Shane West was a bit unprepared for his audition last fall with Once and Again creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. "I thought, for some reason, the show was a sitcom," West, 21, recalls of his meeting with the duo behind My So-Called Life and thirtysomething. "I went in going over the top, and Marshall stopped me and said, 'You obviously haven't seen our work.' I just sat there and froze." But West's reaction was just what they were looking for. "We saw his manliness, his fear, his love, his vulnerability," says Herskovitz. "He had a sense of himself that was very attractive."

Likewise, Once and Again's viewers are becoming attracted to West's sensitive turn as Eli, Billy Campbell's troubled teenage son on the new ABC drama about life—and love—after divorce. "The subject matter paralleled my life," says the Baton Rouge native, whose parents—Catherine, an attorney, and Don, a drugstore manager—divorced when he was 4. And like Eli, West suffered from a learning disability, which therapy helped dissipate in 1995, a few years after he moved to L.A. with his mother. West began acting in high school and was soon appearing on Sliders and Picket Fences. But being a prime-time hunk has inflated his wallet, not his ego. "I've been recognized like four times," says West, who shares a Glendale, Calif., apartment with actor friend Aaron Paul. "Yes, I can still count them on one hand."