So it was last February, when Steve Martin came up to Brady in Aspen to compliment the actor on his one-man show. "He said, 'Wayne, I think it's incredible the stuff you're doing,' " Brady recalls. "He hugged me. He made body contact! And I was like, 'Aaaaaah! Wait right there! I have to get my wife to meet you. Don't move, Mr. Martin!' "
Maybe it's time that the talented Mr. Brady, 29, learned to chill out. After all, his quick-change artistry on the Drew Carey-hosted Whose Line might just earn him an Emmy on Sept. 16. And his summer show has been praised by critics for its uncynical, retro-'70s look. "The template is Flip Wilson and Carol Burnett scrunched together," says Brady, "then laid on top of a human Muppet show. It's family TV."
Family and friends see the geeky side of Brady at the Spanish-style, three-bedroom house in L.A. he shares with wife Mandie, 25, and their three dogs. There, in the den, Brady, a PlayStation 2 fanatic, holds video-game tournaments in which he usually trounces opponents such as Line castmate Colin Mochrie and Mochrie's son Luke, 10. "They're Wayne's games," Mochrie points out, perhaps a little defensively, "so he knows them really, really well."
Brady also knows how to carry a karaoke tune. "He and I always do 'Stand by Me,' " says actor pal Harrison White. "He'll pull out all the stops and do it as Sammy Davis Jr."
Growing up in Orlando, Brady dreamed of having a career like Davis's. But his paternal grandmother, Valerie Petersen—who raised Brady from infancy because his father, an Army serviceman posted overseas, and his mother, then 17, weren't able to—had other ideas. "I was a great student," Brady says. "So she would be like, 'Wayne! Stop your singing! Read a book!' "
He read books—and scripts (landing community theater roles)—and graduated in 1990 from Dr. Phillips High School (where his peers included future 'N Sync member Joey Fatone). Brady then asked his grandmother, "Give me six months to prove I can support myself."
Around that time he won a part in the Ghostbusters show at Universal Studios and later worked as a singer and dancer in Las Vegas and did TV guest shots (I'll Fly Away, In the Heat of the Night). Then, in 1996, Brady signed up for a musical revue on Oahu, Hawaii, in which Mandie Taketa was one of the dancers. "The show was super-cheesy," she recalls. "We danced with tambourines."
When the revue ended, she and Brady, who were casually dating, shared an L.A. apartment to save money. "Six months later, we were still too broke to leave," she says. "And by the time we could afford to move out, we didn't want to."
It was Mandie who persuaded Brady to pass up the chance to understudy Simba in Broadway's The Lion King and try out instead for Whose Line in 1998. "It was a six-hour audition. But it changed my life," says Brady, who got to host 2001's Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve as a prelude to his namesake show.
Actually, his life hasn't changed entirely. He and Mandie, who wed in 1999, still enjoy "eating chili and rice and Spam and spending time with our families," she says. "Once in a while, I'll drag him to sushi." But the dragging has gotten more difficult since, as Brady says, "I can finally buy all the video games I want. And now the whole world knows what a geek I am. But hey," he says with a shrug, "it keeps me out of trouble. Because you don't hear about Wayne Brady smoking crack in a women's bathroom wearing a dress! You don't hear that."
Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles