Familiar legal figure appears in new movie

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 By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News
 
Grosse Pointe Woods native J.K. Simmons has appeared in all six feature films directed by Jason Reitman, including the upcoming “Men, Women & Children.”

“He refers to me sometimes as his muse. The only film of his that I did not appear on screen in was ‘Young Adult,’ but my voice is in that movie as the guy on the other end of a phone call with Charlize (Theron). He didn’t have a part for me to do in that movie, but he just wanted to keep our streak intact because I’m kinda a good luck charm for him,” said Simmons, 59, of Los Angeles.

In “Men, Women & Children” – which opened in limited release on October 10, and wide release on Friday, Oct. 17 – a group of high school students and their parents attempt to navigate the myriad of ways the Internet – especially social media – has changed people’s relationships, communication, self-image, and love lives. In addition to Simmons, the cast also includes Jennifer Garner (TV’s “Alias”), Livonia native Judy Greer (“The Village”), Dean (“Dead Again”).

“(Jason’s) the whole package. He grew up hanging onto his daddy’s (Ivan Reitman, who directed “Ghostbusters”) knee on film sets and knows the business inside and out – every aspect of it. And the fact – more often than not – he’s directing his own scripts with the exception of Diablo Cody (who wrote “Juno,” which Reitman directed). He’s absolutely a brilliant guy at every aspect of filmmaking,” said Simmons.

Earlier this year, Simmons – best known for his roles as hard-nosed newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson in Royal Oak native Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy and Assistant Police Chief Will Pope on “The Closer” – starred as Mel Fisher on the short-lived NBC sitcom “Growing Up Fisher.” His character was a tree-chopping, blind attorney who passed himself off as sighted.  

Simmons almost didn’t accept this role, but his agent convinced him to read the script.

“I read it and talked to (series creator) D.J. Nash,” he said. “He told me it was based on his dad and his life growing up. Everything we did in the pilot was based on things his dad had actually done. The fact that it was so well-written… it was sitcom meets memoir almost. It was like a love letter from D.J. to his dad. By the way, I met his dad. His name’s actually Mel; he’s 80 and he’s an amazing guy.” 

However, despite critical acclaim and positive feedback from the blind community, Fisher was cancelled after one season, much to Simmons’ disappointment.

“It was a pleasure, and I’ll miss those people and that character, although I won’t miss the 60-hour weeks,” he said. “I’ve learned not to take anything for granted because you never know when, how, or why the people who make the decisions will decide it’s over.”

Simmons graduated from the University of Montana in 1978 with an undergraduate degree in music. He got his start doing musicals on Broadway before breaking into film and TV.

“I’d done five years straight on Broadway – which was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for a theater actor – but I was getting itchy doing the same thing eight times a week. (Fellow theater actors) also did film and TV: John Slattery, Mark Linn-Baker, Nathan Lane. They introduced me to the concept of residual checks from TV jobs, which looked like a pretty fun idea,” recalled Simmons.
“You shoot the film or the TV series, you get paid. Six months later, somebody airs it somewhere else or it’s been syndicated, and you get a check for $120 in the mail. We call it getting paid for walking to the mailbox. It sounded like a pretty nice idea to me and to just have a little more variety in my work not doing same the play eight times a week, 52 weeks a year.”

He appeared as Col. Alexander Rausch, a fanatical nut-case, on the first crossover between “Law & Order” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” 

“I played a bad guy who technically only appeared on ‘Homicide,’ then [Jerry Orbach and Benjamin Bratt’s characters on ‘L&O’] went back and forth between New York and Baltimore. I was the head bad guy on the Baltimore end of the case; they were trying to extradite me to New York and I ended up killing myself so I couldn’t be prosecuted. I never appeared on ‘L&O’ (as Rausch),” he explained. 
However, he did have another role as police psychiatrist Dr. Emil Skoda on “L&O.” In fact, he was one of a select few actors who played Skoda on three other “L&O” spin-off series: “New York Undercover,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” 

“I’d done a couple episodes of ‘SVU.’ I honestly preferred the original show for a lot of reasons,” said Simmons. “The last time I got to play Dr. Skoda was the very last episode of the original ‘L&O’ (in 2010) – when (actors) Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson were the two cops.”

Simmons’ breakout role was playing Neo-Nazi Vernon Schillinger on the prison drama “Oz” from 1997-2003.

“Once ‘Oz’ started airing, my agent’s phone started ringing off the hook because everyone wanted me to play the Nazi of the week on some TV show. I knew enough that I didn’t want my career playing that guy all the time, so I turned down a lot of jobs. A few months later, ‘L&O’ (creator Dick Wolf) asked me to play the shrink, which was not a series regular but a recurring part. To me, that was just a stroke of luck. Right after ‘Oz’ started airing, people saw me as this psycho Nazi guy; a few months later, they saw me as a psychiatrist. That really helped balance the way I was perceived by people who were casting things, so I was able to avoid being typecast,” he said. “Part of the joy of doing theater all those years was every time I went out of town for a musical, I’d go back to New York and audition for a Shakespeare play or a drama. I liked doing something different than whatever I just got done doing. I wanted to continue that in my TV and film career.”

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