George Lopez remembers seeing Sandra Bullock in the audience.
“She had these kind of cattish glasses,” he says. “I remember seeing the frames moving.”
He recalls spotting her car after the show in his rear-view mirror. “It was at the Brea Improv, about 50 minutes from Hollywood,” he explains. “I expected to see her taillights. But she followed me home.”
Now what he sees most vividly when he looks back on his budding partnership with the star of such films as “Speed” and “Miss Congeniality” is the end of his dependence on working the comedy-club circuit and the beginning of the magic-carpet ride as executive producer and star of “George Lopez.”
“I’ve said this before, and she knows this,” Lopez explains: “She was walking me out of her office after our first meeting, and I said that whatever happens, I want to say thanks for your time and for trying to help. What you’re trying to do (help create a long-running Latino show) has never been done successfully in the history of TV. She said, ‘Why don’t you worry about being funny and let me worry about that?’ I had never heard that from anybody before.”
Mindful that there were few opportunities for Latinos on network television, Bullock set out on a talent search for a possible sitcom. In the summer of 2000, she had heard about Lopez’s standup act and decided to check it out for herself.
“We had another idea at the time that another writer had brought,” Bullock says, “but after seeing George, we said this is far more interesting than anything anyone could fabricate. It was insanely twisted and comical.”
Bullock’s entertainment attorney had another client he wanted her to meet. It turned out to be Bruce Helford, veteran exec producer on such long-running shows as “Roseanne” and “The Drew Carey Show.” With Helford onboard, Bullock unleashed Lopez on network executives.
“They said, ‘He’s fantastic. We have no idea what to do with him,’ ” Bullock recalls.
But Bullock kept pressing. “She felt very strongly about getting some attention for minorities, because at that time there was nothing on network primetime,” Helford notes. “There were shows with a Latino actor, but not about a Latino family.”
After about a year and a half of developing ideas and holding meetings, “George Lopez” finally aired as a midseason replacement on March 27, 2002. But the show’s future was hardly secured, and Bullock’s involvement was only beginning.
“During the first and second seasons, she made herself available,” Helford recalls. “We would videotape all the auditions and run-throughs and rehearsals, and she would watch. She was in Austin and New York part of the time, so we did a live feed for her over the phone. She was very involved in those ways.
“She also did what most stars don’t do, which is put her money where her mouth is. She appeared on the show. It was great for the show to have that high profile.”
Bullock actually appeared in three episodes, but two of them came during the first season when the show was trying to find its legs. It was a radical departure from her first foray into network TV, the small-screen version of “Working Girl” in 1990.
“My first and only time on TV was some of the worst times I’ve ever had before a camera,” she says. “It was completely foreign and painful.
“I was so frustrated. I said: ‘Why does it work like this? Why does everything have to be done in such a tight box?’ I said if I ever went back, I want to make it better.”
One hundred episodes later, she got her wish.