Meet the New Superman

updated 07/10/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

What a difference a couple of years and bright blue tights make. Brandon Routh, 26, was just another struggling actor when director Bryan Singer picked him in October 2004 to star in Superman Returns. So who is this guy?

Practically Smallville
Growing up in rural Norwalk, Iowa, Routh, the son of Katie, a teacher, and Ron, a carpenter, was fascinated by the Man of Steel. Around age 5, he donned Superman pajamas and a cape to watch the first Superman on TV. "I was so excited that I gave myself a migraine," recalls Routh. After recovering, "I was always throwing things up in the air and seeing how they would fly," he says. "My parents were like, 'This kid is crazy.'"

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a thespian
In high school, Routh fell in love with acting, so much so that he and pals performed in theater extravaganzas wearing tutus and Chippendales outfits. For a South Pacific revue, he and a friend wore grass skirts and painted ships on their stomachs. "When they flexed their abs," says music teacher Kim Ward, "boats and waves went rolling."

Soap-erman to the rescue
After a year at the University of Iowa in '99, Routh ended up in New York City. His big break: playing hunk Seth Anderson on One Life to Live from 2001-02. "He was a reluctant soap star," says Life castmate Sherri Saum. "He was just busting to break out."

Mild-mannered bartender
Moving to L.A., Routh landed guest shots on Will & Grace and Cold Case—and made ends meet tending bar at Lucky Strike Lanes, a bowling alley. "He was very Clark Kent behind the bar," says coworker Kathleen Kaplan, who covered for Routh during his Superman audition. "He asked me once, 'What's a fuzzy navel?'" During an '03 work Halloween party, he won $100 by dressing as Kent.

Lois who?
His 2½-year relationship with actress Courtney Ford survived Superman's five-month Australia shoot. How? "Phone calls every night," says Ford, 28. The pair, who star in a short film called Denial, met when he tended bar at her brother's wedding rehearsal dinner. Routh calls her his personal kryptonite: "She brings me to my knees."

Down-to-earth, for a Kryptonian
Despite fame, Routh isn't going Hollywood. He and Ford "are homebodies," he says. "We like to sit at home and watch DVD commentaries," or barbecue with pals like Superman costar Kal Penn. "Brandon's very grounded," says Penn. "Just a humble guy who values his friends and family."

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