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Herman, to a Fault : ‘EVENING SHADE’S’ MICHAEL JETER BUMBLES ALONG QUITE NICELY, THANK YOU

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Deep down, for most of his life, Michael Jeter wanted to be noticed. But too often he felt awkward and uneasy. “I consider myself socially inept,” says the man who won an Emmy for playing the lovable, bumbling Herman Stiles on CBS’ “Evening Shade.”

“I never know what to say,” he says. So, he decided to become an actor, where he could hide his discomfort inside a role.

Being another character, he says, is easy. “It’s easy for me to be safe doing it. It is not easy for me to be safe at a cocktail party. I don’t know what to do. I do have a physical reaction. I start to flush and get very hot in the head. It feels like all the blood in my body has suddenly rushed to my head. I don’t know what triggers it.”

The character Jeter plays on the hit show also happens to be socially inept, something that Jeter taps into readily. It’s Herman’s ineptness, Jeter believes, that endears him to audiences.

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“He is not perfect,” Jeter explains. “He doesn’t have a model’s face. He is not perfect in any sense of the word. Everyone is a Herman on some level. I think all of us on some level spend a great deal of our time masquerading or pretending to know things we don’t know, pretending not to be beginners, pretending not to be socially inept. He is not just self-conscious about it.”

Jeter was appearing in “Grand Hotel” on Broadway three years ago when producer Harry Thomason flew to New York to talk to him about “Evening Shade.” During the conversation, Thomason told Jeter that Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, his wife and the series’ creator, was looking for an actor to play a Barney Fife type-character to Burt Reynolds’ Andy.

“As soon as I heard that I said (to myself), ‘OK. This is either going to be a very bad trap to fall into, of always being compared to this other character played by this other actor in this other series, or it can be something new.’ ”

Jeter didn’t have much time to work on the role for the pilot because he was still on Broadway doing “Grand Hotel,” which won him a Tony Award. His part in the pilot was reduced to just five minutes. “I basically took a long weekend from ‘Grand Hotel,’ ” he says. “I came in from the airport, had no rehearsal, walked onto the set, went into the trailer, put on the clothes. We did the scene and I got back into the car and went to the airport.”

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When the pilot sold, Jeter asked to have lunch with Bloodworth-Thomason to discuss Herman “so we could make sure we are both sort of shooting at the same target, but so far I have not been able to pin her down. We have not had that lunch.”

So basically, Jeter’s been allowed free rein to create Herman, including his goofball appearance, complete with wearing his pants mid-waist.

“I wanted him to be somebody who is totally unself-conscious about his appearance,” says Jeter, who projects the sweetness and vulnerability that inform his role as the wimpy former high school teacher and assistant football coach. “I wanted him to be a good teacher and for a while, early on in the show, I began to feel almost hurt because it did seem the writers were almost going in another direction of not letting him be a good teacher. I wanted him to be good at something. I didn’t want him to be a laughable human being. I wanted him to be in his own way, very noble.”

Jeter has no delusions about being leading-man material, though he recently finished a part as a night hotel clerk in the theatrical feature “Bank Robber” and plays a “loathsome” man who hires a Vietnam vet to murder his wife in the upcoming CBS miniseries “Love Kills.” He did receive attention for a memorable character role in Terry Gilliam’s recent “The Fisher King.”

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“I know that I am not what one normally would think of as let’s say, fit for fantasy,” Jeter says, laughing. “I am not a romantic lead and that’s fine. I am actually quite glad. There was a time in my life when I hated myself for being so sort of squirrelly looking and odd. I never quite fit my age.

“Now, I am starting to grow into my body. I always thought of myself fitting into the business the way sort of Walter Brennan, Charles Laughton and Edward G Robinson did. Those guys, they were just always sort of there.”

And those who have found Herman Stiles an endearing presence on “Evening Shade” take delight in finding him always sort of there.

“Evening Shade” airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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