Playing Luke, the cute but crusty owner of the local diner on The WB's Gilmore Girls, Scott Patterson can get carried away. "There was a scene where I was supposed to bark at someone," he says. "And I did it so loud that [costar] Alexis [Bledel] swallowed her gum. I was like, 'Call the acting police!' "

Patterson; 43, can be forgiven a little overexuberance. Just two years after he thought of giving up acting to run his own fence-building company ("Work was slow, and I had a truck"), the former pro-baseball player has suddenly found himself a TV heartthrob. "I got a marriage proposal [in the mail] from a 14-year-old that made me fall off the couch in my trailer, it was so funny and heartwarming," he says.

Costar Lauren Graham, 34, who plays single mom Lorelai Gilmore, Luke's sparring partner and potential love interest, isn't surprised by fan reaction. "Scott's a guy's guy," she says. "People always ask when our characters are going to get together, but I think the show benefits from the tension."

The 6-ft., 205-lb. Patterson has attracted female attention before. In a memorable 1995 Seinfeld episode, he was the guy Elaine deemed so attractive as to be "sponge-worthy." "Thai day after it aired, two women who wouldn't give me the time of day before followed me out of the gym," he says. But the Gilmore story lines—about Lorelai raising her teenage daughter—resonate for Patterson, whose divorced sister Abigail Wiest, 44, struggled to raise her daughter Christine, now 16, alone. "He has always treated single mothers like heroes," says Wiest, a paralegal in Haddonfield, N.J. "He understands how tough it is, and he's been very helpful since he became successful, just as he always promised."

The youngest of four (Judy, 49, is a San Diego teacher; Barbara, 54, a Baltimore homemaker), Patterson also remembers his own pain when his father, Frank, 76, a former boxer turned advertising executive, and mother, Hope, 73, a homemaker, split when he was 15. "I guess they just fell out of love," says the New Jersey native, who remains close to both parents. "One day he was there and the next I was helping him carry boxes to his car."

A star pitcher in high school, Patterson quit the team his sophomore year, after his father's departure. "I took it very hard," he says. "I grew my hair long, started playing the guitar." During his freshman year at Rutgers University in 1977, Patterson decided to try baseball again. "My roommate kept telling me it was a waste of God-given talent not to play," he says. "So I decided to give it a shot."

Dropping out of Rutgers, Patterson began playing ball for community colleges in Florida and Arizona. Drafted to the minor leagues in 1980, he spent the next eight years pitching for the AAA and AA teams of the New York Yankees, the Atlanta Braves and the Texas Rangers. In 1983 he married Vera Davich, then a student, but the union lasted less than two years. "I was on the road a lot," he says. "We weren't mature enough to be married."

Although he was called up several times, Patterson never threw a pitch in the big leagues. When the Dodgers cut him in 1987, legend and former Dodger Sandy Koufax, then a team coach, took him aside. "I was brokenhearted, and I told him my heart wasn't in it anymore," Patterson recalls. "He said, 'Then this is where you should get out.' "

Spending the next year traveling around Europe, Patterson met a pair of vacationing theater students who sparked his interest in acting. Moving to New York City, he enrolled in acting classes and spent a decade working in commercials and getting occasional film and TV guest spots before landing Gilmore in 1999. Now the hard part, he says, is adjusting to success. "Everyone was giving me crap about my old truck," he says. "So I bought a BMW. But my life hasn't changed much. My accountant worships me because I'm so cautious with my money."

Patterson, who lives in the same West Hollywood one-bedroom apartment he rented when he first arrived from New York City in 1992, is also cautious with his heart. "The last time I was involved with someone seriously was four years ago," admits the actor, who says he is not dating anyone right now. "I'd like to settle down eventually, but acting is emotionally draining. Right now it's all about the show."

Olivia Abel
N.F. Mendoza in West Hollywood

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