As 2020 trudged to its dreary conclusion, one piece of news cut through the scroll of election anxiety and pandemic misery like a sunbeam slicing through the clouds. It was an announcement that sounded like a parody, a “mini-movie” brought to us by a fever-dream team of Lifetime and KFC: A Recipe for Seduction. The role of sexy Colonel Sanders, in shirtsleeves nearly bursting at the bicep, would be played by Mario Lopez.

Meanwhile, over on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock, the 47-year-old Lopez was back at Bayside High as A.C. Slater in the Saved by the Bell reboot, which charmed critics with its speedy-quick wit and wink-wink take on its corny, beloved source material. In the 2020 update, Slater, once a hot jock, has aged into a (still hot) has-been and gym teacher at his old high school, his personal life stuck in park.

Amid all this, Lopez is producing and playing the lead in Feliz NaviDAD, a Christmas movie also on Lifetime, which is the sort of thing that is not as embarrassing as it used to be, but is still not, like, not embarrassing.

Taken together, it’s a Triple Crown of Twitter fodder, a hat trick of career moves that make you go: Wait, what? In a grim and nearly joyless year, here was Lopez supplying a disproportionate allotment of delight. For the extremely online and low-stakes-content starved, Sexy Colonel Sanders day was an especially bountiful one: “more like 50 shades of gravy”, “I bet chicken isn’t the only meat *he* delivers”, “I want to try HIS drumstick”, etc. As the Recipe for Seduction trailer made the rounds, in which Lopez courts Jessica the fried chicken heiress and wears a fake goatee about as subtle as Groucho glasses, the question loomed: Are we laughing at Mario Lopez? Or is he in on the joke?

Lopez is as ubiquitous a pop culture figure as they come, his dime-deep dimples a reliable presence on all red carpets and reality shows. Even in quarantine, he is somehow splitting his time among a cavalcade of hosting responsibilities — his daily national iHeartRadio show “On With Mario”; his ESPN boxing podcast, “3 Knockdown Rule”; Access Hollywood and Access Daily and All Access, taped back-to-back-to-back in a two-hour block on NBC — plus his producing work, including a documentary on Oscar de la Hoya, and parenting three kids, Gia (9), Dominic (6), and Santino (one and a half), with his wife, Courtney Mazza.

“I like to keep busy, man,” Lopez says. He’s wearing a snug red t-shirt, the silver chain of his cross necklace — a practicing Catholic, Lopez attended church weekly before the pandemic— peeking out at his neck as he swivels a bit in a black leather chair. “I’ve always had sort of a hustler mentality.”

Lopez grew up in Chula Vista, California, about three miles from Mexico; his parents immigrated to the U.S. as teenagers. Asked whether he felt like he had enough money growing up, Lopez hedges: “I never really felt like I missed out on anything [or] like I was struggling. Even though it was a pretty tough neighborhood.” To keep him out of trouble, his parents packed his days with activities, and he became “the only dancing-wrestling-karate-theater kid around.” He was spotted by a local talent agent, did some print work, then landed on the Disney Channel’s Kids Incorporated. At 15, he auditioned for Saved by the Bell. Slater was supposed to be Italian, not Latino. “Like Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter, a John Travolta role, more of a street kid,” Lopez remembers. “But fortunately, the casting director cast it blindly.”

While acting on Saved by the Bell, Lopez still attended public high school, playing sports and going to the prom. “I really felt like I had the best of both worlds,” Lopez says. Elizabeth Berkley Lauren, who plays Jessie “I’m So Excited!” Spano, Slater’s on-off love interest, remembers this as an early sign of his indefatigable work ethic. “We didn’t even have our driver’s licenses yet,” she said. “And his parents drove him from Chula Vista to NBC. He was in that car for hours, as a kid, and then on set like a pro.”

“I never was one of those kids like, ‘Oh I have to be on TV,’ or ‘I want to perform and it’s in my heart,’” Lopez says. “I wanted just to make enough money to not have to burden my parents with paying for college.” Though he got an inauspicious start— for Saved by the Bell, he was paid $3,500 an episode — he wound up being so successful that he got too busy with work to ever attend a university.

“I say no to a lot of stuff… [but] when you grow up without money, you have two attitudes when you start making some,” Lopez says. “You either think: Well, all right, I’ve made it and I’m just gonna get flossy and kind of rest on my laurels. Or you can think, which is what I do: You know what? This shit can go away like that” — he snaps for emphasis. “And I don’t ever want to regret it. I want to keep striking while the iron is hot.”

Still, Lopez did not automatically say yes to the prospect of a Saved by the Bell reboot. The quality of other ‘90s revivals ranged from great (The Baby-Sitters Club) to unwatchable (Full House), and Lopez was wary of falling into the latter category. Then he saw Cobra Kai. “It was such a smart, clever way, the way they blended the nostalgia and this updated version,” he says. “So [I said], if we can emulate that, then I’m down.”

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Tracey Wigfield, Emmy-winning alum of 30 Rock, had grown up adoring Saved by the Bell. “It was like Entourage, for third graders,” she says by phone. “It was this fantastical version of high school where everything always works out for Zack Morris.” When the rights became available in 2018, Wigfield “jumped at the chance” to make the reboot. “I felt there was an opportunity to make a new show with a new class, but also poke some fun at the old show,” she said.

Wigfield wanted original cast members involved, landing on Lopez and Lauren to join the main cast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Tiffani Thiessen, Bayside’s reigning couple Zack and Kelly, were only available to make limited appearances). Rewatching old episodes, Wigfield noticed Slater didn’t focus much on studying because he always assumed he’d be a pro athlete. But what if that hadn’t worked out? “Because [Lopez] is so handsome and seems like a winner, it seemed like a funny character for him to play,” she said. “This lonely loser who has a million condo payments left.”

Lopez wound up in every episode of the reboot, committing fully to the bit of Slater as a sweet but hapless figure who has been lapped by everyone in his life and whose attempts at paternal wisdom leave his students unmoved. Lopez throws himself into the throwback scenes, too: doing the Risky Business slide in short-shorts and a cantaloupe-colored tank top, lip-syncing to “Barbara Ann”; going shirtless beneath a silver-sequined blazer to get the band Zack Attack back together.

It would take far less to make the average person blush, but Lopez swears he cannot remember the last time he was embarrassed, save for when he’s teased by his children. On-camera, he says, “It would take a lot to embarrass me.”

He is even completely un-self-conscious about playing sexy Colonel Sanders, instead pointing out that he is part of a grand tradition that includes Reba McEntire and Rob Lowe. To be asked to join their ranks, he says, “was an honor.” When he was told the vision for his version was a full-on romance novel, he didn’t flinch. “I thought: that’s awesome. It’s so tongue-in-cheek, so over the top. It’s gonna be hilarious.”

And for sixteen minutes of pure, unadulterated sponcon, it is hilarious, with dialog like Lopez’s Sanders snarling at Jessica’s country-club boyfriend, who will later kidnap (!) and attempt to murder him (!!), “Don’t call me crouton.” It’s not just that the episode is absurd; as in Saved by the Bell, Lopez makes it funny — it’s his solid timing, the sincerity of his delivery.

“Once he got on set, I was so blown away by what a funny and skilled and precise comic actor he is,” Wigfield said. “I kept texting other showrunners, like, ‘Mario Lopez is Will Ferrell.’”

It’s hard not to be thoroughly charmed by Lopez, which of course is his trade — the commensurate host, at ease in conversation. Hosting is the t-shirt of dramatic arts; done well, it calls no attention to itself. Lopez has been beaming out of our screens, basically nonstop, for close to 40 years. (Though he appears to have aged exactly zero years during these decades, he insists he has no skincare routine and only wears sunscreen at the beach; at one point, he mimes pumping hand soap from a gym bathroom dispenser and rubbing it on his face, by way of demonstrating his post-workout cleansing routine.)

Growing up, he hoped to become “the Latino Dick Clark,” and in this effort he got some counsel from the actual Dick Clark, who became a mentor. “He told me, ‘Mario, you’ve got to look at yourself as a brand, not necessarily just as an actor or even just as an entertainer,’” Lopez recalls. Succeed at that, and audiences “‘are going to feel comfortable with you. They’re going to want to invest in you and spend their time with you, and you can be in someone’s family room for decades to come.’ I just took that advice and ran with it.”

As a host, Lopez is both one of us and one of them, an audience surrogate who can level with the stars. He’s exactly in-between, which makes him the perfect go-between: no matter which side of the exchange you’re on — viewer or celebrity — you feel comfortable with him in the middle.

“It’s got to be in your DNA,” he says. “You’ve got to like people. You’ve got to be genuinely inquisitive. You’ve got to be comfortable with yourself and comfortable around all different types of people.” Though he points to a few technical skills you need to master to do the work well (reading the teleprompter, getting the rhythm down), “At the end of the day, it’s all about people and how you connect with them and how they feel… I think it’s a certain energy or that authenticity can be fake, and people pick up on it.”

Lopez is still a bit mystified by the continued love for Saved by the Bell, though he notes that the show, like him, “never really left TV,” finding new fans in syndication. “We were actual teenagers playing teenagers which you didn’t see too often,” he says. “It was a really diverse cast. It was really innocent, because it was Saturday morning. And maybe there was just a sense of escapism, and the fact that it was so corny in its vanilla, youthful way.” He grins. “It was like a grilled cheese sandwich!”

It’s hard to imagine another actor gleefully describing their fame-making role as something you could order at the Max. But this is the appeal of Lopez, and he knows it: He’s someone who does not see the “guilty” in guilty pleasure, who is happy as long as we’re happy.

In a way, this approach renders him totally out of step with the times. We’re living in a cultural stretch so performative and pretentious it’s exhausting, holding up our refined and just-so high-low tastes — curated bookshelves in the backgrounds of our Zoom calls, screenshots of our on-brand Spotify Wrapped playlists — as proof that we have objectively correct and unimpeachable personalities. Which is what makes Lopez’s work, and his attitude about it, such a welcome, refreshing relief.

Lopez doesn’t care if he’s on the show you delete from the DVR before your date comes over, as long as he made you feel good when you watched it. He doesn’t need to be on the series you brag about binging. He doesn’t mind serving as grist for a day of Twitter jokes or a generation of Saved by the Bell memes. He doesn’t care if you think you’re laughing at him. He knows that he’s laughing with you.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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