Teen idol is always ready to step up to the plate

"It's the greatest feeling in the world," says Freddie Prinze Jr., "to stand on that baseball mound and pitch a ball to a real pro, and he misses, and you know you can strike him out, and you're an actor. It's like no other thrill."

The teen idol, who stars as a baseball player with big dreams in "Summer Catch" (now in theaters), was describing his moment of glory after five months of fine-tuning his pitching. Prinze said he didn't mind having a body double for the locker-room scenes; his contract has a "no nudity" clause. But when it came to pitching the ball, neither he nor director Mike Tollin would accept a stand-in.

"It was really important to me to learn the game," says Mr. Prinze, whose character plays in the elite Cape Cod Baseball League. "I wanted audiences to believe [that] my character had the goods to be picked by a major league scout. I had to ... not look foolish standing on the mound."

The young star loves challenges. For "Summer Catch," it wasn't just learning how to pitch, but it was also flushing out his character, Ryan Dunne.

"He was so different from me," Prinze explains. "Dunne was an emotional firecracker, exploding when things went wrong. He just burned with energy. Personally, when things upset me, I get quiet and closed off. I have nothing to say, and a chill sets in while I think about what's going on."

When it comes to his work, Prinze is all dedication and humility. He has a drama coach on the set every day. "I don't want to see the movie and cringe: 'Why did I do that?' I want to know I'm giving my best, with no excuses."

That's one of the reasons why he doesn't like to watch his early movies. "I wish I could rewind time, and do that first or second or third movie again."

This dedication can backfire. While filming a live-action movie adaptation of the Saturday morning cartoon classic "Scooby-Doo" (scheduled for release next year), Prinze dyed his hair - with dire consequences.

"The movie was filmed in Australia, and every week I had my brown hair bleached blonde. We were there for six months, and at the wrap of the movie, my hair was like steel wool. The only thing I could do was shave my head bald, and let the hair grow back."

Today, he has a healthy buzz cut. Rubbing his hand over his close clip, he smiles and says, "Man, it's good to feel it's growing in nice and soft! It's also good to be back in the US."

Prinze, who is engaged to Sarah Michelle Gellar (star of TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), recently bought a larger home.While some guys his age are investing in a sports car or an SUV, he says, "A car just gets me from A to B. I really don't spend that much time driving. The first thing I did when my career started moving was to buy a small house."

A big kitchen was at the top of his list while looking for a new place. "That's where I like to spend time. I love to cook," he says.

"Sarah can tell you I'm [a good cook]. I can whip up some fancy dishes. My favorite is one I make with veal and eggplant. I've invented my own recipe, and I don't mind boasting, when I serve it to friends - there's never any leftovers."

Prinze is a native of Albuquerque, N.M. His late father, Freddie Prinze, was the star of the successful comedy TV series "Chico and the Man" in the 1970s. Prinze was only 10 months old when his father died, but he knows his work well. He has a complete library of his dad's series.

When he and his mom moved to Los Angeles in the early '90s, the young Prinze got work right away. "My first job was four words in 'Family Matters.' It was huge!"

Movie studios began noticing the young actor when he appeared in "The House of Yes" with Parker Posey in 1997.

After starring in the blockbuster hit "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and its sequel, "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer," it became evident to Prinze that he could "carry" a movie. Since then, he has starred in the teen romantic comedies "She's All That," "Down to You," and "Head Over Heels."

"I think the best career advice I received was from Peter Falk," Prinze says. "Directors can be fired, a script can be changed, but character remains. When reading a script, always look to character - that should be the deciding factor."

Prinze is focused on acting, but he enjoys learning martial arts and tap dancing. His pal, Dulé Hill (Charlie, the president's aide, in TV's "The West Wing") is his teacher. "He's the best dancer in the world," praises Prinze.

Hard working and focused, Prinze is always trying to improve and is open to suggestions.

Actor Matthew Lillard, who plays catcher Billy Brubaker in "Summer Catch," has been in four movies with Prinze, including "Scooby-Doo." A New York stage alum, Lillard is one of Prinze's closest friends.

"Sometimes when I'm doing a scene, I'll ask Matt, 'Did you feel that? Do you think I nailed it?' Prinze often says to the director, "Could we do one more take? I think I can do it better."

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