Nick Offerman doesn’t do despair.
The Emmy-worthy actor behind Ron "F----n' Swanson, the cult hero of NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation,” is a pillar of patience and resilience. Through the decade of bit TV and film parts before “Parks” exec producer Michael Schur brought him in to audition, or the months after that audition before his casting on the series was finalized, Offerman never let himself fret over his fate.
“I’ve always been blissfully ignorant to any fact other than I’m hilarious,” Offerman said over a Swanson-like biscuits and gravy in a lunchtime interview last week, “if someone would just see it and put me in the right thing.”
A perfect example of this came when “Parks” seemed to slip away from his grasp — not once, but twice.
“They were still trying to figure out what the parts would be,” Offerman recalled. “I originally read for a role that became Mark Brendanawicz, Paul Schneider’s part, and that went well. I had some fun chemistry reads with Rashida (Jones) — then sure enough, NBC looked at the tapes and said, ‘We said, “handsome.” ’ "
Behind the scenes, Schur and fellow exec producer Greg Daniels had an idea for the boss of Amy Poehler’s character on the show.
“The very day that I got called to say it’s over with the first role,” Offerman said, “a little while later, Greg called my manager: ‘But we have this other part.’ … In fact, I had just arrived at a Big 5 Sporting Goods store when I got the bad news, and on the way out of the store I got the good news that there was still hope — they were going to put my name on this boss character.”
And in between, as he walked through the aisles of the store thinking about the lost opportunity on a show he felt was perfect for him?
“I was chanting, ‘It’s okay, it’s all gonna work out.’ ”
Part of the reason for Offerman’s calmfidence, if you will, is the encouragement others gave him, from his wife Megan Mullally (“Will and Grace”) to a virtual stranger, Garry Shandling, whom Offerman and Mullally spontaneously struck up a conversation with on the beach one day.
“It was during ‘Will and Grace,’ so he and Megan knew of each other, but he for some reason was taken with me,” Offerman said. “And he sort of took me aside and said, ‘Are you in the business?’
Offerman replied, somewhat sheepishly, that he was, or at least was trying to be.
“He said ‘Stick around, you’ve got something.’ I’d literally just met him. But I had instances like this, where I was like, 'Shandling sees it.' ”
Offerman also credits casting director Allison Jones, whom he said “championed him” for more than a decade.
He had no shortage of auditions to buoy his spirits, successful and otherwise. Some of his most memorable auditions are for parts he didn’t get on “The Office” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
“I actually did get the part on ‘The Office’ (one time) and I couldn’t do it, through a strange twist of fate,” he said. “I was committed to do an episode of ‘CSI: NY’ which at the time I was ready to slit my wrists over, but it turned out okay.
“I auditioned for ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ I think four times, and those are so fun, because the audition is always improvising with Larry (David), and sometimes with Jeff (Garlin) or with Cheryl (Hines) depending on the scene, so it’s an opportunity I would pay to do – it’s like going to school. And we always had a really good time. I never got a part on that show, but I could always tell they really liked me and thought highly of me, and same with Greg and Mike.”
But if anything kept Offerman’s spirits steady as he waited for his big break, it was his woodshop — the same woodshop that inspired the transformative moment on “Parks and Recreation” when viewers learned Ron Swanson could create a small harp from scratch after drinking six glasses of whiskey, “using a bandsaw, a spokeshave and an oscillating spindle sander.”
Offerman’s birth as a professional actor had come in the Chicago theater world, where he would also build scenery. He struggled to navigate the L.A. theater scene for the same kind of jobs, but ended up finding an alternative.
“Thankfully, I recognized that to keep myself sane and afloat, I would have to start working with my tools, and fortunately, I was able to find (work),” Offerman said. “It’s a great town for people wanting custom-commissioned work of all sorts, so I started building decks and cabins in peoples’ yards, and I got really into post and beam construction, which then immediately segued into Old World furniture joinery, just a smaller version of the same joinery. And suddenly I was getting all these commissions for Shaker pieces and Mission-style tables.
“And as I was doing it as an outlet (for) income, I sort of tricked myself into becoming a much more Zen person. Instead of sitting around waiting for my agent to call, I was building stuff with my hands.”
It was also pretty much in Offerman’s DNA and upbringing to weather any longterm struggle and find the upside, thanks to a father and grandfather who grew up on farms.
“I think there’s something in the farmer’s mentality,” Offerman said. “There’s sort of a grim sense of humor, because at any moment, your entire livelihood could be wiped out by any number of natural plagues – locusts or droughts or whatever, (or) just mold. ‘There’s some new form of mold, our entire crib full of corn is garbage, our entire year’s labor is down the drain, so we’ll be eating shoe leather this winter.’ And that sort of grim existence lends itself to a really curmudgeonly sense of humor.
“You’re either getting by, or the bank is about to take your tractor. … I really enjoy humor that is that hard-won.”
That’s how Offerman earned the last laugh. For five months after the “Parks” peeps expressed interest in Offerman, NBC considered seemingly every other possibility for a part it’s now impossible to imagine anyone else playing. While anyone else would have been on pins and needles, Offerman kept a Swanson-like cool.
“And so finally, at the end of the five months, after they had exhausted all these possibilities, they only tested me,” Offerman said. “It was just so incredibly dramatic for me. Amy came to town, she had had her baby, and I came in and improvised with her and taped with her, and I got the job.
“And then I cried like a baby for three days.”