Hollywood has plenty of people who flash and fade, sizzle and fizzle.
And it has Tim Busfield, 62, who seems eternal. “I’ve done killer-cat movies and ‘Field of Dreams,’” he said. “Good shows and bad shows.”
He’s directed, produced and, mostly, acted. His new “For Life” role is part of a far-ranging career that has gone from “Thirtysomething” (shown here) to silliness.
Busfield has had goofy roles – he played the nerdiest of the “Revenge of the Nerds” guys – and has worked for dead-serious people: Aaron Sorkin, Steven Bochco, Robert Redford, Phil Alden Robinson.
Yes, he starred in a killer-cats movie. And a killer-trucks movie. And a killer-pacemaker movie. But he also did “Thirtysomething” – winning an Emmy and three more nominations – and “West Wing.”
And now comes his jet-set season. After doing six “Almost Family” episodes, Busfield is working on “For Life” in New York … and will do the pilot of a “Thirtysomething” sequel in Vancouver. “I’ll be spending a lot of time on planes,” he said.
That sequel is a surprise. Producers “were approached many, many times about bringing the show back,” said Karey Burke, the president of ABC Entertainment. “They always declined.”
Then came the new notion: The original started 32 years ago; now the kids of two couples (Ken Olin and Mel Harris, Busfield and Patricia Wettig) are thirtysomethings themselves. The sequel is “writing to the huge sea change in just that generation,” Burke said.
So Busfield will have a supporting role there … and in “For Life,” where he’s Henry Roswell, a politician who lost his law license and his reputation. “Much of the series is dealing with desperation,” he said. “(He’s) decided that service will probably be his only way to kind of redeem himself.”
That’s a contrast to the show’s central character, Aaron Wallace, an inmate who got his law license and tries to free himself and others. Wallace has a quiet nobility; Roswell doesn’t.
“We wanted to create a damaged character,” said series creator Hank Steinberg. “He’s an alcoholic. He’s kind of ruined his life.”
Those are emotions Busfield has known close-up. His late mother faced frequent troubles with alcohol, he said; “she was hospitalized 20 times.” A couple years ago, he quit drinking. “All the bad moments in my life were when I was drinking.”
Some people react to family trouble by withdrawing; young Busfield was the opposite. On his own a lot in East Lansing, Mich., he ended up seeing the same James Bond movie in the same theater 12-and-a-half times; the half was when he was ejected for saying the lines out loud.
By high school, he was the fun redhead who captained teams and was a baseball star; the drama director talked him into doing a silent drunk scene in “Guys and Dolls.” He lived with a friend’s family for his senior year, then played baseball at East Tennessee State, where his father was on the faculty.
That was where Busfield got serious about theater. He did regional work and off-Broadway, then was Matthew Broderick’s standby (never getting onstage) for Broadway’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
His movie and TV roles were comic at first. Then came “Trapper John” and “Thirtysomething,” where he was one of four actors who became top TV directors.
The directing has gone well: Last year, Busfield’s “Guest Artist,” brilliantly written and played by Jeff Daniels, won best-feature awards in at least eight film festivals.
And it’s led to a side career: TV series hire Busfield as the producer in charge of directors. He’s done that for “Ed,” “Lipstick Jungle,” “Mind Games,” “Secrets and Lies” and a previous Steinberg show:
“After producing 50 episodes of ‘Without a Trace’ and directing (10) of those and acting in a bunch as a lawyer, I could hear (Steinberg’s) voice” in “Almost Life,” he said.
The job seems to fit Busfield personally and geographically: It’s filmed in New York, where he moved two years ago with his wife, Melissa Gilbert. (It’s the third marriage for each; she’s been busy with off-Broadway theater and her son, Michael Boxleitner, has been studying and doing theater.)
He can focus on big-city life … except that last month, the “Thirtysomething” deal was set. For now, Busfield will be bi-coastal, bi-national and kind of busy.
– “For Life,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC; Busfield’s character arrives on Feb. 18
– The “Thirtysomething” sequel – officially “thirtysomething(else)” – is aimed at this fall.