'Surviving Jack' star Christopher Meloni looks back on 'SVU,' 'Oz' & more
Christopher Meloni has had the kind of varied, almost schizophrenic, and very vivid acting career in which the first thing you see him in would likely color your perceptions of him for years to come. I first encountered him in the sixth season of “1st & Ten,” a raunchy ‘80s HBO comedy about a pro football team whose cast at various points included Delta Burke, Shannon Tweed, O.J. Simpson and, for a season — as an ex-con quarterback calling himself Johnny Gunn — a young Meloni. (Here’s the opening credits for that season.) As a result of that and a few other sitcom roles immediately after, I thought of him as a comedy guy and was thrown when he would pop up playing intense dramatic roles in the ‘90s on shows like “NYPD Blue,” “Homicide” and, for a long and memorable stretch, “Oz,” HBO’s first original dramatic series, in which Meloni played charismatic sexual predator Chris Keller.
People who first encountered him as Keller, meanwhile, may have been alarmed when he switched over to the side of good to spend a dozen years playing crusading cop Elliott Stabler on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” or when he would dip back into comedy to play a sweater-fondling summer camp chef in “Wet Hot American Summer” or a puppet-wielding pediatrician on “Scrubs.”
Whatever he is doing, Meloni commits, extremely. At the moment, that commitment is to “Surviving Jack,” a new FOX comedy based on the childhood of writer Justin Halpern — he is, essentially, playing the same character at a younger age that William Shatner hammed up in CBS’s short-lived “(Shit) My Dad Says” — as the oncologist father of a teenage boy and girl in the early ‘90s. It’s a role that reunites him with “Surviving Jack” producer Bill Lawrence, who had created “Scrubs,” and one that lets him use his gift for threatening behavior in the service of laughter.(*)
(*) No time this week for a proper review of "Surviving Jack," so let me say the following: 1)Based on the two episodes I've seen, it's my favorite of this season's three nostalgia-driven sitcoms, ahead of both "The Goldbergs" and "Growing Up Fisher." 2)Meloni is really excellent, and it's striking how, again, the same character from "Feces My Dad Says" seems so much sharper and more real when Halpern and Patrick Schumacker's writing is being put through the Bill Lawrence filter rather than the Kohan & Mutchcnick filter. 3)It is not often laugh-out-loud funny at this stage, but it has a voice and point of view and is very likable in that same way that, say, "Trophy Wife" or even "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" were at the beginning, and seems like it has the potential to turn into something more just like those shows did. (And its timeslot should provide that the time to do so.) 4)Beyond Meloni, I'm not sure about the rest of the characters — as the Halpern stand-in, Connor Buckley plays panicked well but doesn't get to display much else — but he's good enough to carry things for now.
Earlier this month, I sat down with Meloni to discuss his long and winding career and how he ended up on this show, which debuts Thursday night at 9:30, after “American Idol.”
Why were you interested in playing this character?
Christopher Meloni: I found the script funny. I found his voice kind of unique. I knew Bill Lawrence and I think he knows what he’s doing, obviously. A half hour appealed to me.
You did 12 years on “SVU.” If someone had come to you with another one hour script that you liked, would you have done that? Or did you not want to deal with that again for a while?
Christopher Meloni: Yeah, I just didn’t want to. With, a one-hour show, you miss a lot of life if you’re the lead on a 22 to 24 episode season. It’s not just the work and it’s not just every day. I needed a month or two of decompression. And my kids were getting a little older. I wanted to spend a little more time with the family.
You have been able to diversify your career. You do very intense, dramatic roles but then you also do things like “Wet Hot” and “Scrubs” and now this. Was that by design or is it just that these are the things that came along?
Christopher Meloni: I guess I was foolish enough to believe I had the ability to pull both things off, and I guess enough people have liked what I’ve done to keep it going. I’ve had a lot of designs in my career and most of them came to fruition and some didn’t. So maybe it’s an unconscious design.
What were the actual designs you had back in the day?
Christopher Meloni: To work with Martin Scorsese and Terry Gilliam. One of those came true (he worked with Gilliam on “Twelve Monkeys” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”). For me, those were big influences. Past that, in the meantime you’ve got to make a living. And so you’re an actor for hire and you run around and you show off your wares, you open up your little case of stuff that you do and people hire you or they don’t. So people just hired me for comedies and dramas.
You know better than I do that actors get pigeonholed. And you started out doing a few half-hours in a row.
Christopher Meloni: That has been a constant battle. I came in and was introduced as Frankie Fanelli on “The Fanelli Boys.” Big, dumb, lovable lunk from Brooklyn. And so that was it. That’s who I was. “You’re the funny half hour guy, kind of physical, very New York.” I personally just never agreed with that. I mean I agreed that I can do that, but I didn’t agree that that was the sum of my parts. So with the help of the guy who reps me, Bill Butler, who’s been with me from the very beginning, we kept kicking at doors and trying to influence people’s opinions.
But then after you had gone and done “Oz,” did it then become a challenge the other way? To convince people you can be funny?
Christopher Meloni: I don’t think so. I seem to get those nice little shots, whether it’s through Terry Gilliam or David Wain with “Wet Hot American Summer,” or “Harold & Kumar.” You know, I kept getting these odd shots that I was very thankful for, and I got it done.
How did “Wet Hot” come about? Did they approach you?
Christopher Meloni: No, “Wet Hot” was an audition. It’s one of those auditions that when I walked in and did what I did – and it’s always a good feeling – I just thought, “This role is mine. And if it’s not, that’s fine.” But I did exactly what I thought this character is. I laid it out very clearly, “Here’s the guy.” And it’s up to them. They go, “No, that’s not how we see him.” I was like, “That’s fine but that’s the guy. I’m telling you.” One of the weirder ones was “Harold & Kumar,” because that was an offer, and I asked the writers, “Why me?” They go, “Well, we were actually thinking of you the whole time we were writing it.” I was thinking, “You still didn’t answer my question. I don’t know whether that’s a compliment.” So that was fun and funny.