An Eye For The Dramatic
A veteran of the Broadway stage as well as the big and small screens, versatile Tufts graduate Peter Gallagher has entertained millions.
In a recent episode of Fox’s hit show "The O.C.," 1977 Tufts graduate Peter Gallagher - playing patriarch Sandy Cohen - belts out a rousing rendition of soul giant Solomon Burke’s "Don’t Give Up on Me." The veteran performer - who has made a name for himself on Broadway and the big and small screens - handled the challenging song and scene with ease. But Gallagher’s forays into the spotlight haven’t always been so successful - or so voluntary.
"I never even sang in public until my music teacher - after I had been misbehaving in some manner in the classroom - tried to humiliate me by having me stand up and sing a song that we had been working on - all by myself," says Gallagher, who grew up in Armonk, New York.
"With great determination," he continues, chuckling, "I decided I wouldn’t be humiliated and that I would stand up and give it my best shot."
Which is exactly what he did. And though "it came out not half-bad," Gallagher’s best shot just didn’t cut it: "I was the only one in the class not asked to be in the show," he remembers with amusement.
These days, Gallagher has a lot less trouble getting parts. In addition to his roles on "The O.C." and in Broadway shows such as "Grease" and "Guys and Dolls," Gallagher has appeared in critically acclaimed movies like Robert Altman’s "Short Cuts," Sam Mendes’ "American Beauty," and Steven Soderbergh’s "Sex, Lies and Videotape."
Gallagher’s resume reflects his fondness for working in film ("You can explore subjects and do things that are less limited than television"), television ("It reaches so many people, it’s unbelievable! I think there are more people that’ve seen ‘The O.C.’ than have seen all the movies I’ve ever done combined"), and his "first love," theater ("There are moments when things really work, and there’s a palpable sense of community - a shared experience is created, and you feel very much connected to a good thing").
"I love ‘em all, and the fact that I can move between all those worlds really enriches the whole experience," he says. "That makes it a little difficult sometimes, because people don’t quite know what to think of me - whether I’m the Broadway guy, or the movie guy, or the TV guy. That’s a problem!"
Given his success in all of those realms, it’s surprising to think that Gallagher - who majored in economics at Tufts while taking vocal classes at the New England Conservatory, singing with campus a capella group the Beezlebubs, and performing in theater productions both on- and off-campus - never actually considered show business as a viable career path until the summer after his junior year.
"I never gave myself the freedom to dare dream so big, because I had never heard of anybody succeeding at it - it just seemed like, you know, ‘Would you like to grow up to be an elephant?’" Gallagher says. "It just wasn’t even in the cards until I was really faced with what life would be like with and without."
While taking economics classes at UC Berkeley the summer before his senior year, Gallagher realized a life without theater was not for him.
"I took the summer off from theater and went to Berkeley to get some extra credits so that I could graduate early, and studied non-Western economic thought and statistics - that just cemented for me the fact that I just had absolutely no aptitude for economics," Gallagher laughs. "But concurrently with those courses I was taking, they were offering a Shakespeare on Film series, and I watched all the great Shakespeare film performances, from Olivier and Gielgud to Richardson and Scofield."
It was then, Gallagher says, that made his decision. "I resolved I was going to try to become an actor - give it seven years, and then if I couldn’t make a living, I’d think about it again."
Gallagher credits his time at Tufts with helping him gather the experience and training necessary to meet his seven-year deadline.
"There was a certain kind of freedom that Tufts offered in terms of what you could get credit for, where you could live, and what you could do," he says. "The freedom that was afforded to us in making choices - especially non-obvious choices - was really beneficial to me. I lived off-campus in Boston for a while, and I was allowed to work with the Boston Shakespeare Company, which was terrific."
Gallagher also performed in many shows for Torn Ticket II, Tufts’ musical theater group.
"We did the first production of ‘Follies,’ the Sondheim musical, after the original Broadway show," Gallagher says. "And we got a letter from [director/producer] Hal Prince and [composer/lyricist] Steven Sondheim that said, ‘Hope you guys have more luck than we did - we lost $4 million dollars on this show!’"
"Follies" was far more successful for Gallagher in personal terms than it was for Prince and Sondheim in financial ones: "I met my wife [producer and fellow Tufts graduate Paula Harwood] there, first week of freshman year. She was one of the showgirls in ‘Follies,’" he says. "We’re still married; it’ll be 22 years in May."
Gallagher counts meeting his wife as among his most "formative" experiences at Tufts. ("In fact, we formed two kids together," he jokes.) But his wife wasn’t the only influential person Gallagher met during his Tufts career: "I took an acting class that Tommy Thompson taught at the Balch Arena Theatre," Gallagher says. "He was terrific; he really opened my eyes.
"We were supposed to act out a poem, and I thought I’d look for a little lowbrow humor," Gallagher reminisces. "So I had this ridiculous poem: ‘I’m so lonesome in the saddle since my horse died.’ I thought, ‘This will be for the class’s amusement - won’t that be funny?’ But he urged me to take it very seriously, and before I knew it, it seemed to be a very emotional poem, and I thought, ‘Wow, there really is something to this!’"
Thompson, Gallagher says, "urged me, forced me, coerced me, into taking my own work very seriously." But there’s a difference, he feels, between taking things seriously - and taking them too seriously.
"We were supposed to act out a poem, and I thought I’d look for a little lowbrow humor," Gallagher recalls, describing a theater class he took at Tufts taught by Tommy Thompson. "So I had this ridiculous poem: ‘I’m so lonesome in the saddle since my horse died.’ I thought, ‘This will be for the class’s amusement - won’t that be funny?’ But he urged me to take it very seriously, and before I knew it, it seemed to be a very emotional poem, and I thought, ‘Wow, there really is something to this!’"
"I had always wondered why, in hour-long television dramas, there was no humor," he says. "I always saw the leading guy with a furrowed brow oozing what I call ‘seriousity,’ which is the appearance of seriousness with no actual content - a guy being just hopelessly complex and beyond reach. I’ve never known any guys like that, at least that succeed in life."
Gallagher feels that humor is a valuable and essential component of the human condition, even - and perhaps especially - in times of crisis.
"The last Broadway show I did was ‘Noises Off,’ and we started rehearsal the day before 9/11," he says. "We opened for previews on October 16. There was still anthrax in the air, people didn’t know whether there would be a Broadway or not, and much to my delight and surprise, people filled the theater that first night and every night since. Rather than shunning the supposed safety of their homes, they chose to go out and be together.
"And at that point," he continues, "I realized that, far from becoming irrelevant in this day and age, it’s in moments like this, in crises like this, that the power and the grandeur of theater really makes itself known. There’s nothing older [than] storytelling - sitting by the fire, experiencing a shared event and that feeling of not being alone."
That belief in the power of storytelling - as well as the show’s sense of humor and commitment to family - were all parts of what drew Gallagher to "The O.C."
"When I read this show, I was delighted to see humor; I was delighted to see that it was about a family; that there were no bodies washing on shore or anything," he says. "And it appeared to me that it was a show that might really find a place in an America that had great anxiety about the future."
Making such a connection with a script, Gallagher says, is "really a thrilling thing."
"I had that experience with ‘Sex, Lies, and Videotape’ - I read it and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is brilliant, unless this guy has no sense of humor, in which case this is the worst script ever written,’" Gallagher says. "The first question I asked Steve [Soderbergh] was, ‘How do you see this?’ And he said, ‘I see it as a black comedy,’ and I said, ‘OK, I’m in!’
"I felt very much like that with the ‘O.C.’ script," he adds. "Not that I ever thought it would actually take off, because most of the time you’re wrong about things being successful, but every once in a while it works.
"Success is a rare, rare, rare, rare thing, and 99.9 percent of the time, anyone who tells you why something’s successful will be wrong," Gallagher elaborates. "It’s a confluence of so many events and dynamics...you can [dissect it], but it takes years and years, and bits of good fortune.
"Otherwise, there would be people or networks or studios or directors that would just always be successful with things, and that’s not the case - it’s maddeningly difficult!" Gallagher says, adding that that difficulty "is also what gives everyone reason to show up, because no one really has the answers."
Himself included, both in entertainment and in his family life.
"Last year, I commuted from California to New York all year while I was filming the first season of the show," Gallagher says. "And this year, much to their chagrin, I moved my family from New York City to California. I said to my kids, ‘Now you know how you’ll start your first conversation with your therapist. You can say, "It was all my father’s fault!"’"
Kidding aside, Gallagher is someone who takes parenting very seriously.
"When you become a parent, what’s most astounding is the extent to which you realize that your well-being is completely dependent upon theirs for the rest of your life," Gallagher adds of his two children.
Similarly, Gallagher says that the "magic" of his work is the result of a "deeply rewarding" team effort.
"That’s a thing I like about all the various media, the sort of family aspect; the group or team effort involved in making things happen," Gallagher says. "It’s very exciting to show up in a place and set up the equipment, figure out what’s wrong with a scene and fix it, figure out a way around it, and then, if you’re lucky, experience that extraordinary feeling of something working."
And a big step toward experiencing that feeling? It’s as simple, Gallagher says, as showing up.
"If you don’t show up, nothing’s gonna happen," he says. "If you do show up, it might not be what you expect, but chances are it’ll lead you exactly where you need to be."
Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006
This story originally ran on March 28, 2005