Under hot 'SNL' lights, Phelps plays it cool

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK - It's very late at 30 Rockefeller Center, where it's been dark for hours, the stores long closed. Yet tourists and determined sightseers crowd the entrance, slog into an impossibly long but ever-growing line or just huddle around, camera phones on standby.

A glimpse of Michael Phelps is all they want. With the Olympic champion hosting Saturday Night Live, such glimpses are the hottest of commodities, another Fifth Avenue luxury to covet.

Matt Schwartz and Kasey LaFlam, both 24 and from New York, are among the lucky, with spots toward the front of the line that might allow them to make it into the show. When Schwartz found out Phelps was the headliner, he knew he'd be risking life and limb to take anyone but LaFlam.

"She's completely obsessed," he says.

Obsessed, that is, not with the eight gold medals, not with his speed, butterfly stroke or legendary dolphin kick. For LaFlam, as for so many dreamy-eyed others, it's, well, how Phelps looks in that Speedo.

"Mmm, yeah," she sighs. "Yeah."

Operation Ogle may be fully engaged on Saturday night, but the troop surge has built for days, starting when Phelps began frequenting 30 Rock earlier in the week for rehearsals.

And the seen-it-all city set can't blame the breathlessness entirely on tourists.

It's also the people who work in the building - people who typically aren't prone to bouts of star-struck giddiness since, at the NBC offices, big names are about as common as coffee stations.

While vacationers on the NBC tour press their noses - literally - onto the glass window overlooking SNL's studio, workers from other floors suddenly remember very important errands that require passing by the 8th floor.

"People in the building have been all, 'Ohmygosh it's Michael Phelps!' " says Lauren Roseman, a publicist with the show. "It's pretty funny."

At the rehearsal Friday afternoon, Phelps is hunkered down on what's supposed to be a locker room bench for a skit about a hopelessly bad swim team. "I don't know, coach," he's reading from a cue card a few feet away from him. "I got a bad feeling about this. A Real. Bad. Feeling."

Continuing, Phelps, or team captain "Michael Phillips," tells Will Forte, who's playing the coach, of a premonition in which "I fudged my Speedo."

He imbues the indelicate line with a look of wide-eyed earnestness that he manages to hold for about three seconds before succumbing to the giggles.

The sketch wraps and Phelps is still laughing.

Around him stage crews and sound and lighting experts rush about, hammering sets into place, planning and re-planning shots and endlessly revising lines to throw out the un-funny and make the funny stuff funnier still.

Though he's chosen this high-profile, high-wire act to make his acting debut, Phelps couldn't appear more relaxed. In the tedious lags between sketches, as stagehands all but run, they're so frantic, he's chatting with the cast, stretching his crazily long arms, thumbing his Blackberry.

A crew from 60 Minutes is on the balcony filming footage for a Phelps profile to air later this fall. The reporters crack up at Phelps' Speedo-spoiling line.

Down below the man of the hour is looking anything but, wearing the same purple hooded sweatshirt and flip-flops he sported earlier in the week on The Tonight Show. After weeks on the road, his agent, Peter Carlisle, admits that he and Phelps both have a serious laundry issue.

"It's so bad," Carlisle says. "But the ironic thing is, is that designers have been sending him tons of clothes. He has boxes of Armani just waiting to be opened, but he's still wearing the same old stuff."

Though Carlisle has known Phelps since the swimmer was 16 (he's now 23), sometimes he still can't get over his client's almost-eerie calm, that steely-eyed reserve in the face of intense pressure. Like on an Olympic starting block. Like now.

"Sometime I wonder if he even completely realizes what's happening," Carlisle says, laughing. "It's just such a great quality to have. He's ultra-cool but when that moment comes, he's on."

Meanwhile, Carlisle says Phelps has gotten cameo offers from essentially every show on television. But "going Hollywood," as he puts it, isn't the strategy. "We'll see if he enjoys it, see if he's good at it. It's too premature to start exploring opportunities beyond this."

Later in the afternoon Phelps is running through a Justice League skit. Not surprisingly, he's Aquaman - Aquaman just back from vacation, toting a fishing rod and tackle box. His fellow superheroes, it turns out, have hardly missed him. In fact, they've decided to fire him, since his water skills aren't exactly in demand.

"The whole time I was gone no one wanted to talk to a fish?" Phelps reads from the cue card with a helping of theatrical indignation. "Really? Really???"

A bit later Phelps is telling a reporter that in the studio, "I feel relaxed and I feel like I can be myself." The reporter wants to know how natural he feels delivering the Speedo fudging line before not only millions of viewers, but his mom, who's coming in from Baltimore for the show.

"Ah, fudge my Speedo, yeah," he says with a grin. "It's all in good fun, though I am interested in seeing her reaction. I think she'll like it. We'll see."

Minutes before the show goes live Saturday night, Debbie Phelps is indeed in the house. The best balcony seat, front and center, on the aisle, is reserved for her. Her daughter, Whitney, and son-in-law will be to her left. Across the aisle to her right is sportscaster Bob Costas, who's come to see the athlete he spent so much time talking about in Beijing.

A few seats down from the Phelps clan is the Springsteen clan - as in Bruce Springsteen, his wife, Patti Scialfa, and their children. Next to the rock star sits NBC News anchorman Brian Williams and his brood. There's Richard Schiff from The West Wing. There's celebrity chef Guy Fieri. There's Lenny Krayzelburg from the 2004 U.S. Olympic swim team. There's former SNL star Chevy Chase. There's the late Tim Russert's son, Luke.

But when announcer Don Pardo booms out the name Michael Phelps, and Phelps strolls on stage in a suit, and says with a wink, "This is like the ninth greatest moment of my life," he may as well be the only celebrity in the house. All those other stars? They're going crazy for him.

When his monologue ends and at-home viewers see a commercial, Phelps' handler yanks him off stage for a split-second costume change. In no time he's back on stage, out of the suit and into a blond, bowl-cut wig to play a home-schooled kid. He's sitting next to his skit "sister," SNL veteran Amy Poehler, in her own special hairdo, and cracking up - until the cameras are once again live.

Phelps, sprinting from the home-school skit to a would-be locker-room set for the swim team sketch, begins unbuttoning his shirt. Women in the audience began to shriek. By the time Phelps gets to the locker area, the shirt is altogether off. It stays that way for a few sweet seconds until the handler shoves a T-shirt and track jacket over Phelps' head.

The whole thing, start to finish, tickles Debbie Phelps, even the Speedo line, but especially the bit on The Michael Phelps Diet that poked fun at her son's now-infamous 12,000-calorie daily diet. "You know what," the eternally proud mom says, "he's going to do whatever he puts his mind to. He's got so many hidden talents."

As pleased as Mrs. Phelps was, the obsessed Kasey LaFlam, who got her shirtlessness, might be even happier.

REVIEW Tina Fey as Sarah Palin stole the show, The Sun's David Zurawik writes.

PG 16

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