Fast chat with stage, screen and TV star Peter Gallagher

[15 May 2008]

By Joseph V. Amodio

Newsday (MCT)

Peter Gallagher loves the old alley behind the Broadway theater where he’s co-starring with Morgan Freeman and Frances McDormand in Clifford Odets’ “The Country Girl.” Some 30 years ago he was just starting out, appearing on this very stage in his first lead role, Danny Zuko, in “Grease.” Several theaters open into the alley, and he recalls meeting legends such as Henry Fonda back there. Or Maureen Stapleton, performing then in “The Gin Game,” with whom he’d kick back a few after their shows let out.

He went on to perform in other shows, including “The Real Thing” and “The Corn Is Green,” earning a Tony nomination for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” The guy’s got legit acting chops. He sings, dances, acts - what they used to call a “triple threat,” before the age of lip-synching and let’s-watch-people-who-can’t-really-dance dance shows.

Most audiences, of course, know Gallagher as the irresistible dad from TV’s mega-hit, “The O.C.,” and for films such as “While You Were Sleeping,” “American Beauty” (snagging a SAG Award for that one) and “The Player” (a Golden Globe). You know, he’s the guy with those buh-rowwwws. He’s appeared in 50-plus films, and worked with hotshot directors from Robert Altman to Steven Soderbergh to Hal Prince.

In “The Country Girl,” directed by Mike Nichols, he plays a stubborn director himself, convinced he can save a washed-up star (Freeman), and at odds with the star’s fiercely loyal wife (McDormand). Joseph V. Amodio caught up with Gallagher recently in his dressing room backstage at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

Q. This isn’t the show to be in if you’re trying to quit smoking. Your character chain-smokes in every scene. How do you manage that - are you a smoker?

A. No. It’s kind of challenging - the cigarettes are these herbally things.

Q. There’s no nicotine in them.

A. Right, so I haven’t been jonesing for one after work. But it’s an old theater, so, in addition to the smoke, I’m breathing in Mae West’s feathers and Laurence Olivier’s skin. I’m a bit asthmatic to begin with - all I need is to find a cat in here and I’ll be calling 911.

Q. Must feel like old-home week every time you come to work at this place.

A. Some of the (crew) guys who were starting out when I was starting out (in “Grease”) are still here. This theater hasn’t changed at all.

Q. You’ve got several films in the works. “The War Boys” is an independent film, right?

A. Oh, yes - very indie. I play a hard-charging father, an independent trucker, trying to get my son out, have a better life.

Q. And there’s “Adam,” about a man with Asperger’s syndrome who falls for his pretty neighbor.

A. That stars Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne. She plays my daughter, who wants to marry this guy. There’s also “Center Stage 2.” A sequel. It’s a dance movie.

Q. Lots of dad roles. But a far cry from Sandy Cohen. What made “The O.C.” so popular?

A. It was a family story at a time when Americans were feeling disenfranchised. We’d just gone to war in the gulf, politicians were dividing the country into red and blue states for their own political aims, and here was this story of outsiders - Democrats in a very Republican enclave, who remained true to themselves and embraced another outsider. They saved his life and enriched their (own). And didn’t lose their sense of humor along the way.

Q. You made TV history with that role.

A. To my shock - TV Guide, in their “Greatest TV Dads of All Time,” (listed Sandy Cohen as) No. 26, in between Archie Bunker and Bill Cosby. Certainly the most impressive list I’ve ever been on.

Q. You shot that while your family was living ... here?

A. I tried commuting for a year, which nearly killed me. So I (moved them) to L.A. It was rough (for the kids) but it meant I didn’t miss any hockey or lacrosse games, or dance or singing concerts. We’d eat as a family. My son’s graduating from high school, and my daughter’s in ninth grade. The irony is that they’re now there, and I’m back here.

Q. Are they interested in acting?

A. My son is going to Northwestern next year and wants to be a director. And my daughter is a wonderful songwriter - she’s working on a record album.

Q. She’s in ninth grade ... and working on an album?

A. She’s a very soulful singer. (A producer) heard her music on MySpace.

Q. That’s quite a gene pool you’ve got going. You met your wife ...

A. ... the first week of freshman year (at Tufts). She was a producer for years. And she’s a beautiful dancer. We did a production of “Follies,” and Paula was one of the showgirls. I’d just sit there and drool when she floated by… . We have our 25th anniversary (this month).

Q. A long-lasting marriage in show business - quite an accomplishment.

A. Well, ya know, she’s my country girl. As I’ve said before, I’d be living in a hole in the ground if it weren’t for her.

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