'Practice's' Hinks a study in creepiness

Perhaps Michael Emerson should have known he was destined to play a role like serial killer William Hinks on “The Practice,” considering it was while watching a performance of the play “Arsenic and Old Lace” that he was bitten by the acting bug.

“I was drawn to the crazy younger brother (the nephew of the murderous spinsters) who thought he was Teddy Roosevelt and kept running upstairs thinking he was charging up San Juan Hill,” Emerson says. “That sure looked like a fun thing to do.”

Emerson got to have fun playing the diabolical Hinks after “Practice” casting directors saw his starring turn in the Mark Taper Forum production of “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.”

Though the role of Hinks was written with the idea of landing a bigger-name actor — Dustin Hoffman was briefly interested — Emerson, whose TV resume includes the pilot of “Encore, Encore” (“I was a snotty opera fan”) and “Stark Raving Mad,” (“I was a smart-ass doorman”) won the job.

“It was never my goal as an actor to be frightening, and maybe that’s why Hinks was so frightening,” says Emerson of his chilling portrayal. “You don’t try to play at a villain’s villainy, you try to set up a world where their actions make perfect sense to them.”

What was supposed to have been a quick guest shot became two, three, four episodes — and two more in voiceover after Hinks himself had been the victim of a grisly murder.

“I thought I was going out to L.A. for 10 days,” says the New York-based actor. “It wound up being two months.”

Ultimately, considering “Practice’s” recent success with guest actor nominations at the Emmys — the show gained three of the five nominations in last year’s category, including one for winner James Whitmore — his time as Hinks may serve Emerson’s career better than his wry assessment of the part.

“Of course,” he says, “it doesn’t lead to anything but more roles as psychotic killers.”

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