Roles of a Lifetime
by Ronald Sklar
“I did Celebrity Poker, and it was the first time I ever played,” actress Gail O’Grady tells me, and this should surprise me, shouldn’t it. You would think that the beauty and the brains were enough to get her by in life, that those heavy doors swing wide open for her and wealthy men throw their coats over puddles for her. You would think so, but instead of the easy way, she seems to thrive on doing it on her own, which involves poker-like risk-taking and putting herself on the line.
So what’s a little poker on national television when you’ve never played before?
“It was a little scary because the game is so popular and those people are serious about their poker,” she says, but then looks at this way. “I like games. I grew up playing board games and cards.”
This ballsy attitude is what kept her going as she came of age playing the most dangerous, risky and thrilling game of all: surviving in Hollywood as an actress, into her forties, and with a young child.
From the day she left a successful modeling career in Chicago and came to LA, O’Grady has had more than her share of high-stakes, bluffing and flushes.
Sure, she has co-starred in one of the most famous and memorable commercials of all time as well as in one of the most groundbreaking and popular cop dramas in the history of television. Don’t always bet against the house, though: she also has experienced the heartbreak of more than one beloved series being cancelled, pilots not being picked up and career-dreams-of-a-lifetime fizzling before they even saw the light of day. And that’s nothing compared to the crushing grief of losing her brother, with whom she was extremely close.
“My brother was the closest person on the planet to me,” she says of her only sibling, who passed suddenly and without warning, just weeks before she gave birth over three years ago. “It’s been hard. It’s not something that you just wake up one day and [the grief is] gone. It doesn’t get easier. You find better ways to cope, but it doesn’t get easier.”
Some coping help has arrived in the form of her son, Michael, who she has chosen to raise on her own while continuing to pursue an acting career, and quite successfully.
Of that challenge, she says, “If I couldn’t take Michael to work with me, I don’t think I could continue to be an actor. I didn’t have a child to be with nannies – not there is anything wrong with nannies – but I wanted to raise my son. For as long as I can do it without a nanny, I’m doing it.”
Again, O’Grady makes that wild turn onto the rocky road, leaving the easy, smooth highway behind. She was dealt a good hand, but she’s still swapping cards. Her poker face is beautiful but it may fool you.
She says, “Having a child, it’s everything. Whatever people tell you about having children, until you have one, you don’t get it. It changes your life in every way. It made it mean something. I waited a long time to have a child. The pro’s and con’s of that is that I probably have more patience now, but I also don’t have the energy that somebody in their twenties may have. I can’t imagine living your life and not having this experience of having a child.”
Had she become a mom earlier in life, she may never have scored the classic Pepsi commercial with Michael J. Fox, in which she plays a new neighbor introducing herself and asking him for a soda; he goes more than out of his way to get her one (wouldn’t you?). The ad has since become part of Americana, but for O’Grady, that Pepsi challenge wasn’t as fizzy as it may have been.
She says, “I was excited to work with Michael J. Fox, but I had no idea how big the commercial was going to be. Did it make an impact on my life? Not really. It’s like ‘if you knew then what you know now,’ I probably could have spun it into something, if only I would have known the importance of publicity or getting myself out there.”
She remembers the sensation the commercial caused: “I would drive in a car here [in LA] and my parents would drive around in the car in Chicago, and we would hear disk jockeys talk about ‘the girl in the commercial.’ It would have been good to have a publicist at that time, but I was not that savvy.”
Still, the opportunity lead to others, including an endless string of series pilots that never received the blessing of any network.
She says, “Knock on wood, I’ve been an employed actress since I ‘got off the boat’ here. Both episodic television and pilots that didn’t get picked up — being a working actor. You go into these projects with your heart full and you hope that they’re successful and you hope that people will enjoy them as much as you enjoyed making them. I had really good luck with the series that I’ve chosen; most of them at least got picked up. They might not always be the most successful, but getting a show picked up…most pilots are not picked up.”
One that did was a revolutionary new drama for ABC called NYPD Blue, which was considered network TV’s first R-rated show, with it’s salty language, graphic sex scenes and violent crimes. In it, she played the sweet but street administrative clerk, who experienced the underbelly of The Big Apple first hand. She says, “[Producer/Writer] David Milch used to call my character ‘the Greek chorus.’ He said that [the viewer] would know immediately how they were supposed to feel about whoever showed up in the precinct. My character was a reactor.”
That reactor sent nuclear shockwaves around the country as the ratings climbed like the temperatures of O’Grady’s fans. However, her role was not the typical cheesecake, not even on a show that bared breasts and buns (for the record, she never bared any of hers). All she bared was her soul, and for her efforts she was nominated for an Emmy Award three times.
Shortly after her stint on Blue, she moved to series lead in the NBC drama American Dreams, about a family coming to terms with the turmoil of the sixties. The show was unceremoniously cancelled after three seasons, and left millions of grieving fans in its wake.
“American Dreams’ cancellation was heartbreaking,” she says. “I was so proud of it. I felt like [its cancellation] was a mistake. It wasn’t a Top Ten show, but it was a really good show. When American Dreams was cancelled, people went nuts. I never had a reaction to anything like I had when American Dreams was cancelled. I still have people coming up to me. I don’t go on an interview or go on any industry-related event where somebody doesn’t say something about American Dreams and how upset they are that it was cancelled. You can’t tell me that people weren’t watching the show. It was frustrating. We were broken-hearted. We were all sad. I would like to think that NBC, in retrospect, is thinking, ‘we should have given it another year.’ They put together a family.”
Indeed, O’Grady stays in touch with a good part of her TV family, including her American Dreams co-star and frequent TV director Tom Verica. Coincidentally, Verica directs certain episodes of Boston Legal, the same series in which O’Grady has a recurring role as a judge.
“Tom Verica is one of my favorite acting partners if not the favorite acting partner of all time,” she says. “When you do series television, you pray that the person cast across from you is a Tom Verica: somebody who can act, obviously, but somebody who you can be with for so many hours a day, who you’re compatible with. He has a generosity of spirit, he’s fun. I loved working with him.”
Verica shares the same good vibes about O’Grady. He says, “Gail was an amazing acting partner. She made me a better actor and director when working with her.”
They have yet to work on the same episodes of Boston Legal, but she is still loving every moment she spends on that series. She says, “It’s one of my favorite projects that I’ve ever worked on. I’ve called on them in December, on kind of a fluke, and told [writer/producer] David Kelley how much I loved the show and how much I wanted to come and do it. I started there in January and I’m still there. I’m a big fan of Kelley’s writing. And it’s a very different role for me.”
In addition, she has become one of the queens of the Lifetime TV movie, which has become a cornerstone of the new world of television, outside of the regular network-TV fare.
“Those are the most loyal audiences there are,” she says of the mostly female fan base of the mega-successful cable channel. “Man, they love their Lifetime. And Lifetime has been really good to me.”
Still, that tingling intuition of when a project may not fly gets more perceptive with time. O’Grady has had her time to fine-tune that sense, but she says, “I try to have an attitude when things are not going forward, that something better is coming along or it’s the way it’s supposed to be. When I was doing [the ABC sitcom] Hot Properties, the reviews were very mixed and it wasn’t getting good ratings, but we were having a blast doing it, and we were really sad when that came to an end. The business is changing, and it’s becoming even more difficult. The television world has still not become what it’s finally going to become. It’s a very different industry now.”
True, but it sounds like just the challenge on which O’Grady thrives.
Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 8, 2007.
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