07/02/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT
Steve Carell will do anything for a laugh—this is a guy who famously endured an on-camera chest-waxing in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But nothing prepared him for having two live snakes slipped into his suit while filming his new Noah's Ark-themed comedy Evan Almighty. "The snakes that you see in the movie are CGI'd [computer-generated] because the real ones kept crawling down the back of my jacket," says the actor, 43. "These were, like, pythons—serious, big, nasty." How nasty? "He sprained his ankle jumping out of the car to get away from them," says director Tom Shadyac. "He had to go to the hospital." All in a day's work. Says Carell: "I did suffer for the art!"
Luckily, he can afford a good health plan. Two years ago, Virgin made the onetime convenience-store clerk a movie star. A turn as a suicidal Proust scholar in last year's comedy Little Miss Sunshine won him critical raves. And his role as inappropriate boss Michael Scott on NBC's hit comedy The Office earned him a Golden Globe last year and a loyal TV following. Still, no one is more shocked by all that success than Carell. "I was completely surprised by what has transpired in the last couple of years," says the Concord, Mass., native, who worked as a waiter at a Hard Rock Cafe during his years as a struggling actor. "I never would have anticipated it, and no one else did either. I thought I might eventually be the wacky neighbor on a sitcom."
The son of Edwin, an electrical engineer, and Harriet, a homemaker, Carell grew up the youngest of four boys in the Boston suburbs. After attending Denison University, he toyed with the idea of law school, but when an admissions form asked why he wanted to be an attorney, he found no answer and decided to pursue acting. Settling in Chicago, Carell performed with the Second City comedy troupe. There he met his wife, actress Nancy Walls, after she enrolled in an improv class he taught. "If I didn't have that perceived power and authority of being a teacher, there is no way I would have won over my wife," he told PEOPLE in '05. The couple live in Los Angeles with their children Elisabeth, 6, and John, 3. "I try to get home and give my kids a tub and put them to bed every night," says Carell. "I'm generally there in the morning to give them breakfast and to get them off to school."
Don't expect major movie stardom to change that. "If this movie tanks and my career is over, I will be okay," says Carell. "I could raise my kids and take jobs as they come. I could live with that, because I have had such a great run. I have tasted [fame] but it's not like it's done nothing but make me hungry for more. I have tasted it and I am very satisfied."