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Is this ‘Walking Dead’ face familiar? You may have sat next to him in math class

Jeremy Palko no longer needs to ask Bill Gates for loans.

As a 12-year-old Puyallup baseball player, he wrote Gates a letter, asking for a loan so his team could be champions.

Gates never came through and Palko moved on. To kill zombies.

Palko, 34, just began his third season as an actor on one of the most popular TV shows in America: AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

He’s returning to his hometown this weekend to appear at the Jet City Comic Show at the Tacoma Trade and Convention Center.

“The Walking Dead” is about people living in a post-apocalyptic United States. The countryside is plagued with zombies, called “walkers” on the show. But the more pressing danger, as fans of the show know, are people.

The show was the most talked about on social media and the No. 2 drama in 2016, bested only by “NCIS” in ratings, according to Nielsen.com.

GROWING UP PALKOWETZ

Though fans know him as Jeremy Palko, Puyallup residents might know him as Jeremy Palkowetz. Palko is his Screen Actors Guild name.

Palko, 34, was born in LaGrange, Georgia. His family moved to Puyallup when Palko was five.

Palko was a jock, participating in baseball, wrestling, football and more. He was captain of Rogers High School’s football team for three years and student body vice-president.

Jeremy Palko
Jeremy Palkowetz, Rogers High. Drew Perine Staff file

But during the third football game of his senior year Palko blew out his knee.

“I was looking to play football at a college, somewhere,” he said of his then planned future.

He did go to college — University of Washington — and continued with sports. While playing lacrosse he blew out his other knee.

“That’s when I figured I should give up sports,” he said.

Palko took his first acting class as a junior and hasn’t looked back.

A self-described “Disney kid,” he worked for the company during college and then on Disney cruise ships for two years after his 2005 graduation.

“I was dancing like a pirate, I was hosting game shows,” he said.

He did not pick up any acting tips from Disney but there are some similarities to the work he does now.

“On the cruise ship, after about seven days, everybody kind of looks like a walker,” Palko quipped. “The parents are so hung over from nights in the bar. And the kids are exhausted too.”

CAREER

After turning to acting full time, Palko soon landed a role in 2008’s teen thriller “Never Back Down.”

“I thought, oh my God, I’ve made it because I said a word in a movie,” Palko said of his modest role.

He soon learned, he said, that the movie wasn’t his big break. Only the grind of auditions and hard work would propel his career.

Other roles followed including “Never Back Down 2” and plenty of TV shows from “The Vampire Diaries” to “Sleepy Hollow.”

“As an actor, you think everything you get is going to be your next big break,” Palko said. “That’s not how it works.”

But in 2014 his break did come: The Netflix original series “Bloodline” with an all-star cast including Sissy Spacek and Kyle Chandler. Palko’s character appeared in five episodes of the drama.

Producers wanted him back for the show’s second season but he had already committed to “The Walking Dead.”

“So, they just kind of wrote me off which hurt my feelings but it was the first time I was double-booked for two shows,” Palko said. “Which is a good problem to have.”

From the first day on the set of “The Walking Dead,” Palko knew he was part of something unusual.

“It is the biggest show on the planet. But when you get to set you’re shooting in the backyard with some of your friends,” he said. “I never feel pressure at all.”

Well, maybe a little on his first day, surrounded by the show’s stars. When the cameras started rolling he flubbed his first lines.

“Norman Reedus was standing behind me,” Palko recalled. “He came up and put me in a head lock, gave me a noogie and said, ‘Relax man. You got the job.’ 

All of the cast, no matter how they rank, are treated like family, Palko said.

“A lot of shows you get on, if you’re not number one, they really don’t care about you,” he said.

Palko said Reedus and Andrew Lincoln, the two male leads of the show, are “goofballs.”

“They play around so much,” he said. “But when they call action they are the consummate professionals. They are very giving. They always make sure the best is coming out of everyone else. They are the face of that show.”

Palko, like the rest of the cast, can’t talk about story developments before they air. The show is renowned for its plot twists and sudden character deaths.

“We read the scripts every week and we hope our character is going to be there,” Palko said.

It’s not all zombies for Palko. He has a role in December’s “Pitch Perfect 3.”

BACK TO PUYALLUP

Palko lives in Florida, where some of his Puyallup family moved as well. But he will soon be moving to Atlanta, where “The Walking Dead” is produced.

This weekend he’ll be back in Puyallup and Tacoma.

“I was beyond excited that I got an offer to come out,” he said.

“I think I’m going to be very nostalgic,” Palko said. “I’m going to drive by my old house and visit Rogers High School. It’s so weird to be away from a place that shaped you so much.”

Fellow Rogers High alum and actor Sarah Butler (“I Spit on Your Grave”) will also be at Jet City.

Fans of “Walking Dead” will be lining up to meet and take photos with Palko this weekend. He knows what it’s like to be star struck.

While still a student at Rogers High in 2000, he had to stay after school one day to make up a missed math test.

Puyallup native and Olympic gold medalist Megan Quann was in the same room, making up a test as well.

“Just her and I in the classroom taking a math test,” Palko recalled. “My teacher could tell something was wrong with me. I told her I’m really nervous. That’s Megan Quann behind me. She had just won two gold medals and was a celebrity in town. Halfway through the test she taps on my shoulder and passes me a note saying, ‘Good luck on the test, Megan Quann.’ 

“I still have that paper,” Palko said. “I found it about a month ago.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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Jet City Comic Show

Who: Jeremy Palko of “The Walking Dead”

When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Tacoma Trade and Convention Center.

Tickets: $15 Saturday, $10 Sunday, children 10 and under free with adult purchase.

Information: jetcitycomicshow.com.

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