Emmy performers: ‘Wing’ing it

Despite frantic schedules, Whitford, Kaczmarek do their best to put family first

Don’t let the screaming mom routine fool you: Jane Kaczmarek would cross Wilshire Boulevard blindfolded if it meant a better future for her kids. And Bradley Whitford will gladly stop fighting big tobacco in order to tuck his children into bed at night.

So as much as Whitford and Kaczmarek — husband and wife for nearly 10 years — are grateful to find themselves on two of TV’s hottest shows, NBC’s drama “The West Wing” and Fox’s laffer “Malcolm in the Middle,” respectively, they’ll never equate the satisfaction of Nielsens, awards and magazine covers with that of parenting.

“I look at everything different now as a mother,” says Kaczmarek, who with Whitford has two small children, ages 1-1/2 and 3-1/2. “It’s all heartbreaking now with kids. The horrors and joys of life with children make you so dilated as an actress, it feeds into everything.”

Though they both grew up in Wisconsin, Whitford, 41, and Kaczmarek, 45, met in 1989 while they were living in New York. By that time, each of their careers were well established, including impressive college educations. After graduating from the U. of Wisconsin, Kaczmarek attended Yale and performed in the school’s repertory company. Whitford went on to Juilliard after graduating Wesleyan.

They were introduced by Kaczmarek’s good friend and Yale roommate Kate Burton, who also knew something about acting — with her dad, Richard, offering advice. Kaczmarek and Whitford laugh about it, recalling age-old advice that it’s best not to date other actors, but now, with both of their careers booming, it seems a perfect fit.

“I can’t imagine anyone who would understand the chaos and irrational high and lows that we go through,” says Whitford. “If you’re lucky enough, as we are, to work a lot, it doubles that chaos but at least the other person knows what’s going on.”

Kaczmarek first made national attention as one of John Houseman’s Harvard Law students in the 1978 series “The Paper Chase.” After that, she would go on to appear in other highly acclaimed series, such as “St. Elsewhere” and then a recurring role as Officer Clara Tilsky on “Hill Street Blues.”

Up until “West Wing,” Whitford was working steadily, both onstage, film and TV but nothing seemed to stick. Then he developed a friendship with Aaron Sorkin on the Broadway production of “A Few Good Men.” When Sorkin began casting “West Wing,” he had Whitford in mind for the role of Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman.

Having children was always a priority for the couple, but Kaczmarek was having a difficult time becoming pregnant and having already reached 40 didn’t make things any easier. She passed on a couple of projects and was more than willing to put acting aside for the time being in order to concentrate on conceiving.

“But it wasn’t like Jane was getting inundated with huge offers,” Whitford recalls. “It was getting bleak. Professionally, I was doing the same yuppie scum and Jane was going through the humiliation of being an actress in her early 40s, late 30s. She would go out for pilots and they would tell her she’s not funny.”

“The great thing was, finally, a fertility doctor said, ‘Are you under stress?’ because they couldn’t figure out what was wrong,” Kaczmarek adds. “I said, ‘I’m an actress in my 40s during pilot season!’ He asked if I would consider taking a year off and I remember saying to have someone suggest that is just wonderful.

“I called my agents and told them not send me on auditions for a year and I enrolled at UCLA in all sorts of classes that I had an interest in, including classical music. My life became so rewarding studying those things. Then I got pregnant and thought I was never going back to acting.”

Whitford certainly related to his wife’s plight and understood the underlying reasons why she wanted out of the business.

“What happens with good actresses in their late 30s is the window for women is so narrow,” he says. “There’s always a wide range of male roles but just a few female roles. As the business gets cruel, they start to say that they don’t want to act anymore but they don’t mean it. What they mean is they don’t want to get hurt anymore, which Jane went through. She would say, ‘I never want to do this again. I hate this.’ She did want to do it, though, she just didn’t want to be rejected. Then she, honestly, really didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Which, in pure Hollywood irony, is when “Malcolm in the Middle” came along.

Though she was blissfully content staying at home and playing real-life mom, and would soon become pregnant again, Kaczmarek read the pilot script and debated whether to audition for the role of Lois.

“The major reasons for her taking the role, I swear, were, A, it probably wasn’t going to go and, B, how big could the part be? It’s the mom on a kids show,” he says, laughing about it now.

“I thought I’d work one day a week driving the kids to soccer practice,” Kaczmarek rationalized. “Part of the reason I don’t get jobs like this is I walk into a room and I’m kind of over the top. I can get really big, which is strictly from theater. So I came in and basically did a theater audition that usually has TV people going, ‘Get her out of the room.’ This time, though, it was exactly what they were looking for.”

Just as Kaczmarek was auditioning for “Malcolm,” Whitford was preparing for his foray into the world of primetime presidential politics.

“I was doing the pilot of ‘West Wing’ and she did the pilot of ‘Malcolm’ and I remember asking her, ‘You’re gonna do what? You’re gonna take a job? I thought you didn’t want to take a job?’ It was a confusing transition but she kept saying it wasn’t going to go and she’d only be working one or two days a week.”

One or two days a week turned into a full-time gig as “Malcolm” wowed both critics and audiences when it debuted as a midseason replacement on Fox and last year Kaczmarek was nominated for a best actress Emmy.

This fall was when the reality of having two working parents, on two successful shows, hit home … literally. There is a nanny to help out with the kids but Kaczmarek and Whitford make sure to be at home as much as their schedules permit. And when it doesn’t, the kids often head over to the lot to be with mom.

“Brad tends to work from the middle of the day until very late at night and I tend to work early in the morning until the middle of the day,” Kaczmarek says. “I’m usually home by 5 or 6 for dinner. The kids on ‘Malcolm’ can only work a limited day so the big concern on the set is to get the kids out.”

Whitford realizes it’s difficult to be cast in a such a prestigious show as “West Wing,” and not having to make other sacrifices, like not being home more often, but, for right now, he’s willing to accept it. But he knows where his priorities are.

“Jane and I come from different worlds but the thing we have in common is that we’re both Midwestern extroverts who want to have a strong family, and that’s the most important thing. More important than getting on a magazine cover or having a hit show. You won’t be lying on your deathbed wishing you had a hit show.”

The kids rarely watch television at home, preferring to pop in the latest Disney or “Sesame Street” tape now and then. Mom and dad, though, do watch each other’s series and have distinct opinions about letting their children become actors.

“We both feel, in terms of them expressing an interest, that acting engaged us around sixth grade and is a way we experienced our education and growing up in the world,” Whitford says. “It was wonderful and something I would wish for every child. Putting on a play and getting a piece of literature in your bones, working together and gaining confidence and joy that goes with that is the most wonderful thing in the world.

“The business is the worst thing in the world. I would give my daughter a crack pipe before I’d let her do any professional work before she got out of college.”

Casting directors, take note: Two working actors in this family is more than enough.