SAN FRANCISCO — Jeffrey Dean Morgan chuckled through cigarette smoke and held up a homemade key chain that had just been passed to him by a stranger. "Look at this," he said in a tobacco-cured growl as he nodded toward the photograph in the dangling plastic frame; it was a hazy picture of the actor's Rottweiler mix, Bisou. "These fans, they are something," the actor said with a tone of marvel and some low-grade alarm. "Wow. I mean, this is my dog."
After years as a struggling actor, the 42-year-old Morgan has been receiving an intense indoctrination in the ways of celebrity. First, the Seattle native took on the role of Denny Duquette, the doomed hunk with a heart, on "Grey's Anatomy" and connected with fans and the show's producers so deeply that the character was brought back from the dead (sort of) to become a spectral lover for Katherine Heigl's confused Izzy Stevens. That made him a haunting heartthrob to millions of viewers. And now, as a star of "Watchmen," the hotly anticipated (and debated) superhero epic that reaches theaters Friday, Morgan finds himself becoming an instant icon to the millions of fanboys who approach the "Watchmen" graphic novel as something close to a sacred text and the Hollywood adaptation as a sort of spandex-cinema equivalent to "The Passion of the Christ."
"These people take ['Watchmen'] very seriously, and with good reason," Morgan said last weekend as he enjoyed a much-needed smoke after several smothering hours at WonderCon, the massive pop-culture expo at the Moscone Center. Thousands of fans had waited in line for hours to hear Morgan and fellow cast members talk about their characters and themselves on a panel that, within minutes, was pinging across the globe thanks to flip-phone cameras and the Internet.
On "Grey's," Morgan was "the ultimate nice guy," as he put it, but fans of that show are in for a nasty shock if they decide to take in a weekend matinee of "Watchmen." In the movie, an adaptation of the landmark 1980s graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons that presented a political and operatic tale of superheroes living in an alternative version of America in which Richard Nixon remained president into the MTV era and a mysterious conspiracy threatens the world. Morgan portrays Eddie Blake, a.k.a. the Comedian, a scarred, leering "hero" who "rapes, murders and pillages his way through the movie," Morgan said with some delight.
"It's not Denny Duquette," he said, "not by a long shot."
Famine to feast
"Long shot" could have described Morgan's career not so long ago. In 2005, Morgan was no longer a young man who could get by on optimistic daydreams. He found himself at a career crossroads and wondered if it was time to give up on his showbiz pursuits.
"I was sitting there thinking, 'What am I doing?' I had been out here 20 years, and things just weren't coming my way, the rent was always late," Morgan said. "I was thinking it was time to try something -- although I had no idea what that was going to be. My background was in graphic design, but when I was doing it, it was all hand-drawn stuff, not computers. Construction was all I could come up with. 'Maybe I can get a job in construction. . . .' "
Instead of putting on work boots, Morgan found himself getting a much-needed foothold in Hollywood. He landed a role as the missing and mysterious father on "Supernatural," the CW horror-drama about a pair of brothers who find the paranormal lurking in every stop during their cross-country travels in a black 1967 Chevy Impala (think "Route 66" meets "The X-Files").
Morgan also popped up on "Weeds," the acclaimed Showtime series about suburban dope-dealing; he played Judah Botwin, the husband of star Mary-Louise Parker's Nancy Botwin, but his character's most notable accomplishment on the series was dying of a heart attack and setting the stage for his widow's career as a pot merchant. (Parker and Morgan also became an off-screen couple for a time and there were rumors of an engagement, but they later split.)
"Those roles and 'Grey's' turned everything around," Morgan said. "I went from giving up to, six months later, having the sort of roles I always had hoped for."
Morgan is still trying to carve out a Hollywood profile apart from his roles (at industry events, he has been approached by well-wishers who mistake him for last year's Oscar winner Javier Bardem), and right now an odd trademark seems to be developing: On "Weeds" and "Grey's Anatomy," he was the ghost of the past, the lover lost too young; and in "Watchmen," his murder fills the first five minutes of the film and serves as the catalyst for the unfolding conspiracy plot.
"I do some of my best work," Morgan said, "when I'm dead." People are noticing too: Jimmy Kimmel introduced him as "the unkillable Jeffrey Dean Morgan" during his January visit to Kimmel's late-night talk show.