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J.K. Simmons can do it all

Need a psychiatrist, psycho, cop, gangster or insurance pitchman? This actor is the man to call.

August 21, 2011|By T. L. Stanley, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Actor J.K. Simmons on the set of the TNT show "The Closer."
Actor J.K. Simmons on the set of the TNT show "The Closer." (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

If J.K. Simmons were a criminal, he'd be a repeat offender.

But as a character actor who often plays cops and other right-side-of-the-law authority figures, he's a muse to the TV producers and filmmakers who hire him over and over as a key player in their projects.

Take, for instance, his gig as Will Pope, acting chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, in TNT's hit drama "The Closer." It's his second starring vehicle for writer-executive producer James Duff, who's also keen on keeping Simmons around for the spinoff, "Major Crimes," that's planned after "The Closer" ends its seven-season run next year.

"I don't ever want to work without J.K. if I don't have to," said Duff, who also cast Simmons in 2004 in the short-lived ABC drama "The D.A." "The only proper response when you find out J.K. wants to do your show is, 'Thank you.'"

Executives at TNT will say only that the new series revolves around current "Closer" costar and recent Emmy nominee Mary McDonnell, who plays an internal affairs investigator. But Simmons' Pope, an ambitious cop who just grabbed the LAPD's brass ring, at least temporarily, is expected to reprise the role.

In a Hollywood career that's spanned just over a dozen years, Simmons has amassed a dizzying number of credits and become a recurring choice for top-flight directors and producers. He's starred in two TV series from Tom Fontana — "Oz" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" — and he crossed over into three versions of "Law & Order" as a jaded but empathetic psychiatrist.

He's appeared in every movie Jason Reitman has ever made, and he's a favorite for Sam Raimi and the Coen brothers. Among those performances are the stoic and wisecracking father in "Juno," which made him the dad everyone wished they had, and the motor-mouthed tabloid editor J. Jonah Jameson in three "Spider-Man" films.

Simmons, a Midwesterner whose roots are in musical theater, humbly described himself "a journeyman actor" who's been "lucky to get in the right rooms at the right time." He tends to credit his employers for his impressive and voluminous resume.

"They let me hitch on to their wagons," he said recently from the Radford Studios set of "The Closer."

Veteran TV producer Fontana first spotted Simmons in "Guys and Dolls" on Broadway, where the actor spent his formative years.

"He was playing one of those wonderful Damon Runyon gangsters," Fontana said. "Later, when we were looking for a Nazi murderer on 'Homicide,' the casting director brought up his name. I said, 'What are you talking about? He sings and dances his little heart out!'"

But in the audition, Simmons "nailed it," Fontana said. That led to a guest part on "Homicide" that went so well that Fontana turned again to Simmons for "Oz," the bleak prison-based HBO show in which he needed another white-power thug.

Simmons, 56, called both those roles "breakthrough" for him, though he had to politely turn down a spate of subsequent offers to play "the Nazi of the week" for fear of forever pegging himself as a psycho Aryan killer.

Audiences see him as anything but these days, owing to projects as diverse as the feature comedy "I Love You, Man," the critically praised but defunct series "Party Down," and Adult Swim's spot-on parody of TV procedurals, "NTSF: SD: SUV." His familiar, soothing voice turns up everywhere from DreamWorks' "Megamind" to the yellow M&M.

When Jason Reitman couldn't find the right role for Simmons in his upcoming drama "Young Adult," he used his voice — that booming baritone — as the narrator. He said he considers Simmons a "timeless" actor who could've slipped easily into "'Sullivan's Travels' in the '40s or 'Chinatown' in the '70s."

"I work with him on every film, and the reason is I can always count on him," Reitman said. "J.K. has incredible emotional depth. He's honest in life and on screen."

Simmons is "approachable" and "universally loved," said Tom Hamling, creative director at ad agency RPA in Santa Monica. That's what drew his client, Farmers Insurance, to the prolific actor, who scored extremely well on likability scales. (Consumers were more familiar with his face than his name, but such is life for a chameleon actor.)

Simmons stars in one of the most aggressive ad campaigns that the 82-year-old Farmers Insurance has ever mounted, as a professorial insurance expert character.

"He commands respect, and he's also this great comedic, off-the-cuff actor. He was our No. 1 choice from the very beginning," Hamling said.

In addition to seeing Simmons as Farmers' tweedy Prof. Nathaniel Burke, fans can watch his Chief Pope try to shed a few pounds and deal with renegade detectives during the slow rollout of "The Closer's" final season. Its extended 21-episode run, which debuted in July, will air this year and next, bringing what Duff described as major tension between Pope and Kyra Sedgwick's Brenda Lee Johnson.

"Their relationship is severely tested," Duff said. "And it's part of a big story arc for Pope."

And, if Duff has any say in the matter, it will be a precursor to the next and the next and the next.

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