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CAR BUFF

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The very concept of Dan Cortese is exhausting. As pitchman for Burger King in its ubiquitous BK TeeVee ad campaign, the handsome, likable, yakkety hamburger helper zips across the country interrupting diners as they eat their Whoppers. He hoots ”I l-o-o-ove this place!” and cajoles regular people into saying the same for the camera even when they might prefer to be left alone with their burgers and shakes. His trademark: a baseball cap swung backward over his long, dark hair. ”Burger King, that’s not how I act in real life,” he says. ”Sometimes , people call out, ‘Dan, Dan, the Whopper Man!’ I go, ‘Yeah, right, thank you.”’ Then there’s his gig as host of MTV Sports, in which Cortese, 25, zips across the country to windsurf, bungee-jump, and participate in other attitudinally cool leisure activities, often with such sporty celebs as Run- D.M.C. or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His headgear: a bandanna tied around his head. ”The MTV thing is probably closest to my real personality,” says Cortese. ”Although I’m not really that hyper.” Now, beginning Tuesday, June 8, at 8 p.m., Cortese-that’s Cor-TEZ -costars in his own network series, NBC’s remake of the early-’60s road adventure Route 66. He plays a chatty hitchhiker called Arthur who zips across the country with Nick (James Wilder from Equal Justice) in Nick’s red 1961 Corvette. The conceit is that Nick is the son of the late Buz Murdock, who was played by George Maharis in the original CBS series (Martin Milner played his road buddy, Todd Stiles) and whose ‘vette Nick has recently inherited. Arthur is simply supposed to be Cortese-like: blabby, likable, cheeky. With a baseball cap swung backward. ”I think everybody has a friend like (Arthur). Sometimes you’ve got to tell him, Shut up!” he says. There are those who think Dan Cortese is annoying, not exhausting; those who find him charming; those who don’t know his name but think his face is familiar; and others who think What’s the deal with this guy? There are many who confuse Cortese with actor John Corbett, who plays Chris on Northern Exposure and who is remarkably similar in look and manner; many think the two are the same man, or at least brothers (they are neither). Some wonder whether Cortese has zipped too fast along the route to celebrity, and whether he’d do well to slow down, and maybe indeed shut up. In fact, in person, Dan Cortese is not irritating: He’s just eager. One way to slow him down is to bring him to the velvet-swagged, billiards-stocked Club Room at the Hollywood Athletic Club and let the heavy drapery and muted plum colors of the room lull his busy mouth. Admire his wardrobe: black jams, white muscle shirt, black clunker boots, hoop earring, two large silver crucifixes hung around his neck on long black silk ropes. Let him reflect on being young and buff and, suddenly, a Media Sensation, invited to make appearances at glamorous openings, attend glamorous parties with people he himself finds awesome: ”Planet Hollywood in London. That was so cool! There were 78 celebrities $ there. Bruce Willis played with his band! I had never been in London! Wow! And then I was in Italy. I saw a poster in Italian for Beverly Hills, 90210! I wanted it for my friend (actor) Ian (Ziering)!” Cortese, the youngest of four, grew up in Sewickley, Pa., outside of Pittsburgh. His father is a retired high school principal, his mother a seamstress. His fiancee and college sweetheart from University of North Carolina, aspiring actress Dee Dee Hemby, 24, joined him on a drive across country soon after graduation. ”When we first got here, we stayed for five days with my sister’s next-door neighbor in Ohio’s best friend,” he says. Cortese found a studio apartment and eventually a bottom-level production assistant’s job at MTV for $350 a week. A year later, just as his job was about to be eliminated in a budget cut, he nominated himself, on a lark, to be host of MTV Sports, then in development. He charmed the camera, got the gig. Looking good hasn’t hurt; he works out at home, bikes, runs, pays attention to his tan. ”Based on his MTV work, every network wanted him,” says Harley Peyton, co- executive producer of Route 66. ”He’s wildly entertaining. When we cast Dan, we were aware that there was already some backlash because he’s all over the place-you know, jokes on Saturday Night Live-and we hadn’t even started filming. So I joke that by the time the show comes out, he’ll be ready for his comeback.” Cortese doesn’t know where his route will take him next if the series doesn’t last beyond the summer. His MTV Sports slot is secure-the show beat out ABC’s Wide World of Sports for a sports series/anthologies Emmy this spring. His contract with Burger King comes up for renewal in August, and while neither BK nor ad agency D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, which created BK TeeVee, will comment, Dan hints at a desire for change: Asked whether, after cutting 92 Burger King spots, he has had enough, he replies, ”Haven’t you?” For now, there’s still an excellent Hollywood life to be led, and yakked about-and so much zipping around to do. He drives away from the Hollywood Athletic Club in his Lexus SC400. In his back pocket: a knotted bandanna.

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