This Distracted Globe random header image

Gary Cole

September 19th, 2008 · 6 Comments

gary-cole-west-wing-pic-1.jpg

Gary Cole was born September 20, 1956 in Park Ridge, Illinois, but grew up just outside Chicago in the neighborhood of Rolling Meadows. His father was a schools administrator. His mother was a finance director. Cole’s older sister was active in music and theater arts and after seeing her performing in a play when he was 12 years old, he chose to follow her footsteps. Attending Rolling Meadows High School, Cole’s first role was Snoopy in a school production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. He attended Illinois State University intending to major in theater, but dropped out his junior year to form the Remains Theatre Ensemble with several of his friends, including William Petersen.

Cole’s first appearance on the Chicago stage came in 1978 with a Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble production of Philadelphia Here I Come. He appeared in more than a dozen plays that Steppenwolf or Remains staged over the next several years, until a Steppenwolf production of Sam Shepard’s True West – starring Jim Belushi as Lee and Cole as Austin – opened in New York in 1983. Cole got as far as a screen test for Miami Vice and came close to being offered the role Don Johnson ultimately played. NBC Vice President Joel Thrum had seen True West and was looking for an actor to step into the role of Jeffrey MacDonald – the former Green Beret who was convicted of murdering his family – in the 1984 mini-series Fatal Vision.

gary-cole-pic-2.jpg

Cole recalls, “They had offered the MacDonald role to a few people who had turned it down, and the time for shooting it was approaching. And the casting director in Chicago, who I had known for a long time, suggested me to Joel Thurm. He remembered the play, and then I flew out and auditioned for it, and it became a reality. But it was one of those right-timing things, because they were getting down to the wire, and they were probably less than two weeks from shooting this thing.” William Petersen was starring in To Live and Die In L.A. and was able to get his buddy a day’s work in an uncredited part as a snitch. Cole was otherwise limited in film to appearing as an assistant football coach in Lucas.

Working in “disease of the week” TV movies, Cole got his next break in 1988, when NBC offered him the lead in his own series, Midnight Caller. The hour mystery/drama centered on a fallen cop named Jack Killian, who finds redemption as a San Francisco talk radio host with a knack for exorcising the demons of his callers. Stephen King was one of many fans of the series, which lasted three seasons. More television work followed, notably the lead role of General George Custer in ABC’s 1991 mini-series Son of the Morning Star. He was offered his biggest film role to date playing Clint Eastwood’s much younger superior officer in In The Line of Fire when a founding member of the Steppenwolf Theatre – John Malkovich – suggested Cole for the job.

gary-cole-in-the-line-of-fire-pic-3.jpg

In 1994, a director Cole had worked with on Midnight Caller named Betty Thomas was making her feature film debut. She was casting Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie. Cole recalls that Thomas, “went to bat for me at the studio, because I don’t think the studio wanted me. It didn’t make sense for the studio; I’m sure they were going through their list of standup comedians and other comic actors that had done those movies. And nobody wanted to do it. They’d keep passing on it. And the time was coming, they had to make it, and so I was slipped in.” The role of a sinister small town sheriff in Sam Raimi’s short-lived TV series American Gothic followed in 1995, which led to a pivotal role in a big screen thriller Raimi directed in 1998, A Simple Plan.

Cole transitioned into playing a live action version of a character Mike Judge had created and voiced in a series of cartoon shorts in the mid 1990s. Cole imitated Judge’s delivery well enough to win the part, but the movie disappeared from screens in 1999. Cole was doing theater in Chicago a year later when people who recognized him as the boss from Office Space started approaching him on the street. “I didn’t know that it had gained an audience on video. And it happened consistently. I started going to restaurants and people would be like, ‘Hey Lumbergh!’ I went to the ballpark at Wrigley Field, people were shouting out Lumbergh’s name. I thought, ‘My God, somebody’s actually watching this thing.’”

gary-cole-office-space-pic-4.jpg

Since Office Space, Cole has been a staple in film and TV. He played Robin Williams’ retail store boss in the psychodrama One Hour Photo. He joined the cast of The West Wing in 2003, playing Vice President “Bingo” Bob Russell for 21 episodes. He popped up as a TV color commentator in Dodgeball and was part of the Talladega Nights ensemble, playing Will Ferrell’s daddy. He’s been seen on episodes of Karen Sisco, Law & Order: SVU and Arrested Development and heard in a variety of roles on Family Guy, as well as on Adult Swim as the title character of Cartoon Network’s Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law. Cole was recently featured as Dana Delaney’s nefarious ex-husband on Desperate Housewives and in the movie Pineapple Express menacing Seth Rogen.

Cole has been married since 1992 to Terri Siddall, a writer he met while they were both working on Midnight Caller. They have a daughter who was diagnosed with autism at age two and Cole is active in charity causes for the condition. When asked about his approach to work, Cole stated, “The more you do it, you realize that the philosophy is that you show up, you do it, you do the best you can and then you walk away. Everything else is up to somebody else in terms of how they digest it, what they think of it, whether it’s good or bad. You move on to the next experience. There’s no point in ‘What if-ing’ everything. I’ve been around long enough to know that you just move on and if it works, that’s great, that’s gravy. If it doesn’t? So what. The next thing will work.”

ufca-shield.jpg

© Joe Valdez

Photos and screenshots courtesy of The Gary Cole Archives

Tags: United Federation of Character Actors

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Fletch // Sep 19, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    His Mike Brady made him, and Lumbergh cemented him as one of the premier character actors of his generation. I love the guy – he’s equally strong in comedy and drama, and adds class to whatever project he’s on.

    Excellent choice.

  • 2 Marilyn // Sep 20, 2008 at 5:55 am

    If you keep choosing Chicago actors who are about my age, I’m going to keep having to say “I knew them when.” I was a volunteer for Remains, and I admit I didn’t like Cole very much. Petersen was my favorite, and I’ve been so pleased to see a nice guy finish first.

    Nonetheless, Cole has done some great work (and I’m sure, outgrown his youthful ‘tude). I love his Mike Brady, Lumbergh, and also loved Night Caller – definitely one of the best series on TV.

    BTW, another tidbit. Betty Thomas was an ensemble member at The Second City in Chicago as well as a cast member of Hill Street Blues in later years. Chicago actors help each other out.

  • 3 Moviezzz // Sep 20, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    I can’t see Cole without thinking of his CALLER sign off:

    “Good night America, wherever you are”

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Sep 20, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Fletch: What’s revealing to me are all the filmmakers – Betty Thomas, Sam Raimi, Judd Apatow – who after working with Cole once, want to use him again and again. I still haven’t watched The Brady Bunch movies but I’m sure if I ever do, I’ll have to agree they aren’t that bad. Cole’s work would be a major reason. Thanks for commenting.

    Marilyn: I’m sure there have been articles written about all the major film actors who got their start in the Windy City: Malkovich, William Petersen, Joan Allen, Gary Cole and John Cusack are the ones that come to mind. In addition to Steppenwolf, you had SCTV there as well. I wonder if Chicago still has institutions where good actors can go to become great actors, or whether this explosion of talent was just limited to a particular time. I promise that next week’s character actor will have no connection to either Chicago or your age demographic whatsoever. Thanks for your remarkable remarks.

    Moviezzz: I was a wee high school freshman when Midnight Caller was on the airwaves, but remember even then feeling that the show had strong atmosphere, sort of like Kolchak the Night Stalker with real monsters instead of imaginary ones. It lasted three seasons and I can’t see why NBC hasn’t put this out on DVD. I don’t know what Gary Cole has to do be more recognizable. Thanks for commenting.

  • 5 Marilyn // Sep 20, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Ha ha. You pick whoever you want. I just don’t like to appear to be a name dropper.

    SCTV actually came out of Canada, and I loved it. But yes, Second City is still an incubator of talent, as is Steppenwolf, The Red Orchid, and the many, many small theatres where actors can develop without the punishing gaze of LA and NYC critics. Things really ARE different here.

  • 6 christian // Sep 21, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    My friend Megan’s first TV part came in MIDNIGHT CALLER. Cole is gold.

Leave a Comment