James Le Gros’ debut on Ally McBeal as a cocky lawyer who’s obsessed with dental hygiene was so effective, a breath mint manufacturer offered him a commercial the very next morning.
Ah, the power of television. After years of appearing in small (read: obscure) films (Living in Oblivion, Drugstore Cowboy), Le Gros is finally getting some prime-time exposure to the mainstream via Fox’s hit drama. Let’s take a moment, then, to gauge his excitement. ”My hunch is the change will be marginal,” says the 38-year-old actor, who passed on the mint ad. ”I’m in that middle-meat phase of my career — I’m not that fresh cut of sirloin and I’m too young to be jerky.”
That beefy metaphor comes from the pessimism of an indie actor, a guy who’s done so many low-budget films (he lost count after 40) that he started to question whether his experience was a liability. ”On some level,” says Le Gros, ”producers would think, ‘If he’s done so much, why isn’t he more famous? What the hell is wrong with him?”’
That wasn’t the rationale over at McBeal, where producers — looking to fill the void left by Gil Bellows — saw a tape of Le Gros’ work and tagged him as Mark Albert, the latest love-hate interest for TV’s most neurotic lawyer. ”He had that kind of tucked-in humor that works well with the show,” says coexecutive producer Jonathan Pontell. ”He’s charming and very wry.”
Le Gros crammed for his first series-regular role (he did a three-episode arc as Dr. Max Rosher on ER in season 4) by watching the last two and a half seasons of McBeal. ”This is a difficult show,” says the actor, who lives in Los Feliz, Calif., with his wife, Kristina, and two sons, ages 6 and 3. ”It’s free-flowing.” And while he only needed to watch disco queen Gloria Gaynor and the cast sing and dance in his debut episode, his inner Fred Astaire will get a workout in Ally’s musical finale on May 22.
Lest he suffer from indie-film withdrawal, however, Le Gros will jet to Nova Scotia later this month to appear in a modern-day Macbeth opposite Christopher Walken and ER’s Maura Tierney. Still, this new success hasn’t done much to quash the actor’s Ally-esque insecurities. ”A flurry of great stuff comes in, then the phone won’t ring anymore,” says Le Gros. ”Then I’ll question my existence and worry about my cash flow.”