Doubting Thomas

Sitcom success is nice, thank you, but native Texan Thomas Haden Church will be much happier when he’s a movie star—and when he has a ranch he can call his own.

These are some of the things that Thomas Haden Church has been: a busboy, a waiter, a disc jockey, a surfer, a car-wash attendant, an air-conditioning contractor, a gravel separator, a bellman, a veterinarian’s assistant, and a road-kill collector. All told, not a bad range for a rising actor—a bit heavy on character parts, perhaps, but, really, isn’t that where all the best work is done these days? Except that those were all real jobs, positions he actually held in his pre-Hollywood days, during a youth and young adulthood split between the Rio Grande Valley and the Metroplex area. It’s not exactly an employment history that screams “stability” or “focus,” so it’s a good thing that he no longer has to worry about his résumé. Although his list of showbiz credits is not quite as long or varied, Tom Church is in fact an actor, and his prospects are indeed on the rise.

For six years Church occupied a healthy chunk of cathode-ray space in the guise of Lowell, the resident Dadaesque savant-philosopher (à la Taxi’s Reverend Jim or Seinfeld’s Kramer) on NBC’s genial ensemble sitcom Wings. Wings remains a going concern, a capable, highly traditional show that’s always a ratings hit despite not having megastars or media buzz. But this fall, 34-year-old Church left it all behind. Now, as a self-aggrandizing New York City ad executive who enters into a marriage of convenience to improve his career prospects, he is half the title and most of the bite on Ned and Stacey, which has been airing Monday nights on the Fox network as the second half of a comedy block (with Partners) that follows Melrose Place.

It sounds like a risky move, throwing over an established show, one that’s contracted to air on NBC for two more years, for an unproven entity with a thirteen-week commitment from the so-called Fourth Network. But Church’s contract was up, and he was tired of Lowell’s wacky observations and surreal comic gestures. He had been-there-done-that on more than a hundred episodes, and even when his character was involved in a story line, at the end of the day Wings was still a vehicle for three performers who weren’t Tom Church. “For the most part it was a part-time job,” he says. “ Wings delivered me to a place where I was a known commodity that Fox and Tri-Star [the studio producing Ned and Stacey] felt they could bank a series on. Now that gamble is paying off.”

This is true as far as it goes. During the pilot-development process, with its bevy of screenings, surveys, and focus groups, Church tested higher than any comic actor in the history of the Fox network (theoretically putting him ahead of, among others, Martin Lawrence, Jim Carrey, George Carlin, Sam Kinison, and Homer J. Simpson). And while Ned and Stacey can’t yet be classified as a hit, the show has been bumped up to a full season run of 22 episodes, having demonstrated those nebulous qualities that networks like to analyze and trumpet: the ability to keep a decent percentage of people from changing the channel after an established hit (in this case, Melrose), a viewership that makes up for in demographics what it lacks in numbers, the potential to do better when a mammoth competitor ( Monday Night Football) isn’t on, and least scientifically of all, that certain quotient of hipness, quality, and likability, as measured by critical acclaim in the right showbiz quarters.

The latter, at least, is there for Ned and Stacey in spades—or so Church will tell you. “The show has been well received by the critics who truly matter,” he says. “The L.A. Times loved it, the trades loved it, Entertainment Weekly loved it.” Time did too; in an essay arguing that TV is in a new “golden age,” Church was singled out as one of six new actors helping to make it so. No wonder he’s a happy guy, as brash and booming as the stentorian bass that is his signature acting tool. As far as he’s concerned, deciding to spread his, um, Wings and strike out on his own was long overdue. “It was hard to have to sit in the back of the bus for so long,” he says. “And now I’m driving the bus.”

Now, actually, Church is driving his green 1970 Ford Bronco: He has been talking about his show and his career while the old heap is springing and shaking and throttling amid the rocks and brush of what passes for road on nine hundred acres of ranchland just outside of Hunt. Though Ned and Stacey requires him to be in Los Angeles most of the time, Church comes back to Texas as often as he can, to the point that Fox publicists begrudgingly book him a Dallas or San Antonio layover whenever they send him on the road. On this day, he’s fresh from his first-ever appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman—it went well, except that everyone he knows seems to have missed it—and he has managed to put aside 24 hours to relax in the Hill Country. He spent the previous night carousing in Dallas’ Deep Ellum before making the 6-hour trip south, but if the exhaustion is evident in his craggy features and crinkle-lined eyes, there’s an eternally boyish vivacity in the lively jump of his pupils and the no-razor-needed peach fuzz that dusts his lower lip.

Clearly, his real passions remain rooted in Texas. Some actors are obsessed with the business of Hollywood and the arc of their careers, others with the nuance of artistry and craft; Church is definitely ambitious and dedicated to his work, but his true obsession is with the land. “People ask me, ‘Did you always want to be an actor?’ I say, ‘No, I’ve always wanted to be a rancher.’ Acting is going to get me there.” For the past three years, he says, he has been

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