PTR Senior Staff Writer
It's no secret that in our corner of the television blogosphere, we have come to absolutely adore FBI Special Agent Fritz Howard of TNT’s The Closer.
As in, can't live without him / don't know what the series would be like if he wasn't around / can't imagine anyone else better suited to handle BJ (our shorthand for Brenda Leigh Johnson) on the home front.
But now, I can honestly say we love the actor who portrays him, too.
Forget WWJD. It's all about WLJT.
We. Love. Jon. Tenney.
We’re having bumper stickers printed up as we write.
And t-shirts, too.
In fact, we now deem Jon to be our first male PTR Fave. In earning this title, he joins our ranks alongside Kathryn Morris, Kristen Bell and Annabeth Gish in proving there are still kind, gracious, genuine, smart, insightful and integrity-driven folks left in Hollywoodland.
And did we mention talented, too? As in, trained at Juilliard ...?
If you’ve followed PTR for any extended period of time, you already know we want to clone Fritz and send him to Lilly Rush on Cold Case. Crickey, that woman needs to find a decent guy. Thank the heavens Jon’s portrayal of one proves they do still exist.
Just on another show.
On another network.
Of which is about to enter its fourth season this coming week.
At this point, we’d settle for Rush taking a
But alas, I digress. And make Jon laugh.
“Awww, that’s sweet. Well, you know, everyone on [our] crew always says everybody should have a Fritz, so even our gang likes him, too. He’s a pretty decent guy.”
Is he ever.
And so is Jon.
So much so that he, in fact, agreed to chat with me whilst he was enjoying a rare week off from filming, vacationing in the Hamptons with his 10-year-old daughter. Like, how cool is that?
Our readers will remember I first caught up with Jon during TNT's press day set visit last month, where we began to discuss just how much we here at PTR appreciate his portrayal of Fritz. But how dumbfounded was I to learn during our recent chat that he was originally considered for the role of … wait for it … Sergeant Gabriel?
“Yeah, when I first read the pilot script, they wanted me to look at this role of Gabriel [now Corey Reynolds’ role],” says Jon. “I read it and said, ‘Well, listen, I really like this script, but I gotta tell ya’, I think to cast anybody more than, like, 30, in the role of Gabriel [won’t work].’ The way it [was] written, it seem[ed] like he had to definitely be younger than Brenda. They were also kind of thinking of making [it] a romantic interest, but I told them I didn’t see it being with somebody she work[ed] that closely with at the office.
“So, Fritz had one scene in the pilot. I read [that] and said, ‘I don’t know what your intentions are with this character, but that’s personally what I would do if I were to do a romantic thing.’ Ironically enough, they didn’t honestly know if the role of Fritz was even going to come back seeing as it was just originally put in to further some of the exposition [of the story]. So, I basically talked myself [down] into a one scene part,” he says with a laugh.
Can you imagine not having Fritzy around at this point in the series? We, of course, cannot. But from the get-go, producers were instantly willing to listen to some of Jon’s thoughts on the development of the character, which in turn, was one of the key reasons joining the show appealed to him.
“When you audition for a series, it’s never about the pilot. It’s about the people and the set-up,” says Jon. “So, when they eventually came back to me and said they were going to take my suggestions, change things around a bit and do a love interest with Fritz, that was a great sign to me. I love how they've [continued] deepening and developing the character over the course of the four seasons.”
Given Fritz’s evolution since the series' inception, I was curious as to what Jon considers his alter-ego’s best qualities to be. It seems there are two main keys: patience and being able to see the big picture.
“His patience is definitely one of his best qualities,” says Jon. “I think he’s intuitive and understanding. He reads people pretty well. He’s psychologically perceptive. I think that’s one of the reasons he’s able to be as patient as he is with some of Brenda’s insanity. Because he sees the bigger, broader picture, he’s able to put things in perspective. I also think he’s working very hard to be conscious and present in the world and, by extension, obviously in the relationship with her. It started more last year, and it’s really being developed this year. In one of the episodes early on this season, they have a great confrontation. She crosses some lines, and he gets very upset with her. But he says, ‘You have got to be honest with where you’re coming from and what you’re doing. I’m not going to judge you as to whether it’s right or wrong, or good or bad. It’s not about that. It’s about being clear with what your intentions are and what you’re doing.’ So, I think that’s a strength of his.”
And how about his worst – or, should we say, troubled – qualities? According to Jon, it’s not just about Fritz’s alcohol recovery, which was brought in at the end of last season. It’s also about standing up for himself and, in turn, not always trying to be the good guy to everybody.
Says Jon: “Fritz does definitely struggle with [alcoholism]. He’s in recovery, and that is something he’s always going to [have] to be in. I like to think that is actually something that has made him stronger as a person – as opposed to a real weakness – because he’s chosen to deal with [it]. But, I suppose [his] weakness, in the same way that he’s understanding, is that he allows himself to be too forgiving, too pleasing [and] wants to be the good guy a little too much. I think people who are afraid to be the bad guys sometimes do themselves a disservice because they lose themselves a little bit [in that process]. Being understanding is a great quality on one level, but [it] can’t be at the expense of yourself. You can’t be a doormat. So, I think that’s probably something that he has to battle regularly.”
With an actor so in tune with his character, it begs the question: are there a lot of similarities between the two?
“Oh, I think there are a lot of similarities. Absolutely. Well, I’m about to have a draft beer, so I’m not in recovery as far as that goes,” he says with a laugh.
(And just to clarify, Jon did come in from a very long bike ride with his daughter prior to chatting with me. Suffice it to say, if I were out in the Hamptons, that beer would’ve been on PTR. Next time, Jon.)
“I think often times I tend to avoid conflict,” he continues, “as opposed to standing up for what I really believe in. Sometimes, that isn't in my own best interest, so I have to watch it and work on it. You know, as the years have gone on with the show, I think they’ve taken some of the things they’ve noticed about me and filtered it into Fritz. You can’t help but sort of blend things in with your own way of doing things.”
Given that, when I tell him he strikes me as a pretty easy-going guy, much like Fritz, he agrees.
“Yeah, you know, I think I’d categorize myself that way. I think I’m pretty level-headed. I would not call myself high strung. I mean, I have to be a little crazy because I’ve chosen to be an actor,” he says with another laugh. "So, there's a little bit of insanity."
And as an actor, there are a couple of key elements Jon takes into account when he’s considering whether to take on a new project.
Says Jon: “In the case of something like a television series, it’s definitely who are the writers and who is the company you’re going to be working for. There is so much gray area when you enter into a series, and there are just sort of these broad strokes [given to you] in the pilot. Since it could potentially go on for years, [yet] there’s no way to know where the story lines are going to go or what’s going to happen with your character, you really have to ask, ‘Are these creative people smart and interesting, and [do they] want to tell good stories, be honest in their writing, develop things?’ In the case of The Closer, that was answered [from Day 1] – I just got a real good vibe from all of the people.
"In terms of film, or something that’s got a smaller scope, it really always comes down to the story – a good story. I always ask myself, ‘Is this a story I want to tell? Why are we telling this story, and why are we telling this story now, at this time in the world?’ And sometimes, other people won’t like [something], but I’ll read [it] and say [maybe]. I just did this film – a big, sort of sci-fi, apocalyptic movie – that’s going to come out next year [called Legion]. I’d never done a movie with a whole lot of CGI and all that stuff. It filmed in Santa Fe [New Mexico] - a place I had always wanted to visit. So, sometimes, it’s just the overall [new] experience I’m interested in.”
But Jon says the definite reward to doing series television is the longer exploration of story arcs, and the intricate development of the character.
“That’s definitely one thing that’s exciting about doing the series. You have, potentially, many, many hours to develop a character until a much longer arc of the story. That's not to say there isn't something really nice about telling a short little story that has a clear beginning, middle and end [like in film]. But certainly, in the case of The Closer, [the lengthy character development] is one thing I appreciate. And you know, personally for my part, I always try have a sense of the whole picture – not unlike Fritz,” Jon says again with a laugh.
“I think it really behooves one – especially in this business – to see the whole story and the whole project,” he continues. “I like to know my piece of the puzzle. And, in the case of The Closer, the writers have been very smart in giving everybody a very distinctive piece of that puzzle. In my case, the whole personal relationship – showing that side of [Brenda] as the protagonist [and] exploring that personal side of her – is a great piece of the puzzle to have. Because, at the end of the day, as an actor, I would much rather play personal scenes than talking head scenes where you’re just [discussing] evidence or jargon or something like that, y’know?”
Oh, yes. We know. It's one of the reasons why we are, unfortunately, getting quite bored with the procedural formula trap that some of our favorite shows (ahem, Cold Case) have fallen-and-can’t-get-up from at the moment. It’s great to have the cases, the crime, the bad guy off the street. But we also need to feel something for those protagonists – to care about their personal lives in some way so as to keep us invested week in, week out. We, as viewers, need to see the personal, or else we will just.stop.caring.
And, ironically enough, the personal is what Jon enjoys the most, too.
“They’ve been smart on our show,” he says “because even though they always have that exposition and a case to solve [each week], everyone has always looked at the show as a character driven piece. So, while there is that crime story, they don’t like it to be at the expense of the humanity. And for me, in Fritz's case, it’s certainly much easier to delve into that world because most of my scenes really are just about the personal. And from my point of view, that’s the most fun. I love all the kitchen scenes and dining room scenes.”
You see why we want to clone this man?
Needless to say, it’s at this point in the conversation I reiterate how well the show has managed to mix the personal and the professional. That The Closer is, in this writer’s very humble opinion, the best show on television at the moment in being able to pull off such a delicate balancing act.
“Well, I have to say again that’s really gratifying to hear,” says Jon. “That’s certainly been our hope – and that’s certainly been my hope – that it would be received that way, but to actually hear that is extremely gratifying. I think it’s a tricky thing – especially in a show that has a crime story every week. You have to tell that story, solve the case, [work within] all those constraints, but the personal stuff has to be significant enough to make an impact even if it's not a whole lot of scenes. There have been a lot of shows that say, well, we’ll go home with the characters – we’ll see them at work and we’ll see them at home. And invariably, one side always gets the short end of the stick. So, it’s very satisfying to hear that [we seem to be doing it right].”
Definitely. And in doing that so right, Jon says he has a few episodes he’s come to call his favorites.
“There are a couple of great ones coming up this season - like episode three ['Live Wire']. That's the one where I really sort of lay things on the line for Brenda. We end up working a case together, and she lies to me in a very significant way. So, I kind of let her have it at the end. I enjoyed the fight we had because it was weighted with a lot of stuff – there was a big history given to it as a result of the whole arc of our relationship, and so I felt like they gave voice to something that had been brewing for long time. It was very satisfying. And, you know, I loved asking her to marry me – I loved that episode ['Manhunt']. I love the episode where I confided in her about my history ['Til Death Do Us Part'].”
Again, do we not have a cloning machine somewhere on this earth? NASA? Anybody?
Alas, for Jon, it’s not just about favorite episodes of the past. He’s always quite anxious to learn what lies ahead for BJ and Fritzy as well as the show on the whole.
“We usually get the scripts a week ahead, and though we have some ideas of what’s coming, I love those days when they release the script. You run and you say, ‘What’s going to happen?’"
“Oh, yeah! I can’t wait to read the next story and see what’s going on now, y’know? Even though I do talk to the writers ahead of time, tell them some of my ideas and get a general idea of certain things that are coming down the pike, it’s always nice to read those episodes for the first time,” says Jon.
And this, as we know, is all part of the collaborative environment that is a staple of The Closer set, fostered first and foremost by creator and executive producer James Duff.
Says Jon: “That’s one of the things they have been very good at. They’ve made a real effort to release the scripts as early as they can so that everybody has a chance to read and weigh in. And you know, early on, that very first scene in the pilot … I got there to rehearse, and they had two wine glasses set-up. I said, ‘You know, give me a Club Soda.’ It was just something in the back of my head - I thought maybe Fritz isn't a wine guy, or maybe there’s some sort of drinking thing … who knows … but, we’ll just keep the door open. So, it got to be this thing where I would never let them have me drinking a beer or wine or anything. And, eventually, at the end of last season, they said, hey, we’re going to pick up that cue, and we’re going to write in this whole recovering alcoholic thing. So, they’ve always been very open from the very beginning.”
And so, if Jon had a chance to have a conversation with Fritz, what might he say to him – and what might Fritz say to Jon? He ponders the question for a moment.
“I think I’d just encourage him to keep on standing up for himself. And, he’d probably say to me, ‘I am.’ Yeah, I think we get along – we get along very well. And we look similar,” he jokes.
So true. In entering the fourth season, Jon says the best part of being on the show is not only working with such a talented group of actors, but being able to have a job that allows him to keep a certain balance in his personal life as well.
Says Jon: “From a professional standpoint, I just love working with these actors. I’m always challenged and excited by all of them, I love tossing the ball around. But, I just love working [in general] - I like getting up and going to work every day. Some episodes are more challenging than others, but there is always something really satisfying [for me] about just going to work. Plus, it’s a fun set to go to. Personally, I enjoy the fact the [filming] schedule is not as long [as network schedules], and it films primarily over the summer. [That is really great] for my own personal life. You know, I’ve got my daughter – she’s 10-years-old, she’s going to be going into fifth grade. So, [this allows me] to be in and around town, there at her school. And since a big chunk of my work is during summer vacation, I don’t miss a lot of her school year. You know, one of the things you always do as an actor is you travel a lot because you’re always going where the work is. So, the fact that this is local is just fantastic. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I love to work. But from a life stand point, this is pretty great for me at the moment.”
And it’s pretty great for us, too.
We’re thinking every show should have a Jon Tenney, but only TNT’s The Closer is lucky enough to have him.
We at PTR extend our enormous thanks to Jon for lending us his time – on vacation no less – to share his thoughts on our perennial favorite leading man on the small screen. We’d also like to thank our friends at PMK and Turner publicity for helping to put it all together. The fourth season of The Closer gets underway Monday, July 14th at 9 p.m. on TNT. You can also keep an eye out for Jon come 2009, when he hits the big screen in Legion (his foyer into all-things CGI / sci-fi) and The Stepfather (a re-make of the Terry O’ Quinn classic). And yes, we’ll hopefully catch up with Jon again by that time so as to get the full inside scoop. After all, we do owe him a beer.