Actor Peter Gallagher has bounced between movies, TV, and the stage since getting his start in the late 70s. He caught a break starring as Danny Zuko in a touring production with Grease, from there landed a role in The Idolmaker, and went on to appear in Long Day's Journey Into Night; Sex, Lies, And Videotape; and American Beauty, though newer audiences probably recognize him as the do-good dad Sandy Cohen on The O.C., a role that hinted at Gallagher's stage experience with a song or two. Gallagher's back on stage again with his one-man show, Don't Give Up On Me, in which he sings and tells stories about working with his idols—specifically Jack Lemmon, Peter O'Toole, and James Cagney. The show runs at the Drury Lane Theatre Nov. 22-23, 29-30, and Dec. 13-14 before hitting the road. The A.V. Club called Gallagher to learn about the show, to get his thoughts on the biz, and to probe those big, bushy eyebrows.
The A.V. Club: How did you decide to go the tribute route with your show?
Peter Gallagher: A few years ago I did an Ed Sullivan impression on a set and people looked at me like I was insane.
PG: Because they didn’t know who the fuck I was talking about. And there was one grip about two weeks away from retirement who was hysterical. And I thought, wow, that’s interesting. I’m sort of anxious to tell these stories because not only do I want to tell them while there’s still people around who remember Cagney, Lemmon, and O’Toole, but while I still remember Cagney, Lemmon, and O’Toole. And I’ve spoken to the specialists and it does seem to be a mid-life crisis, but because of the downturn, I dare not spend the money on a Porsche. So I thought I’d put on a show.
AVC: In paying tribute to your heroes, do you feel any responsibility to paint them in a completely positive light?
PG: The show’s not really about them, the show is about me. It’s really not positive or negative. I’m not trying to gloss anything over. There are moments I had with Jack in Long Day’s Journey Into Night in London where he was despondent, because he had been so brilliant that night and he didn’t know how to do it again. I don’t gloss over that; that’s part of the creative process. But by the same token, am I going to bring a bunch of people in and try to get them to believe that my troubles are worse than theirs, or that being an actor is tougher than being a coal miner? No. People are interested in backstage stories, and most of the ones I read, I don’t identify with.
AVC: Why is that?
PG: Because they’re not really about anything that happens backstage, they have to do with what the business perceives as important: it has to do with the box office, it has to do with fame, it has to do with celebrity, it doesn’t have to really do with what happens in that moment or in rehearsal.
AVC: So they’re missing the personal angle?
PG: Well, in a way. [Working with those guys] was reassuring, made me feel like I was on the right road—and even if I wasn’t, the notion that maybe I wasn’t completely crazy for becoming an actor; and if I was crazy, I was in great company. And so it’s really about that sense of belonging. When a story is well told, there is a moment there in the audience and onstage where nobody feels alone, where you feel like you’re part of something. And it’s very illusive—sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t—but you spend most of your life chasing that, you know, one more chance to get it right. It’s been bouncing around in my head, really for my whole career, how to do something like this, without it being, “And then I did, and then I, and I! And no one knows the trouble I’ve seen!” [Laughs.] It’s white plight basically. [Laughs.]… Nowadays, because things are changing so fast, if you’re suddenly over 25 years of age, you might think, “Wow, I guess I’m done.”
AVC: Does that last point relate to what you were saying before, about how some young actors didn’t even know who Ed Sullivan was? Perhaps it’s a shift in the actor’s focus on the here-and-now versus a feeling of entering into a profession with a rich history.
PG: Yes! There’s a lot of people out there who think it’s all about attitude, and it’s not. Attitude has never gotten you through a three and a half hour play. [Laughs.] Attitude’s never gotten you through a 40-year career where there’s still opportunity for surprise. But if all you do is read box office reports or who’s screwing who, there is a kind of—I think majesty is too big a word—grace and generosity to it. And humor, you know.
AVC: What is it about the stage that keeps you coming back?
PG: It’s in my bones, and also it’s the only place where the actor can be present when those moments happen. People in movies, TV, theater, whatever, the first mistake people make when they have half an ounce of success is saying, “Aha! Mom was right, I’m a genius!” [Laughs.] And I always say, “No, it means you’re a member of the fucking lucky club, and you gotta roll up your sleeves and work twice as hard because you just dodged a bullet.”
But that’s lost, it’s all this desperate attempt to prove to the world that the myth that’s been surrounded with scaffolding in their mind is now ready to be unveiled. And meanwhile, the magic goes out the window because you don’t get it, what you don’t realize is that it has as little and as much to do with you as it does with the direction, with the audience in that room at the moment, or the words that you’re saying, or the song that you’re singing… If I had to just do theater, I’d be hospitalized, because there’s no harder job for an actor. And the people you work with sometimes in the theater and backstage—I just did Country Girl in the same theater that I’d been in 30 years before in the original Broadway production of Grease. I walk in the theater and I hear [New York accent] “Hey, Pete! What the fuck are you doing here?” And I say, “Mikey? What the fuck are you doing here?” [Laughs].
AVC: Your IMDB page says, “Trademark: His thick eyebrows.” What do you think your eyebrows bring to the acting equation?
PG: I’ve got to tell you something, man: It was one of the most surprising things of my life when people started to talk about my eyebrows. It had never, ever, ever, ever, ever occurred to me. As I say in the show, I was always sensitive about my fat lips. And I had no idea they’d be upstaged by my eyebrows until years later. Maybe I should have had them trimmed. I think my eyebrows, like the rest of my face, are really there for the audience to paint whatever picture they’re seeing. It really has nothing to do with what I do. It’s like, “Yeah, I was wearing cuff-links in that scene. It’s like they’re a pair of cuff links you never take off.” [Laughs.]… I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it. If people come for the eyebrows, they’ll get more.