BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Mike O’Malley may be best known as an actor, but he clearly has a juggler’s heart.
For the past few years the Boston-born, New Hampshire-bred O’Malley has been going full tilt, playing polar opposite recurring roles — the gruff but funny and sensitive Burt Hummel on Fox’s musical dramedy “Glee” and the badass mob enforcer Nicky Augustine on FX’s gripping outlaw drama “Justified” — while simultaneously writing some of the most cracked episodes of Showtime’s deeply dysfunctional comedy “Shameless.” He’s also popped up in the recent Emmy-winning HBO movie “Behind the Candelabra’’ and on the big screen in “R.I.P.D.” and “Cedar Rapids.” (He’s also been zipping back to Boston for various events including the Hot Stove Cool Music benefit shows.)
While Augustine may have met his end on “Justified” — “I didn’t die on camera, so until a character dies on camera, he’s never dead,” O’Malley insists half-jokingly — he remains busy.
He continues to write for “Shameless,” the fourth season of which kicks off in January. Burt Hummel returns on “Glee” for this Thursday’s episode, which will pay tribute to O’Malley’s costar Cory Monteith, who passed away this past summer. And that same night he will be settling into his new role on the NBC sitcom “Welcome to the Family.”
O’Malley stars as Dan Yoder, an LA orthodontist looking forward to empty-nest time with his wife Caroline (Mary McCormack, “In Plain Sight”) now that their daughter has graduated high school. The plan is upended when they discover their daughter is pregnant by a boyfriend she was secretly dating.
They may butt heads onscreen, but Ricardo Chavira (“Desperate Housewives”), who plays Miguel Hernandez, the father of the boyfriend, has quickly become a big fan of his co-star.
“He’s such a good dude,” says Chavira, who is a big “Shameless” fan. “And he’s beyond smart and he’s got that writer’s mind, I’m going to learn a lot from him.”
O’Malley and his costars recently attended the Television Critics Association summer press tour and chatted with reporters; we grabbed a few minutes of his time.
On working on a single-camera show like “Welcome to the Family”: “One of the fun things about doing a single-camera show is that it just can be evocative of funny people in real life, really crafting the circumstances so that there is conflict and then when you have a couple of guys who are smart alecks, the lines go back and forth. What I like about [creator Mike Sikowitz’s] writing is it just feels very real and people aren’t protecting one another’s feelings, and I think that’s one of the best comedies to see, when people are saying the things that you couldn’t say in real life at home because you’d get in trouble.”
On steering clear of any perceived bigotry for his character because the families come from different ethnic backgrounds: “Honestly, I want no part of that, I’m not interested in it. If you’re going to do a comedy like that, then you do ‘Shameless,’ where people are absolutely bold about their hates and dislikes. I could see myself going and doing a show where a character who is just a buffoon — where you mine comedy out of his ignorance, but I don’t think that’s what we’re trying to do. In fact, I’m actively trying to steer it away from that.”
On whether he’ll contribute as a writer on “Family”: “Yes, certainly. I have a producer credit on the show, but right now I’m just trying to focus on the writing of “Shameless,” ending that and then I’ll be on the set pitching jokes all the time. . . . You always wonder when doing a show, “Is there going to be enough story to drive through every week?” And one of the reasons you go to work with somebody [like Sikowitz] that you feel is in their sweet spot — about suddenly discovering a show that really has their voice — is because you want to do 200 episodes. I’m always shocked when people say, ‘We’ll come back if we can come up with more stories.’ I’ll keep working until they ask me to leave.”
On his late friend Monteith: “I think that I had what was probably the toughest scene I’ve ever acted in my career — as an actor opposite him — when I had to throw his character Finn out of the house because of a slur that he used. It was remarkable to me, when we were shooting that scene over and over again, the depth of emotion he was able to portray, the sorrow, the shame. He was the fictional quarterback on that show, and he was the very real quarterback on that set. And he was an incredibly warm guy, a guy who was welcoming to everyone who came on that show, from the beginning through the new folks who came onto the show this past year. And he was a very, very hard-working actor. And I just loved working with him. He was a great guy and I miss him very much.”
On whether there will be more scenes on “Family” shot in the gym that Chavira’s character owns: “Hopefully not. But they keep writing episodes where [characters] say [to my character], ‘And you gotta go work out.’ I didn’t think I looked that bad! It’s like this guy has never been in a gym! And I’m like ‘Jesus, do I really come across that way?’ ”