LOS ANGELES -- Zachary Levi and Dustin Hoffman have something in common -- they both bowed out of Mel Brooks productions after being cast by the legendary comic director.
In Hoffman's case, he was supposed to play the crazy Nazi Franz Liebkind in the 1967 classic comedy The Producers, but he told Brooks the night before shooting that he had taken the starring role in The Graduate, which happened to co-star Brooks' wife, Anne Bancroft.
Levi, a Ventura native and Studio City resident, won the lead role in the Broadway musical version of Brooks' Young Frankenstein.
"It was really just bonkers, the whole process," says the 30-year-old Levi, who stars in Disney's 50th animated film, Tangled.
The actor had just agreed to shoot the pilot for Chuck, the NBC comedy-spy series which is in its fourth year, when he got the chance to audition for Brooks and director Susan Stroman. "I was so unbelievably nervous that my legs were shaking, I had to stomp them in time to the music so they wouldn't notice."
Levi left the tryout thinking he did OK, though he didn't expect to get the role. A couple of callbacks later, he won the part, but when Chuck was picked up he had to drop out of his chance to star on Broadway.
"Mel Brooks -- from what I heard -- was a little perturbed about that," says Levi. "But it wasn't my fault, at least."
While Tangled doesn't give Levi a chance to dance, the 3-D animated film does give him a chance to sing, including two duets with Mandy Moore, who voices Rapunzel in the twist on the classic fairy tale.
Levi is the voice of Flynn Rider, a bandit with a good heart, who stumbles upon the tower where the princess has been hidden by a witch who had stolen her at birth.
Moore believes Levi's singing will "astonish audiences. He has a beautiful voice that is perfect for something like this."
The actor, who earlier this year teamed up with Katharine McPhee for a duet on her Terrified video, says he comes from a "musically inclined family" and that he grew up in Ventura doing "a lot of musical theater."
"It's been cool to start exploring other talents. I don't know. Maybe something will come of it," he says wistfully. "I would love to sing more professionally, but it's just a matter of people embracing it or not."
Levi laughs when it is mentioned that the animators' vision for Flynn was to make him the world's most handsome man. "I'm just offering a voice. I can't take credit for any of that."
But he enjoyed playing Flynn and exploring the character's "self-obsessed, arrogant, vain, egotistical" side, noting that the thief also is "very funny and has some great one-liners."
When asked which character he is more like, Levi smiles and says, "I'm basically Chuck. I love video games, and comic books, and technology, and so when I got the job I thought, 'Oh, I don't really have to act all that much. I just get to be me a lot.' "
On the other hand, Levi admits to being an adrenaline junkie, very un-Chuck-like behavior.
"I have a couple of motorcycles that I ride, sports cars, skydiving, bungee jumping, and snowboarding, and all that stuff. It's amazing the things that mankind gets to do."
But he only gets to do such derring-do when he's not shooting Chuck. "Once the season starts I'm the ghost. My friends and family know they won't see me for a while."
The show barely survived its first year and it took a campaign from fans to get it renewed for a third season. Now in its fourth season, it's been picked up through the year, although ratings, as usual, have not been stellar.
"Television is a very fickle business," Levi says of the uncertainty of Chuck. "You never know how long you're going to stick around. Our fans are unbelievable ... and I clearly want to continue to do right by them."
He says that playing the same role year in and year out, he finds himself longing for something different or just a change of pace.
"But it's a fun role, and it's a great cast and crew to play off of. This is where God has put me, and I'll continue to embrace it. It's a blessing."
Levi admits that because of his shooting schedule, it's hard carving out the time to get to his hometown, although it's just an hour's drive away. But Tangled turned out to be a great fit for him. Unlike shooting a regular feature film, he could do his voice parts on the weekends. The process, though, meant recording most of the film without other actors around. In fact, Levi only met Moore once when they sang a duet with an orchestra.
Like his co-star, he admits to growing up a Disney nerd and rattles off a list of his favorite animated films.
"Aladdin is probably my favorite," he says. "I just felt that it was the funniest by far. Robin Williams as the genie brought so much humor, and yet it was still very heartfelt with a lot of romance and drama and intrigue involved."
And like comedians Williams, Jim Carrey, and Steve Martin have done in their careers, Levi also would "love to take a turn for the worst. I'd really like to get into some dark gritty stuff at some point and not just for the sake of doing dark gritty. I'd like to stretch myself as an actor and show range if I can pull it off ... I never want to get complacent or lazy. I want to feel like I'm being challenged all the time."
That means, besides looking to dramas, the actor would like another shot at Broadway. But now that Levi has shown off his musical chops, don't expect there will be a musical episode of Chuck.
"A lot of fans have asked about that and asked for it to happen, but I personally don't think it works on our show," Levi says.
"I think it works on a show like Scrubs or Buffy, which are a little more surreal. But while Chuck is definitely a little bit surreal, I feel like we'd be jumping the shark to do a musical episode."
Unless, he adds in a never-say-never moment, "it could work and still maintain the integrity of the show."
omggg yes PLEASE KEEP SINGING Zach! I cannot get enough of his solo in "I See the Light"