, ABC's new hit series about plane-wrecked survivors on a remote Pacific island, Matthew Fox plays the dashing hero. That's him, tending to his fellow castaways' wounds (as surgeon Jack Shepard); there he goes again, rescuing drowning swimmers. Or finding fresh water. Or breaking up fights. On-or off-camera, says costar Evangeline Lilly
, "he very much leads by example." Except in one area, where he has sometimes had trouble finding willing followers. "He is notorious for taking his clothes off and running around naked, usually around bodies of water," says Lilly. "He'll skinny-dip at any moment with anyone."
Unusual behavior for a guy who says he has been "very shy and very private for most of my life." But now the 38-year-old actor is basking in the exposure that comes from starring in one of the fall's top-ranked new series. "Last night," he says, "four of us—Jorge [Garcia], Dom [Monaghan], Evie [Lilly] and I—went bowling. We had a great time. People kept wanting to take pictures of us, nonstop." Such attention "would have freaked me out years ago."
He's not exaggerating. In the '90s Fox was something of a recluse. Party of Five
, the FOX family drama in which he played Charlie, the oldest of the five orphaned Salinger children, gained a cult following, but Fox rarely attended parties and premieres and reluctantly showed up for cast photo ops with fans. "I fought fame for a long time," he says. "People think you are just like that character, and they make judgments about you."
"Matt would be the first to admit that fame was a bit of a prison for him," says Scott Wolf, who played brother Bailey. "It closed him off in ways I don't think he feels the need to do anymore." Fox agrees: "I was very distrustful of people. I was isolating myself. I've grown up a bit."
Not without some pain. When the show ended in 2000, Fox was ambivalent. "I was sad," he says. "I really loved the people that I worked with on that show. I'm still friends with Scott. We see each other when we can." On the other hand, "I was ready for it to be over, in that we had exhausted the premise." As his costars resurfaced (see sidebar), Fox became a prime-time castaway. "I wanted everyone to forget about me as Charlie," he says. So he returned to his stage roots, joining an L.A. repertory company. The move met with the approval of his Italian-born wife, Margherita (whom Fox met while earning an economics degree at Columbia University in 1987 and married five years later). "She's a really big fan of mine and not because she loves me," says Fox. "She has said on several occasions, 'Thank God you make good choices.'"
That included his decision to return to TV in 2002, starring as a private eye who communed with the dead in UPN's short-lived Haunted
. Being on a low-rated network might have given another actor career jitters. Not Fox. "It was critically well-received, which I was proud of. But I was also slightly relieved," he admits, "when it didn't do well. I was going sometimes four or five days without seeing my kids"—daughter Kyle, now 7, and Byron, 3.
was canceled soon afterward, Fox took a few months off to catch his breath. But last February, when he received the twisty script for the Lost
pilot, Fox says, he felt "like a kid opening up a toy box." Lost
co-creator J.J. Abrams had initially considered Fox for the role of troublemaker Sawyer but after meeting the actor decided to give him the lead instead. "With his look and confidence and kindness, he just felt like the guy who could take you through this mysterious adventure," says Abrams.
After he was cast, however, Fox began to worry that the move to Hawaii, where Lost
is filmed, might upset his family. When they left L.A., Kyle cried, says Fox, "but she kept saying, 'These are tears of happiness.' She loves it here." Now ensconced in a sprawling oceanfront rental with a pool, the family is also adjusting to the slower pace of Hawaiian life. "We're spoiling ourselves," says Fox, who swims with his kids on weekends. Recently, he gave his son his first action-figure toy: Samurai Jack. "He's nuts about the cartoon. He got so excited, he looked like he had to pee," says his dad, laughing. "One of my favorite things," he adds, "is to take a nap with Byron. He goes down every day at 1 o'clock for two hours. He sucks his thumb, hooks his finger over his nose and just looks at you, glassy-eyed. It's so quiet and intimate. Those moments are priceless."
By Mike Lipton. Monica Rizzo in Oahu