04/06/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
AS AN IRVINE, CALIF., HIGH school student in the mid-'80s, Will Ferrell was a big man on campus. He captained the basketball team, excelled in varsity football and soccer and was a member of the student council. Then again, when he wasn't attending classes—occasionally in his pajamas—he took part in some rather curious extracurriculars. "I was a founding member of the school Reptile Club," Ferrell says proudly. "But no one had a reptile. We only had two meetings."
Since then he has leapfrogged into the limelight. In his third season on Saturday Night Live, Ferrell, 30, has emerged as the show's breakout player, thanks to his wicked send-ups of Attorney General Janet Reno, the Unabomber and a painfully enthusiastic male cheerleader named Craig. This summer, Ferrell is taking one of his signature characters—a head-bobbing disco Don Juan—to the big screen in A Night at the Roxbury, costarring SNL cast member Chris Kattan. "Will is the glue that holds the show together," says SNL producer Lorne Michaels. "He's the first choice of the writers for almost every sketch. His style is not so strong that it overwhelms the writing."
Even Ferrell's lifestyle is underwhelming. He shares a sparsely furnished 500-square-foot Manhattan studio apartment with his brother Pat, 27, an aspiring actor who has a small role in Roxbury. And even when he shuttles to Los Angeles every few weeks to see his girlfriend of two years, actress Viveca Paulin, 28, Ferrell leaves his ego behind. "Will's never going to have a big attitude," says Paulin, who met Ferrell at a Costa Mesa, Calif., acting studio. "He-still drives his 1984 gold Toyota Camry with 164,000 miles on it. He still calls me from the freeway when it breaks down."
Ferrell learned the importance of humility from his father, Lee Ferrell, 65, a longtime keyboard player for the Righteous Brothers who saw a once-promising solo career go bust. The family banded together for support—especially, ironically enough, after his parents split up. "We had a real good divorce," says Will's mother, Kay Ferrell, 57, a teacher at Santa Ana College. "A much better divorce than a marriage." Ferrell, who split time between his parents in Irvine, where he was raised, came through unscathed. "I was the type of kid," he recalls, "who would say, 'Hey! Look at the bright side! We'll have two Christmases.' " Indeed, jokes SNL cohort Kattan, "I remember saying to him, 'Don't you have any problems? Weren't you ever abused as a child?' How can he be so funny and have come from a good childhood? Isn't that wrong?"
After graduating from University High School in 1986, the athlete and self-described "conscientious class clown" majored in sports journalism at the University of Southern California, then moved back home to Irvine for three years. While halfheartedly pursuing a broadcasting career, he signed up for comedy and acting classes at a local college and soon found his new calling. In 1991, Ferrell joined L.A.'s Groundlings comedy troupe, where he met future SNL castmates Kattan, Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer. In the spring of 1995, he auditioned for Lorn Michaels in New York City. "He just struck me as so much in the tradition of what was best about the show," says Michaels. "In the same way Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd were funny on the show in the 1970s, so is Will."
Despite such lofty comparisons, though, Ferrell's feet remain firmly on the ground. "It's like I've snuck into this black-tie party," he says. "There's champagne and people are being nice to me—and at any moment people are going to say, 'Hey, who are you? You're not supposed to be here!' I could be driving a UPS truck next time you see me." Or running for president—of the Reptile Club.
ANTHONY DUIGNAN CABRERA in New York City