LOS ANGELES — Tell Jorge Garcia that his "Lost" character, Hurley, may be television's most lovable castaway since Gilligan and the actor begs to differ.
"I thought you were going to say Rupert," says Garcia, citing Rupert Boneham, the bushy-haired contestant from another island drama, last year's "Survivor: Pearl Islands."
Hugo "Hurley" Reyes certainly has as wild a mane and the same burly frame as Boneham. But competitive enough for a reality series?
No way. Hurley is a mellow guy who skirts conflicts with his often touchy fellow plane crash survivors. And he's got the sort of heft that's more a comfort than a threat, not to mention an endearing way with his trademark word "dude."
Garcia said he recognized Hurley's potential from the start.
"I loved the character and I knew he had a good chance of having audience appeal for his 'ahhh-guy' qualities. He's the one who makes the audience go, 'ahhh,"' Garcia told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Hawaii, where the series films.
He elaborates with examples: Having the kindhearted Hurley give a pregnant crash victim extra food was an "ahhh" moment. So was a scene in which the bulky character faces a physical challenge and defiantly proclaims that he can handle it because "I'm spry."
Garcia also admired the series that skeptics initially compared to "Gilligan's Island" meshed with "Survivor." It became a breakout hit in its freshman year and a template for other dramas trying to match its combination of sharply drawn characters and plot twists.
"Lost" (9 p.m. EST Wednesdays on ABC) draws more than 20 million weekly viewers.
"We weren't sure if we would succeed or not. But we were proud of the show and we were definitely making television that other people weren't," he said. "For one thing, we had an episode (about a Korean-speaking couple) almost entirely in subtitles."
Hurley's story involves a set of mystery numbers, which brought him a huge lottery jackpot and, he's convinced, an endless run of bad luck. The same figures are a key part of the show's leitmotif, seen on the now-blown hatch to a bunker and in a supposedly vital computer code.
Garcia is mum about what will happen as the season progresses but is happy to discuss where he'd like his character to go. Maybe headlong into a romance, for instance?
"Who wouldn't want to see Hurley find romance?" Garcia replies, recalling an online petition that called on the series' producers to "get Hurley some lovin'."
"I remember checking it and we still hadn't gotten to 200 yet. I was like, 'C'mon, people, can't we at least break 200?"' the actor said.
He's pleased that Hurley, who in flashbacks was seen living at home and being scolded by mom, is developing a spine. In one episode, put in charge of a newly discovered cache of food, Hurley insists on handling the task his own way — an approach aimed at keeping the castaways from turning on him or each other.
"I think he's starting to stand up and become a bit more of a leader. That's really the direction I like seeing," Garcia said.
Hurley fans might just hope he keeps on truckin'; "Lost" can be brutal toward its characters. The latest to die was Shannon (Maggie Grace), the spoiled blonde. Or at least it appeared she was fatally shot last Wednesday, although con man Sawyer (Josh Holloway) wasn't looking too healthy, either.
Garcia, 32, who was born in Omaha and grew up in the Orange County suburb San Juan Capistrano, seems pleased with his own direction. In the past few years, he's moved from commercials to series (he was on "Becker" and played a pot dealer on "Curb Your Enthusiasm") to star of one of TV's most-watched shows. He does standup comedy as well.
"Lost" represented a new challenge for him. The pilot episode in which ill-fated Oceanic Air Flight 815 crashes, he recalls, was like "making an action movie, with explosions and running. For me, I was just going along for the ride."
Water-drenched scenes are an ongoing test. Garcia recounted one in which he had to slip and slide down a muddy hill while being pelted by sprinklers and fire hoses.
"When it comes to it, you've got to admit the stuff we do in the rain looks awesome," he said, even if the actors pay for it. Heaters are nearby but all they do is "heat up the water that's in your pants. Then they pelt you with water and it's even colder. It's like the Jacuzzi factor."
Garcia has settled into a house on the island of Oahu and a relationship. "I moved in next door to this great woman," he said. His girlfriend distributes wine and liquor to restaurants, hotels and bars.
Although one news report had Garcia slimming down, he said the producers haven't asked that he lose weight. Hurley's size even provided a bit of comic relief in one scene, when a fellow passenger on a rant questioned how he could stay big on their limited island diet.
Any weight loss, the actor said, is because "I'm now in the position to be more responsible for myself. And being in Hawaii is very conducive to more outdoor activity."
Besides, Garcia's distinctive look nets him attention that sometimes eludes fellow members of the ensemble cast. He recalled following Holloway and Grace when they dropped into a Honolulu restaurant one day.
"Josh walks in, no one says a word. Maggie walks in, no one says a word. I walk in and (customers) are like, 'Hey, you're the guy from the show!"' Garcia said.
And do fans beg him to reveal upcoming stories or the deeper meaning of those fateful numbers?
"People don't really want to know what happens. They ask you for just a second, but then they don't want to know."
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EDITOR'S NOTE — Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org