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Former 'Laverne & Shirley' star Eddie Mekka still singing, dancing

The music man

By Serena Kappes

Mekka (pictured in October 2002) has also ventured into theater as a writer, with the musical "The Right Step;" (inset) Mekka on "Laverne & Shirley."

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(PEOPLE) -- Sometimes having a hit television show can be limiting for an actor. Just ask Eddie Mekka, who starred on the small screen as lovable dancer Carmine "The Big Ragu" Ragusa on "Laverne & Shirley" from 1976 to 1983.

After the show went off the air, Mekka found it difficult to take another step on TV. "They pigeonhole you," he says.

But Mekka, now 50, has never stopped performing -- and since "Laverne & Shirley" he has made a career in musical theater, appearing in national tours of shows such as "Fiddler on the Roof." In fact, he estimates that he has played the lead role of Tevye in 20 different productions. "It's a role I'm gonna be playing until I die," he says with a laugh. (He's scheduled to perform it again at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, from May 28 to June 15.)

Playing Tevye -- and doing musical theater in general -- has proved to be more the norm for Mekka than his time on television. As a teenager in Worcester, Massachusetts, Eddie Mekjian -- the son of Vaughn, an Armenian immigrant who served in World War II, and Miriam, a dry cleaning employee -- was a star gymnast.

But he turned his attention to dancing and singing after a girlfriend suggested that he use his acrobatic talent in a 1969 Worcester County Light Opera Company production of, you guessed it, "Fiddler on the Roof." Mekka, then a high school senior, won a chorus role and "once I got involved, I kind of liked it."

He soon enrolled in tap class and eventually attended the Boston Conservatory, where he studied opera for just more than a year. In 1971, despite his father's protests, he quit school to perform at a dinner-theater chain, where he earned $185 a week.

He landed in New York a year later, where he studied with famed choreographer Phil Black and eventually taught jazz and tap -- sometimes to Boston Conservatory graduates. "They had a degree. but I was teaching them," he says with a chuckle.

To read more from this article go to PEOPLE.COM.

For more Where Are They Now? stories, visit PEOPLE.COM

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