When Will Estes landed the part of JJ Pryor, a high school football star growing up in the '60s on NBC's American Dreams, he had no idea the role would be quite so punishing. "I had to block one guy who was 6'4" and over 200 lbs.," says the actor, who is 7 inches shorter and 45 lbs. lighter. "He just picked me up off the ground." The upshot, says Estes: "I use a lot of ice."

His name is getting plenty of hits, too, in Internet chat rooms. "What I've seen with Will is this kind of non-sexual crush, like something out of the '50s or '60s," says Dreams creator Jonathan Prince. "He's the kind of kid you want to date your daughter."

Never mind that Estes, a Hollywood native, is 24 and not dating anyone. "I try to date, but I take it so seriously," he says. "I am bad at having a casual relationship, so I kind of don't."

The only child of Bill, 54, a projectionist, and Mary Lu, 51, an office administrator, he made his TV debut at age 11 on The New Lassie in 1989, the same year his parents divorced. At 19 he quit his studies at Santa Monica College to act full-time, surfacing in Italy to film the 2000 submarine thriller U-571. "I feel like I kind of grew up while I was over there," he says. Back home in Los Angeles, he shares a duplex with has mom and (sorry, Lassie) four mutts, all former strays or pound refugees.

Unlike the hangdog, intense jock he plays, Estes is a cutup on the set. Around Halloween he dressed up as his onscreen sister, Meg (Brittany Snow), complete with blonde wig and Catholic schoolgirl skirt. "However moody JJ acts," he says, "I want people to know that Will is having fun."