‘Parks and Recreation’ co-star Jim O’Heir: ‘It was the best place to be.’

Senior Television Writer
02.17.15 12 Comments

NBC

In a parallel universe, Jim O’Heir could have spent the last seven seasons on “Parks and Recreation” not as office punching bag Garry/Jerry/Larry/Terry/Garry, but as Ron Swanson. That’s the role he auditioned for at the start, and while he didn’t get it, Mike Schur and Greg Daniels liked his audition enough to hire him as a background character with the potential to do more, much like Stanley, Phyllis and Meredith on “The Office.”

It was a move that paid out well for all involved, and tonight’s second episode – the last regular installment of “Parks” before next week’s series finale – had a crowning moment of sorts for O’Heir’s long-suffering alter ego. (I reviewed both of tonight’s episodes here.) Earlier today, we spoke about the ups, downs, and many names of Garry Gergich, the experience of being a part of this great series, as well as the Kickstarter campaign for what O’Heir hopes will be his next project.

First of all, congratulations on Garry becoming interim mayor of Pawnee.

Jim O’Heir: Is that the craziest shit in the whole world? Yeah, it’s unbelievable.

How did you find out that this was going to be where Garry ended up?

Jim O’Heir: One day, we’re just hanging and Amy says, “Did you hear what they’re thinking about for Jerry?” She pulled me to the side and started telling me what was going to go down. I literally got chills up and down my arm. It was so amazing. After everything Jerry’s been through at work, to become the mayor of the city and beloved, I just think it’s genius.

And this wasn’t the first great thing that’s happened to him this year. A few weeks ago, he finally got his real name back.

Jim O’Heir: Yes, he got his name back, because Donna knew. She had been around the longest, and she knew Jerry’s real deal. That was her little sweet moment. I loved the moment between the two when Jerry realizes what Donna’s done, he just looks at her, she gives him a wink, and Jerry has his – Garry, Garry, Garry has has his name back, which is great.

You keep saying “Jerry.” Are you just accustomed to that because it was the one you used the longest?

Jim O’Heir: I gotta say, and it’s probably just because it was the first, Jerry is certainly the first thing I think. Jerry seems to be the name that comes up most. But it’s weird. I really should embrace Garry, because that truly is his real name. I just think it’s because it was so damn long that Jerry just stuck. Think about it: it had been almost 30 years where people were calling him Jerry, except at home.

So when the moment came a while back where everyone started calling him Larry, was it a difficult adjustment for you? Did you ever blow takes because someone called you Larry and you didn’t respond?

Jim O’Heir: To be honest, it was the opposite. I was fine. I was totally cool. Nobody else could do it. It would be take after take, because Amy and Nick were calling me by whatever the hell was the previous name I had been called.It was constantly, ‘Oh, dammit! Cut!’ Because of the names. It became a running gag. At one point, someone said, ‘What is his name?’ But I know that Mike and them, their hope is that maybe one day it becomes a “Jeopardy” question: “What series regular had four different names during the run of a series?”

Did you feel protective of him in all his suffering, or were you just excited because you were an actor being given things to play?

Jim O’Heir: You’re always protective of a character you’re playing out of respect. But I always refer to the story where one day, Chris Pratt said, “I can’t do this. This seems like too much.” And I was like, “Dude, come on! This is awesome. It’s a funny bit. When they yell cut, it’s nothing but love between us, so it’s okay.” I was fine with it. Mike Schur changed everything when he decided that Jerry will have the most amazing home life of anybody. Jerry, ultimately, in my opinion, has the best life of anyone in that office. He goes home to a wife and kids who just adore him. He walks on water for them. That’s what’s important to them. It would be funny how sometimes the other actors would be more concerned than I was. I just trusted the writers that it wouldn’t be over the line.

You originally auditioned to play Ron Swanson. What do you remember about that audition and your take on the character?

Jim O’Heir: You never know who’s going to be in a room for an audition, so I always try to be prepared. I had heard Greg Daniels was going to be in the room. That adds to the pressure. I put in a lot of time into the audition process. I think my take was stern like Nick, but I feel like I was more affable. The thought of anyone else playing the character other than Nick Offerman is beyond absurd. I would like to see the tape now, just to see how I did it. But I remember laughing a few times, which is very much not who Ron turned out to be.

After Nick got that part instead of you, what were you told about what they wanted you to do, and how big the role of Jerry might be?

Jim O’Heir: They were awesome as far as their honesty. They said, “We have no idea. We have six people” – it was Amy, Nick, Aziz, Rashida, Aubrey and Paul Schneider back then – “and the world’s gotta get to know these people. We think that things are going to happen,” but they made me no promises. So had it blown up, it wouldn’t have been a huge disappointment. But Greg and Mike had done “The Office,” where Phyllis and Stanley and people like that turned out to be hugely important, and I was someone who was obsessed with that show, and thought this was a gamble worth taking. I got a little pushback from my agent, who told me, “Be sure you’re not just going to wind up as an extra.” But it just seemed to me like such a no-brainer, because it was Mike Schur and Greg, and what had happened on their other show. No promises were made. I know I was at an airport in Miami at the end of season 2, right before the holidays, my manager said we got a phone call, and I thought, ‘Oh, God, what is it?’ I figured it was bad news. And he said, “They want to promote you to a series regular.” That’s the dream phone call. I was so thrilled. I kind of knew it was heading there, because in season 2, they had already given me my own episode, which was awesome and unexpected. What I’ve heard Mike say in interviews is that he and Greg said, “Let’s put him at a desk. This’ll work itself out.” And thankfully it did.

(After this interview, I asked Mike Schur what he remembered about O’Heir’s audition and how they wound up hiring him for this other role. Schur says, “Well, he wasn’t right for Ron, mostly because he is such a deeply pleasant person, in person. Greg had had such success with populating the world with interesting actors on ‘The Office,’ and developing their individual characters later, that we were on the lookout (as were Allison Jones and Nancy Perkins) for people we just liked, whose roles would be determined later. Jim has such a genuinely sweet vibe, and he had Chicago comedy training — it just seemed to fit. So we grabbed him and Retta and stuck them in the bullpen, trusting that their inherent talent and the writing staff’s ideas would eventually merge into a good role.”)

The first time Jerry really stands out as a character is in “Practice Date,” where Mark finds out he was adopted, and it turns out Jerry never knew. Was that the point where you feel like the writers figured out who he was?

Jim O’Heir: That’s exactly when it happened. I give 100 percent credit to (writer) Dan Goor. On the day we wrapped, I was a sobbing mess, I found Dan – he wasn’t even with the show anymore, because he’s running “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” but everybody came back for the last scene – and said, “Dan, thank you.” That was the episode. When Dan wrote that little bit, that Jerry did not know that he had been adopted, the lightbulb in the writers room was, “This is going to be who Jerry is. He’s not going to always be on top of what’s going on around him, and he’s going to be the punching bag.” That secured, I guess, my job on “Parks and Recreation.” Until then, Jerry would answer the phone, Jerry would tell Leslie, “There’s somebody here,” but that was the first episode that gave me some background.

Was the first “Aw, geez” scripted or something you improvised?

Jim O’Heir: My guess is I said that, because I am an “Aw, geez” kind of guy. But it could have been in the script, because as they know you, they write for you. Rob Lowe literally said “literally,” and that stuck in the script. Adam Scott is a big one to go, “Good lord!” It could have been just from hearing me talk.

What was your reaction when you found out Christie Brinkley was going to play Gail?

Jim O’Heir: The word came down that we’re going to meet Jerry’s family. Number one as an actor, I thought that was going to be a great storyline for me. Earlier there had been some talk, and thank God it didn’t happen, but Amy came up with the idea: What if Jerry is so put-upon at work, that when he goes home, he’s just this tyrant? He has this mousy little wife who’s chain-smoking, because she’s so afraid when he comes through the door, and the kids are afraid of him. Which would have been a funny bit one time, but Mike Schur’s thing was Jerry can’t survive everything he’s put through at work if he goes home and it’s terrible. They said to me, “We’re going to try to get the Christie Brinkley-type.” And then someone said, “I think we got Christie Brinkley.” And I’m like, “Are you effing kidding me?” What happened to Christie is, her daughter Sailor asked what show was trying to hire her, and Christie said it was us, and they wanted her to play a wife, and Sailor asked “Is it Jerry’s wife?” And when Christie said yes, Sailor was like, “You have to do it!” That’s how Christie got on board. Are you kidding me? This is a woman who was on my wall!

Since we met Gail, Ben has been obsessed with finding out how she and Jerry got together. Do you think it’s just that he’s such a nice guy? Is it that he’s spectacularly endowed?

Jim O’Heir: I truly believe there are people out there who fall in love with an individual, with the insides of a person. That is who Gail Gergich is. I just think she saw an incredibly sweet man. Everyone goes, “Oh, it’s because of the penis.” That certainly doesn’t hurt – no pun intended – but I really believe they met up and she just saw the heart of Garry Gergich, and that’s all it took for her. He’s a duck where a lot of water rolls off his back. I love how Ben is obsessed with that. I just love it. Apparently, Gail and her side of the family have very strong genes, because you’ve seen our daughters. You would never know I was related to any of those people! They are all Gail’s kids. But I think she doesn’t see the weight, doesn’t see any of it. She just sees a guy she fell in love with.

Do you have a favorite Jerry moment? The fart attack, maybe?

Jim O’Heir: What I loved about the fart attack, in my mind, the only way that I thought that that could play, is if I took it really seriously. If you watch that scene again, I’m dead serious. Amy will say she loves that, but I can be serious because of all the craziness around it. Tom’s coming out asking if I’ve eaten farts for lunch, the most ridiculous stuff. I think the combination of me playing it really serious, but also being the sweet Jerry saying, “Oh, that’s okay. Just having a heart attack.” It was just a lovely scene to shoot. I loved that moment.

I’ve had a lot of crazy Jerry moments in the world. People yell at me, ‘Dammit, Jerry!’ My favorite story that was kind of an eye opener, I went to Sundance last year, and Nick told me, “It’s going to be crazy for you.” And I didn’t believe him. So I get there, and I’m walking down the main street, and people were yelling, and the police had to help us move off the street. It was my Beatles moment. But as this is happening, someone yells, “Ohmigod, it’s Bradley Cooper!” And these people left me as soon as they had surrounded me. And I thought, “Oh, that’s how it is. Movies and TV!” But Bradley had security on each side of him, and in front of him, and he didn’t have time to stop. All of a sudden, the crowd realized they weren’t getting any of him, so they came back to me. And I was like, “Oh, no. I saw what just happened here.”

As someone who was there from the start, what was the atmosphere on the set like? And did it change over time as other actors besides Amy started to become famous and in-demand in their own right?

Jim O’Heir: From day 1, you felt whatever warmth and everything that Amy always exudes was there. That went right to the set. From day 1, there was this wonderful kindness of a tone that Amy set. There were some relationships beforehand, but most of us didn’t know each other, and as nice as it started, it only got better. In 125 episodes, I never heard a raised voice on set. I never heard anger, I never heard anyone being upset. And then as things start to happen, especially for Chris Pratt, actors are a jealous breed, and you could be like, “Oh, damn, I want something like that.” But anyone who knows Chris Pratt, there’s not a better guy in the world. I remember the day he got “Guardians,” I literally got tears in my eyes the day he got the news. He’s one of the genuine good guys, and that’s not BS. He’s been in the movies for the past 3-4 years, and nothing has changed. Which leads me to believe nothing will change. If “Parks” was still on the air, and we were doing another season, Chris Pratt would still be on the show. I guarantee it. He never would have left the show, because it was such a great place to be. It was the best place to be.

What was it like working on the last few weeks of the series?

Jim O’Heir: People were handling it different. Some people were totally blocking it out. I wished I could, but it really hit me. What happened was as your Joans and Perds and Jean-Ralphios, as they’re leaving, when they wrap, it’s “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a series wrap on Jay Jackson.” It would really hit, “Wow. That character is done.” It was in my face every day, people were leaving. Before the season started, we lost a few of the crew guys that I love, because they got offered jobs that would go 22 episodes. So there were constant little reminders. It definitely brought me down, but then when you’re on the set, and laughing and joking, and you’re all together, there were just so many laughs, and I could forget about it. But then something would bring it back. I did a wrap-up (electronic press kit) for “Parks,” and the question was about the legacy of the show, and that hit me hard. I think what hit hardest was that the word “legacy” means that it’s over. I had trouble keeping it together after that question. For me, there’s great pride in the fact that I’m part of a show, there’s a million sitcoms, and I did seven seasons on a sitcom that is so highly respected. For an actor, it’s an honor and a gift. I don’t buy lottery tickets; I hit the lottery when they hired me for Jerry.

How does it feel knowing that the show is over in a week?

Jim O’Heir: I’m dying to see what people think of the finale. I think what they’ve done in the finale is so different than things I’ve seen on television. Not like it’s never been done, but I don’t think it’s ever been done in a sitcom. I’m so proud of what they’ve done, and it’s the brilliance of Mike Schur and his team. But there’s just four left, and NBC burnt them off, so it seems like it’s gone so quick. The season just started in January, and a week from tonight, there’s no more new “Parks and Recreation.” We’ll all be together next week, doing Seth Meyers for finale night, and we’ll all be together to watch the finale. I have a feeling there will be a few buckets of tears there. It’s not like this is the end of the world. All shows end. It’s the nature of television. To be on one kind of iconic as “Parks,” I’ll always treasure that. And there’s excitement for new adventures, which is also good, too. But if Amy called right now and said they wanted to do a season 8, tell me the time and place, and I’ll do it.

You mentioned new adventures, so what can you tell me about this Kickstarter campaign you’re involved in?

Jim O’Heir: It’s a film called “Middle Man,” it was written by Ned Crowley, who’s going to direct it. He wrote it years ago, apparently with me in mind, and some producers got ahold of him after they saw the script. I’ve never seen such a reaction to a script from other people. People read it and they want to be involved, which is a good thing for us. It’s tough. I know people go, “Oh, these actors, he’s been on a TV show for years; let him pay for his own film.” I get it. And I am putting up my own money, and other producers are as well. But we’re trying to get another $150,000, because we want this half million dollar film to look like a multi-million dollar film. We’ve already shot teasers. If you go to MiddleManMovie.com, it’s all there. They’re really well-shot, and it’s just a taste of what the movie will be like. We’re doing the incentives, there’s premiere parties, me coming to your house for pizza and beer. Andrew J. West from “The Walking Dead” is going to be my co-lead, and there’s going to be some great people involved. There are going to be some of the folks from “Parks” in the movie, because they’re great people and generous and wonderful. It’s an anti-Jerry. It’ll be good for me to show – I love Jerry, but I’m an actor, and there’s more to me than Jerry Gergich. I’m playing a wannabe stand-up comic who was raised on Burns & Allen, and I end up hooking up with this very demented person, and it turns into a very dark comedy. By the end, it’s just a bloodbath. It’s a Kickstarter campaign, and we’re trying to get the help we can to get the final hundred and fifty.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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