Though his most memorable TV roles have been in dark dramas like Oz, Law & Order: SVU and True Blood, Christopher Meloni got his start in sitcoms like HBO’s football comedy 1st & Ten and The Fanelli Boys two decades ago. The actor returns to those comedy roots in Fox’s new Surviving Jack (Thursdays, 9:30/8:30c). Set in 1991, the show casts him as a doctor, father and well-meaning hardass who becomes a more hands-on parent when his wife enrolls in law school. “Think of Archie Bunker without the racism,” Meloni explains. “What came out of his mouth was a little jarring, but he was truly coming from his heart.” We asked him about picking roles, real-life fatherhood and whether he watches SVU…
“I was so young that even when The Fanelli Boys’ ratings tanked, I was always like, ‘No, no. There’s still time left on the clock!’ Everyone else was like ‘Dude, are you kidding me? It’s over.’ I’m like, ‘No, we’re still on the playing field!’ ”
Were you looking for a comedy specifically?
I knew I didn’t want grim circumstances for twenty-two one‑hour episodes. I just couldn’t do that schedule again. Maybe I could be grim for thirteen episodes. And then this pilot plopped on my desk, and it was the funniest thing I’ve read all year. I had worked with Bill [Lawrence, producer]. I knew Bill socially and professionally. I agreed with how he ran things, his comedic sensibilities. I immediately understood the humor, and I knew how he would nurture it along.
How is it doing comedy now after so many dramatic roles?
I wake up every morning when I’m working, stretch, and say, ‘I’m going to go out and try and be funny,’ and that is a very liberating place to be. And then I come home, and even if I’ve not quite reached a place I wanted to reach, it’s still OK and I have another day to give it a shot.
What are your criteria in choosing roles?
I try and pick the best thing that’s best for me. If I’m having a good time with it, that is icing on the cake. Sometimes you don’t have the best experience and that’s OK. You’re a professional and you need to dog it out and that’s fine. You know, The Fanelli Boys, that was my big shot. That kind of put me on the radar. That was exhilarating and awesome and I was ready to roll. I was so pumped up to do it and I was so excited. I was so young that even when the ratings tanked, I was always like, “No, no. There’s still time left on the clock!” Everyone else was like “Dude, are you kidding me? It’s over.” I’m like, “No, we’re still on the playing field!”
What’s Jack like?
Brutally honest, well meaning; he’s now in charge of the parenting and it’s a skill set he thinks he possesses but maybe not quite to everyone’s taste.
Like Jack, you have two kids.
My son is 10 and my daughter is 13.
What kind of dad are you?
I’m very clear about what I believe is important to me like education and eating the correct things, all that stuff. There is just no wiggle room, even though they continue to wiggle, but I am very clear about that. The things I am not clear about, because things are ever changing—you know, who they are, what I think they can handle, what they are exposed to. I take a step back and I see how much power I can give to them to make a decision and how much we have to kind of negotiate.
What was your dad like?
My father is deceased but he was a highly educated man. He was quiet but I was a little afraid of him. Being a doctor, he was really never around.
You’re in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For this August. What’s your role?
I play a detective who comes under the spell of a femme fatale, Eva Green.
How’d you like working with green screen?
It was interesting. I didn’t have a problem with it. Kind of got back to old school acting, which is just pure imagination. The only thing I had on the soundstage was a phone and a chair in one scene. If I was outside there was a windmill, a fan was blowing in my face.
What are you watching on TV?
I’m trying to find the time to catch up on The Wire. Loved Breaking Bad, Getting On. Shameless is on my list.
Do you watch SVU?
I haven’t seen it since I left. In the beginning I watched for research and seeing how it’s going and how things are coming off. After a while, it no longer becomes that and it’s not quite entertainment. You’re like, “I just need to be in a different space.”