Peter Gallagher’s Biggest Confidence Crisis

UPDATED: May 21, 2024
PUBLISHED: August 3, 2014

“Ladies and gentlemen, Peter Gallagher.”

A spotlight picks up the actor as he makes his entrance from the back of the hall. He’s dressed in a dark suit with a white open-collar shirt. He’s smiling, and his jet-black hair is swept back, with only a few strands of gray showing. His eyebrows are eyebrowing.

As he makes his way toward the stage, he greets a few people he knows and even some he doesn’t. “Hello, Jimmy,” he says to a man seated at one of the tables and then shakes his hand. A few seconds later he waves to a table across the room where some of his family and friends are  seated.

Reaching the stage, Gallagher turns around to acknowledge the four-piece band that will back him up and then faces the audience.

“I’ve been in over 2,000 Broadway performances,” he announces with a grin, “and I’m still desperate for attention.” The audience roars, and for the rest of the evening Gallagher has them eating out of his hand.

Gallagher, 59 on Aug. 19, is a showman, and tonight his show is called How’d All You People Get In My Room? The cabaret act features songs from his many Broadway shows and anecdotes about his long career in the business.

In one story Gallagher recounts how, early in his career, he befriended Jack Lemmon and found that the already-famed actor was beset by the same insecurities about the next job as anyone else. “He would say, ‘What you got lined up after this, kid?’ When I said, ‘Nothing,’ he said, ‘Me neither.’ ” (For good luck, Lemmon would always say “Magic hour” before going onstage.)

In another, the actor recounts the fun he had making a movie with Peter O’Toole. “He’d walk onto the set in the morning and say, ‘How are you today, Mr. Gallagher?’ I’d say, ‘Fine, Mr. O’Toole. How are you?’ And he’d say, ‘Gruesome, gruesome.’

“I couldn’t believe I was in the same room with him. When I was a kid, I watched Lawrence of Arabia, and it was one of the reasons I wanted to become an actor. We used to wrap towels around our heads and march up and down the beach yelling ‘Awrence, Awrence,’ ” he says, repeating the pronunciation O’Toole’s followers used for his character in the film.

Gallagher has starred in such movies as sex, lies, and videotape, his breakthrough role; American Beauty, where he bedded Annette Bening; and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, for which the ensemble cast received a special Golden Globe. He played a cool dad on Fox’s The O.C. from 2003 to 2007 and more recently a CIA clandestine services director on USA Network’s Covert Affairs. Among a long list of Broadway performances, he has been in Grease and Guys and Dolls.

His one-man show is now 7 years old, but Gallagher is continually changing the material to fit the ever-evolving circumstances of his career. He says it’s one of the most difficult things he’s ever done, largely because he had to create the script himself. “I have all sorts of opinions about other people’s writing,” he once told an interviewer, “but this was the first time I had to rely on my own writing and song choices. Part of the big appeal to me of acting was to hide and disappear.”

Gallagher credits Paula Harwood, his wife of 31 years, for giving him the courage to try. “I can find my way around a stage OK,” he says, “but I find real life a bit more challenging. Paula encouraged me to do the show, to be myself onstage. She believes in me more than I do sometimes.”

He has learned not to take himself too seriously. At one point in the show, he sucks his lips into his mouth, the way kids do when they are trying to make a face. “This is me at age 6,” he tells the audience. “I had fat lips. And they got even fatter when I got into fights. Little did I know that someday I would be upstaged by my eyebrows.”

The show, like so much of what Gallagher has done in his long career, has been a great success. The New York Times raved that “Mr. Gallagher’s singing voice is warm, flexible and unaffected…. He inhabits a song so comfortably that it flows directly out, a fusion of his own personality and the character he is playing.”

Season 5 of Covert Affairs was shot in the spring and premiered in June. The double entendre of the title is deliberate: The show is laced not only with professional conflicts but also many romantic subplots. “We knew we wanted Peter,” says David Bartis, Covert Affairs’ executive producer. “His character is married to someone who is also in the CIA, so they have to keep secrets from each other. In your professional life, you are often not punished for telling lies. But in your personal life you are. It makes for an interesting dynamic.”

Next spring Gallagher will head back to Broadway to co-star with Kristin Chenoweth in a revival of the Comden-Green comic musical On the Twentieth Century. He will also appear in a new HBO sitcom slated to premiere early in 2015: Togetherness co-stars Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis. It follows two couples trying to live under the same roof, and it furthers the network’s push to add more comedies to its lineup.

“Movies are collaborative,” Gallagher says. “TV is more top-down, a command structure. But TV is the place to make a living now.” Even today, people on “Twitter, Facebook and even on the street want to talk to me about The O.C. and Sandy Cohen,” Gallagher has said, referring to the reassuring father figure he played on the show. In 2009, on a trip to the Sundance Film Festival to promote a small independent film he was appearing in, Gallagher was overwhelmed on the street everywhere he went. “But it wasn’t about the movie,” says Leslie Urdang, the film’s producer. “He was mobbed by fans of The O.C.

Gallagher remembers the exact moment he decided he wanted to become an actor. He was studying economics at Tufts University and had gone to Berkeley to take some summer courses so he could get his economics degree sooner. “Statistics was killing me,” he says. “It was the first summer I hadn’t done any theater. And I realized how unsuited I was for economics.”

“I said, I don’t care what happens. I’m going to give myself seven years to try to make a living in the theater. I just picked an arbitrary number because I wanted to give myself some kind of plan. It was just so odd for me to consider doing that kind of thing—I’d never met a professional actor. In my mind it was sort of like what I did in high school.”

So like every other aspiring actor in the late 1970s, Gallagher moved to New York City.

“I was lucky because it was a time when you could go to open calls,” he says. “You’d get there at 7 in the morning and sign up on a stack of yellow legal pads. You’re already number 2,000-something. Then you get to the end of a blocks-long line. When the door opens at 10 you begin to inch forward. And about six hours later you get to sing your four bars. But that’s how I got my first job, the first revival of Hair. We were all off the bus.”

A short time later Gallagher landed the plum role of Danny Zuko in Grease. It was a part he had long wanted.

Gallagher’s father was never keen on his son’s choice of acting as a profession, but he slowly came around as the young man became more successful. His mother, on the other hand, had always supported him, calling acting an “honorable profession” that gave joy to a lot of people.

In 1984 Gallagher was cast in the play The Real Thing, which received rave reviews and won five Tony awards. Among the other cast members were Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close and Cynthia Nixon. But a year after the show opened, Gallagher found that he was the only original cast member still onboard. It caused a massive crisis of confidence. “Everyone else had gone on to these great jobs, and I hadn’t even had an audition,” he says. “I should have questioned my agents, but instead I thought there was something wrong with me. How could I get all these great reviews, yet nobody’s interested in me? Because you’re no good, I told myself. You suck.

What came next was an emotional nosedive. Gallagher lost 30 pounds and thought his acting career was over. “I’d already started my movie career, so it really didn’t make sense how I was feeling,” he says. “I had been to the mountaintop with The Real Thing, working with [Tony-winning director] Mike Nichols and that incredible cast. But sometimes you do something great that you think will lead to something else, and it doesn’t.”

Redemption came in the form of a phone call from Manny Azenberg, one of the producers of The Real Thing. He wanted Gallagher to audition for another role the actor had long clamored to play, that of Edmund Tyrone—the younger son of aging actor James Tyrone—in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. After the call, says Gallagher, “I hung up and cried and cried and cried, because I couldn’t believe he cared enough to call me. I thought, What the hell, no matter how scared I am, I’m going to go in.” He got the part and later earned a Tony nomination for it.

Gallagher’s co-star was Lemmon, and the two struck up a close friendship. “He could knock it out of the park every night,” Gallagher says of his mentor. Although he was already an Oscar winner, Lemmon worried incessantly about his performances. After one show in London, the elder actor asked Gallagher to stay behind and rehearse. “I’ll buy you a sandwich,” Gallagher recalls Lemmon saying. “We got back to the stage about an hour later. He said, ‘Peter, what did I do tonight? I don’t know what I did. How am I going to do it again tomorrow?’ And we would rehearse, and we would talk. We had conversations I’d waited my whole life to have. He was like a father to me.”

At about that same time, Gallagher began another important relationship, this one with the legendary acting teacher Mira Rostova, who had mentored stars such as Montgomery Clift, Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange, among others. Rostova died in 2009 at the age of 99. “I studied with her for 25 years,” Gallagher says. “She was tough as nails. Every time I worked with her I learned something….

“One of the last times I visited her in a convalescent home, she said, ‘You were my best student,’ ” Gallagher recalls. “I thought, Thank God I’m not the worst. Then I said, ‘Wait a minute. What about Montgomery Clift?’ She said, ‘He’s dead!’ ”

The television work Gallagher has done over the years has solidified his reputation as a character actor, keeping him constantly in demand. In addition to The O.C. and Covert Affairs, he has appeared in series such as How I Met Your Mother, Rescue Me, Whitney and Californication.

Bartis, the executive producer of Covert Affairs and The O.C., says Gallagher “is working just as hard now as he was 10 years ago. I wish I could bottle up what he has and make other people drink it….

“It’s not just one thing, but a combination of things. First, he’s got an amazing work ethic. And it’s not just that he works hard—which he does—but that he treats every day like it’s the first job he ever had. It’s infectious. He’s happy to come to work. I frankly don’t know how he maintains the excitement, but he does.

“I remember one time we were getting ready to shoot a scene for Covert Affairs. I forget what it was, but Peter wasn’t even in it. But he was sitting off to one side and before we began, he says, ‘Put me in! Put me in! I’m ready to act.’ ”