He’s been a familiar face on TV for years in series including Oz, 30 Rock, Law & Order: SVU and Rescue Me, and he played a hedge fund advisor to the Russian mob last year in the Keanu Reeves flick John Wick. And for the last few years, Dean Winters has been known as the troublemaking Mayhem in a series of commercials for Allstate Insurance. This weekend, he adds another credit to his resumé: Battle Creek, a CBS cop drama (Sundays 10/9c) in which he plays Russ Agnew, a grumpy detective who instantly detests his new partner, an FBI golden boy played by Josh Duhamel.
The fact that Winters is still here and acting at all is rather miraculous, since he nearly died in 2009 after contracting a bacterial infection. His heart stopped en route to the hospital where he spent three weeks in the ICU, and he then underwent surgeries and skin grafts after he lost two toes and half a thumb to gangrene.
So we asked him about the show, sure, but also about survival.
“I was in a hospital, feeling sorry for myself. I had a nurse who took me down to the children’s burn unit and I saw kids playing soccer with prosthetic legs. That was the moment I turned everything around.”
You survived quite a harrowing experience.
I had 17 surgeries, nine amputations. I was out of the game for three years. I’m OK now. It taught me that life is short and art is long—one of my favorite quotes. When you lose toes and half a thumb, and half my nose fell off, the last thing you think you’ll ever do is work again. I wasn’t at the height of my career but I had just done the pilot for Happy Town and was doing 30 Rock. I was on a roll, but my clock got stopped.
Did you think you’d recover and work again?
No, I thought I was done. I was told I was never going to walk again. It was the darkest time of my life. I was in a hospital, feeling sorry for myself. I had a nurse who took me down to the children’s burn unit and I saw kids playing soccer with prosthetic legs. That was the moment I turned everything around. I learned how to walk again, but they were still doing amputations and it took a while. While I was having my tenth surgery Tina Fey called and said, ‘I’ll put you back on 30 Rock,’ and after I got out I was on the set the next day. They put me in a cast because they’d cut off my baby toe and work gloves because my hands were still healing. I’m indebted to Tina for life. When the Mayhem thing came down the pike, it breathed new life into me because I thought my career was over. I would do anything for those people because they came to me knowing I was in the gutter and got me back on track. John Wick did a lot for me too because it was extremely stunt-friendly, a lot of action. I tried to do as many of the stunts as they would let me do, and that kind of restored my faith in myself.
Did it change you as an actor?
Yeah, I‘m a much more soulful actor, I think. I take my time more than I used to. Now I have physical limitations. I can’t walk without shoes on, barefoot. I used to be a fighter, a great boxer. I can’t do that anymore. It’s hard when I have to go to a writer and say ‘I can’t do that,’ but everyone has been great to me. Right before I got hurt and sick I was in a negative place about the business. I wasn’t appreciating it for what it is. Now I really appreciate the community—the actors, writers, producers—and I love what I do for a living.
You’ve played cops before—what’s different about Russ Agnew in Battle Creek? What drew you to the part?
I’ve always played big city cops, on Rescue Me and SVU, but this is a guy in a small department. It was more about tapping into the heart of it—that Midwest heart, and what’s going on in Michigan with the economy. I like playing the underdog. It’s always been appealing to me. That’s why I’ve tried to stay away from hero roles. I find it a little more fun to be someone who has to start from a negative place. It really gives you something to work with. Up there with 30 Rock and Oz, it’s the best job I’ve ever had. The creative team behind it is amazing, really good people. It’s Vince Gilligan, David Shore and Bryan Singer—House and Breaking Bad are two of the best shows in the history of television, and The Usual Suspects is one of my favorite movies of all time. It was a no-brainer.
What goals do you set now?
I’ve learned not to set goals in this business because a lot of times your goals can be a little lofty. I have more goals as a human being—I want to have a family. I’m working on it. My family got me through it—we’re as close as you can be.
Photo by Mathieu Young/Sony Television