CHICAGO — “Didn’t he play a serial killer?” an editor asked when I brought up Gary Cole’s name not long ago. Not a serial killer, but the 1984 TV miniseries Fatal Vision was Cole’s first major role. Playing Jeffrey MacDonald, the real-life Army doctor who was convicted in 1979 of killing his wife and children, Cole — a mainstay of Chicago’s then-burgeoning Off-Loop theater scene — stepped into the role with barely any on-camera experience.
And a long and varied TV and film career was born.
Cole has a knack for landing iconic roles. The suspender-wearing, middle-manager nightmare known as Lumbergh in Office Space. A bewigged, utterly charming Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch films. Will Ferrell’s scuzzy, estranged father in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
Cole’s appeal is that he seems in on the joke — and he knows how to time a straight-faced punch line with just the right amount of deeply buried sass and bite. He might be among the most underrated comedic performers working today.
His list of TV credits ranges from Curb Your Enthusiasm to 30 Rock to Desperate Housewives to Entourage. Every time you look up, it seems, there’s Gary Cole.
This has been an especially strong year. Adding to his recurring role on CBS’s The Good Wife (as ballistics expert and Diane Lockhart love interest Kurt McVeigh), this spring he joined the second season of the HBO political satire Veep as a White House numbers cruncher able to squash the vice president’s credibility with little more than an annoyed glance — a wonderfully meta-comical turning of the tables from Cole’s callow vice president (aka Bingo Bob) on The West Wing.
This summer he has a multi-episode arc on USA’s Suits as a special prosecutor all too happy to flash a garbage-eating grin at his former protege before shoving a few slices of humble pie in the guy’s face. It is a show that’s better than most on basic cable when it comes to bridging the gap between disposable, easy-to-watch antics and serialized drama.
In the next few weeks, he’ll be back juggling work on the CBS and HBO shows. “The good news for me is that The Good Wife is in New York [despite the Chicago setting], and Veep is in Baltimore,” he said by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “That’s a two-hour train ride, so it’s just [makes a whistle sound] zip up and back and it all works.”
Suits airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on USA. The Good Wife returns on CBS Sept. 29. The third season of HBO’s Veep will air in 2014.
A good portion of the Veep scripts, Cole said, are derived from rehearsal-generated improvisations. “It’s a different animal, and it’s not where I came from,” is how he put it. “It’s not how I was trained. I don’t think I do it very well. I’m learning basically through necessity.”
It’s funny, though. Watching Cole on screen, it seems like he could have just as easily followed a sketch and improv path early on.
Also notable: His tendency to play around with facial hair choices. These days it’s a mustache for The Good Wife and Suits and a full beard for Veep.
“It all started with boredom on my part and doing TV pilot after TV pilot that went in the tank or not even getting cast in stuff. So at one point I grew a mustache, just for grins.”
It fit the bill for The Good Wife so he kept it. Later he grew a beard for a play, and the folks at Veep liked it too. Suits wanted him clean-shaven, but that didn’t jibe with his Good Wife look, so mustache stayed.
“I’m not anything but a hair-and-facial-hair actor,” he said, letting the dry delivery of the line do the heavy lifting, a skill he’s deployed to such wry effect throughout his career. “That’s the extent of my talent: What hair and facial hair I have.”