Old habits die hard. For 10 years with New Kids on the Block, Donnie Wahlberg thrived on a regimen of rehearsal, performing and travel. Here we are, nearly a decade after the group’s demise, and “it’s the same every day,” says Wahlberg, who rises at 7 a.m. sharp, eats a bowl of oatmeal, takes son Xavier to school, sweats through a 90-minute workout and is “freakish” about keeping his TV remote in the exact same spot. “He’s so obsessive,” says wife Kim, “sometimes you want to strangle him.”
Or give him a plum acting role. Wahlberg’s compulsions helped him land what USA Today calls “possibly the best role on the best new show of the season”: LAPD detective Joel Stevens, the conflicted perfectionist of NBC’s Boomtown. For Wahlberg, 33, it’s all part of his career game plan. Soon after he started acting, he says, “I knew there would be a TV show in my future.”
His self-confidence shouldn’t be mistaken for arrogance. “We all have raging egos in this business, but there’s a certain selflessness about Donnie’s desire to do well,” says executive producer Graham Yost, who wrote the part of Stevens with Wahlberg in mind, after working with him in HBO’s Band of Brothers. “He takes [the role] very seriously, but not himself.”
Others do. “I know how much work Donnie’s put into the craft, studying and all, and he’s really good,” says brother Mark Wahlberg, 31, currently starring in The Truth About Charlie. “As long as he doesn’t start taking any of my roles,” he says, “we won’t have a problem.” The older Wahlberg would settle for some of his brother’s leading ladies, though: “I can’t believe the women he gets to work with,” says Donnie, who as a teen used to pass his ex-girlfriends on to Mark. “Now I can’t even get into the same area code.”
Even so, “the guy’s a girl magnet,” says Boomtown‘s Mykelti Williamson, who plays Wahlberg’s partner Bobby “Fearless” Smith. “He walks down the street and women are sticking to him, but he cruises through unfazed. I call him Don Juan because he’s so smooth.”
Probably because he’s seen it all before. Wahlberg was raised the eighth of nine children of Donald, 72, a deliveryman, and Alma, 60, a nurse’s aide. (Divorced since Donnie was 12, both are now retired.) The family lived in Dorchester, a rough Boston neighborhood where “you had to speak up if you wanted to be heard,” says Mark. So Donnie did, rapping on street corners and at school dances.
In 1985 he auditioned for music producer Maurice Starr, who molded him and pals Danny Wood, Joey McIntyre and sibs Jordan and Jonathan Knight into the New Kids on the Block. The result: a nationwide phenomenon that sold 50 million albums worldwide. Wahlberg, whose earnings made him financially secure for life, is proud of his pop past. “Did we deserve to be the biggest band in the world? No. But did we deserve to be every critic’s whipping boys? We didn’t deserve that either. We worked harder than anyone will know.”
The buzz wore off by 1994, and the band called it quits. Wahlberg, who became a father in ’93, had been eager for the end, “but the day after we finished, I woke up and didn’t know what to do anymore,” he says. “It was scary.”
He spent a year planning his next move with girlfriend Kim Fey, a recording engineer, and their son Xavier, now 9, before landing a role in the crime film Bullet. It went direct to video, but got Wahlberg hooked on acting. “I had to get another shot,” he says, “so I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again.” He improved with roles as a kidnapper in 1996’s Ransom and the patient who shoots Bruce Willis in 1999’s The Sixth Sense.
That same year Wahlberg married Fey. Why then? “I wanted to do it before my 30th birthday and before the millennium—in case the world ended,” he says. “He’s much more romantic than me,” says Kim, who gave birth to their second child, Elijah, last year. “He’ll come into the kitchen, spin me around and just start dancing.”
Occasionally he stumbles. “Sometimes,” says Kim, “he’ll make eggs for breakfast. They’re always browned or burned. Xavier and I will give each other a look like, Are you going to eat those?”
Still, domestic life suits Wahlberg. Despite his booming career, he has no plans to move his family out of their three-bedroom country-style L.A. home, which is located closer to Xavier’s soccer field than to Beverly Hills mansions. “If people walked into my house, they wouldn’t see gold records,” he says. “They’d feel love and simplicity. I’m a guy who drives a pickup truck and wears jeans. My life is very real, and that’s very good.”
Todd Gold and Carrie Bell in Los Angeles