Don’t tell Corbin Bernsen to write if he finds work. Your mailbox would be overflowing.
The busy actor has starred in prime-time series and feature films, sure. He’s done guest appearances on a raft of shows from “The Waltons” to “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
But he’s also had stints on three soap operas, been a game-show host, even competed on a reality show (“Celebrity Mole”).
“Very early on I embraced the journey of discovering all of it,” he says on the phone as he drives to his production company. “I’m an actor. It’s like being a bricklayer. Sometimes I’m building a little wall and the next time I’m building a palace.”
His current role is Henry Spencer, the crabby, slightly shabby father to the title character on USA’s droll “Psych,” which launches its third season Friday night.
Think back to the character that launched Bernsen’s career in 1986. “L.A. Law’s” Arnie Becker was an elegant, corrupt legal lothario. Henry is light years from that, which is what attracted Bernsen to the part.
“I enjoyed getting dressed up as Arnie Becker and being that guy, but I was married my first year on the show so I wasn’t really like my character,” he says. “Henry is closer to me in an odd way. I put on shorts and flip-flops and I’m ready to go. I don’t have to dress up. Henry and I have the exact same wardrobe. I love that.”
Like its Friday-night companion piece, “Monk,” “Psych” is played for laughs. But Bernsen’s acting chops give the show another gear.
“The great thing people don’t realize,” says Steve Franks, “Psych’s” creator and executive producer, “because Corbin screams ‘fun’ in the roles he’s done, is that he’s a really good actor. He’s a Gene Hackman-type actor. When you give him heavy stuff he delivers it in an assured way. Even though we’re in the middle of a fun, light comedy, it allows those moments to hit.”
Henry is always trying to get his waggish son, Shawn, a crime-solving fake psychic, to toe the line. That was another element that appealed to Bernsen, 53, who has four sons with his wife, actress Amanda Pays. (You can see the entire Bernsen clan competing on NBC’s “Celebrity Family Feud” on July 29.)
“I really enjoyed the character from the first moment I read it,” the actor says. “We want the best for our kids and we try to get them to live their lives in the way we think will benefit them. We get frustrated when they won’t do it our way. It’s a generational thing.”
Parenting has been on Bernsen’s mind a great deal since his own father, Harry, passed away last month at 82. Bernsen is still unpacking the emotional baggage that came with the event.
“I was actually surprised at my reaction,” he says. “Beyond the normal things - the loss and realizing you can never call him on the phone again - when you lose someone really close to you, it throws you right back into life again. You realize it’s the process we’re all part of. Nobody told me there will be a joyful piece to it because you really feel alive.”
Bernsen didn’t have a storybook relationship with his dad, who was a producer and agent in the ‘70s. (His mother is actress Jeanne Cooper, doyenne of the CBS soap “The Young and the Restless.”)
“You remember the beginning of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ with Andy and Opie carrying their poles to the fishing hole?” Bernsen asks. “It was 180 degrees from that. But there were things he did teach me in his roundabout weird way.”
One particular piece of paternal advice that Bernsen has internalized came when he was a teen.
“My mom was a raging alcoholic during her early years at ‘The Young and the Restless.’ My parents were breaking up and it was ugly and messy,” he says. “I was a typical kid, getting high and acting crazy. And I said, ‘Well, Mom is this’ and ‘I do this because of that’ and ‘What do you expect?’
“My dad said, ‘You have a choice in life. You can be happy or you can be sad. But don’t blame anybody else other than yourself. If your life is going to be screwed up, don’t blame me or your mom.’”
The acting bug he caught from his mother.
“I remember going with her to Paramount for episodes of ‘Bonanza,’” he says. “The whole thing of walking from a hot Los Angeles day onto an air-conditioned soundstage and the smell of all the fake greenery they’d bring in to make the place into the Ponderosa - to me, that smell is still heaven.”
What really inspired him was seeing his mother in a stage production of “The Miracle Worker” in La Jolla. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s my mother up there, the crazy woman who makes my dinner. Look at what she’s doing!’” he recalls.
A few years later, when Bernsen decided to pursue acting, transferring from San Diego State to UCLA to study theater, he went to his mother to seek her blessing.
Her response may well have led to Bernsen’s singularly eclectic acting resume.
“She said, ‘I don’t mind you following what I’m doing,’” Bernsen says. “‘You’ve seen the ups and downs. The only thing I demand of you is that you love and respect your craft. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a commercial or a movie, just love it. Love all of it.’”
In the crazy-quilt career of Corbin Bernsen, there’s been a lot to love.
// Channel Surfing
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