“I feel like I’m doing the 50-yard dash and I’m out of the starter’s shoot and I’m just running like hell toward the finish line,” says Tom Skerritt. With “Picket Fences,” the veteran character actor is starring in his first-ever TV series, after having appeared in dozens of movies, from “MASH” to “Top Gun” to “A River Runs Through It.”
Cranking out 22 episodes of “Picket Fences” leaves him little time to rehearse, reflect or internalize his character as he can on the relatively luxurious schedules allotted to feature films. “Sometimes,” says Skerritt, whose longest previous TV gig was a six-episode guest spot on “Cheers,” “it’s all moving so fast that I’m just hoping to get the lines out.”
But Skerritt, as Rome, Wisc.'s sheriff and father figure, holds the series together with his long, tall posture of stability, and, according to the show’s executive producer, his ability to convey a wicked sense of humor without opening his mouth.
“With all the ridiculous events going on in this town, it’s very important to have someone like Tom to keep everything credible,” David Kelley says. “He gives us that kind of legitimacy. And for a lot of the audience who might be sitting there looking at these events cross-eyed, he can share that view with them so beautifully. It’s such a luxury as a writer to have an actor who can do that with just a facial expression, who can show the delight he takes in the situation with his eyes and not have to write a line for him saying, “What the hell is going on here?’ ”
Skerritt, who lives in Seattle with his family and commutes there on weekends, says he has always been dead set against doing a TV series full-time in Los Angeles, partly because he didn’t want to be tied down to something for years and partly because he felt television was crummy, “that the producers who were responsible for the product were not being responsible to the consumer.”
Even after he read and loved the pilot script for the series and concluded that Kelley shared his commitment to turning out a responsible, rich product each week, he declined. It took fellow movie actor Kathy Baker signing on to play the female lead and a little more cajoling for Skerritt to change his mind.
“It was just an indefinable feeling that it was the right thing to do,” he says. “And if it went for five years, I could effectively retire. I’d love to be out of it as much as possible and be able to pick and choose what I want to do. It was an investment in my future.”
Skerritt, who also loves that his character is a fine and easygoing lawman and often completely lost and out of control in the family arena, also believes that the audience makes a good investment in watching each episode.
“David Kelley puts so much complexity and nuance into each hour with critical social issues and the male-female gender gap and the stuff of the human heart,” Skerritt says. “And we allow the audience to respond on their own, to listen to the information; here’s the pros and cons, think about it and be aware of it. Just to be a part of something that I think will wind up being a significant piece of television is wonderful.”