A boss who does more than shuffle paper

Times Staff Writer

The cast of a television series is a little like a chamber orchestra: a collection of instruments of varying speeds and timbre and pitch and attack whose abstract orchestration is inextricable from whatever stories are being told. In a way, it is the story.

Which is why I think of J.K. Simmons, in the role of LAPD Assistant Chief Will Pope on TNT's "The Closer," as a kind of viola -- mellow-toned, not the first instrument you notice, but a part no less beautifully played for being less obviously important. Other "Closer" regulars have more colors to play perhaps: star Kyra Sedgwick, obviously, as Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson; Robert Gossett as her less-scheming-than-he-used-to-be professional rival; Corey Reynolds as her conflicted sidekick; Jon Tenney, never better than as Brenda's FBI agent boyfriend-turned-fiancé. But Simmons -- playing an administrator, a mediator -- is the harmonic glue that knits them together, grounds and sets off the fluttery high parts and the rumbling low.

"I started out as a singer and a musician and I was taught that your job is just to get out of the way of Brahms or Arthur Miller or Shakespeare and convey the brilliance that they created," Simmons said one recent day in the commissary at Raleigh Studios. "I've always believed, maybe naively, that 'The play's the thing,' " He wore a Detroit Tigers T-shirt and shook hands left-handed, having injured his right when he "inadvertently cooperated" with his 6-year-old daughter, who was trying to prove he could pick her up with his little finger.

"This came to me more easily than almost anything ever has," he said of the part. Pope was in fact written for him by "Closer" creator James Duff, for whom Simmons had worked on the short-lived series "The D.A." "And several months after it didn't get picked up, I get a call from James, who's got a script and asks if I'd like to read it. And I said, 'No, I don't need to read it. I'll do it.' Because I so love the way he writes."

At 52, Simmons has been a screen actor for just a little more than a decade. His has been one of those slow-building careers -- the 20-year overnight success. Before making himself felt on television as the quietly terrifying white supremacist Vern Schillinger in "Oz" -- which he played concurrently with the role of psychiatrist Emil Skoda in the "Law & Order" franchise -- Simmons had been seen mostly onstage, in regional repertory and touring companies and finally on Broadway, as Capt. Hook in "Peter Pan," Benny Southstreet in "Guys & Dolls," and in Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor." Film credits run back to "The Ref" and include "The Mexican," "Thank You for Smoking" and newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in the "Spider-Man" movies. He is also the voice of the yellow M&M;, and played Barber Dan in the final episode of "The Adventures of Pete & Pete."

In a role that can easily run to cliché -- the superior officer exasperated by an unconventional subordinate, traditionally expressed by a cacophony of balled fists, rolled eyes and smacked foreheads -- Simmons relies on small gestures. Toughness, authority, support, protectiveness, exasperation, pride -- usually mixed with a dry humor -- are indicated by the raised eyebrow, the pursed lip, the puffed cheek, the inclination of the head. A resonant singer's voice and a pair of steel-blue eyes strengthen the impression of almost gentle repose, of Pope as the solid rock in a sometimes angry sea, the rational man who says, "Here's what we're going to do," or "I have a proposal." He makes reasonableness interesting -- he's the administrator as hero.

An administrator is "exactly what he is, of course," Simmons agreed. "When I first started reading the scripts I spoke to James and also to Mike Berchem, who's now a writer on the show and initially was a consultant -- he's an LAPD detective -- because my assumption was if you're an assistant police chief in the LAPD, you started out walking a beat when you were 20 years old and came up through the ranks. Mike said no, from the point of view of the detectives on the street, these guys are just a bunch of spoiled college kids who are just administrators and political animals. Even though Pope is not exactly a young guy, he doesn't necessarily think that assistant chief is the end of the rainbow -- maybe chief of police, maybe not that far away from running for office."

Pope is also, in a highly circumspect way, a romantic figure, though the romance -- an affair with Brenda that took place several years before the series began -- is not recalled in spasms of heavy breathing, but by throwaway lines, the uncomfortably extended moment or the two standing closer than necessary. (Having been the one to end the relationship, he is not quite over her, though she has moved on.)

"The times we do get into close personal life are few and far between; but I look for anything either in the text or subtext to bring that aspect of the relationship into it. It's obviously a very small subplot to the overall arc of the show," Simmons said. "If we really focused on the relationship between Pope and Brenda, I think it would lose some of its impact instead of just rearing its ugly head once in a while in new and interesting ways. Season 7, we finally might throw off our clothes, get in the sack," he said hopefully.

Although the part was created with Simmons in mind, the actor recalled, "I was kind of a hard pitch to the studio and the network, who were thinking, as most people would, 'So there's this romantic past, but he's a bald 50-year-old white guy. . . . he can't have a romantic anything.' And they talked about putting a hairpiece on me, and I just said, 'You know what? No. No.' For a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I don't want to show up to work an extra half an hour early every day to have a hairpiece put on."

A better solution was to dress him up.

"We thought, 'What can we do to make this guy a bit of a Lothario?' If he's concerned about his appearance -- 'cause we do dye what's left of my hair -- then the other obvious thing is make him a real clotheshorse, a very natty guy who obviously spends some time looking in the mirror in the morning and getting his tie just right. It also made him a little bit old school, which is something that appealed to me, even though it wasn't necessarily there in the writing. Because Brenda's character is such an eccentric, I wanted to be a little more conservative, but without the 'By the book, dammit, you maverick!' stereotype. I loosened my tie literally for the first time in an episode that's going to air in the next few weeks."

It will mean something when he does.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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