PHILADELPHIA — Lauren Graham is a little surprised to find herself in Philadelphia as part of a quick East Coast publicity swing. After all, her NBC show, “Parenthood,” is still shooting in Los Angeles.
But when your boss, a big Hollywood mogul with roots in TV, tells you to jump on a plane, you say, “Window or aisle?”
“It was explained to me that Ron Howard, when he was doing ‘Happy Days,’ had success in traveling the country and talking about the show. So this was like Ron Howard wanted me to come here,” Graham says, laughing. “You don’t say no to that.”
Howard’s involvement with “Parenthood” goes way back. He directed the original 1989 film starring Steve Martin, a tender and funny exploration of family ties.
The following year, he executive-produced the TV spinoff, starring Ed Begley Jr. (and a young Leonardo DiCaprio). And Howard serves in the same supervisory capacity on this remake, which debuted in March and has already been renewed for a second season.
As struggling single mom Sarah Braverman, Graham is part of a remarkably rich and deep cast, including Peter Krause, Bonnie Bedelia, Craig T. Nelson, Erika Christensen and Monica Potter. Even the youngsters in this witty generational saga, such as Mae Whitman and Savannah Paige Rae, are scene stealers.
Graham was a late addition to the ensemble, replacing Maura Tierney, who withdrew from the show after shooting the pilot in order to deal with health issues.
The new Sarah hasn’t watched a frame of that pilot, nor has she seen any of the previous “Parenthood” iterations.
“Some people would do all the research. I’m too sensitive,” she says. “As an actor it would never be helpful to me to see what another actor did with a part.”
From her first scene, Graham, 43, has been making the role her own.
“Lauren, in addition to everything else, has great comedic chops,” says executive producer Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights”). “Over time, the character has evolved in that direction. It’s what typically will happen in a TV series: You see what an actor brings to the role and you start writing for that. Lauren has really done an incredible job of finding unexpected moments of humor that weren’t in the script.”
On the face of it, Sarah’s life is no picnic.
“She’s somebody who feels like a loser, who feels not particularly proud of the job she’s done,” says Graham, nestled in a sound studio at Philadelphia’s NBC affiliate. “This is somebody who just can’t get a break. She married the wrong guy, is having trouble with the kids, and is now living in her parents’ house while working as a bartender.”
It’s a long way from the charmed character Graham will always be identified with: the unsinkable Lorelai on TV’s “Gilmore Girls.”
While Sarah is often at a loss for words, especially when dealing with her truculent teenage daughter Amber (Whitman), Lorelai had a hummingbird’s tongue.
“The reams of dialogue she could handle with seeming effortlessness was a lesson in professional expertise,” says Edward Herrmann, who played Lorelai’s father on “Gilmore Girls,” in an e-mail.
“As a classically trained actor myself, I know how damned hard it is to handle that kind of tricky syntax-bending stuff and still seem light and easy in manner. She is brilliant at it.”
As different as Sarah and Lorelai may be temperamentally, they have one thing in common.
“It didn’t occur to me that it was another single mom. I thought, ‘Do you think anyone will care?’ So, of course, the first 10 interviews I did (for “Parenthood”) all started with, ‘So, another single mom ...’ I was like ‘Whaaa!’” says Graham, doing a pretty fair Lucy Ricardo imitation.
Perhaps her vibrant personality is due in part to her tropical origins. She was born in Hawaii, where her father was taking an intensive language course before being posted to Vietnam by the Agency for International Development, a federal foreign aid program rumored to have ties to the CIA.
“People always say, ‘Ah, your dad was a spy,’” Graham says. “My dad, who leaves his coffee on top of his car nine times out of 10, was definitely not a spy.
“I was born in Hawaii but I was only there a couple of weeks. My mother was a missionary kid who grew up primarily in Japan. We went there when my dad went to Vietnam. My first word was ‘heso,’ which means ‘belly button.’ “
After her parents divorced, Graham was raised by her father in the Washington, D.C., area.
Breaking into TV, the actress assumed she’d always be cast as the sassy sidekick or the kooky coworker.
“It was only after I got a couple of those parts that I began to imagine I could be considered attractive enough to be a lead,” she says. “I never saw myself that way. But with every pound I’d lose, I’d get more opportunities, which was really interesting to me.”
After she grabbed attention on shows like “Caroline in the City,” “NewsRadio” and “Conrad Bloom,” “Gilmore Girls” anointed her as Lorelai, a character so indelible Graham may never escape it.
She got an inkling of immortality last year while playing Miss Adelaide in a Broadway revival of “Guys & Dolls.”
“These young, young girls would come to the show, fans of ‘Gilmore Girls,’” she says. “Suddenly I realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be someone’s ‘Laverne & Shirley,’ something I grew up knowing only through reruns.”
If “Parenthood” has a decent run, Graham may one day be just as associated with Sarah Braverman. So far the show is holding its own, especially among 18-to-49-year-olds, in a tough time period, Tuesday at 10 EDT.
“I hope they leave us there,” she says. “I’d rather compete at 10 than against all the reality shows on at 9. I don’t blame anyone for watching them. It’s easier to tune in to the dancing.”
That raises the question: Has Graham ever been approached by “Dancing With the Stars”?
“No,” she says with mock hauteur. “I have not been asked. And I am outraged!”