NEW YORK — A big crowd lined up inside the NBC Experience Store in Rockefeller Center one recent morning to get autographs from and have their pictures taken with Zachary Levi, the star of "Chuck."
The show, a frisky but ratings-challenged espionage/comedy mash-up, has averted cancellation twice, primarily because of the ardor of its fan base. So Levi, 29, ends up making a lot of personal appearances.
The grassroots campaign seems to be paying off. Three weeks into its third season, "Chuck" has increased its audience by more than 20 percent from last year.
"Word of mouth has been a big factor in the numbers picking up. Our fans are very passionate," Levi says.
NBC also has been promoting the show relentlessly, he adds.
If you haven't tasted this heady brew yet, the series revolves around Chuck Bartowski, who lives uneasily in two worlds.
On the day shift, he's a nerdy computer-support tech with a pocket protector and name tag, working at a big-box store called Buy More.
After a massive database of highly classified material is downloaded into his brain, Chuck is also dragged along — with extreme reluctance — on dangerous spy missions by Casey (Adam Baldwin), a lethal NSA agent, and Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), a stunning CIA operative.
It's a challenging role for Levi: half leading man and half goofy sidekick.
"He has to be the straight man at Buy More and the funny guy in the spy world," says Chris Fedak, the show's co-creator and executive producer. "It's a testament to Zac's dramatic and comic chops that he can carry it off. That's some very complicated acting math going on there."
Fortunately, Levi is comfortable stepping into Chuck's, um, sneakers. The character's trademark high-top Converse Chuck Taylors have long been the actor's preferred footwear, even in formal situations.
"Chucks and a tux," he says proudly.
"Sometimes I'll get to work and the wardrobe they have set out for Chuck is exactly what I'm wearing," Levi says. "On those days, I tell them, 'I'll just go with what I have on.' "
That style synchronicity isn't happening as much this season. In a transparent bid to attract more viewers, our favorite geek has taken on a far more worldly and sophisticated sheen.
Chuck has been implanted with a new computer program, that, like Neo in "Matrix," allows him to instantly master any number of complex skills.
Kung fu, flamenco guitar, sword fighting, ballroom dancing, fluency in obscure dialects — they all come easily to Chuck now. Suddenly, he's more James Bond than Jerry Lewis.
"I always did a lot of the stunts," says Levi, who is taller (6-foot-4) and more dashing than he appears on the tube. "But it used to be mostly falling down and running away. Now, it's martial arts and gunplay.
"Since every year could be our last, it's forced us to push the envelope," he says. "This season is a little more intense, but Chuck is still the same guy. He's been going on these spy missions for a while. He couldn't keep being a whiny little girl like he was the first year."