TV parenting outside the box

Posted: February 21, 2014

J.K. SIMMONS, who's played everything from a neo-Nazi on "Oz" to a tabloid editor in "Spider-Man," wasn't interested in being just another clueless TV father.

"The prototype sitcom dad is a doofus who's sort of the oldest of the children," Simmons said last month in an interview in Pasadena, Calif.

No one's likely to say that about Mel Fisher, the blind, fiercely independent and newly single father Simmons portrays in NBC's new comedy "Growing Up Fisher."

Still, "between the kids and the [guide] dog and the blindness and the fact that it's the lead of the show and the amount of hours that would require, everything was leading me to say, 'no, no, no, no, no,' " Simmons said.

"Until I read the script. And then my only problem was, 'This is really great. It's smart, and it's funny and it's heartfelt. But I'm just not sure it's believable.' And then I talked to DJ [Nash, the show's creator] and he said, 'This all happened. This is my life. This is my dad. This is a memoir more than it's fiction.' "

Including, yes, the scene in which Mel Fisher cuts down a tree under the guidance of his 11-year-old son, Henry (Eli Baker).

"I spoke with his dad on the phone," Simmons said, and "yeah, [he'd] cut down trees and fooled people for years into not knowing he was blind. As a point of . . . pride might not be the right word - he just didn't want to be treated differently, treated as special. He wasn't embarrassed about it, he just, you know, wanted to be taken at his own worth."

It's not the first time Simmons nearly passed on a job.

"I was a theater actor for 18 years. And then when the opportunity to do 'Oz' came along, my first meeting with [creator] Tom Fontana, I found myself almost talking my way out of the job because . . . as good as I felt like the show was going to be, I knew that I didn't want to be playing the Nazi of the week for the rest of my life."

In the end, though, "Oz" "was a gigantic thing in my career."

Driver on 'About a Boy'

Sitcom moms may come in more flavors than sitcom dads, but suicidal is still pretty much a no-no.

Which is why the single mother that Minne Driver ("Good Will Hunting," "The Riches") is playing in NBC's new comedy "About a Boy" isn't quite as despairing a creature as the Fiona in Nick Hornby's novel and the subsequent movie.

"You could probably do it on cable, but suicidal mothers with children who keep finding them is not the nature of the sitcom," Driver said, dryly, in an interview in Pasadena last month.

"I think she's depressed and neurotic, but she's not suicidal," she said. "And she's seeking. I think that the character that Nick Hornby created is very set in her kind of pantheon of beliefs . . . whereas I think the Fiona of our show is more of a seeker. It's 'yes, I'm a vegan and I've traveled through India and I've been looking. And I am neurotic and I am depressed and I have a son, and I have no money and I'm trying to make this work.' "

Driver hesitated only "half a second" in joining a project adapted from a beloved book and film.

She was confident, she said, because of the people involved, particularly executive producer Jason Katims.

"I knew from 'Parenthood' and 'Friday Night Lights' . . . that he was going to create a world that was all of its own," said Driver.

She'd also seen her adult co-star, David Walton, in NBC's short-lived "Bent" and in Fox's "New Girl," where she found him "brilliant."

As for Benjamin Stockham, who plays her young son, Marcus, becoming a mother herself - Driver has a 5-year-old - has helped in playing one.

"I sort of know how you are with, you know, the way that you speak to a child, the way you connect with them and listen, and that becomes very natural, as opposed to applied," she said.

"My son is very, very funny. And Ben is very funny, so I really enjoy it."


On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

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