September 08, 2003 12:00 PM

AGE 24

HOMETOWN Austin, Texas

LATEST ROLE Ryan Atwood, poor boy among trust-fund babies on The O.C.

•Why you know him: FOX’s new drama has turned McKenzie into a heartthrob, but he was supposed to make it big on another fall TV pilot. That is, until a script revise made his character African-American. “I have range, but I can’t do that,” says the actor, who landed his O.C. gig shortly thereafter.

•In the beginning: Unlike his troubled teen persona, he says “there are no horror stories” from his early years as the oldest child of Pete, an attorney, and his wife, Frances, a poet-writer. At the University of Virginia, the ’01 grad tried out for a play on a whim. “It was a great way to be creative,” says the economics major. “Charts and graphs were really boring!”

•Big break: At his O.C. audition, “he made no small talk, he didn’t smile, but he was really good,” says creator Josh Schwartz, 27. “We’ve gotten him to smile a little since.”

•Celebrity double: McKenzie laughs when told he’s a dead ringer for Russell Crowe: “I’m glad to be compared to him and not Carrot Top. What would I say then? ‘Thank you…I think?’ ”

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