Catholic actor McDonald gets high profile on TV's 'Harry's Law'

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By MARK PATTISON

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON - You're forgiven if you think you've seen Catholic actor Christopher McDonald in a court of law before.

A dozen years ago, he played smarmy lawyer Rex Weller on the CBS legal drama "Family Law." This year, McDonald has bellied up to the bar - the barrister's bar - to play I-can't-get-no-respect lawyer Tommy Jefferson on the NBC series "Harry's Law." Even though it was a midseason debut, "Harry's Law" already qualifies as the top-rated scripted show on ratings-starved NBC.

The peacock network ordered six new scripts that would give the drama a 22-episode run this season, typical in the TV world. The final step would be an order to film those scripts, and "I think it's imminent," McDonald told Catholic News Service.

In the interim, McDonald has kept busy. He played Tappy Tibbons in the well-regarded independent movie "Requiem for a Dream." He was the voice of Clark Kent (and Superman) in the animated series "Batman Beyond." McDonald played baseball announcer Mel Allen in the cable movie "61*," and had a recurring role in the cable series "Boardwalk Empire." He even played a priest named Father Christopher in the upcoming dark comedy "Serial Buddies."

Depending where he's at, McDonald said he'll get recognized on the street for "Boardwalk Empire" and "Requiem for a Dream," and even early roles like Darryl from 1991's "Thelma and Louise" and golf pro Shooter McGavin from 1996's "Happy Gilmore." Now, though, "nine times out of 10, it's Tommy Jefferson," he added.

"I do like variety," McDonald told CNS, but in the absence of a regular TV job, "you better fill up your down time with some interesting work." He said, "I had no intention of being on a series, but ('Harry's Law' creator) David Kelley wrote this, and I adore his writing. He mixes the drama with the comedy. It's a perfect pitch. I love saying his words."

McDonald, who got his first professional acting job in 1978, said that 30 years ago, "I don't think any actor worth his salt would want to do television except to pay the rent. Now the writing on television has been exponentially better. ... When Aaron Sorkin comes to television, I sort of have to eat my words."

Sorkin, who won an Oscar for best original screenplay this year with "The Social Network," wrote the first four seasons of "The West Wing."

The attention to detail so necessary in the acting profession also pays off for McDonald when it comes to raising his four children in the Catholic faith.

"Those attributes of the Catholic faith - saying grace at meals, when we have guests over we say grace - we do," he said. "Before bedtime they say a couple of things they're grateful for."

Even though the New York native has to commute between the Big Apple and Hollywood for filming, he doesn't shirk his parental responsibilities. "You want to raise your kids in the right way. She (his wife, Lupe Gidley) has a very strong presence in their lives. But when I come home, I want to make sure they've all that got part of their spiritual life. ... When I'm home I'm the one who makes sure they go to church." McDonald enrolls their kids in Catholic summer camps to solidify their faith.

McDonald even has a Bill Clinton-esque story about meeting the president at the White House while an adolescent. But while Clinton met John Kennedy, McDonald met Lyndon Johnson.

"I was a very good trumpet player. I would lead the (school) musicals and stuff. I was playing for the president, playing for Mr. Johnson, on the steps of the White House when I was in high school," McDonald recalled.

"I almost got lured into playing for the Marine Corps Band. I could have been one of the few, the proud - in the band. But I would have been stuck playing 'Taps,' I'm afraid."

But while Clinton actually served two terms in the Oval Office, McDonald could only portray a president, in the 2002 movie "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams."

Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970