In the urban romance flick Save the Last Dance, Sean Patrick Thomas plays streetwise hip-hop mentor to a teen ballerina. But while he enjoys the recognition that comes with a $79.8 million box office hit, Thomas seems just as happy portraying Det. Temple Page, scrappy sidekick to police chief Jack Mannion (Craig T. Nelson) on CBS's The District. "This is the first time I'm not 'the old guy,' " says the unmarried Thomas, 30, whose pre-Dance partners included such younger costars as Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions and Jennifer Love Hewitt in Can't Hardly Wait.

The District's old guy, Nelson, 54, likes to call his protege "Sidney"—as in Pokier—because, he says, "Sean's got that kind of class, that kind of range." Responds Thomas, a Wilmington, Del., native (his late father, Carlton, was an engineer, and his mother, Cheryl, is an accountant) who earned a 1995 master of fine arts degree in acting from New York University: "I feel unworthy, but Craig said, 'Keep working hard, and you can have a career like that.' " Meanwhile, the pupil has some tips for his mentor. "We've talked about doing an episode," says Thomas, "where I teach Craig a hip-hop step."