The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Gary Cole
By Mother Brain
I was never a fan of The Brady Bunch when I was growing up. Although I remember watching the reruns on TV, the only thing that ever peaked my interest about the show was the behind the scenes drama as depicted on an episode of E! True Hollywood Story. From there I had the guts to watch the 1995 Brady Bunch Movie which I found surprisingly good. A noteworthy actor who stood out amongst the cast was Gary Cole in the role of Mike Brady, previously depicted by Robert Reed. Curious to know about his other credits afterwords, I found myself very surprised by his lengthy body of work from the Equalizer-esque talk show host on Midnight Caller to the boss we love to hate in Office Space. Gary Cole is an actor of many faces as well as voices in his long career.
Born and raised in Illinois, Cole started his acting career by playing Snoopy in the Rolling Meadows High School production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. When he attended college at Illinois State, he studied theater alongside future stars such as Laurie Metcalf of Roseanne fame and John Malkovich. The latter actor would join Cole in the early 80s as part of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, appearing in a number of stage-plays including The Shawl, Orphans, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof just to name a few. Cole continues to perform regularly on stage to this day.
Cole started working in television in 1983 with a role in the TV film Heart of Steel. Numerous guest spots followed on hit shows such as The Twilight Zone, Moonlighting, and Miami Vice which he initially auditioned for to play Sonny Crockett; however, it was the 1984 mini-series Fatal Vision that got the industry buzzing about him. Set with an all-star cast headlined by Karl Malden and Eve Marie Saint, Cole played Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald, a disturbed army physician accused of murdering his family. Refusing to play the part one-sided, Cole managed to portray the role with such complexity that he added enough sympathy to his character for the audience to believe in his innocence.
In 1988, Cole headlined the NBC drama Midnight Caller, the story about Jack “The Nighthawk” Killian who was a disgraced San Francisco cop who traded his badge in favor of becoming a radio talk show host helping troubled souls in the Bay Area. Killian became a signature part for Cole as his character evolved over the course of three seasons, tackling a number of topics including the crack epidemic, child abuse, stalkers, the gun violence debate, and most notably AIDS. He was often praised for his ability to externalize his thoughts over the radio while keeping the viewers interested every week. Caller also gave Cole the opportunity to not only feature his dramatic skills but also his comedic and impressionist skills around Killian’s listeners on air.
After Midnight Caller’s cancellation in 1991, Cole set his sights on movies even though he was not at the level of Bruce Willis or Don Johnson. His buddy Malkovich got him the role of an antagonistic Secret Service agent opposite Clint Eastwood in the 1993 action hit In the Line of Fire. Then came Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie in 1995. Cole won the role because of his close working relationship with director Betty Thomas. Unlike the campy hippie-era series, this incarnation of the Brady Bunch set the squeaky-clean sitcom family right smack in the middle of the Gen-X 90s with its nostalgic fish out of water tone. Cole nailed his predecessor’s earlier performance down to the voice, hair, and polyester suits while making the character his own. The huge success of Brady Bunch was followed by 2 sequels which also featured Cole in the Mike Brady role.
Also in 1995, Cole returned to series television as the satanic Sheriff Lucas Buck in the Sam Raimi-produced American Gothic. Although it only lasted one season, the show garnered a cult following and more rave reviews for Cole’s dramatic talents which were important for him at a time when Brady Bunch could have led to typecasting in comedies. Raimi would also cast Cole in 1998’s A Simple Plan. Other films during this time for Cole included Gang Related and I’ll Be Home for Christmas.
Cole’s next most memorable role came in Mike Judge’s first live action film, Office Space. As Bill Lumbergh, the smarmy vice president of the Initech computer company, Cole relished in playing the boss that everyone loves to hate. Lumbergh was the kind of boss who portrayed friendliness around his employees yet he was a true corporate scumbag behind those specs and suspenders. While the film flopped in theaters, Office Space won over a cult fanbase on home video, making Cole’s character the most quoted to this day. He recently reprised the role for a series of State Farm commercials.
Throughout the 2000s, Cole worked steadily as a character in movies (The Gift, One Hour Photo, I Spy, Dodgeball, etc) and television (Kim Possible, The West Wing, Crusade, Wanted, etc). Young people today may also recognize his voice as Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law for Cartoon Network and played the voice of Judge Mightor on the show as well. He recently became a frequent favorite of Judd Apatow who had Cole cast as Will Ferrell’s deadbeat dad in Talladega Nights and the drug lord villain in Pineapple Express. Recently on TV, Cole played the con-artist father of Sarah on NBC’s Chuck, Ari Gold’s old friend on HBO’s Entourage, and Sookie Stackhouse’s grandfather on True Blood.
Even with all of his successes, Gary Cole still remains humble to his fans and hard working in just about any medium for acting. He brings a sense of generosity to his castmates and always tries to bring out something unique to the roles that he tackles. It is to be hoped that a day will come when audiences can rediscover Midnight Caller on DVD. If you ever wanted to save money by forgoing acting school, just watch Gary Cole work so you can see how to talk and listen when the camera rolls.