Jerry O’Connell says it’s no mystery why ‘Carter’ is a good fit
Jerry O’Connell says it’s no mystery why ‘Carter’ is a good fit
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Jerry O’Connell isn’t a police detective, but he played one on TV for six years.
And that long run as detective Woody Hoyt on NBC’s “Crossing Jordan” (2001-07) gave him the ideal background, experience and preparation for tackling the title role of WGN America’s “Carter,” which premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 7. O’Connell stars in this mystery-comedy cable series as an actor known for playing a detective on television.
It was a good fit, all right. Reading writer-executive producer Garry Campbell’s script for the pilot episode, O’Connell realized that the part of Harley Carter suited him as perfectly as a rumpled raincoat on Peter Falk’s Lt. Columbo, a flamboyant Hawaiian shirt on Tom Selleck’s Thomas Magnum or a mountain of phobias on Tony Shalhoub’s Adrian Monk.
“Carter” is a lighthearted mix of procedural and parody that gets rolling with prime-star Harley Carter’s extremely public and embarrassing meltdown before red-carpet cameras. With his hit show on hiatus and his career in a tailspin, Harley retreats to his small hometown, where he reconnects with childhood best friends Sam Shaw (Sydney Poitier Heartsong) and Dave Leigh (Kristian Bruun).
Sam is a real police detective, and Harley discovers he can use his acting experience to help her on real murder cases.
“When I portrayed a detective on ‘Crossing Jordan’ for six seasons, I never actually thought I was a cop,” O’Connell said during a telephone interview. “I’m not that crazy. But a lot of times I felt like a cop, because I was wearing a fake gun and a badge every day. And when I read the script for ‘Carter’ and realized it was about an actor who plays a cop and thinks he can help out the police, it completely cracked me up.”
New York native O’Connell, 44, also is a longtime fan of crime shows, from “Columbo” and “Monk” to “Murder, She Wrote” and “Law & Order.”
“When I read the script, I immediately recognized that it was, in one way, a pretty standard crime procedural, following all of the established story structures,” he said. “But what was so smart was that, on another level, it was making fun of all the familiar TV tropes as we worked our way toward who had done it. It’s making fun of the genre while being the genre.”
Although billed as a comedy, the 10-episode “Carter” gives O’Connell and his co-stars a chance to play with a quirky mix of humor, action, mystery and drama. It’s also something of a buddy show.
“It’s like a hybrid show that doesn’t nail things down to one genre, so I think it will appeal to a lot of appetites,” O’Connell said. “For me, the big kick is getting to play the vanity of being an actor, because, really, at its heart, vanity is insecurity, and that’s such a rich and fun emotion to play.”
O’Connell is in his fourth decade as an actor. His first brush with fame was playing Vern Tessio, one of the four boyhood friends in director Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me.” An adaptation of the novella “The Body” by Stephen King, the film was released to great acclaim in 1986, when O’Connell was 12 years old.
“It’s a bit of a stretch to call me a child star, because the only thing I really was known for back then was ‘Stand By Me,’ ” he said. “Being in ‘Stand By Me’ didn’t make me famous. It just made me part of a beloved film that has become a classic.
“I went to public school, and I took the subway to school. I didn’t get to meet Michael Jackson and hang out with his pet monkey. I went to college and didn’t start acting again until after college. I would have loved to have been more famous as a kid actor, but it just didn’t happen.”
Despite the great popularity of the film, O’Connell rarely gets recognized as Vern in “Stand By Me.”
“I was so much younger,” he said. “Some might say I was a little huskier when I was younger and then I grew out of it, so I was unrecognizable as that kid. So when someone does recognize me, it’s rarely for ‘Stand By Me.’ Occasionally, there’s someone on the street, like the guy on the back of a moving garbage truck today who yelled out, ‘Hey, fat kid from “Stand By Me,” ’ and thought that was really funny.”
But the memories of making “Stand By Me” with co-stars Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix and Corey Feldman are golden.
“The memories are more than positive,” O’Connell said. “Much like the movie says, ‘I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.’ So summertime I get very nostalgic for that experience. It was so wonderful. And it’s a total honor to be part of a movie that means so much to people on such an emotional level.”
O’Connell recently reunited with Wheaton on the set of “The Big Bang Theory.” He was cast as Sheldon’s older brother, Georgie, in the Sheldon-Amy wedding episode that also featured guest star Mark Hamill.
There were several double-geek-out alerts about the May episode, because it crossed the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” universes (one-time “Star Trek: The Next Generation” star Wheaton makes regular appearances on “The Big Bang Theory”), and it boasted two connections from the Stephen King world with guest stars Kathy Bates (“Misery”) and O’Connell (“Stand By Me”).
“Everyone was geeking out, and rightly so, because of the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ connections,” O’Connell said. But then something occurred to John Ross Bowie, who plays Barry Kripkie on “The Big Bang Theory.”
Bowie went over to O’Connell and said, “You know, I just realized you and Wil Wheaton were in ‘Stand By Me’ together, and you guys haven’t worked together since ‘Stand By Me.’ I don’t think anyone else realizes that because everybody’s fixated on ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek.’ ”
There were other roles for O’Connell in the late ’80s, including teen superhero Andrew Clements on the syndicated series “My Secret Identity” and Ralph Parker in the Disney Channel movie based on a Jean Shepherd movie, “Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss.” In 1991, he enrolled at New York University, navigating the often-difficult transition from child actor to adult with the help of devoted parents.
“It’s a tough racket, but my parents were just great,” he said. “They took every cent of that ‘Stand By Me’ money and put it in a college fund. And, believe me, I went to NYU, and I needed every cent of it.”
During those NYU years, he co-starred with Hilary Swank, Jay Mohr and Jared Leto in the short-lived ABC comedy “Camp Wilder.” But in 1995, he began a four-season run as Quinn Mallory on the Fox science-fiction series “Sliders.”
The devotion of that show’s fans again was driven home to O’Connell when he and his wife, Rebecca Romijn, attended July’s Comic-Con International in San Diego to promote the animated “The Death of Superman” (he does the voice of Superman).
“It was just amazing how many people wanted to talk about ‘Sliders,’ ” O’Connell said. “I was on that show for three seasons on Fox and one season on Syfy, and it was not a hit by any means. It always was under the radar, but, wow, are there a lot of fans out there.”
“Sliders” was filmed in Canada, and, during its run, he appeared in such hit movies as “Jerry Maguire” and “Scream 2” (directed by Cleveland native Wes Craven).
“As an actor, you’re usually dealing with abject unemployment,” O’Connell said. “When I finally moved to Los Angeles, I spent a couple of years mostly playing golf and going to the track. I was going on auditions all the time. I just wasn’t getting anything.”
Then he landed the role of Woody on “Crossing Jordan.” Problem solved . . . for a while.
“Well, around the fourth year, I was starting to get a little bored,” he said. “I wasn’t complaining. I wouldn’t do that. And I would catch myself whining about having a job. But it was getting familiar, episode after episode. It was feeling repetitive. So, when I read ‘Carter,’ and it was about a guy playing a cop on TV and missing a certain spark, it really touched me in a place that I felt very familiar with.”
Between “Crossing Jordan” and “Carter” there have been a few series that didn’t click, including “Carpoolers” (produced by Cleveland natives Joe and Anthony Russo), “Do Not Disturb” (with future “Claws” star Niecy Nash), “The Defenders” (with Jim Belushi) and “We Are Men” (with Shalhoub).
“My roots are in hour-long television, so ‘Carter’ is very comfortable to me,” O’Connell said. “It’s my comfort zone. And, man, is it fun. It’s our job to have as much fun with the genre as possible so that people watching it will have as much fun as possible.”
What: The premiere of a mystery-comedy series starring Jerry O’Connell.
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 7
Where: WGN America