Billy Gardell, star of television’s Mike & Molly, talked to me about his new film, Dancer & The Dame. He plays Rick Dancer. “He was once like a super detective and he kind of got obsessed chasing this bad guy but he didn’t have enough evidence to take the bad guy down and he started to obsess and he tried to do it prematurely and the bad guy who was tied into the city made him look foolish and got him busted down and therefore he kind of gave up on himself. He kind of gave up on himself and became cynical and then end up pushing mail papers around the precinct room. And then what happens is, like in life, the right thing sparked his inspiration and made him become a good cop again and start caring again.” Unlike many actors, he was not worried about working with an animal.
“It was fine with me. I wanted to do a movie that was family-friendly. I have an 11 year old ]and I thought it was a cute script. My friend Tommy Blaize wrote a really good script and it was a really fun family adventure, I don’t know about all that stuff about ‘Don’t work with dogs or kids.” I don’t really believe that. I think this is just a nice family movie, a nice movie for families to enjoy together.”
He says that working on the road as a stand-up helped him as an actor. “You learn how to really deliver a funny line very well and you learn to think quickly on your feet. So if there’s something quick that you come up with to make the take even funnier, I think that plays into it.” That is especially important on “Mike and Molly,” where he is working with the famously inventive improviser Melissa McCarthy. “She does a lot of improvising and then I have to be on my toes to adjust to what it is that she’s going to do. And that’s what makes it super fun for us to work together. I just never know when she’s going to go off the main path and then trying to keep up with that and being a straight man too has been a lot of fun.” He says the key to the show’s popularity is that “you see real people in this show and whether it’s Mike and Molly or my mother or the woman who plays Melissa’s mother the whole cast has a character that is kind of based on reality. And then ultimately underneath all of that, it is two people that thought they would never fall in love falling in love and I think people root for that.”
Gardell is having a lot of fun on his new game show series, Monopoly Millionaires Club. “That’s a very exciting opportunity that came my way last year. So far we’ve given away $1 million twice in 12 episodes and the odds guys said that wouldn’t happen for 30 episodes. So I’m not sure the insurance companies are happy but I think it makes for great TV. It’s a super fun fast-paced version of Monopoly and there is a lot of all or nothing moments. And I get to give away a bunch of money and so it’s wonderful. It’s not mine so I don’t mind it — I hope the audience wins. I hope they win it all.”
A Pittsburgh guy at heart, he is still the biggest Steelers fan there is. “I’m a fanatic. Absolutely! We have Steeler Sundays out here in California at my house and I only allow Steeler fans over for the Steeler games and the rest of my friends can come by but I’m die hard to the end. The team resonates what that city is that’s why it is so connected to the city.”
Gardell told me about the first time he got a laugh. “I was at a baseball banquet. It was one of those end of the year is things and I think I must have been about eight years old or so. And our guest speaker was Bill Hillgrove who is the announcer from Steelers because I grew up in Pittsburgh. And he had said something and my father leaned over and whispered in my ears, ‘say this’ and I stood on my chair and I said whatever it was that my father told me to say and I got a huge laugh and it was very addicting. I thought, ‘Wow, what a great way of going through life — I want to do that.’ And to this day my father and I try to remember what that line was and neither one of us can remember. Isn’t that funny? I remember the feeling. I remember that distinct feeling of having a room full of people laugh because you said something fun.”
He listened to George Carlin and Richard Pryor records as a kid. “We did not really understand the whole thing but the parts we did they would just make us laugh from our souls. And then my dad turned me on to Jackie Gleason when I was very young and then I had a grandmother, Edith Bean, who I told her at nine I want to be a comedian and she said, ‘Well, if you work really hard every day you can do it.’ It’s an old World War II generation idea that if you never quit you can do this and I trusted her opinion so much that I never asked anybody else.”
He says he has learned the most from “Mike and Molly” director James Burrows and creator Chuck Lorre. And he also learned a lot from Greg Garcia, “a wonderful man who created ‘My name is Earl’ and ‘Yes Dear’. Greg was kind of my first taste in the work and constantly because they gave me recurring part on the show for ‘Yes Dear’ he was super good to me and helped me along. And then in the first two years of ‘Mike and Molly’ being the lead Jimmy Burrows really gave me a guiding hand and Chuck Lorre kept me from completely freaking out. So I’ve been around some men that really were influential and really helpful. If Chuck sees something that he thinks is going to work is unafraid to do it. And he is also not afraid to put normal characters in situations that you wouldn’t ordinarily see them in. He just believes that the story is good enough and the characters have that sense of worth that people are going to invest themselves in it.”