Alek Skarlatos doesn’t just fill the heroic-man-in-uniform quotient for this season’s “Dancing With the Stars.” He’s also a hunky young, athletic guy who’s self-effacing and zeitgeisty, producers said.
“There are a lot of categories he checks off, and we’re always looking for that of-the-moment booking,” said the ABC show’s co-executive producer, Deena Katz. “I swear he’s going to get an agent out of this. He’s so charming. There’s just something about him.”
Before he was a contestant on the hit hoofing show – but only a few weeks before – Skarlatos made international news for taking action in the face of grave danger. He and his two childhood friends Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler overpowered a gunman armed with an AK-47 on a packed train from Amsterdam to Paris.
The trio is credited with stopping what could have been a mass killing by a suspected terrorist. Skarlatos, a 22-year-old Army National Guardsman who grew up near Sacramento, has since received a call from President Obama, a Twitter shout-out from Donald Trump and a dinner date with Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with decorations from the U.S. military and the French government.
Though he might’ve anticipated a few local accolades – there was a parade in the young men’s honor in Sacramento on Friday -- he didn’t expect the breadth of well wishes or the “Dancing With the Stars” invitation.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d get that offer,” Skarlatos said Saturday during a break in dance practice with his partner, Lindsay Arnold. “It’s all brand new and crazy to me.”
While he admitted to being “a little nervous” before Monday night’s show, he handled his first foxtrot like a professional, earning scores that put him near the top of the competitive heap. Judges Carrie Ann Inaba, Bruno Tonioli and Julianne Hough said he gave one of the standout performances of the night.
Katz and “DWTS” executive producer Rob Wade said they like to keep a spot open on the show for last-minute contestants, such as Skarlatos, who have vaulted into the public eye.
In this case, Katz heard about the three American friends on vacation who tackled a shooter mid-attack on a 500-passenger train and immediately thought about getting one of them on the dance competition. She scoured social media, tracked down family members and started sending messages to Skarlatos.
When he appeared on “Good Morning America” to discuss the incident, during which Stone and several other passengers were injured, Katz worked with the sister ABC program to cut through the media firestorm. She made her “five-minute elevator pitch,” and then waited anxiously to learn if Skarlatos would agree to be on “DWTS.”
“It was touch-and-go there for a while because this is so out of his element,” Katz said. “He was just serving in Afghanistan not long ago, and now we’re asking if he’s ready to cha cha.”
Skarlatos, who’s taking a short leave from the National Guard, hadn’t even watched an entire episode of the show until recently. He was on the fence about participating, mainly because he didn’t want to be singled out. (The series couldn’t accommodate all three friends.) But producers had an ace-in-the-hole: Noah Galloway, a military vet and double amputee.
They encouraged Skarlatos to call Galloway, fan favorite competitor and finalist from last season, and ask about his experience. That may have been the tipping point, along with Katz’s relentless “stalking” and “psycho texting,” she said.
“Noah’s a great guy, and I wanted to know how the military would be portrayed and how my friends’ images would be protected,” Skarlatos said. “He told me I should do it. So after that conversation, I said yes.”
Skarlatos, an avid sportsman and history buff, has never danced before, and Arnold has said in interviews that she’s been trying to get him to loosen his rather stiff military posture. But Katz said she’s confident he will adapt and that viewers will respond to him.
“He’ll get so much love in the beginning because people are proud of him and what he’s just done. How can you not root for him?” Katz said. “But that’ll only last a few weeks. He’ll have to dance to keep going.”
Skarlatos, who’s single and plans eventually to become a police officer, said he’s enjoyed himself so far in the completely unfamiliar arena. Scheduling has been the toughest battle, with frequent trips to Los Angeles between his media whistle-stop tour and various awards ceremonies.
He’d said in late August, on returning to the U.S. just after the train takedown, that he wanted some R&R at home with his family.
“That lasted about a day and a half,” he said. “I think I’ve been home about four days total.”
There’s a risk in snagging a newsworthy person who isn’t accustomed to being in the spotlight, executive producer Wade said. And the show wants to make sure the contestant can do well and have some fun.
“This is a lot of pressure, and we want people to have a good experience,” Wade said. “We’d never want Alek to say, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ Fingers crossed he has a good time.”