When “Parks and Recreation” signs off on NBC on Tuesday night, fans will say goodbye to the colorful residents of Pawnee. But there won’t be a need to bid farewell to the actors who played the characters they grew to love.
Even though “Parks” never emerged from Nielsen’s ratings cellar or garnered the industry awards it richly deserved, its exceptional ensemble has nonetheless made a huge mark in Hollywood. What launched as a star vehicle for Emmy-nominated “Saturday Night Live” veteran Amy Poehler quickly became a showcase for breakout talent Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Scott, Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari and Rashida Jones.
“We collected a group of people at a really important time,” Poehler says. “I am the least surprised at how fancy and famous everyone is and has become. I felt that way about them and their talent since day one.”
From movies to standup to publishing, the cast of “Parks” is everywhere now — something that doesn’t always happen, even for the most popular smallscreen fare. “Parks” co-creator Mike Schur says he can’t take credit for discovering the talent, singling out casting directors Allison Jones and Nancy Perkins.
“The person who changed everything for me was Allison Jones, and I think a lot of actors can say the same,” says Plaza, who points to Jones as the common link between “Parks” and her roles in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” and Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” all three of which she booked in the same week.
The thesps took different routes to the show — Pratt, for example, was a favorite of Jones and Perkins but also got a boost from Schur’s wife, TV scribe J.J. Philbin, who wrote for his guest stint on “The O.C.” But Schur says he felt the same responsibility to all of them, once it was clear the show would stick around: “After season two started, my anxiety switched to feeling, ‘When the show ends, I want everyone’s career to be better than it was when they got here.’ That became the goal: I wanted everyone to feel doing the show was a positive force in his or her life.”
Judging by what the “Parks” crew has coming up: mission accomplished. Scott and Offerman have two films apiece at this year’s Sundance fest, while Offerman also completed a role in Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” and Scott co-stars with Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch in fall’s Whitey Bolger biopic “Black Mass.”
Plaza is working steadily in indie films — including Hal Hartley’s 2014 Toronto fest premiere “Ned Rifle,” due for release this year — and starts “Dirty Grandpa” with Robert De Niro this month. Ansari’s standup tour “Modern Romance” sold out two nights at Madison Square Garden, was filmed for a Netflix special and inspired a book of the same title due in June.
Rashida Jones (who departed the show last season) is co-writing “Toy Story 4” and top lining the Steve Carell-produced TBS comedy “Angie Tribeca.” And Pratt headlines Marvel’s hottest new franchise, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and stars in summer tentpole “Jurassic World.”
For Offerman, who recalls getting close to numerous series regular gigs before someone would invariably conclude he wasn’t the “safe choice,” the impact of “Parks” on his career has been almost unquantifiable. “It’s a difference one might liken to say the difference between night and day,” he says. “I was in my late 30s when I got the job, so I had been working professionally for about 15 years. People kept telling me, ‘Stick around, if you get the right thing you might do some good.’”
The right thing clearly came along in the role of plainspoken, bacon-loving Libertarian Ron Swanson, who quickly became one of the show’s most beloved characters. Schur, who originally wanted Offerman to guest on “The Office,” says the thesp’s bad luck turned into the show’s good fortune: “The feeling I had about Nick Offerman honestly was like, ‘This 1 million dollar bill has just been laying on the ground in plain sight for years and no one’s picked it up? I’ll pick it up. This guy’s amazing.’”
In Plaza’s case, working on “Parks” provided a platform and a stability to pursue her passion for offbeat indies. “Being able to keep going for seven seasons as an actor, that’s such a gift to [go] off experimenting and doing artistic things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do because you didn’t have a steady job.”
Not that anyone overshadowed Poehler, who collected seven Emmy noms for the series, including one for writing. As NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt says, “Everyone knew Amy was a gifted comedian from ‘SNL,’ but ‘Parks and Rec’ quickly demonstrated that she’s also an incredible actor, writer and producer.”
Poehler serves as executive producer on three current skeins: NBC’s summer comedy “Welcome to Sweden,” Comedy Central’s “Broad City” and Hulu’s upcoming “Difficult People” (starring recurring “Parks” player Billy Eichner). Later this year she’ll be seen in the comedy feature “Sisters” opposite longtime pal Tina Fey and heard in Pixar’s “Inside Out.”
Watching colleagues move on is a bittersweet experience for the cast, but Pratt believes they’ll remain united by their time together. “This is what we signed up for. It’s the circus,” Pratt says. “We knew going into this we were joining show business, and that’s part of it. Eventually we’ll circle back around and have a few memories and laugh about the secrets that we kept.”