PASADENA, Calif. - It may have taken him 14 years, but actor-writer John Lehr is convinced he’s not in Kansas anymore. Lehr is the star and one of the creators of TBS’ new nighttime comedy, “10 Items or Less,” which not only takes place in a supermarket, but is almost entirely improvised.
He and a partner had created an improvised comedy show in Chicago that attracted Hollywood’s capricious attention.
And when he landed in Los Angeles in 1992 he was the toast of the town. Shortly after that he was just toast.
“I’d never planned on coming to L.A. but I was broke,” says Lehr, seated in a green vinyl booth in a coffee shop here. “They said, `Look, if you come out and do a good job they’ll sign you to a holding deal.’ I asked how much a holding deal was, and they said it was $25,000 split between me and my partner. And that was a lot of money!”
So the native Kansan found himself the flavor-of-the-month in a town filled with flavors. “We did a home run. Everybody loved us. We signed with (talent agency) ICM, got a holding deal with NBC ... and they didn’t know what to do with us. Nobody had done improv out here. A friend who was an exec at NBC said, `Improv will never work on television because it’s not consistent.’ I wanted to say to her, `I watch a lot of the sitcoms and they’re not consistent.’ Plus I wasn’t crazy about doing improv for improv’s sake, it was my way of writing it.”
Finally Lehr combined the writing and the acting, eventually making more money as a writer than he did as a performer. But he kept his acting tools honed with appearances in shows like “Friends,” “Once & Again” and “Oliver Beene.”
He played Christina Applegate’s brother on the sitcom “Jesse” and even hosted the reality show, “I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here.” He’s also one of the cavemen in three of the Geico commercials.
“I made a lot of money on `Jesse,’ and I stored that away,” he says. “Other actors were buying cars. My dad was a teacher and my mom is a retired social worker. They’re divorced. Dad was a small business owner and his company went bankrupt in the `80s and my parents divorced, I think because of that. I saw what can happen when you’re not frugal. So I’m very good with my money,” he grins.
He figures his parents’ divorce provided him with an important insight. “I think it made me realize that things don’t just work out. That life is something you have to actuate, you have to make it happen. I think it just took a lot of the shine off this whole idea that you can be anything and do anything you want to do. I think that’s sort of a sham. I think the key is finding what life gives you and going with the flow of life. And I’d not seen that. I’d seen that as a negative thing. I saw my dad as a guy who really wanted to do things his way. He was very set in his ways and because of that, I think that’s why his business went Sunnyside up and that’s why his marriage did.”
Though he spent two years after college teaching fifth and sixth grades in Chicago’s inner-city, Lehr was born to be a performer. He’d been the class clown in Overland Park where he grew up. “In Kansas, acting is not something you do. They refer to acting as `dramer.’ Most of my friends from high school went into business or animal husbandry, and I’m not kidding. But I was the class clown, goofed around, wanted attention, did magic shows and stuff.”
He also got into trouble. He developed a serious drinking and drug habit. “I got arrested for possession of narcotics with intent to sell,” he says. “This was right after college. Now I’m sober, sober 10 years ... I caroused a lot. I wanted to try everything. I’m just the kind of guy who wants to seek and experience and I have a crazy side to myself. Fortunately in my 40s I’ve come through, I’m married, have a 6-month-old daughter.”
Lehr has been married for six years to writer Jennifer Lehr, author of the memoir “Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex,” which the couple is turning into a pilot for ABC.
In the meantime, Lehr and his cast of zanies at “10 Items or Less” are manning the check-out stand, stacking peanut butter in Aisle 3 and trying to compete with a mega-market that’s opened in town. Finding actors who can improvise is a specialized art, says Lehr.
“We generally looked for someone who hasn’t had it easy,” he says. “The handsome ones have it pretty easy. (We wanted) character actors who have kind of paved their own way. Good improvisers tend to be interesting people who’ve led interesting lives. After the first 10 minutes of improvising you’re basically relying on your own subconscious and whatever spills out, spills out ...”
Jessica Biel, who’s starring in “Home of the Brave,” says the role was more than an absorbing part. “I think everybody just felt we knew we were making something important,” she says. “I didn’t know what it was going to turn out to be like. I didn’t know about anybody else’s performance. All I knew was what I was doing every day and how I felt. It felt like excitement and a thrilling experience because we were doing something very poignant and I think honestly it’s kind of important to show this aspect and side of war.”
That hilarious family that is constantly met with seemingly insurmountable obstacles is making its way to DVD on Dec. 19. “Little Miss Sunshine,” was one of those little engines that could this year, an independent movie that dwarfed all the ostentatious flicks around it. The tale of a family of dreamers, and how each one loses his, is both inspiring and touching. Toni Collette stars as the well-meaning mom in this off-beat menagerie. The Australian actress, who rose to fame as the klutzy Muriel in “Muriel’s Wedding,” admits that she’s sometimes shy.
“Because I’m a big-boned girl people tend to think I’m a strong woman. But I’m an actor as well, and think one of the reasons I like acting is that it vents my emotions,” she says. “I think I’m really an emotional person. And I have moments of being shy and sometimes the way I deal with it, is I become gregarious and loud.”
Country singer Toby Keith puts on his acting britches in “Broken Bridges,” a romantic movie about lost friends reuniting, which airs Friday on CMT with the DVD in hot pursuit on Jan. 9. The film is about high school sweethearts who meet again when they return home after tragedies have erupted in their families. Kelly Preston (Mrs. John Travolta) plays the female protagonist.
We seem to be seeing a lot more of Preston lately with her commercials and film projects (coming is “Death Sentence”). As for acting, she says she just fell into it. “When I was about 15 in Hawaii and a photograph was sent, and I was sent for a screen test here for `Blue Lagoon.’ Obviously I didn’t get it. (Brooke Shields did.) But I started doing a lot of commercials back in Hawaii and I thought, `This is fun and interesting’ and I got bitten by the bug.”