'Hancock's' Jason Bateman enjoys the Hollywood climb

'Hancock's' Jason Bateman enjoys the Hollywood climb
‘HANCOCK’: In the big-budget action film, Jason Bateman plays Ray, a public relations executive who tries to rehabilitate the image of an alcoholic superhero played by Will Smith. (Frank Masi / Columbia Pictures)
NESTLED IN the hills to the west of the Hollywood sign, Runyon Canyon is a see-and-be-seen hiking circuit, heavy on the unleashed dogs. As a workout, it's a dust-bowl journey of around 45 minutes, during which one sometimes passes -- amid the halter-topped women running fiercely and the Sherpa types strolling with several dogs -- an actor of some repute.

On a recent weekday morning, Jason Bateman was easily the most recognizable actor on the mountain. The former child TV star ("Silver Spoons") and late-teens cute-boy ("The Hogan Family") had with him Goose, a feisty French bulldog, and Dwayne, a mellower Brussels Griffon.

Long the younger and lesser-known of the Bateman siblings (his sister, Justine, was Mallory on the '80s sitcom "Family Ties"), Jason, at 39, is enjoying a run of success that has firmly separated him from that other Runyon Canyon subspecies, the bare-chested unemployed actor dude hitting the loop hard, keeping his body trim for another pilot season.

Born in Rye, N.Y., with stops in Boston and Salt Lake City, Bateman started acting at 10, having moved to L.A. with his father, Kent, a writer and director who also ran a postproduction house. By his account, his youth was divided between school and the set, with the set often winning out.

Bateman, as a result, has a high, intuitive showbiz IQ. On-camera, he tends to be a filter for empathy, Tom Hanks-like in his ability to convey the audience is in relatable hands.

Off-camera it means he can spot Hollywood's grooming habits.

"There's nothing hetero about a shaved chest," he observed, as a well-toned physique went bounding past. "Some actors I guess have to look at their physique or the possibility of their shirt having to come off at times. . . . I haven't had to do that or have a love scene."

These days, Bateman is enjoying a domestic existence. He's married (his wife, Amanda, is the daughter of singer Paul Anka), and the father of a 1 1/2 -year-old girl, Francesca. And professionally, he's never been more in demand. Suddenly, he is showing up in all the right places and hitting all the right notes, that former boyish entitlement having matured into understated comedic bite.

Last year, Bateman was pitch-perfect as the conflicted adoptive father trading punk rock and slasher movie references with Ellen Page in the Oscar-winning indie film "Juno." And now, in the Will Smith action-comedy "Hancock," he's exhibiting similarly grounded comedic chops, playing another slouchy male.

This time, though, Bateman's character is a public relations man trying to rehabilitate the image of an alcoholic superhero (Smith) who has gotten surly and slovenly in his work.

Whereas Hancock boozily saves/destroys L.A., Bateman's character, Ray, is almost preternaturally nice, a suburban dad pitching big-money corporations on a humanistic global ad campaign. When Hancock saves his life -- and destroys city blocks in the process -- Ray invites him over for dinner. It's "spaghetti madness" night, Ray tells him with subtle irony.

In a way, "Hancock" riffs on Bateman's Michael Bluth character on "Arrested Development" -- that voice of reason amid the insanity, insisting on civility where none otherwise exists. "Arrested," narrated by Ron Howard and produced by Howard and Brian Grazer's company Imagine Entertainment, was a bracing antidote to the typical family sitcom -- dizzyingly referential and shot with hand-held cameras to capture the madness of a dysfunctional family whose figurehead father, played by Jeffrey Tambor, was in prison.

Bateman himself will tell you he was "a tired piece of meat" as recently as 2003, when he was cast as the mostly normal, if somewhat tightly wound and self-righteous son on "Arrested." But presto change-o -- his career was reinvented with an edge.

More so than "Juno," " 'Arrested' did everything for me," he said of the series that ran on Fox for three critically acclaimed but ratings-starved seasons, from 2003 to 2006, during which it won an Emmy for best comedy. "I guess there's a bunch of people that go to the movies that don't watch television," he added. "You know, I don't think you can underestimate a film that's on the [Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] screener list. Any film that's nominated for a best picture is going to be seen by gobs of filmmakers that will never see something like 'Hancock,' even though 'Hancock' may out-earn it by three. Milos Forman is not going to see 'Hancock,' although he might screen 'Juno.' "

Whereas sister Justine, a mother of two, has returned to TV (a recurring role on ABC's "Desperate Housewives") and become an outspoken participant in the Screen Actors Guild's contract talks with studios, Jason has been lining up movie parts. Upcoming are roles in the Ricky Gervais comedy "This Side of the Truth," a Mike Judge comedy called "Extract," and "State of Play, a remake of a BBC political thriller in which Bateman plays a "bisexual fetish club performer with an OxyContin problem."

There is also a project he can't talk about -- and one that he can: "Arrested Development," the movie, which Bateman said is about to get the green light, provided series creator Mitch Hurwitz feels the budget is in keeping with his script ambitions.

Hurwitz too has been reading the buzz, though the writer has been busy with another TV show, "Sit Down, Shut Up," an animated series for midseason on Fox (Bateman voices one of the characters) that's had its own saga: a dispute over whether the show's writers will win out in their push to be covered by the Writers Guild of America instead of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

"As I've been developing the plot, I've been talking to line producers," said Hurwitz of the "Arrested" movie, indicating a deal had yet to be worked out with Fox Searchlight.

It was Hurwitz who rescued Bateman from the "tired piece of meat" portion of his career, though he was dubious when he saw Bateman's name on the call sheet. The actor had become, by then, a kind of amiable, fail-safe casting choice, even if the '90s sitcoms that cast him -- "George & Leo," "Chicago Sons," "Ned & Stacey" -- had failed.

But Bateman surprised Hurwitz at the audition, underplaying the comedy in the script, which was otherwise full of crackpots and eccentrics. The role forced him out of his comfort zone (what Hurwitz thinks of as the smug, hacky sitcom guy wearing two shirts) to play not only a father but, as Hurwitz envisioned the character, "an uptight Orange County Republican" with short, conservative hair.

"He was probably 33 or 34, and he wasn't ready to think of himself as a father on a show," Hurwitz said of the actor at the time. "That was a big obstacle for him. . . . I kept saying, 'Jason, you're a man now. . . . Stand up straight. Don't work the hair.' He was still in that hip thing, having gotten a lot of work that way."

"It was really fortuitous that I was given a part on a show that was exactly what my sense of humor was at that time," said Bateman. "It's not often that those two things meet for an actor. Usually you take the job you're given and pay your bills. And then on top of that it was embraced by the people who hand out jobs in this town."

Those people were spread across the vast cityscape below Runyon Canyon. For Bateman, it seemed, it was all downhill from here.