The star of ''That 70s Show'' keeps it real in Hollywood

It’s another tragically hip night on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. The Chateau Marmont overflows with A-list action like Leonardo DiCaprio, Friends of Leo, and Leo’s Model Girlfriends. Swollen lines of black-clad punk teens snake outside the Roxy and the Viper Room. And just a disco ball’s throw down the road, That ’70s Show‘s Topher Grace is livin’ it up — nibbling on a chili cheeseburger at a choo-choo-train-themed greasy spoon. ”I eat here all the time — it’s, like, the best,” he says. ”I know, I should have pretended that I hang out somewhere cooler. I should have been like, ‘Hey, let’s go to…uhh…”’ A helpless look spreads across his face. ”See? I don’t even know the right place to say.”

Oh, don’t be fooled — this kid knows all about being in the right place. Raised in quiet Darien, Conn., the 20-year-old Grace attended New Hampshire’s Brewster Academy prep school, where he tried out for plays in order to meet girls. (”I was the title character in Plymouth Rock,” shudders Grace, ”and I had to say, ‘Land on me!”’) In 1997, his performances caught the eyes of 3rd Rock From the Sun producers Bonnie and Terry Turner, whose daughter, Lindsey, costarred in the school productions. The following year, the Turners pulled him out of freshman midterms at the University of Southern California to read for the lead of their new series. The rest is retro history: Grace — earning groovy grades from critics as ’70s‘ Everyman Eric Forman — has become the most intriguingly normal-looking star to hit the tube since your second cousin anchored the high school newscast on public access. ”He’s a little bit of early Dustin Hoffman, a little bit of that buttoned-down Bob Newhart thing, a little Michael J. Fox, a little Tom Hanks,” offers Terry Turner. Or, as Kurtwood Smith, Eric’s eterna-irritated dad, sums it up: ”Topher’s about the skinniest kid on TV, if you ask me. But he’s got that genuine appeal everyone can identify with.”

Maybe that’s because his eager-Beaver Cleaver shtick isn’t really a shtick at all. Working on a studio lot stacked with Porsches and BMWs, Grace recently traded in his parents’ 1985 Volvo for…a Honda. (”It’s rated a best buy for safety,” he explains.) When the ’70s cast visited Planet Hollywood, he was too polite to accept the manager’s offer to raid the gift shop. (”There were these nice leather jackets, but the stuff was so expensive I just couldn’t take it.”) And for what greedy purpose did he use his leverage as major-network-series lead? More money? Better billing? Even more outrageous: He requested a complete set of Fox’s short-lived The Ben Stiller Show. ”He’s really shy and incredibly bright, and that doesn’t happen a lot around here,” says ’70s exec producer Mark Brazill. ”He doesn’t have a smoke machine blowing up his butt. He has no illusion about who he is and what he does.” Adds Terry Turner, ”The weirdest thing on set is trying to break Topher from calling me Mr. Turner.”

Indeed, unlike many of his slicked-back, coolly jaded young-actor peers, Grace seems downright perplexed and awed by Hollywood. ”My dream job was playing Eric in the episode where my sister’s friend comes home from college and makes out with me,” he confides. ”And the director said, ‘And you have to tongue-kiss.’ I mean, come on! Like, do you know who I was last year? Not that guy.”

That '70s Show
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