Nelson, O'Neill shine as sixty-somethings in meaty roles

Among the highlights of this television season has been the return to fine form of two sitcom stars of a half-generation ago: Ed O’Neill and Craig T. Nelson.

Primetime network television is not usually an hospitable place for sixty-something actors, male or female. O’Neill and Nelson defied the demographic dogma by landing meaty roles on well-written shows that allowed them to shine. The odds are long for any actor in a new series, but ABC’s “Modern Family” was a winner out of the gate for O’Neill, and NBC’s “Parenthood” came through in the midseason stretch for Nelson.

Most noteworthy about O’Neill and Nelson’s characters is the absence of any geezer cliches. They’re not trotted out in the final minutes to deliver a homily or a crude punch line. O’Neill’s Jay Pritchett and Nelson’s Zeek Braverman are finely drawn, earthy characters grappling with emotional, physical and social issues that vex men of a certain age. They have sex lives, money problems, prejudices and they openly struggle with aspects of a fast-changing world. They make mistakes, dispense bad advice and are impatient and irrational on their best days. Robert Montgomery, they’re not — thank goodness.

The complexity and originality of these characters are a testament to the writers of “Modern Family” and “Parenthood,” of course, but showrunners know all too well that words on the page are only as good as the delivery. And frankly, experience counts. O’Neill became a household face as the uncouth Ed Bundy from 1987-1997 on Fox’s “Married … With Children.” Nelson’s “Coach” was a mainstay on ABC’s air from 1989-1997. And both thesps have never stopped working in the intervening years, in a variety of roles that underscore the versatility they employ in their new gigs.

Nelson had a four-season run in CBS’ drama “The District” from 2000-2004. O’Neill also went the dramatic route after “Married” with short-lived dramas “Big Apple,” “L.A. Dragnet” and the bizarro “John From Cincinnati.” But nothing in recent years has connected for either thesp on the same level as “Modern Family” and “Parenthood,” which were easy renewal decisions for their respective nets.

“You watch (O’Neill) on set and sometimes you think he’s just saying the words, that’s how effortless it looks — but then you watch that scene in editing and you discover a complex and subtle performance you often didn’t even know was there,” says Steve Levitan, co-creator and exec producer of “Modern Family.”

O’Neill’s Pritchett is rooted in the contempo archetype of the affluent husband and father whose midlife tsuris leads him to divorce and to take a younger, trophy wife. But “Modern Family’s” variation on this familiar theme — she’s Gloria, a fiery Colombian bombshell who genuinely loves him; he wants her to bond with his adult children — and the talents of O’Neill and co-star Sofia Vergara keep Jay and Gloria from descending into caricature.

Nelson has bravely infused “Parenthood’s” patriarch with great emotional conflict and depth (“I’m a Vietnam veteran with rage issues,” he says to introduce himself to an unsavory suitor of his granddaughter) in a short amount of time. Series exec producer Jason Katims deliberately kept Zeek’s backstory a little mysterious until about the fifth episode, to build the drama for the revelations that he’s in deep financial trouble and that he’s been cheating on his wife for years.

“There’s a lot of him that I don’t particularly care for, but overall I love his roughness,” Nelson says. “And I like the fact that Jason and the writers are willing to take risks with this guy.”

“Parenthood” is striving for what may be the toughest assignment on TV — a slices-of-family-life drama with no franchise element (cops, docs, lawyers, etc.) to drive the storylines. Like “Modern Family,” “Parenthood” demands authenticity and range from its large ensemble. Nelson can’t say enough about the strengths of co-stars across the board.

“I’ve been around a long time, and honestly I’ve never been this impressed” with a cast, Nelson says. “When I heard this pilot (at a table) read for the first time, I felt that if this thing didn’t go, then all of my instincts about TV were wrong. Because it just felt like something people would want to see.”

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