Steven Bailey is America’s new favorite TV bachelor.

He’s crude. He’s crass. And he’s America’s newest favorite TV bachelor.

As the hilariously oafish betrothed in Fox’s hit show “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance,” actor Steven Bailey has belched, scratched and rankled his way into millions of viewers’ hearts.

Hired by the network to participate in the program that asks an unsuspecting young woman to compete for $500,000 by convincing her family that she’s marrying a complete stranger, Bailey oozes frat-boy lewdness with glee.

The audience knows he’s an actor playing the part of an unseemly suitor. His would-be bride, Randi Coy, 23, of Scottsdale, Ariz., is clueless.

The show is a unique hybrid of so-called reality television and actual on-camera deception, designed to test how much incivility Coy is willing to endure for a cool half-million.

The Jan. 19 premiere drew 19 million viewers, landing the show in the ratings top 10 for the week. The second installment, broadcast Monday, attracted 13.4 million, Fox says.

For Bailey, a classically trained actor from Seattle, the show looks to be a ticket out of the obscurity of bit parts – his resume lists the TV roles of “cave demon” in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “phone guy” in “Becker” – and work in commercials. He is the man who gets blown off his locker-room bench by a hair dryer in the current Hungry-Man frozen-dinner spot.

But for Coy, the series appears to have been a bumpy ride. Earlier this month, the former yoga teacher told a gathering of TV critics: “I definitely have some resentment.” She said deceiving her family proved to be more painful than she’d expected.

And last week, participation in the show cost Coy her job as a first-grade teacher at Pope John XXIII Catholic School in Phoenix. She resigned from her post after school officials told her she’d been away from the classroom for too long. They had granted her a leave of absence to do the series in December, but said she did not return to work by the date she’d promised.

Principal Bill Langley said Coy had to decide “which obligations came first,” her students or television stardom.

Coy chose celebrity.

With only two episodes under their belts, fans have embraced Bailey more openly than Coy.

“This show is the funniest thing I’ve seen since “Animal House,”‘ one Internet fan called Dist2manxxs wrote in a reality TV chat room this week.

“She’s a stuck-up, 99 cent Barbie. He’s great!” wrote another, named Chopzoe.

“Anybody who has the opportunity to sign Steve to a TV deal and doesn’t needs a head examination,” added a chatter called Mrscience3.

In real life, Bailey, 32, is a married man who studied acting at the American Conservatory Theater’s Advanced Training Program in San Francisco. He’s done everything from Shakespeare to dish-soap commercials in a long struggle to break through.

“It’s difficult,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday, “but I’ve been blessed that I’ve been able to at least work on a consistent scale.”

Still, he added, his acting jobs have been small and temporary.

Until now.

The role of “Steve,” the obnoxious fiance, has catapulted him into the public consciousness, where he said he’d like to stay.

“I’ve actually been recognized on the street like crazy lately,” he said. “People have been nice, saying I’m funny. One guy said he hadn’t laughed so hard since “Seinfeld’s’ first season.”

Nobody will divulge how the big, fat faux wedding show turns out. But Bailey said he was pleased with the boost the goofy gig had given his career.

If nothing else, his days of playing cave monsters in glowing-eye masks seem to be behind him.

“I’ve been contacted by some other people,” he said. “And I hope to have some meetings that might lead to other work.”

(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-30-04 0932EST

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