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Two years ago, Richard Grieco was riding high. He received ShoWest's Male Star of Tomorrow Award from the National Assn. of Theatre Owners and made two feature films, "If Looks Could Kill" and "Mobsters," the latter with Christian Slater.

But then the teen heartthrob became the invisible man.

"I took a year-and-a-half off," says the low-keyed actor, who confesses he was introverted and shy until he began acting. "I wasn't wiped out. I was reading scripts, but I became real picky. At that time, you are getting offered a lot of stuff and they try to sway you with a lot of money. I didn't buy it."

He felt he could do the films he was offered blindfolded. So Grieco, who attended Central Connecticut College on a football scholarship, did a lot of soul searching.

"Do I want to make a bunch of money? Or do I want to take a step back and look at things and turn a lot of stuff down. My whole justification was I would rather sell everything--my cars, my house, everything --if I couldn't do what I wanted to. I would move into a little apartment."

The darkly handsome Grieco also realized he was overexposed. Grieco rapidly rose to fame when he joined the cast of Fox's "21 Jump Street" as the maverick detective Booker. He quickly became the teen dream du jour and Fox gave him his own spinoff series, "Booker," in 1989.

"I came on the scene so fast," Grieco says, lighting up a cigarette in his publicist's Beverly Hills office. "I was everywhere. I was on the cover of US all the time. I am an actor. I came out of New York and I studied for years and did theater. I took a big step back."

So he traveled and did promotion around Europe for "Jump Street" and "Booker." When he decided to do another movie, he chose "Born to Run," premiering Monday on Fox. In the drama, Grieco plays Nicky Donatello, a young racer from Brooklyn who is king of the blacktop. When he decides to take a stand against corruption, his world is threatened by his brother's involvement with the mob and his own romance with a mobster's beautiful girlfriend.

Grieco had been attached to the project for three years. Originally, "Born to Run" was slated as a feature to be produced by Michael Douglas' now-defunct Stonebridge Productions. Grieco immediately liked the material when he read it. "It was like a throwback to the old '50s-style movies and it's a fun genre," Grieco says. After Stonebridge broke up, Grieco remained with the project. Eventually, director Albert Magnoli ("Purple Rain") signed on and he and Grieco worked on the script.

"We got it to where it was ready to go," Grieco says. "We sold it theatrically foreign. We went to Cannes with it. We did that pretty quickly." Though they still planned a theatrical release stateside, the studio involved wanted to wait four months to begin production. Grieco wanted to start production as soon as possible.

"Fox came along and they said they would make it a big event," Grieco says, lighting up another cigarette. "I kind of weighed the pros and the cons. The pros seemed to outweigh the cons. So it's on Fox."

Like Nicky, Grieco also is a racer. "I have always loved car racing and Harleys," he says, smiling. "I have tons of Harleys. I've been into that since I was 13 or 14. I was always into sports."

He's been seriously racing cars for the past three years. "Yesterday, I was racing real race cars--Trans Am cars--which has been a new experience. I was going 160 mph down the straightaways into hairpin curves. It's pretty wild because you are not scared at all while you are doing it. Once that race starts, something takes over. Yesterday was pretty hairy. There were some pretty close things yesterday."

In one race, Grieco was going 150 mph on the straightaway when the driver in front of him locked his brakes. "I had to make a move really fast or I would have run right into him," he recalls with a shudder. "So I had to downshift and my car spinned four times."

Grieco has discovered racers are decidedly "normal" people, especially compared to the Hollywood crowd. "They race cars and go home to their wives and kids," he says. "I just like being around those people. I will never be a great racer. I am a good racer."

Next month, Grieco travels to Miami to reshoot a pilot for CBS. The network, he says, approached him about 18 months ago about doing a series.

"At that time it was like, I didn't know," Grieco says. "Then Bob Singer got involved. He's probably one of the best TV writers there is today. He created 'Midnight Caller' and 'Reasonable Doubts.' Lorimar got involved as producer and I am also one of the producers. We came up with an idea and shot the first pilot. It tested really high. CBS looked at the pilot and they wanted to rearrange the pilot." Grieco hopes it will be on before mid-season.

As yet untitled, the series casts Grieco as a self-educated ex-con working for a sister who operates an investigative firm. "In a nutshell, he's basically a younger, hipper 'Equalizer,' " Grieco says. "It's drama, but there's a lot of humor, too."

"Born to Run" airs Monday at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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