After a misguided run at movie stardom, the ''Saturday Night Live'' alum returns to TV to claim Conan O'Brien's old desk -- and what could be his last chance at career salvation
Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy Fallon need not thank Lorne Michaels for his new gig. He shouldn’t send flowers to NBC’s head honchos, either. And Conan O’Brien can forget about that spa gift certificate. The thank-yous should actually go to Fallon’s classmates at St. Mary of the Snow parochial school in Saugerties, N.Y. It was these prepubescent prognosticators who initially saw his potential as the next great talk-show host. ”In my eighth-grade yearbook they put ‘James Fallon Is Most Likely to Replace David Letterman,”’ says Fallon, sitting in his office on the seventh floor of 30 Rock, three weeks from his debut as Conan O’Brien’s Late Night replacement. ”I should hang that up somewhere.”

Better yet, he might want to bring it along for a little show-and-tell on March 2 at 12:35 a.m. — just in case he needs help convincing audiences that he’s the right man for the desk. After peacing out of Saturday Night Live in 2004, Fallon was hoping to follow fellow SNL alums like Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy to the big screen. But his first two (and pretty much only) major forays into film did little to launch his movie career, and for the next three years, he all but fell off the Hollywood map. Now the comedian, 34, has been handed the second chance of a lifetime, nabbing a gig that could either turn him into a pop culture icon and nightly TV institution, like Carson, Leno, or Letterman — or be remembered as an embarrassingly high-profile blemish on his résumé. Says Late Night and SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels: ”The thing I said to Conan, which I also said to Jimmy, is ‘There is no job after this. You don’t go play the third lead in a movie.”’ The pressure is not lost on Fallon, who is unsure of how long his contract with NBC lasts. ”I’m assuming three years, but to be honest, it could be one.” Continues the clearly tired star, ”I wish it was more of a soft opening. I don’t like to make such a big deal out of the first show because it’s a marathon, not a race. I don’t want to make it into ‘Get ready for one night of pleasure.’ I’m going to be here hopefully for years.”

NEXT PAGE: ”The announcer practices some potential opening lines for the show: ‘You loved him on SNL. You hated him in the movies. Now you’re ambivalent. Please welcome…Jimmy Fallon!”’