04/14/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
In March 2000, standing in front of his bedroom mirror, Michael Genadry experienced a painful moment of truth. The 5'9" actor, who plays high school senior Mark Vanacore on NBC's Ed, weighed 475 lbs. "You've seen yourself a million times, but you haven't really looked," he says. "I suddenly realized I had a problem."
But nearly 2½ years passed before Genadry, 25, underwent gastric-bypass surgery, a procedure similar to those performed on Al Roker and singer Carnie Wilson, among others. The dramatic result: Genadry is now 160 lbs. lighter, a difference noted not only by his castmates but also by Ed viewers, who saw his character, Mark, opt for the same surgery on the Dec. 11 episode and have followed his post-op progress on subsequent shows.
The story line is no coincidence. Last spring, after Genadry had confided in Ed's cast and crew that he was think-of having the surgery, executive producers Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman approached him. "They said, 'We'd like to write your weight loss into the show. Would you consider that?' I thought about it pretty much for a day and I just said, 'Let's do it.'"
Genadry had the procedure on Sept. 18. As his surgeon, Dr. Marc Bessler, explains, "We create a small pouch out of the top of the stomach and attach it to a limb of the intestine." This limits the absorption of calories. Though potentially risky (the estimated death rate is 1 in 300), the one-hour operation went smoothly for Genadry.
"He may have been afraid, but he never really let on to that," says Ed star Tom Cavanagh. "Now that it is over, you can see his eyes light up." With Genadry adhering to a low-carb/high-protein diet, "he's like a snowman melting," jokes costar Justin Long. Says Genadry: "I used to be able to eat an entire pizza. Now I can barely eat a slice." Inspired by Genadry's success, his father, Alfred, has also had a gastric bypass.
Genadry, who grew up in Mill-brook, N.Y., traces his obesity to a yen for junk food that caused him to balloon to 300 lbs. by age 14. "At school I had people abusing me left and right. I was very depressed," he says. "I actually contemplated suicide on several occasions," but he never told his parents. Colleen, 57, a homemaker, and Alfred, 53, a power-plant executive, encouraged him to slim down by playing sports, but, says Genadry, "I just wasn't into it." Persuaded to enter a high school drama competition, he acted a scene from Albert Innaurato's The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie, about a 500-lb. young man who tries to kill himself with food. "I had never identified so much with a piece of literature before," he says.
Though he went on to major in engineering in college, the acting bug bit again in 1998. Genadry, then working as a TV news technician in Kingston, N.Y., auditioned for a talent agent. In 2001 he landed his first job: Ed. He expected the role to be "the fat geek in high school." But the show's writers crafted a TV rarity: the thoughtful heavy guy who gets the girl.
"I never thought I would play a romantic role," he says. Perhaps because he had underestimated his own desirability. At Dutchess (N.Y.) Community College, "I was like Dear Abby," he says, dispensing advice to his female friends. Then he met classmate Jennifer Cleary. "I'd hit on him, but he was clueless," says Cleary, 25, a photographer. "I tried at least three times a year with him since 1997."
She gave up and lost touch. After a chance meeting at a diner on May 9, 2001, she finally got through to him. The couple, who share a rented two-room apartment in Ossining, N.Y., will tie the knot on May 10 at a Las Vegas wedding chapel, with Cavanagh and costar Julie Bowen among the guests. By then Genadry hopes to be closer to his goal weight of 240 lbs. And, of course, he will be sure to watch what he eats at the reception. "We're having sugarless wedding cake," he says.
Nancy Day in Ossining