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Tony Denison Interview: 'The Closer' Star Heads to 'Major Crimes'

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Image attributed to Jolson Creative Image PR

Tony Denison

Born the son of a Sicilian truck driver in Harlem, New York, Anthony John Sarrero (Anthony “Tony” Denison) held down jobs as a carpenter, construction worker, newspaper editor, chauffeur, and life insurance agent, but spent his spare time in various stage plays.

With Broadway credits under his belt, Denison made his television debut starring as Ray Luca in Michael Mann’s critically acclaimed drama Crime Story. Time magazine recognized him as television’s best villain of the 1980s. Since that time, the actor has appeared in more than two dozen motion pictures, with Columbia Tri Star’s Art of Revenge, Joel Bender’s Independent feature Deadly, Little Vegas, and The Effect opposite Charles Dutton being the most recent.

“It’s funny because when I was out of work for a long time when my career took a stall, it was difficult getting series work again. Now that I’ve been on a successful series people would like to have you on their show.”

Following Crime Story is an impressive list of dozens of television appearances that include notable guest-starring roles on Wiseguy, CSI, Criminal Minds, Boston Legal, The District, Cold Case, ER, NYPD Blue, and The D.A. Denison starred as Head Coach Mike George in ESPN’s first scripted series Playmakers and landed the plum recurring role of the dad in Prison Break.

Alongside Kyra Sedgwick, Denison has worked hard since 2005 as the wisecracking Det. Andy Flynn to capture LA’s biggest thugs and hoodlums on the TNT crime drama The Closer, and he has received 4 SAG nominations for the role.

The 7th season of The Closer will be the show’s last, but will spawn a spinoff entitled Major Crimes that will feature Denison and Mary McDonnell as well as other cast members, with the exception of Sedgwick and Jon Tenney.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tony, you’ve certainly held some interesting jobs before entering show business. When did you decide on acting?

Tony Denison

Tony Denison (Jolson Creative Image PR)

Tony Denison: I was out of work. I had been working as a newspaper editor. The publisher and the editor of that paper and myself got together for a meeting about who was going to be the editor of the new combined newspaper (that had merged with another paper). But, only those with stock could vote. The other editor had stock in the company, and the publisher certainly had stock, but I didn’t have any. The vote was 2-1 against me. I collected unemployment for a while.

My ex-wife said, “Why don’t you do something with your free time like take a continuing education class at the college?” I wasn’t going to learn to dance or play an instrument, but there were two classes that interested me. One was about photography and the other was acting. I thought, “Well, I don’t want to buy a camera because I don’t have that kind of money.” So, I said, “Let’s do the acting thing.”

My mom used to always tell me when I was a kid, “You ought to be an actor because you’re such a great storyteller.” I took the acting class and loved it. I did a performance of a scene from Death of a Salesman for the community night. All of the people from the continuing education program did their music recitals and dance recitals, and at the end of the evening there was a scene from the play. From my first line on the stage, I thought, “Oh my God!” I just loved being there, and that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was Crime Story your first big break?

Tony Denison: Oh yeah, Crime Story was it. When I first knew I just wanted to act was in 1976. Crime Story didn’t happen until ’86, so I knocked around for a few years doing all different kinds of odd jobs, but still with the idea I was going to get into acting full time. I joined the professional touring company, and it was their encouragement that made me go to New York.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You filled in for Ken Wahl once on Wise Guys.

Tony Denison: That was a big break for David Burke (one of the executive producers of Crime Story) as well as it was for me. He had left Crime Story and went on to do Wiseguy with Stephen Cannell. When Crime Story ended, Wiseguy was still on the air.

I got a call from David one day, and he said, “I need you to come in and be the ‘wiseguy.’” I said, “You mean be Vinnie Terranova (played by Ken Wahl)?” He said, “No, we’ll bring in a new character because Ken Wahl got hurt on the set.” He couldn’t work, so rather than shut down production they wanted to keep it going. He came up with the idea of a guy to come in (me) to take over a case that Vinnie had.

It was the garment industry case with Jerry Lewis, Stanley Tucci, and Ron Silver. So, I went up there because David was a friend and a really talented writer, and I had a ball. I did five episodes, and came back and did this other series called The Company for Warner Brothers which was where I met G.W. (Bailey). We hadn’t seen each other for a long time until The Closer.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine); And you auditioned for the part of Detective Andrew Flynn.

Tony Denison: Well, actually Flynn was not supposed to be a regular character. Flynn was only supposed to be a guest star in the pilot. I wasn’t right for some of the other roles, so James Duff, whom I’ve known for 15 years said, “I don’t know what to tell you. I’d love to have you on the show! There’s a character named Flynn, and right now he’s just going to be in the pilot. We’ll try to make him a recurring, but I can’t promise you anything.” So, I did the pilot and the network so liked what I did that they made the character recurring. I wound up doing 9 of the 12 episodes the first year. They were like, “We’ve got to have this guy on more.” So they made me a regular.

Tony Denison & G.W. Bailey

Tony Denison & G.W. Bailey of TNT's The Closer (Andrew Eccles/TNT)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Now The Closer is ending and Major Crimes will be taking over.

Tony Denison: Yeah, it’s the same show. It’s just going to be a different title. That’s all. The twists will be that there will be more courtroom stuff when we close a case just like in The Closer. But, instead of it just ending and the guy being led away in handcuffs, now we’ll show some of the cases where they wind up going to the courthouse.

We’ll just wind up going to court more which is something James has been wanting to do for a long time, but realized it was impossible to squeeze all that stuff into one episode. Now, I think he’ll be spending less time on the actual crime and more time on interrogating the suspect, in which expositionally you’ll find out what he’s being charged with, and then we’ll wind up in the court situation or plea bargaining.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will everyone except Kyra Sedgwick be joining you on the new show?

Tony Denison: Except for Kyra and John Tenney who plays her husband and FBI agent. It would be hard to have him stay on the show if she’s not there. I don’t know what everybody’s plan is to join the show. Some people might decide they want to move on to something else. Who knows?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is the atmosphere on the set emotionally charged because of the cancellation?

Tony Denison: Well, yes and no. I guess it will be more emotional when we get to the last six episodes which are slated for next year. Those six will air, and then it will fold into Major Crimes. I’m sure those will be sort of bittersweet in some way. But, at the same time, I imagine it would be sadder if we weren’t going to be doing another show.

It’s always great to be on a hit show. I think because we’re going to be moving into the new show, Major Crimes will have a built-in audience, so hopefully we’ll have many of the same people watching. And what if it runs for seven years? Somebody asked me, “Do you think you can play this character for 14 years?” I said, “That’s it, just 14?” So, yeah, I don’t care if it falls into another show after that. It doesn’t matter. As long as they want me, I’ll show up.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your character is a recovering alcoholic and that mirrors real life for you.

Tony Denison: Yes it does. Jon Penney’s character was always listed as being an alcoholic. I said to James, “Look, unless you have other plans for the character that may center around him being drunk or something, I think it would be interesting since there are many police officers and firemen who are alcoholics because of the job tensions.” He said, “Okay.” And that’s how it happened.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is that easy to play since you’re recovering from addiction also?

Tony Denison: It depends. I mean, yes there’s a part of it that’s difficult because the character behaves and responds in situations different than I would have as Tony, but it’s also incumbent upon me to deal with the emotional situations in a way obviously different than the way he’d deal with it.

It’s fun to play a character who is dealing with his alcoholism in the midst of a high pressure job that helped to aid and abet in developing his alcoholism in the first place. Alcoholism is a symptom of a far greater problem. You wind up on a job like that with those kinds of life and death situations that you deal with everyday; I think it would drive many people to drink.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is the experience like working with Kyra?

Tony Denison: I’m sad to see that she’s leaving, but it’s a very busy character. Brenda Lee Johnson has lots and lots of dialogue every episode, so she has a full plate. Kyra had a seven-year contract, and I think that she might’ve wanted to move on to something else. I don’t know if she thought there were any more challenges left for her with that character, so she’s moving on.

Kyra was born in Manhattan, and as much as I love New York and it’s always in my heart, I live in California now. I have family back east. But, Kyra just loves living in New York City. She just loves it, so there’s a part of her that wants to be back in the city. Maybe she’ll do a series in New York. I don’t know.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think some people are speculating that Brenda will lose her job.

Tony Denison: I don’t know how they’re going to do her leaving. Lose her job to Flynn, is that what you’re saying?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): One possibility.

Tony Denison: Honest to God, I’m not trying to be coy here. No one has told us exactly what her departure will be like. It’s not like they can leave it open for her returning because it will no longer be The Closer. I’m sure if she doesn’t die, the character could come back for a visit occasionally if Kyra is so inclined. I’m sure James would like to have her come back.

I’ve done six television pilots, and all of them have gone to series. But, this is the first one that has lasted more than two years. It has been exciting to be a part of that. The ensemble led by Kyra is instrumental for that happening. James wrote this incredibly clever script, and the people he cast seem to fit into these characters like a second skin. About some pilots you think, “Oh my God this is a great show!” Then it doesn’t make it. Or you go in and read for pilots, and the pilots don’t make it.

Crime Story was brilliant. It has cult status with people. People still stop me on the street about Crime Story, and it’s been off the air for 20 years. Not only are they people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, but kids in their 20s come up to me. They tell me they discovered it online or got a DVD, or their parents watched the show and loved it.

Crime Story was the precursor to The Sopranos. At that time, I don’t know if the audiences were ready to deal with a show that was like The Sopranos. If Crime Story had come out a year before The Sopranos, The Sopranos would have never existed or would have been considered what it was, a knockoff of Crime Story. Then, again, The Sopranos was brilliant, well acted, and well written, so clearly there was a place for a show like that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tony, what has been the most challenging role of your career?

Tony Denison: Oh boy, I don’t really know. I guess I’d have to say whenever I have to play a gangster or a criminal. The reason I say that is even though I have fun playing them, it’s not who I am. So, the challenge for me is to get to that dark place, and the other challenge is to make every one of the characters I play different.

You could just go in and be a hard case and maybe get away with it or you could try to find different ways to color the character. I like to think when I played John Gotti, he was incredibly different than Ray Luca on Crime Story or different than the gangster I played in the movie For Which He Stands. When I did this cameo in Road Kill with my dear friend Erik Palladino, I tried to make that character different.

They say about Vivaldi that he wrote 292 concertos one time or one concerto 292 times (laughs). But, they’re still playing Vivaldi’s concertos hundreds of years later. If somebody talks about me hundreds of years later, then I’ve done a great job. If they’re not talking about you, it’s like, “Okay, next.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have any time off between The Closer ending and Major Crimes beginning?

Tony Denison: Usually we have six months off which gives us the opportunity to go do movies or guest star in other TV shows, so you get a chance to play different people. But, this year, because we’re doing six extra episodes which will take us to December 21, Major Crimes is slated to begin the middle of April. We’ll only have a part of December, January, February, March, and a part of April, so we’ll have four months off as opposed to six months. It’s not hard for us as the actors, but it’s a strain on the writers because they have to keep making these things fresh. Every script is very well thought out. The plots are just as much a character as the actors are.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How will you be spending your time off?

Tony Denison: I’m talking to my representative for them to inquire about what movies may be shooting into January, February and March where it won’t overlap in coming back into Major Crimes.

It’s funny because when I was out of work for a long time when my career took a stall, it was difficult getting series work again. Now that I’ve been on a successful series, people would like to have you on their show. It would be nice if something like True Blood would want a character for five or six episodes. I’d gladly do it. I read for a detective part in Big Love, but they decided to go with somebody who looked more like he was from Utah, a more blondish looking guy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I thinking maybe a stint as a serial killer on Criminal Minds.

Tony Denison: Yeah, I could do that. I know the people at Criminal Minds. But, I wouldn’t mind, honest to God, doing a couple of episodes on True Blood. Not that I watch it every week, but the episodes I have watched I like very much, and it’s very sinister.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are your other interests, Tony?

Tony Denison: I like playing chess. I’ve recently become addicted to Words With Friends which is sort of a variation of Scrabble. I used to play Scrabble a lot. I also exercise, hang with friends, go to my recovery meetings. I do a little writing and am also a self-taught carpenter, so I build things whenever I have time.

I used to play softball, but I stopped because I realized I can’t afford to get hurt while I’m on a series. I think on hiatus I’ll play some softball, but right now I’m not ready. I pulled a muscle in my back and it took about three weeks to heal. I was on the set and was just uncomfortable all the time. I used to play softball every Saturday for 20 years, then I decided to play racquetball just to keep myself limber, just to smack the ball around.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I hope Major Crimes is a major success.

Tony Denison: As they say, “From your mouth to God’s ears.” I think it has a good shot at being a successful show. It has all of the same elements except Kyra obviously, but it’s James Duff and he’s incredibly talented. Mary McDonnell will also be wonderful.

© 2011 Smashing Interviews Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.

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