by Ronald Sklar
Tom Verica stars as family patriarch Jack Pryor on the NBC sleeper hit American Dreams. The role calls for the strong silent type: a challenge which is not always as appreciated as it should be in a medium that often displays the dad as the house fool. Here, Verica plays the solid rock. He typifies the very greatest of the Greatest Generation, but now trying his darnedest to provide gravity to a vulnerable family that is about to go up, up and away with the sixties.
That turbulent decade, which is just about dawning as this series takes off, is a TV writer’s American wet dream. There is built-in conflict and social upheaval that actual series from that time couldn’t dare address (imagine Fred MacMurray instructing his three sons about the evils of segregation, or Gomer Pyle actually going to Vietnam). Verica’s character gets to confront a wife (Gail O’Grady) who is about to liberate herself from her apron strings and hubby’s final word. His son (Will Estes) may not want to go the traditional rah-rah route. All manner of outside forces find their uneasy way into his cozy Philadelphia home: civil rights, rock and roll music and – probably next season – long hair and mini-skirts.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom, as the show’s millions of fans can confirm. There’s plenty of music and dancing and general feelin’ groovy. Eldest daughter Meg (Brittany Snow) becomes a dance regular on the afternoon American Bandstand show, which was a local Philly TV staple that took the nation by storm in real life.
Verica, a Philadelphia native himself, earned some unexpected preparation for his career-making role. However, it was not the kind of experience you would expect from the actor who plays such a rugged, old-fashioned traditionalist.
“I was on a local dance show in Philadelphia for a couple of years when I was in high school,” he says without an ounce of irony or regret. “From what I remember, it was a really hot show, and my sister really wanted to go on, and that’s what sort of generated it. So I took her down there and we both got in.”
With that, a star was born – almost. The show, with the very 80s title of Dancin’ On Air, made the young Verica a favorite among the Philly after-school set. He shook his booty – probably in designer jeans and a Members’ Only jacket — to such popular fare as “Physical,” “Apache Rap” and “Celebration.” All the while, he was living the American dream of a future generation.
Ironically, sis soon tired of all that air dancin’, but Verica was on his way to see what else he could do in front of the camera. After a brief lapse of sanity as a college business major, he soon came to his senses and headed to New York, where just about everybody dances and lives on air. He studied with legendary acting teacher William Esper and got his first big break on the Broadway stage, in Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss.
From there, the producers of the TV mega-hit LA Law discovered him, and he was quickly signed to two half-seasons as the dreamy Billy Castroverti.
“I’ve been very lucky, and no one will tell you that more than me,” he says. “All my training up to that point had been on stage, and then suddenly I’m sitting in the board room of McKenzie Brackman and it was surreal. I remember my first day — my introduction into Hollywood — and I’m sitting here with all these people that I’d watched, and I was laughing inside because it didn’t seem real!”
Soon, he had racked up so many TV on-air miles that he became that face that you’ve seen a million times, without a name to go with it. He made guest appearances on everything from Frasier to Picket Fences to NYPD Blue. He was a series regular on such much-see misfires as Central Park West and The Naked Truth. More recently, he had a recurring role on the popular weeper Providence, but he will be most remembered – pre-American Dreams – as Elaine’s podiatrist boyfriend on a classic episode of Seinfeld, called “The Conversion,” in which he finds an unsavory skin cream while secretly rummaging through Elaine’s medicine cabinet.
Of that experience, he says, “The four of them [Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Michael Richards and Julia Louis-Dreyfus] were phenomenal. It was a great environment that was creative and supportive and funny as hell. They had a great time.”
Now, with his newfound notoriety as the conservative dad on a youth-oriented show, Verica debated the pros and cons of this gutsy career move. After all, he had come a long way from being a dancing teenager himself and he wasn’t sure that the American public would buy him as a middle-aged daddy-O.
“I had concerns initially about playing a father, because I wasn’t sure if anyone would buy it,” he says. “I’m not a dad yet, but I’ve been married for three years. It’s a great preparation. I draw a certain degree from my father. He wasn’t nearly as strict as this guy; there are similarities as far as family values and unity and the importance of tradition that my father always instilled in us that I have carried over. My father was the baby of fifteen kids. They were an Italian Catholic family, but very similar to the Irish Catholic family on the show. I was surrounded by tons of relatives of all ages, so that was easy to draw a lot of the basic communication between family members from that.”
The other challenge was to play a character that lived and breathed before Verica was conceived. He says, “My character was born in ’25 or ’26 and served in World War II, so a lot of [my character] is coming from that. I had an uncle who did serve in WWII and I had a lot of conversations with him. I also read Anatomy of a Race Riot, which was published around that time, and it addresses all the reasons as to why they think it started. We were given packets at the beginning of last season of everything that happened in ’63 and ’64, whether it was sports or politics or fashion, even what a gallon of milk costs. They did the shorthand for us, and we were able to go in and capture the rest.”
The behind the scenes know-how include the inspiration of creator/executive producers Jonathan Prince, and legendary TV personality/former Bandstand host/Eternal Teenager Dick Clark.
He says, “Jonathan Prince, our creator, says that everybody is going through change with the 60s, but the one antagonist, if there is one, is my character, because he wants everything to stay just as it is. The challenge of that is that some of the things he is doing this season — if you told him he would be doing them — he probably wouldn’t have believed it. The reason why the show is well crafted and why this character is well crafted is that he’s based in his own reality, in the moment. He’s trying desperately to hold on to what once was. The good times of the fifties and the forties. As these changes keep hitting him left and right with his children and his wife, he’s either going to change and adapt with them, or he’s going to go under and his family is going to be destroyed. We’re certainly going to introduce those threats periodically to see that his own growth will come through these situations.”
And what of Mr. Clark himself? What was it like to have such a television legend on the set?
“He’s a great guy. He really is,” Verica says. “He’s exactly like you see him on TV. He’s so friendly. He’s really selfless. It was Jonathan Prince’s idea, and Dick really got on board and moved it to the next level. He comes to quite a few meetings. Now he’s one of us.”
The series, which is an ensemble effort, benefits too from having a co-star as competent as Gail O’Grady. He says of his pairing with his TV wife, a three-time Emmy-nominated actress, “The most important thing is, would the audience believe that these two people have this twenty-seven-year history together, and that’s something that you just hope to have in chemistry with two cast members and she and I just hit it off. We have a blast, and we’re open to suggestions on how to make it organic and what we can base on the history of this particular relationship. She’s really good and it goes well between the two of us.”
The reality is also driven by the show’s economic authenticity. Unlike some other programs – which shall remain nameless – in which characters have jobs that they never do and live in apartments that they can never afford – American Dreams is keeping it real, with anxiety-inducing money problems and business bummers that are more American nightmare than dream.
Verica says, “We have the advantage of nostalgia and people remember the sixties, one of the most memorable decades in history. There were so many things that happened, but it would be complete fantasy to see this working class family in Philadelphia have everything they wanted and have the nicest cars. The cars we have are still late-model fifties and there’s one toilet in the house and one phone in the house that’s not tone, it’s pulse. It’s actually pretty remarkable stepping on the set and getting used to all these things. Now it’s become second nature, which is really a testament to our production design team. We know this is our house. We’ll first be in our dressing rooms and on our cell phones, and then we walk onto this set and suddenly we’re transported back in time.”
A good portion of America seems to be transported along with them every Sunday evening. It seems that viewers are giving American Dreams a high percentage score, concluding confidently that the show has a good beat and that it’s easy to dance to.
Verica couldn’t be happier about that. He says, “I’ve been involved with a number of productions that sort of had a lot of promise and hope. This one seems to have everything going for it. The material, the characters, the actors, the writers, the production, the music – it really has all the elements. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel very fortunate to have this particular job. We’ve got a solid audience now and we’re hoping to build on that next season.”
We’re all tuning in to see how the Pryor family will experience what we know is yet to come: Vietnam, hippies, color TV and Tiny Tim.
|#1 © 2003 Chris Haston – Courtesy of NBC Television|
|#2 © 2003 Paul Drinkwater – Courtesy of NBC Television|
|#3 © 2003 Paul Drinkwater – Courtesy of NBC Television|
Copyright ©2003 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 13, 2003.