By Michelle Tauber
November 11, 2002 12:00 PM

Forget coffee and the paper. Saturday mornings for Peter Facinelli usually involve cleats, shin guards and a gaggle of 5-year-old girls. After turning up at his daughter Luca Bella’s soccer practice one day, he landed a new job a week later. “My name was on the [team] banner, so that was that,” says Facinelli, the star of FOX’s hit new action series Fastlane. “I’m the assistant coach.”

That’s life in the dad lane, which suits Facinelli just fine. Even while his role as an undercover cop on Fastlane kick-starts his career—and, with a notable backside-baring nude scene, boosts his exposure—the 28-year-old actor is most revved up about his growing family. Married since January ’01 to former Beverly Hills, 90210 star Jennie Garth, he and Garth are busy raising Luca, 5, and are expecting a second daughter in December. “For my first kid, I thought I wanted a boy,” says Facinelli, relaxing in jeans and tinted sunglasses at the family’s three-bedroom Mediterranean-style home in Los Angeles. “But I can’t imagine my life without my daughter. Whenever I have a bad day, I look in Luca’s eyes, and it makes it all go away.”

That kind of softie sentiment would have Van Ray, Facinelli’s bad-boy renegade cop on Fastlane, rolling his green eyes. The engine-roaring Fast and the Furious-style series, which costars Bill Bellamy and Tiffani Thiessen, “is pure entertainment,” says Facinelli, who drives a white ’62 Thunderbird convertible when he’s not on the set. (“It has character,” he notes.) Less fun is the high-protein diet that Facinelli follows for the physical role. “I’ll have two turkey dogs for lunch, and that’s it,” he says. As for working out, “all I do is yoga. For me it’s an inner massage as much as it keeps me in shape.”

All the better to flaunt his Hatha-yoga-honed muscles in Fastlane‘s sweaty sex scenes. “I watch the show, but I’ve learned that it’s best not to watch the love scenes,” says Garth, 30, who now stars on the WB sitcom What I Like About You. “We have such a strong bond that it’s really hard to watch his body doing those scenes.” Says Facinelli: “It’s definitely awkward.”

Upping the awkward factor even more is the presence of Thiessen, 28, who happens to be Garth’s best friend. “She’s like my sister,” he says. Thiessen, who met Garth when the two costarred on 90210, agrees: “He’s a big old geek. He’s a woman, too! He’s got this sensitivity about him. He’s like having a girlfriend around.”

Then again, Facinelli’s ease with the opposite sex comes naturally. “He was raised with all women, so he’s very much a girl’s guy,” says Garth. The youngest of four children born to Italian immigrants Peter Sr., 62, a waiter, and Bruna, 58, a homemaker, Facinelli grew up in Queens along with his three sisters: Jo Anne, 35, a homemaker; Lisa, 34, a pharmacist; and Linda, 32, a special-education teacher. As a kid in the ethnically mixed Ozone Park neighborhood, “I would go have lasagna over at Tony’s, and I’d have arroz con polio at Ricky’s,” he recalls.

In third grade Facinelli read a picture book on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When he saw the film version several years later, “I loved what Robert Redford and Paul Newman did, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” he says. After briefly attending St. John’s University, Facinelli transferred to New York University, His goal was to study acting—with a legal career as a backup plan. But an internship at a Manhattan law firm soon soured him on the idea. Instead of high drama, Facinelli found that the lawyers “spent most of their time sitting in little cubicle offices,” he says. During his senior year Facinelli landed a role in the 1995 indie flick Angela. “I remember bringing my paycheck to my dad,” he recalls. “It was $150. I never went back [to NYU]. I’m 15 credits shy.”

Soon after moving to L.A. in 1995, Facinelli met Garth—then in the midst of divorcing her first husband, musician Dan Clark—on the set of the TV movie An Unfinished Affair. The pair fell in love, and within a year Garth was pregnant. Given Facinelli’s Catholic upbringing, “this was a big deal for him and his family to have a baby out of wedlock,” says Garth. “But he said, ‘I’m not going to let them pressure me.'” Rather than rush into marriage, “we took a good four years to strengthen the foundation of our relationship,” she says. When they finally tied the knot in 2001, “he and I had a feeling of such a stillness in the air,” says Garth, “and a calm, beautiful energy.”

With his 14-hour Fastlane work days, Facinelli is finding that extra energy is in short supply. Still, he delights in taking time out for Luca, often dropping in on her kindergarten class. “I’m the dad who helps people glue stuff together,” he says. “It’s this whole other world. You look at Van from Fastlane—can you picture him putting bunny rabbit ears on construction paper?”

Michelle Tauber

Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles