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.

December 1995By Comments

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 searching for his dream spread. In the meantime his home away from home is here, the longtime residence of his friends Bob and Danelle Bocock.

Bob Bocock likes to say his little swatch of Texas—with its indigenous wildlife and small herd of cattle, as well as a garden and a freshwater pond and a gorgeous stone house just yards from the Guadalupe River—is “somewhere between paradise and prison.” That’s because he has to work the place. For Church, it’s just paradise. He has hunted and camped and hiked and drunk and just tooled around the place so much that he could be a professional tour guide: Here’s where the state’s largest black rattler was captured, here’s where wild turkeys flock every night at sunset, here’s where he was attacked by a feral hog. Let him go on and he’ll tell you every biological fact there is to know about ferals; give him another minute and he’ll have moved on to weeds or deer overpopulation. “I’m the sitcom equivalent of Ted Nugent,” he jokes.

“I remember the first time my father ever took us to a ranch in Central Texas,” Church says. “It was in San Saba—I was probably eight years old—and I knew right away that I wanted to be a rancher in the Hill Country. It’s almost like a limbic brain recall: The things that I found enormously dreamlike and pleasurable when I was a kid I can now go back to. I could be happy as a tick chopping cedar and building fences and tending to sheep, or goats, or cattle, or whatever I was running on my ranch, and hunting, and having friends and family out, and letting them enjoy the land. This is really what I’m about.”

Church was born in El Paso, one of six children. His father, an officer in the Army who later worked for the Texas Department of Health, moved the family to Fort Worth and then to Laredo before settling in Harlingen by the time Tom was of high school age. Church’s main interests back then were pretty much par for the teen course: “I wanted to surf, chase girls, and go to Mexico.” He was able to afford to do those things thanks to the above-mentioned list of jobs, several of which he occupied during a year he spent not attending school. “I got fired from most of them for one reason or another,” he recalls. “A big part of the problem at that time was that I was a longhair and a surfer.” His steadiest work turned out to be in radio. Before he was eighteen he had put his bassy vocal chords to work at two stations, spinning records and doing weather, news, and commercial voice-overs. Still, old habits died hard; once a station temporarily canned him because he was constantly showing up for work wearing nothing but surf trunks.

Eventually, he did return to high school, where he found himself trying out for improvisational groups, mostly because a cute girl would be involved. “I still remember stuff we did back then that was absolutely hysterical,” he says. “We’d go to competitions and constantly get reprimanded for using bad language.” By the time he had made his way to North Texas State University, he still had a bit of an acting bug, but radio was his real calling. Though he initially supported himself with yet another assortment of jobs (mostly at Dallas’ Adolphus Hotel), Church was on his way to becoming a professional voice-over star, working for such clients as Red McCombs’ car dealerships and Miller Lite beer.

After keeping himself afloat that way for a good two years (even today, he is the voice of Icehouse beer), Church took a casting director’s advice and made his way to California, where “acting started off pretty damn quick for me—thank God.” His first role was in the Richard “Shaft” Roundtree-Elizabeth Ashley film, Stolen Moments, which he doesn’t even own a copy of. Later—shades of Baywatch!—he starred in an unrealized TV pilot called Protect and Surf, playing an undercover cop on the beach. His big break was a one-shot appearance on Cheers, which led to the role of Lowell (Wings was created by a group of Cheers veterans, the same ones who’ve since gone on to do Frasier). While Church is loath to be too closely identified with that character, at times he reveals a similar sort of strange but bone-dry sense of humor. Here’s Lowell on Wings, responding to the observation that three years is a long time: “Not if you’re a stone crab.” Here’s Church, parrying a ranch foreman’s anecdote about a particularly unusual deer: “What’s really rare is a deer that knows good jazz.”

“Tom, you’ve been spending too much time out on the West Coast,” the mystified foreman shoots back, but in fact Church’s brand of folksy absurdism is utterly Texan—a sort of blunt, stubbornly off-kilter Zen goofiness. Out on the Bocock ranch in late afternoon, a couple of bees draw near, and Church notes that the insects are attracted by strange fragrances that don’t occur in nature. “No cologne out here,” he says. “Oh sure, there’s the occasional flamboyant squirrel . . .”

As Ned Dorsey on Ned and Stacey, Church is equally droll but thoroughly Eastern, with an elegant wardrobe of three-piece suits and a streak of effete refinement epitomized by his knowledge of women’s fashions, horticulture, and the Renaissance. In a TV season full of bland nice-guy actors who seem as if they’d be boring acquaintances (to say nothing of Friends), Church brings a welcome edge to the sitcom universe. But even as he soaks up the challenge of stretching his comedic talents and carrying his own show, he’s already looking ahead. “Like 99.8 percent of the acting universe, I won’t be where I want to till I’ve done a lead in a successful feature film,” he says.

The closest Church has come so far has been Tombstone, which put him alongside an Oscar-worthy Val Kilmer and as marvelous an assortment of seedy character actors as there has ever been, including Bill Paxton, Sam Elliot, Stephen Lang, and Powers Boothe. Church’s part was trimmed in the editing room, but as he points out, “[Kevin] Costner was completely cut out of The Big Chill and he recovered. And the film business is very TV-actor-friendly right now, with the success of the Jim Carreys and the Tim Allens.” He pauses, as if to realize that he’s getting a little ahead of himself. “You know, I don’t know where I fit into that scheme. Right now I am responsible for carrying Ned and Stacey, and I gotta tell you, I think it’s going pretty damn good.”

Time will tell, but there’s little doubt that leaving Wings and signing on with Ned and Stacey was a can’t-lose proposition for Church. With Fox’s heavy promotional support and the validation of his Letterman show appearance, his visibility has increased along with his versatility. People are starting to know him by his name, instead of as “the guy who plays Lowell.” Besides, if Ned and Stacey fails, at least Church will have failed at a higher level; Hollywood is pretty generous with its forgiving second chances. In the short term, he’s obviously operating on a more lucrative plane—the top-billed star with a track record does bring home a little more each week than the unknown supporting player. And if the show is a big hit, who knows? Let’s just say high ratings and syndicated reruns could buy an awful lot of ranchland.

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