Since its debut last spring, George Lopez has become the first successful Latino sitcom on network TV since Prinze's Chico and the Man. Playing a factory manager who lives with his wife, two kids and his embittered mother, "George has a way of smacking you with a joke and making you laugh for 15 minutes before you realize that the joke was basically about you," says Sandra Bullock, one of the show's executive producers. "He does it with love." The actress first saw Lopez's stand-up act in a Southern California comedy club in 2000. At the time, she was in discussions to produce a Latino version of The Beverly Hillbillies, "but once I saw his stand-up I realized that his life and situations were much better than the ideas we had had," she says. "His actual life history is like a train wreck, and he is brave enough to share it."
In fact, although the show is largely autobiographical, it's actually a more upbeat version of Lopez's life. Two months after Lopez was born in San Fernando, Calif., his father abandoned the family, and his mother, then just 20, entrusted Lopez to her parents. Factory worker Benita Gutierrez, now 83 and living in Mission Hills, Calif., and builder Refugil Gutierrez, who died in 1988, had little money—or affection—to shower on their grandson. "They were tough on each other and on me, emotionally," he says. "When I was 10 and I'd say the kids at school don't like me, she'd say the only friends you have are the dollars in your pocket. And then I didn't even have a dollar."
As a result, says Lopez, "I don't think I had ever seen or been in a healthy relationship"—until 1989, when he met Ann Serrano. She was scouting for a Latino actor for 1990's Taking Care of Business and had come to see his act. The pair started dating, but Lopez was a tough nut: In 1993, after dating for more than a year, recalls Ann, 41, now a producer, "I said, 'Are we going to get married?' He was like, 'Okay.' I had to get my own ring. It was so unromantic. I have had to teach him that it's okay to be loved and to give love."
Success has boosted Lopez's confidence, "but his act is in many ways his dealing with his past, insecurities and upbringing," says comedian Cheech Marin, a pal. By exorcising his demons onstage, Lopez also found his escape from a factory life. After high school he worked at an airplane-parts plant? from 1981 to '83. "Stand-up," says Lopez, who performed for the first time at age 18, "was my only chance to make any type of life." His desperation overcame his stage fright as he told childhood stories, like the one about swimming in a trash can because his family never went anywhere in the summer. "Since I couldn't do laps," he says, "[my grandmother] just watched me spin."
He worked the comedy-club circuit for two decades, but didn't start catching big breaks until 2000, when he landed a morning-radio gig in L.A. At the same time, his acting career was picking up steam with a role in 2000's Bread and Roses, which was featured in the Cannes Film Festival, and a part in the upcoming movie Real Women Have Curves. Then Bullock gave him the final push. At their second meeting, over sandwiches in her L.A. office, "she had turkey hanging out of her mouth and I had pastrami and we were talking about the show and our lives and she snorted, and I thought, 'Damn! If that isn't the best,' " he says. "She cared from the beginning."
Lopez can't seem to believe his own luck. Now, when he's not working on the show, he's roller-skating or watching DVDs with Ann and their daughter Mayan, 6, in their four-bedroom Tudor home in Toluca Lake, Calif. "As a Chicano I never thought I would live in a house that the Olsen twins once lived in," he says with a laugh. "Maybe I'd work on their house or put in a pool, but to live in it? Wow!"
Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles
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