In ''A Night at the Roxbury,'' ''21 Jump Street'''s Richard Grieco stars as...Richard Grieco

October 23, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Things could have worked out differently for John Travolta. With a subtle twist of fate — Saturday Night Fever as a comedy, Quentin Tarantino still stuck in the video shop — we might forever associate Travolta with nothing but Vinnie Barbarino.

Welcome to Richard Grieco’s nightmare.

A decade ago, Grieco looked like the next John Travolta. He was the new Italian-American stud with a major role on 21 Jump Street, the Fox drama that made being a narc cool again.

There was just one problem. Grieco had to split the beefcake with another Jump actor named Johnny Depp. ”And that,” says Grieco, 33, ”created a serious rivalry.”

In 1989, Fox gave Grieco Booker, a series spun off from his Jump Street character. ”They had an opportunity to make two successful shows,” he says, ”so they pitted us against each other.” What happened instead was this: Booker lasted one season; Jump Street limped into syndication. Depp went on to international stardom; Grieco starred in a 1991 dud called Mobsters and fell off the face of the earth.

At least it seemed that way. Socially, Grieco was still a high-profile, heavy-drinking FOMR (Friend of Mickey Rourke). ”I’d park my Harley in front of a club. I’d sit in my booth with my bottle of Jack, and people would come by just to be with me.” Professionally, he kept his resume full with more than a dozen forgettable movies, like 1993’s Tomcat: Dangerous Desires.

A year ago things got so bad, Grieco checked into rehab. ”If anything saved me, it was probably vanity. I knew that if I looked like s—, I was never gonna work.”

Meanwhile, SNL‘s Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan were writing A Night at the Roxbury, Paramount’s full-length look at those disco-twitching dudes the Butabi brothers. The film would revolve around the brothers’ inability to get into the swank L.A. club Roxbury. One fateful evening, a big — if slightly tarnished — star like, say, Richard Grieco would rear-end their car, and invite them into the club to avoid a lawsuit. They called this character ”Richard Grieco” and sent Grieco the script.

”It was bizarre,” Grieco recalls. ”I called my agency and said, ‘Does this mean I have the movie!?’ And they said, ‘Yeah!”’ According to Roxbury producer (and Clueless director) Amy Heckerling, Grieco was the man for the role. ”We were looking for a cool guy from the recent past.” Though cast as a human punchline, Grieco was flattered. Like Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, he porked himself up to look run-down. ”It was a great way for me to poke fun at what I was,” he says. Today, in wraparound shades and tight leather jacket, he still looks Teen Beat perfect. In coming months, he’ll return to the big screen in Michael Angel with Dennis Hopper, and Heaven or Vegas (made with girlfriend Yasmine Bleeth) will appear on video.

If there’s any doubt of his lasting impact, just check the Internet, where a search for ”Richard Grieco” reveals a cache of nude photos. Unfortunately, this is news to Richard Grieco. ”Nude!? You’re kidding me!” He pauses. ”Oh, wait. That’s not me. They’re fake. Unless… hmmm. See, I live up on top of the hills, in the woods. And I have this bad habit of going out in the morning and peeing. Maybe someone took a picture. I hope not.” Just in case, though, the next paycheck might be best spent on indoor plumbing.

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