Johnny Galecki seeks to be average.
The star of "The Big Bang Theory" is seated outside a small Hollywood restaurant, talking about his longing to play ordinary, run-of-the-mill figures rather than the larger-than-life characters that actors and audiences sometimes embrace.
"Guys like Dustin Hoffman and Jack Lemmon have always been my leading men," said the 36-year-old, leather jacket-clad actor, who minutes before was crushing the butt of a luxury cigarette with his scuffed combat boot. "Those are my guys. I know there's something to be said for the leading men who veer more toward action and stuff like that -- the John Waynes, the Harrison Fords and guys like them. But my acting heroes were the guys that men might not necessarily aspire to be because they already are them. That's what [Hoffman and Lemmon] represented to me and that's what I want to try to help carry a torch for in my career."
The relay is in full effect. Fondly remembered for his supporting role on "Roseanne" as Darlene's wishy-washy boyfriend, David, Galecki has quietly moved to the forefront as one of the stars of "The Big Bang Theory," playing an average nerd named Leonard. But there's nothing average about the CBS sitcom's performance: The series, now in its fifth season and past the 100-episode mark, is up 17% to an average of 15.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen. A key factor in the rise is its run in syndication on local stations and cable outlet TBS, which has helped to widen its exposure. In recent weeks, it has even managed to beat behemoth "American Idol" in the coveted 18-49 demographic.
"Putting it simply: It's amazing," Galecki said of the gain over "Idol." "It's really shocking to me. I mean, 'Idol' is event television, it's not something people really TiVo. I'm not sure how we got here. I almost don't want to question it. It only raises the bar for us. None of us feel like, 'Oh, we can relax.' But can you imagine what would happen if we had Jennifer Lopez on our show?"
In addition to the ratings success of "Big Bang Theory," its stars have also been riding a wave of awards recognition in recent years. Jim Parsons, who plays the fussy geek opposite Galecki in the series, is a two-time Emmy champ. And Galecki finally broke the barrier, nabbing an Emmy nomination last year and a Golden Globe nomination this year for his character, the Caltech professor caught up in an ongoing on-again-off-again relationship with his hot neighbor Penny (played by Kaley Cuoco).
The series' co-creator Chuck Lorre, who also served as an executive producer on "Roseanne," said Galecki's evolution has been inspiring. "In all fairness, the first time I worked with Johnny, he was what, like, 12?" Lorre said by telephone. "He was talented then. But now there's this enormous experience that informs his work. He has a theater sensibility to the way he works. He's very communal, which is important when there's an ensemble cast."
Galecki is also amazed by his current situation. "My 14-year-old self would tell you to ... yourself if you said all this would happen," Galecki said. At that age, the Belgian-born actor had moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, where, as a young boy, he had begun acting in theater productions. Galecki and his family were set to move back to the Midwest a year later, until a last-minute role on the TV series "American Dreamer" sprang up.
Galecki, then 15, stayed behind on his own, living in a studio apartment in Burbank and riding a motorcycle to the studio every day. He said his late co-star Robert Urich offered Galecki the room above his garage, but the teenager refused: "I didn't because he wouldn't let me smoke there."
"There was no clubbing or any nonsense like that on my part," he continued. "I probably would have gotten into some trouble if I didn't always have early call times -- that kept me on the straight and narrow. I was all about work."
That work ethic would get exponentially stronger when he was brought onto the fourth season of "Roseanne," which was already an established powerhouse on ABC when he joined in 1992. It was then that he figured out what it meant to bring a character to life.
"As far as sitting down and co-authoring a character -- embodying a creation, building a mask -- I hadn't done that before 'Roseanne.' You're just a sponge. Roseanne [Barr] is winging it as she goes. And John [Goodman]'s process was very disciplined. My parking spot was next to his outside the stage and I never saw it empty in five years. He was there early every day and there late every night. It was insane to be in the middle of all that. Watching everyone on set provided daunting lessons every day."
His former boss was impressed with him, and what was supposed to be one episode turned into many seasons. "I knew he would do well in TV, and that's why I kept him on my show year after year," Barr said via email. "He is very focused on succeeding and can navigate his way through Hollywood's twists and turns."
Her opinion is one that Galecki holds in high regard, so much so that the actor sought Barr's counsel when "The Big Bang Theory" pilot got picked up.
"I called up Roseanne, I think she was on her macadamia nut farm," he said. "We really had a nice chat about [your face] being on the side of buses and on billboards and how that changes your life. And how being a more central character on a show brings added responsibilities. That stuff weighs heavily on me. People are watching, you know?"
And if they're not watching him on TV, they're catching him on the big screen in movies such as "The Opposite of Sex" and "Vanilla Sky." His most recent film project, the Justin Timberlake-starring sci-fi thriller "In Time," was just released on DVD. And even Timberlake is keeping surveillance.
"He told me he watched 'The Big Bang Theory,' " Galecki said. "Like, I mean, really? How does that happen? I want scientific proof."
Times staff writer Scott Collins contributed to this report.