Commentary: TV gig is just the actor's way of getting a tabloid-wary public to see his serious side

His new MSNBC show may seem like just another gig in the illustrious career of Alec Baldwin, but this one could be a step toward the role of a lifetime: politician.

When “Up Late with Alec Baldwin” premieres Friday at 10 p.m., it will provide a very different showcase for a left-leaning actor who has publicly and repeatedly made clear he harbors ambitions far from Hollywood.

But while he’s declared no such intentions in the lead-up to his latest incarnation as cable-news talking head, “Up Late” would provide the perfect vehicle to transition him to politics. It’s a variation on a career move more often employed within politics, which has seen everyone from Pat Buchanan to Eliot Spitzer use TV as a platform preceding a candidacy of some kind.

While celebrities going as far back as Ronald Reagan have made such mid-life switch without a stint at a network news division, Baldwin is best making such a pit stop. As beloved as he is, the actor needs a forum that can put some distance between the Twitter-era tabloid tempest he’s become and the man he needs to be.

Which is what makes “Up Late” such a brilliant move for MSNBC: Given Baldwin has proven himself to be constitutionally incapable of staying out of trouble for too long, his consistent controversies will provide free publicity for a program that people will tune into just to see if he explodes on air, too.

Baldwin simply can’t contain himself. Just last week he directed a torrent of barbed tweets at fellow MSNBC personality Joe Scarborough, only to delete them shortly afterward.

If MSNBC chief Phil Griffin thought Keith Olbermann was a handful, what will he think of Baldwin? In addition to their penchant for liberal viewpoints, Baldwin has something else in common with the ESPN anchor: a reputation for irascibility and ill-advised public comments that can give employers’ heartburn. Griffin may want to hold onto any leftover antacids or pain relievers used to get through the Olbermann era.

And it wasn’t too long ago the “30 Rock” star used Twitter to issue a string of homophobic insults to British reporter George Stark, who suggested his wife was tweeting while in attendance at the funeral of James Gandolfini. Baldwin later explained that calling the reporter a “queen” and suggesting he would enjoy his foot in his rectum were not intended to allude to his sexual orientation.

The actor is no stranger to this kind of controversy when you think back to everything from his verbal fisticuffs with flight attendants who suggest he put his smartphone away to a voicemail putdown directed at his own daughter.

Amazingly, Baldwin has deflected all of this with a Teflon touch. But were he in the thick of an election, it would be a whole different story. So what better way for Baldwin to cast himself in the mold of a politician than to surround himself with the real thing.

As recently as January 2012, Baldwin spoke at length with CNN’s Piers Morgan about his political ambitions, going as far as to size up the opportunities to run for various offices in his native New York in the coming years. He’s made similar statements going back years.

Maybe that’s all just delusional ramblings that are standard for the narcissism necessary to succeed in Hollywood. And maybe “Up Late” should be dismissed as just another side project for a guy who moonlights almost as much as champion dilettante James Franco. But don’t be surprised when Baldwin gives up his day once he sees an opening to higher office.

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