"Didn't he play a serial killer?" an editor asked when I brought up Gary Cole's name not long ago. Not a serial killer, but the 1984 TV miniseries "Fatal Vision" was Cole's first major role. Playing Jeffrey MacDonald, the real-life Army doctor who was convicted in 1979 of killing his wife and children, Cole — a mainstay of Chicago's then-burgeoning Off-Loop theater scene — stepped into the role with barely any on-camera experience.
"Although such notables as Christopher Reeve were considered for the part," People magazine noted at the time, "the actor who plays the perfect son run amok in the NBC docudrama... is an unknown whose work has seldom been seen outside his native Chicago. And while Gary Cole, 28, offers none of Redford's drawing power or rough-hewn good looks" — oh yeah, MacDonald apparently wanted Robert Redford to play him in the movie — "he delivers a performance that had preview audiences cheering and critics predicting an Emmy."
An Emmy nomination never did materialize, but a long and varied TV and film career was born. "There Is a Staggering 37.4 Percent That This Actor Was in Your Favorite Movie or Television Show" according to the jokey slide-show headline featuring all things Cole on the pop culture web site Pajiba. Cole just has a knack for landing iconic roles. The suspender-wearing, middle-manager nightmare known as Lumbergh in "Office Space." A bewigged, utterly charming Mike Brady in "The Brady Bunch" films. Will Ferrell's scuzzy, estranged father in "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." All confident men who can't quite mask an underlying idiocy.
Cole's appeal, whether he's working big or dialing it back, is always that he seems in on the joke — and he knows how to time a straight-faced punch line with just the right amount of deeply buried sass and bite. He might be among the most underrated comedic performers working today.
His list of TV credits is just as long, (appearing on everything from "Curb Your Enthusiasm" to "30 Rock" to "Desperate Housewives" to "Entourage"). Every time you look up, it seems, there's Gary Cole.
This has been an especially strong year. Adding to his recurring role on CBS's "The Good Wife" (as ballistics expert and Diane Lockhart love interest Kurt McVeigh), this spring he joined the second season of the HBO political satire "Veep" as a White House numbers cruncher able to squash the vice president's credibility with little more than an annoyed glance — a wonderfully meta-comical turning of the tables from Cole's callow vice president (aka Bingo Bob) on "The West Wing."
Less than a month after "Veep's" season finale, I had to laugh when Cole's mug showed up yet again on another series because, of course it would. This summer he has an multi-episode arc on USA's "Suits" as a special prosecutor all too happy to flash a garbage-eating grin at his former protege before shoving a few slices of humble pie in the guy's face. It is a show that's better than most on basic cable when it comes to bridging the gap between disposable, easy-to-watch antics and serialized drama.
In the next few weeks, Cole told me he'll be back juggling work on the CBS and HBO shows. "The good news for me is that 'The Good Wife' is in New York (despite the Chicago setting), and 'Veep' is in Baltimore," he said by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "That's a two-hour train ride, so it's just (makes a whistle sound) zip up and back and it all works."
On "Veep," Cole is surrounded by a cast that is largely Chicago-trained or Chicago-raised, including the show's star Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Let's back up for moment. In the early '80s Cole was a member of the Remains Theatre, an influential company that included Ted Levine ("The Bridge"), D.W. Moffett ("Switched at Birth"), Amy Morton (the Tony nominee who will appear in the new season of "Homeland") and William Petersen (currently in "Slowgirl" at Steppenwolf, where Cole is now an ensemble member).
So that was one group of actors in town. Louis-Dreyfus was part of another. Here is Cole's memory of that time in Chicago.
"There was this hot new show from this new theater company called the Practical Theatre Company." This was in 1982 and the show was called "The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee," a sketch and improv revue directed by Second City founder Sheldon Patinkin and starring Northwestern alumni Louis-Dreyfus, her future husband Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger and Paul Barrosse.
"I remember we all went en masse to see this show, it was in Piper's Alley, and by the end of the summer the entire company was hired for 'Saturday Night Live.'" That's true. All four "Jubilee" stars were scooped up either as writers or performers on "SNL."
I asked Cole if he remembers crossing paths with Louis-Dreyfus during those years. "I think we met just briefly. Maybe? Any time there were parties at other theater companies, people would just show up. Groups of actors just hanging around randomly. I think we did actually meet, but I don't know if she remembers it."
Either way, there wasn't much reminiscing when Cole read for the role on "Veep."
"We did a couple of scenes. And then we improvised, which they like to do a lot, whether it's rehearsal or shooting. And a few days later I got a positive phone call."
A good portion of the show's scripts, Cole said, are derived from those rehearsal-generated improvisations. "It's a different animal, and it's not where I came from," is how he put it. "It's not how I was trained. I don't think I do it very well. I'm learning basically through necessity."
It's funny, though. Watching Cole on screen, it seems like he could have just as easily followed a sketch and improv path early on. "One thing I've learned is that it also depends upon the character you're playing," he said. "I was just in Melissa McCarthy's next movie, which won't be out until next summer, called 'Tammy,' which is basically a road trip movie with her and Susan Sarandon. Our scenes all took place either in a bar or a motel room; I was usually drunk and so was Susan Sarandon. I play a low-life, bar-crawling lech aaannnnd I don't know what I'm saying here, but I found that guy easier to improvise than a highly intelligent Washington political adviser who is very introverted and always using three-dollar words.
"I come out of the theater, so the idea of not using the text that you have (in front of you), it's not a muscle I ever used until I found myself in certain situations in film. When you're in a movie with Will Ferrell, well, it's time to at least sometimes throw the script away. And that character in 'Talladega Nights' I found a lot easier to kind of riff with because I related to it more, those kind of Southern, almost rednecky guys. That's a culture that I'm familiar with, that makes sense for me to spew."
Also notable: His tendency to play around with facial hair choices. These days it's a mustache for "The Good Wife" and "Suits" and a full beard for "Veep."
"I'd like to say it was all planned. But the truth is, nothing was planned. It all started with boredom on my part and doing TV pilot after TV pilot that went in the tank or not even getting cast in stuff. So at one point I grew a mustache, just for grins." It fit the bill for "The Good Wife" so he kept it. Later he grew a beard for a play, and the folks at "Veep" liked it too. "Suits" wanted him clean-shaven, but that didn't jibe with his "Good Wife" look, so mustache stayed.
"It's a quality problem to have, is what I'm saying. And now I've got the beard again.
"I'm not anything but a hair-and-facial-hair actor," he said, letting the dry delivery of the line do the heavy lifting, a skill he's deployed to such wry effect throughout his career. "That's the extent of my talent: What hair and facial hair I have."
"Suits" airs 9 p.m. Tuesdays on USA. "The Good Wife" returns on CBS Sept. 29. The third season of HBO's "Veep" will air in 2014.
Old school Chicago
Forget the attitude on display at Ed Debevic's or Weiner Circle: None of it can rival what went on daily at Jerry's Deli, a now long-forgotten lunch spot on Grand Avenue. Filmmaker Tom Palazzolo's 7-minute documentary from 1974 ("Jerry's Deli") is among the finest Chicago artifacts of its time, putting the spotlight on a man who treated his customers with an endearing sort of horribleness. Don Rickles would have loved this joint. The short is available on YouTube, but the quality is less than ideal. You can see it on the big screen Friday, where it will be shown with a full lineup of other food-themed shorts including Gary Weimberg's 1979 Kubrick parody "$20.01: A Chinese Food Odyssey." At Chicago Filmmakers. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.
The Black Harvest Film Festival continues at the Siskel Film Center with a collection of short films screening under the umbrella title "Love African American Style," including Derrick Perry's "Prospect" (12 minutes), about a Brooklyn-based photographer and the mysterious young woman he meets in Prospect Park. Screens Friday and Thursday. Many of the directors will be at both screenings for post-show discussions, though Perry will only be in town Thursday. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
After filming around town at foodie haunts including Graham Elliot, Topolobampo and Sepia, Chicago-based writer and director Jack C. Newell heads to Paris next month to finish shooting his microbudget resto-romantic comedy "Open Tables," which stars Joel Murray and top Chicago improvisers David Pasquesi, T.J. Jagodowski and Susan Messing. For more info about the film go to opentablesmovie.com.