SAN FRANCISCO — One would think that a chiseled hunk who regularly pops up on those lists of “TV’s Sexiest Men,” would have earned camera-hog status by now. But on this drizzly day in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood, Shemar Moore emerges from a black SUV on the set of “Criminal Minds” to utter just one scripted line.
Or three words, to be exact.
“How’s the mom?” he says to co-star Thomas Gibson, referring to a character at wit’s end following the abduction of her teen daughter.
Yes, just three measly words. Nice work if you can get it.
“And the Emmy goes to ...” Moore jokes as he ducks into a garage, where he hoists his T-shirt to allow a technician to remove a hidden mic, and in the process, provides a quick flash of his oft-photographed abs. Are those prolonged sighs we hear from the women in the crew?
“Criminal Minds,” the CBS drama about a team of profilers from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), has come to the Bay Area for a two-day location shoot. And while the trip hardly seems worth the trouble for Moore, considering his brief scene, he’s not complaining. It, after all, is a homecoming for the 39-year-old actor who was born in Oakland, Calif., attended high school in Palo Alto, Calif., and played baseball for the University of Santa Clara.
He’s using the trip to catch up with old friends and his mother, Marilyn, a San Francisco resident who has accompanied her son to the set. It’s also a chance to spend more quality time with fellow actor Forest Whitaker, making a highly anticipated “Criminal Minds” guest appearance.
“I’m a huge fan with much respect. I love watching him work,” Moore says, after snapping off a couple of iPhone photos of Whitaker mugging with Mom. “He has the most unique and powerful presence.”
If things go as planned, Moore and Whitaker will become “Criminal Minds” brethren of sorts. CBS has chosen this episode to introduce Oscar-winning Whitaker and a new set of BAU characters before potentially spinning them off into their own show next fall. It’s the same strategy used by the network to create successful crime-show franchises out of “CSI” and “NCIS.” The Bay Area-set episode airs April 7.
It also speaks volumes about the enduring popularity of “Criminal Minds.” Now in its fifth season, the dark drama remains a fixture in Nielsen’s Top 20, attracting 14.5 million viewers a week and routinely ranking as Wednesday night’s No. 1 drama.
“Criminal Minds” has differentiated itself from the typical TV procedural with an approach that lavishes more attention on character than cases. Every member of the talented ensemble brings a distinct flavor to the mix, including Moore, who plays Derek Morgan, an assertive and occasionally hot-tempered BAU agent.
Earlier this season, Moore’s character earned additional prominence among the ensemble when unit Chief Aaron Hotchner (Gibson) put Morgan temporarily in charge of the team. Moore saw it as a “great challenge” and “audition” of sorts.
Executive producer Chris Mundy saw it as another example of Moore’s evolvement as an actor.
“There’s so much depth to the guy,” Mundy says. “Shemar has grown as the show has progressed. He owned that responsibility and that role.”
Progression is all part of the plan, for Moore, a former print model who launched his television career in 1994 on the daytime soap “The Young and the Restless.” He admits that, for him, acting used to be more about the “fame and the parties.” Now, it’s about the work.
“I’ve had a lot of success in 16 years, but in some ways it still feels brand new because there’s still so much I haven’t done,” he says. “I treat my career like school. The soap opera days were like high school. I got my diploma and graduated. Now I’m in college and hopefully I’ll go to grad school (feature films) and catch the bus with Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith and the others.”
Mundy has no doubts that is Moore is ready to make the step up.
“I think Shemar can do anything he wants,” he says. “He plays an incredibly intelligent man on this show. He’s leading-man handsome. He can do action and all the physical stuff. His comic timing is really good. Honestly, I don’t see anything he can’t do.”
It has taken some time for Moore to earn that kind of rave. Early in his career, he was known more for his sparkling smile — and those pecs and abs — than his powerhouse performances. Even now, many fans are still mesmerized by his good looks, which he apparently was blessed with from birth.
“When he was little, he used to come in the house and say, ‘Mommy, why are people saying I’m pretty? Boys aren’t supposed to be pretty,’” Marilyn recalls of her only son. “I’d tell him, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just go outside and play.’”
And play he did. At Santa Clara, Moore was a pitcher with a 90 mph-plus fastball and enough talent to seize the attention of Oakland A’s star Dave Stewart (“He taught me how to throw the forkball”). Ultimately, baseball didn’t pan out and he turned to modeling, which wasn’t quite as glamorous as it might sound.
“I was never a supermodel on the runways of New York City,” Moore says. “It was a job-to-job struggle, getting things like the back-to-school specials for Mervyns. I was always photographed alone because I was way bigger than the other models. And I couldn’t even fit into the jeans, so they’d have to cut the back of the jeans with scissors just so they would look loose.”
Still, his modeling work was what earned Moore the role of charismatic photographer Malcolm Winters on “Y&R,” a character he played for eight years and an experience he recalls with great fondness.
“Let me tell you, there is no fan like a soap opera fan and the biggest ones are the grandmas,” he says. “They’d come up to me and say, ‘Oooh, child, if only I was younger, I’d have left my husband for you — may he rest in peace.’”
During his soap days, Moore was smart enough to know he needed additional training. He hired a speech coach and took acting classes, determined to get better at his craft. Looking back on the ensuing years, he’s proud of the strides he’s made.
“The more I evolve as an actor, it’s proof that I’m evolving as a person,” says Moore, who turns 40 in a couple of weeks. “Because the only way I can find the colors of a character I play is to allow myself to dig within myself and find those qualities.”
And be so much more than just that “pretty boy.”
“If how I look helps me get a date or makes you want to see the movie, I’ll use it. I’m not crazy,” he says with a sly smile. “But being cute doesn’t keep you in the game for 16 years. I had to bring something else to the table because there’s a lot of eye candy out there. Plus I’m getting older. My little six-pack has probably turned into a two-pack and eventually it’s going to be a keg.”