." The challenges include shooting out of order, which, he said, has him taking "a lot of notes," trying to "figure out where I'm at and what scene I haven't shot yet and think about how I'm going to be doing that scene."

The show was an unlikely pairing: Winsberg, a 28-year-old, first-time show-runner, and Stamos, who said he craved the chance to be on television again but was only being offered shows with "multiple children -- you know, 'Fuller House.' "

"I pitched it around town and everyone liked it, but no one would say yes because they were afraid," said Winsberg. "I wanted this show to be smart and sophisticated and edgy, and my agent suggested I meet with John. Those were the things John was looking to do, and he became very influential early on in terms of who Jake was and what his world would look like. John took a big chance on me."

"Jake in Progress" premieres next Sunday and then moves to its regular Thursday time slots at 8 and 8:30 p.m., beginning March 17.

"This show is a myth-breaker in terms of what men talk about when they're alone," said Dana Walden, co-president of Twentieth Century Fox Television, the studio that produces the show. "They also have strong views about relationships, and their conversations are not just about getting lucky."

In the pilot, for example, an emotionally depleted Jake asks his married best friend, Adrian (Ian Gomez), "How many vapid, thong-wearing, tantric-sex-loving models with fake tans and butterfly tattoos on the small of their backs can I date?" Adrian says, referring to his wife: "Kaitlyn doesn't have a small of her back. It's all large."

Jake's world is so contemporary that his last love interest of the season will be a temporary secretary (Julie Bowen) who just won a makeover reality contest called "The Butterfly."

"I knew the character that I wanted to play," Stamos said. "A guy who was like me, or what people think I am. The guy who you thought had everything going for him and when you pulled the curtains away, you see this guy who is just as confused, sad, lonely, neurotic and insecure as anybody else. I also find it interesting that a lot of people in their 30s are not married and don't have kids. There are a lot of people in this age bracket that are out there dating and trying to find love. And I never thought that at my age I would be."

The fevered tabloid interest in why Stamos' marriage ended and whom he has dated has caught the actor by surprise.

"The truth is I don't even know myself why we broke up," Stamos said. "One day, I woke up and I was in this house and it's odd and it's strange, but it's just how it is. I think there are more important things in the world than what kind of girl I want to go out with next."

In fact, the actor is still baffled by criticism that he was condescending when he told a reporter a few weeks ago that he prefers to date women who are not in the entertainment business. All he meant, he said, is that he had dated a nurse and a waitress because what matters most to him these days is what people are like inside.

"There's two playing fields: the lower playing field, which is very alluring and all about partying and surrounding yourself with easier-going people and exploring some of the darker areas," Stamos said. "It's a shallow arena. You end up giving pieces of yourself away that you shouldn't. And there's this higher sanctuary, this more spiritual place, where you have to put yourself and live in a better, pure way, but it's lonely because there's less people there. It's easy to get caught in the muck. I'm constantly striving. I fail all the time. I'm not an angel."

Although his marriage dissolved as Stamos was filming the pilot, he impressed colleagues, producers and executives with his self-awareness and openness. Indeed, in person Stamos is not what you'd expect given his slick, hair-gelled image: His obvious charisma is balanced by vulnerability, and he seems to be in a genuine struggle to find some kind of real center in the midst of his celebrity life.

"There's always a danger of a guy like this being an [expletive]," Stamos said of his character. "The key is to make him a lovable cad. To me, he's a guy who takes care of everyone else and makes everyone else look good, but he himself is in turmoil. I can get away with more than other actors can, I think, just because people are used to seeing me in their homes for many years. But I don't want to push it. I don't want to overuse or abuse the privilege of being likable already. I want people to have sympathy for him because he just wants to fall in love."

And, more than anything, Stamos hopes viewers fall in love with Jake.

"It's up to fate, it's up to the gods," Stamos said. "I'm proud. I'm putting my best work out there that I've done in a long time. But it's taken me years of stepping back a little bit and doing some of the smaller projects that I've done and spending time on stage to be able to do this. And growing. I had to grow up."

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