Jim Parsons, who plays the tall, nerdy Sheldon on CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” is no science whiz. While he was both a competent and obedient student, he failed a science course in college because he took it for the wrong reason.
“I said I wanted to be a meteorologist because we were living on the Gulf Coast and there were hurricanes. We went through Hurricane Alicia which intrigued me to no end,” he says over lunch at a restaurant here.
“I realized later on it was the sheer drama of it. I really don’t care about studying meteorology ... I took it for a science credit, and it’s the only time I ever failed a class. I didn’t need to fail it. I was overwhelmed by the theater I was doing and completely under achieving in studies outside of that. It was pathetic,” he shakes his head.
Parsons, who resembles the genius he plays on the show, is actually the veteran of 15 failed pilots. “I like auditioning, very much. I enjoy working on things, getting prepared,” he says.
When he read “The Big Bang Theory” he says he knew he could play the part. “My first pilot was `Blitt Happens’ with Fox. The Farrelly brothers directed. It didn’t go. The next one was for CBS. It was `Taste,’ Jane Krakowski’s show. And that didn’t go. But that’s where I met up with CBS and did a holding deal with them for the next year.”
He managed a six-parter on “Judging Amy” and tried all of CBS’ pilots for the next year. None of them worked.
“That’s the way it goes,” he says, shrugging his bony shoulders. “That’s what’s so rare about it. I tested for several that year and just didn’t get them. That’s why I had to prepare for this one because I felt this was probably the one that was going to fit, so you’ve got to be ready if the door’s going to open.”
He got the script the night of the Academy Awards, and Parsons would much rather have been at one of the Oscar parties, but instead he sat on the floor of his sub-let apartment and wrote and re-wrote all the lines.
“I knew if I didn’t get the part and felt I could’ve done more, I really couldn’t live with myself because I just knew it was a wonderful fit—whether or not they thought so ... I wrote them all out, which I still do to this day. I’m very visual. I literally need to be able to see it in my head, and when I get stuck, nine times out of 10, I can tell you the word begins with a D-A something. It’s a little computeresque. It’s not funny until it’s in you so you can come out and play everything under it that’s there for the lines. But it can be an arduous process to get there.”
Getting there hasn’t been easy for Parsons who attended graduate school with seven other students at San Diego/The Old Globe Theater on a scholarship. Armed with a master’s degree he headed for New York.
“I went to do whatever would have me. I’d only done theater up to that point. So I didn’t know for sure how the camera would see me, how I would react to being on a stage like that. So the first thing I did was an off-Broadway show, very quickly then did a lot of commercials and got a little part on `Ed,’ had a scene in `Garden State,’ then got a pilot and it snowballed.”
Commercials for Quiznos, Stride gum, a bank and health care kept him solvent for a while. A FedEx commercial in which he played a lazy employee who keeps his job because he’s the boss’s son drew some attention.
Along with unemployment and a short-term job with a construction company, Parsons managed to make ends meet.
His dad was the president of a plumbing supply company and his mom is a first grade teacher. He has a sister, who’s also a teacher. His father was the humorous one, says Parsons, 34.
His dad was killed in an auto accident six years ago. “And I still don’t know all the ways that changed and affected me, but there’s no way it didn’t,” he says.
“It changed the whole family dynamic. When I went home after that I still hadn’t graduated. I had a final project and I know they told me, `You don’t have to come back right away.’ It was very interesting that I knew I had to go back and do that because whether or not you could be of use at home—I realized in the end I could only be of use to the family fully if I did what I needed to do and then went on.
“What’s funny is I then moved to New York and have a terrible sense of direction—my dad was very good at it—and I understood the city and how to get around so quickly that it boggled my mind. And still, to this day, I think it had something to do with that (his death).”
Once he hit L.A. the gift was gone, he says. “Here I just have to MapQuest it and if I get off the path I just have to say, `I won’t be making it today.’”
Comic Andy Richter guest stars as Liz Lemon’s 40-year-old brother, who has suffered a memory loss and thinks he’s a 17-year old kid, on NBC’s “30 Rock,” airing Dec. 13. Richter wasn’t quite sure when he was a kid what he wanted to be.
“My mom had one of those books that keeps track of kids on their birthday, and when I was 4, 5 and 6 years old I said I wanted to be an actor. But when I was 6 or 7 I said I wanted to be a comedian. After that it was fireman, astronaut or zookeeper. I think I always had the feeling that I could do that, or had an attraction to that kind of work or life. As I got older growing up in a small town I think I started to feel atmosphere around me that you don’t do that—you take over your parents’ business or work in the family store. But NOBODY’s an actor.”
He studied journalism at the University of Illinois but soon had second thoughts. “I thought, `When I get out with journalism I’ll probably be reporting on grain elevator fires—I don’t think I want to do that.’”
So you think you can draw? Push that pencil a bit and you may win a trip for two to Los Angeles. Fox is hyping its new “Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles,” which premieres on Jan. 13 and would like its fans to design a poster to herald the show. Graphics, fonts, titles are already supplied at www.fox.com/terminator. It’s how you put those together that will separate the terminators from the simulators. You have until Dec. 14 to come up with a stunning entry. Final tally will be made by public vote. For more information check the Web site.
He was a rip-roaring director who always gave more than he got. John Frankenheimer made such classics as “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Ronin” and “Bird Man of Alcatraz,” and some of these are being released in a new collectible DVD set, “The John Frankenheimer Collection,” due Jan 22.
Before he died five years ago, Frankenheimer told me how he managed to maintain a career that lasted nearly 50 years. “I think you have to be flexible enough to be able to embrace the new technology and learn how to use it. And I think you have to be all consumed by the work, which I am. And you have to be lucky that somebody really wants you to keep on doing it.”