Rob Lowe swanned into the room and eased into a chair. He was between takes on the Fox lot in Century City and decided to kill a few minutes chatting with a visitor.
This was not Painfully Awkward Rob Lowe nor Super Creepy Rob Lowe nor Crazy Hairy Rob Lowe nor any of the other iterations seen in his recent series of popular commercials for DirecTV. This was more like Sharp-Dressed, Slightly Amused Rob Lowe, the kind of star who knows what it means when a reporter comes hunting for “color” on set and who knows how to deliver it.
The kind of star who has embraced his career-long transformation from the scruffy-chinned pretty boy Brat Packer of “St. Elmo’s Fire” 30 years ago to the scene-stealing comic ace of “Parks and Recreation” and “Behind the Candelabra.” The kind of star who’s learned how profitable self-parody can be.
“When my cheese-meter is going off, that’s when I know I’m in the zone,” Lowe, now 51, joked.
Cheese, figuratively speaking, looms large in “The Grinder,” Lowe’s new comedy on Fox, which debuts Sept. 29. He plays Dean Sanderson Jr., a slick, pompous TV actor who returns home to Idaho after the schmaltzy legal drama he starred in — also called “The Grinder” — suddenly gets canceled. Dean decides to put all that actoring to good use and help the family’s law firm, even though he has no bona fide legal training or experience.
Fred Savage, also on break, wandered by where Lowe was holding court. Savage, 39, is best known for playing young Kevin Arnold on ABC’s boomer nostalgia fest “The Wonder Years” in the late ‘80s. On “The Grinder,” he plays Dean’s much more responsible and mature younger brother, who actually did pass the bar exam.
Lowe said the chemistry between him and Savage kicked in right away. “The minute we worked together it was a comfortable, perfect relationship where we could riff off each other,” he said by phone later, when Savage wasn’t around. “When he would go high, I would go low; when I would go low, he would go high. We’re sort of like Simon and Garfunkel but with a lot less fighting.”
Even so, “I don’t want him sitting higher than me in chairs on the set,” he added. “I have a real problem with that.”
During the set break, talk turned to Savage’s academic career at Stanford, where he graduated with an English degree in 1999. He noted that he did a bit of acting there, even though his career since has been mainly as a TV director, starting with teen shows such as “Hannah Montana.”
“Stanford has a small drama department,” the former child star noted.
“Very small,” Lowe cut in. “It was Fred.”
Gary Newman, the longtime Fox studio chief who now also runs the broadcasting network with fellow Fox Television boss Dana Walden, said the network was immediately attracted to the humor of the pilot episode of “The Grinder” as well as the easy chemistry between the leads. But he admitted that lately, “comedies have been challenged in general” on TV, with no major breakout hit since ABC’s “Modern Family.”
Lowe has been in the business long enough to realize it’s all a crapshoot.
“At some point, someone is going to make a big, broad-appeal, non-niche, smart, funny comedy,” Lowe said. “I hope it’s us. You never know.”
“The Grinder” is the brainchild of Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, a writing team previously responsible for “Allen Gregory,” an animated comedy from 2011 about an extremely precocious 7-year-old boy who came from a rich, pampered family but who, because of the Wall Street collapse, found himself packed off to an ordinary elementary school. The boy was voiced by Jonah Hill.
The critics were unkind. The Times’ Robert Lloyd wondered whether the premise could sustain a series. His was one of the nicer reviews.
Fox aired just seven episodes and pulled the plug.
For their next project, Mogel and Paul had kicked around doing something with the “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” theme. Wasn’t it weird that people came to assume that actors had some sort of specialized knowledge of a craft or profession merely because they portrayed a character who did that job?
“I would rather have Noah Wyle there if I went into cardiac arrest over some regular guy,” Paul said.
Mogel added, “It’s hard to argue because it’s really dumb. … We just thought it would be funny to see someone who had done it so long on TV do it for real.”
Casting, they knew, would be key. They originally pitched the part of Dean as a “Rob Lowe type,” thinking they would never actually get Lowe, who was mostly associated with NBC, where for years he costarred on the White House drama “The West Wing” and then later moved to “Parks and Rec” and other projects.
“He did a lawyer show called ‘The Lyon’s Den,’ very much like the show we’re making fun of in ‘The Grinder,’” Paul said. “We don’t think that we could have done it with anyone else, and Fox didn’t think so either.”
Earlier this year, Lowe did sign on. But finding someone to play his dutiful, long-suffering brother, Stewart, posed another challenge.
“It was a really hard part for us to cast because the character could so easily be swallowed up by the character that Rob’s playing, a larger-than-life type,” Mogel said. They needed someone who could convey “earnest and likable” but who also had presence, who wouldn’t disappear on screen. As Fox’s Newman put it, Stewart is “kind of the audience’s eyes,” the sane person by which we take measure of all the insanity taking place.
Nick Stoller, an executive producer on the series, knew Savage casually; their daughters are classmates. He sent him the pilot script. Savage read it and said he would love to direct an episode.
“He goes, ‘Oh, no, no. It’s for you to act in,’” Savage recalled.
Lowe, in character as Dean, offered the word hesitantly, not sure of himself.
The actors were shooting a scene in a small conference room, where the script called for lawyers to gather for a pretrial meeting. The Sanderson family was hired to represent workers who claimed they were unfairly terminated from a company.
An opposing lawyer tartly reminds Dean that he’s an actor, not counsel, and therefore not entitled to speak at all and certainly not entitled to give a long speech about how the workers’ “basic human rights” were violated. But does he even know what “hearsay” means?
Lowe nods and replies yes, it was used in every episode of his old TV show.
“Guess what?” he said, beaming. “Worked every time!”
The director, Jake Kasdan, giggled while hunched over monitors in a nearby room, ordering numerous takes until he was satisfied he had the coverage he needed.
The producers realize that having the show fronted by Lowe and Savage could give viewers the idea theirs is a “guy show.” So they are opening up the family angle. Mary Elizabeth Ellis of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is on board as Stewart’s wife. There are sitcom kids. TV veteran William Devane plays the family patriarch.
Lowe’s biggest hits have functioned, like “West Wing” and “Parks and Rec,” as ensembles. “The Grinder” is a vehicle: The show is built for him, and he ultimately has to carry it. But he’s taking it in stride and says things are going fine.
“My sense is there’ll be probably be adjustments,” Lowe said, “but I feel like this is less like ‘Parks and Rec,’ which is universally held up as an example of a show that needed almost an entire year to find its voice then did so, amazingly; and it’s probably more like ‘The West Wing,’ in that, for whatever reason, from the pilot on, it just was what it was.”