Tuesday, July 10, 2012

TOP STORY >> Writer talks of famous nephew

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

I was a fan of “Mad Men” long before my nephew, Charlie Hofheimer, got a recurring role on the Emmy-winning television show, and a fan of Charlie Hofheimer long before “Mad Men.”

Despite major roles in “Fatherhood” with Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Music of the Heart” with Meryl Streep and significant roles in “Black Hawk Down,” “Boys,” with Winona Ryder and “The Village,” Charlie is probably best known as Peggy Olson’s left-wing journalist boyfriend Abe Drexler on “Mad Men.”

I’d like to think the 1960s anti-war, anti-corporate reporter he portrays, clueless about courtship and women, is based on me, but I never met any of the writers, so just a happy coincidence, I guess.

Charlie, who parachuted into the Broadway play “The Lyons” a few weeks ago to replace a lead character leaving for another project, said he thinks the “Mad Men” appearances kept him fresh in the minds of the play’s director Mark Brokaw and writer Nicky Silver, who asked him to read for the part, then hired him.

He already knew them from other plays and auditions.

Charlie appeared on Broadway a few years ago in a short-lived production of “On the Waterfront” and appeared in the Wendy Wasserstein play “Old Money” at Lincoln Center, so he’s no stranger to the stage.

With Charlie set to play Curtis Lyons, a dysfunctional family’s gay son with an imaginary boyfriend, I knew I eventually would go see the play. But with lackluster attendance after the star, Linda Lavin, didn’t win the best actress Tony Award last month, the producers announced the stage would go dark July 1.

Although I had just visited my brother Craig—Charlie’s father—in Brooklyn and my daughter Julia in Philadelphia, I turned my car around and headed northeast to see the show.

My biggest fear was that Charlie would turn in a perfectly adequate performance for which I would try to manufacture enormous enthusiasm. But the truth is, the play was wonderful and Charlie, who had the largest, juiciest role, was masterful—and on such short notice.

He had real presence and I would have been impressed no matter whose nephew he was.

I came back the next night and loved his performance again. My brother probably saw the show eight times during the two-and-one-half weeks Charlie was in it.

Charlie’s great work on stage seems to have re-energized his agents and representatives, and when I talked to him last week, he was fresh from an audition for “The Office.”

“MAD MEN”

Charlie says this about his “Mad Men” experience:

The major characters in “Mad Men” are stern and stiff and most of their humor is ironic or sarcastic, but off set, the cast is warm, friendly and family-like.

The cast seems more concerned with making art than making money, he said.

“The most remarkable thing about working with them, as an actor who’s spent a ton of time on episodic hour dramas (read “Law and Order,” “Special Victims Unit, “CSI,” “The Good Wife”), the ‘Mad Men’ cast is the most family oriented,” he said.

Elizabeth Moss, who plays his girlfriend and copywriter Peggy Olson on “Mad Men,” had orchestrated the “base camp” as a comfortable living-room type setting, plants and all, for cast members, production assistants and others to relax when they weren’t on set. There is a feeling of camaraderie, he said.

That’s given him a better opportunity to appreciate the stars, like Jon Hamm (Don Draper) and John Slattery (Roger Sterling), with whom he has had few scenes.

“My first appearance was Slattery’s directorial debut,” Charlie told me.

“He was excellent, supportive and knowledgeable.”

“I’ve seen Jon Hamm come off a 12-hour shoot and sit down and talk and play cards,” according to Charlie. “He’s playful and kind.”

He describes Hamm more like the guy we see on 30 Rock or Saturday Night Live than like Don Draper.

The show is not much of a money maker for the cable AMC network, but they have stuck by it as an example of the excellence to which they aspire, and use “Mad Men” to help brand their network—kind of a flagship.

“The show’s reputation precedes itself, purely character driven,” Charlie said. “It’s a show respected and valued for its acting.”

“It think it’s affected my career by giving me a better reputation,” he said.

He said Mark Brokaw, the director who asked him to read for “The Lyons,” mentioned “appreciating my work on “Mad Men.”

Almost everybody within the industry watches. It has won the Emmy for best drama for several years running.

Charlie said the “Mad Men” plots are closely held secrets, and he doesn’t know if Abe Drexler’s story arc has run its course or if he’ll be back a few times next season.

“The audience and I are left to suffer from suspense, wondering if Abe still lives with Peggy or has been sent to Vietnam,” he said.

“THE LYONS”

When Michael Esper, the original Curtis Lyons, left for another project, Charlie, with three weeks notice, learned the script, rehearsed and opened the June 12 in the play.

Of his reception by Lavin, and Dick Latessa, both Tony winners, and the others, “They were warm and friendly. It could have been tricky stepping into the family. I was shocked at how warmly and openly they embraced me.”

By luck of the draw, my other brother Stephen and his friend, Sally, who frequently travels from Connecticut to see Broadway plays, already had tickets to the show, so they saw his performance about four shows in.

Attendance at “The Lyons” was on the soft side, and the producers were apparently hoping Lavin would win best actress at the June 11 Tony awards and get a boost in attendance. When that didn’t happen, the producers decided to close it, leaving Charlie with a scant 19-day run.

“The ending was abrupt, but that can hardly tarnish what was otherwise an amazing experience all round,” Charlie told me about two days after the last performance. “It was one of most interesting dynamic characters I’ve had pleasure of diving into.

“I became more familiar with (Nicky Silver’s) writing and...the tonal shifts that required me to explore some of the more broad possible choices. I’m so curious to know what I would have learned from Curtis over another month of shows.

“It’s been a huge boost to my confidence and validation of the hard work I put in. I traveled a distance in a short time,” Charlie offered.

“Two days ago, I was (still) on stage. I’ve been coming down off the adrenaline high. But today it’s back to the grind, finding the next job.

“I’ve fallen into dry spells off my best jobs. Impossible to quantify. It’s a good pitch for my reps, coming off two seasons of “Mad Men” heading into a lead role in a Broadway play. This is a more meaningful step forward.

“I hope they perceive this as a renaissance for me—a step up from the guest star tour that has characterized the 18 months prior to “Mad Men.”

He said he hopes he’s moving into parts that are important with people who are equally invested in story telling, not just going to work.

But “you need to continue to be invested in things you can control. Acting is the aligning of the stars,” he said, but he, his fiancĂ© and a friend have a small production company called Filament Features (www.filamentfeatures.com) that “allows me to invest in projects I find meaningful with people I enjoy.”

They have produced music videos and two feature shorts so far.

Charlie and his actress-fiancé, Shannon Lucio, live in Hollywood.

She’s a beautiful, down-to-earth gal from San Antonio who keeps Charlie grounded.

She stays busy as an actress and may be best known for her role as Lindsay Gardner on “The OC.”

She would prefer to be recognized for her recurring work on “Prison Break” or her role in “Trueblood.” She’s constantly working in guest parts, including a recurring role on “Gray’s Anatomy.”

Her latest project, “Day Break,” is breaking records for a web-content production, Charlie said. It’s one of the first times talent on that level has been in a web production.

BACK STORY

An actor since before he began elementary school in Brooklyn, I was there the first time Charlie was “discovered.”

I was visiting my brother Craig and sister-in-law Alice and we went out for dinner at what may have been an Asian restaurant.

I’m thinking Charlie was maybe 5, and while the rest of us dunked egg rolls, Charlie stood on the booth seat, making eyes at people behind him.

After a while, a couple stood to leave and stopped by our booth, the woman said, “I know this is going to sound strange, but I’m a casting agent, and here’s my card if you think you’d like him to be an actor.”

She said he was really engaging, or words to that effect.

Charlie’s parents did not take the bait the first time, but after a second, similar approach by a different casting agent soon after, they started hauling the tyke to auditions, mostly for commercials.

Now you might think this happens to all cute kids in New York, but let me assure you his little sister was a cute-as-a-button, curly-haired Shirley Temple type who never got such an offer. Ruth has grown up to be an accomplished artist who’s apprenticing as a remodeling designer with her father.

“I knew the melodrama of my life, in terms of acting and the stress my acting put on my family...that it had locked her in as a teenager and I’m overjoyed to see her blossom into a self confident person who seems to not have her suns raise and fall on a man or external validation.

“She’s got this incredible dynamic that is her painting, I’m utterly enamored of her skills.”

As a kid, Charlie was in some commercials and played a trick or treater on “Saturday Night Live.” His first movie, with lines, was “Boys” with Winona Ryder.

Charlie said one of the favorite things anyone has ever said to me, when he was about six or seven and I was his ride from a relative’s house in Ann Arbor, Mich., to his home in Brooklyn.

We were playing as I drove and I offered to make him a rock salad sandwich. He said he would make me a worm-salad sandwich.

He then sat silent for a few moments before he said, “Uncle John, are you a man or are you a kid?”