After 20 Years, Kyle Chandler Gets Off the Bench
IN a scene toward the end of the second season of "Friday Night Lights," the NBC drama marginally about Texas high school football and substantively about everything else - love, marriage, faith, class, parenthood, resignation - Eric Taylor is seen conducting the hard business of coaching, which, as is so often the case for him, has very little to do with strategizing the offensive line.
Matt Saracen, the team's generally noble and well-behaved quarterback, has gone out and gotten drunk, neglecting the grandmother he takes care of, who finds herself in the hospital. Coach Taylor, patriarch to a whole squad of restless dependents in the mythically fatherless town of Dillon, goes to pick her up and, once he gets her home, throws Matt under a cold shower and tells him that it's just tough luck that as a high school junior he has to shoulder the obligations of a man twice his age.
The speech is similar in its arc to those Taylor has delivered a thousand times: formulaically militaristic until he bumps up against the suppressed sympathy that brings him to a munificent silence. Matt wants to know why people always seem to be leaving him; Taylor, who is played by the estimable Kyle Chandler, an actor viscerally aware of his character's psychological limitations, quietly recedes and stares, confounded, telling the boy simply that there's nothing wrong with him at all.
Mr. Chandler is at the center of what is perhaps the best-assembled cast on serial television. "Friday Night Lights," whose tenure on NBC has always been precarious (new episodes will be available on DirecTV in the fall, and on NBC in early 2009), resists the standard tropes of adolescent dramas, offering no gratuitous hugs, few psychologically gratifying resolutions and an apparent disbelief in the promises of rehabilitation. There is a chemistry that leaves nearly every performance seeming like its own small miracle. Playing Taylor's wife, Connie Britton mesmerizes week after week, but it is Mr. Chandler who most fully embodies the spirit of the show's emotional economy.
"Kyle just hooked into this guy in the most amazing way," Jason Katims, the head writer of "Friday Night Lights," reflected recently. "He is like no other actor I've ever worked with. He wants to take lines away. You give him a scene where he has 90 percent of the dialogue, and he says, 'You know what I want to do with this scene? I don't want to say a word.' "
At 42, Mr. Chandler has had a career distinguished by few roles that are as well conceived (or as fundamentally unembarrassing) as this one. The obviousness of his looks - soap-opera hair, soap-opera smile, soap-opera skin - is incongruous with the refined style of his performance, and while they may have served him well in other aspects of his life, they undoubtedly stood in the way of more enviable opportunities. During his 20 years as an actor he has pursued movies but found his successes on television, appearing on "Early Edition" in the late 1990s and before that on the post-World War II drama "Homefront." But he failed to establish a real presence.
Until "Friday Night Lights" there were any number of anonymous actors, or doctors, or marketing executives with whom he might have been confused. He appeared in one failed TV project called "Lies and the Wives We Tell Them To." As he will let you know in the course of encapsulating his career, as he did over lunch in Manhattan recently: "In 'Heaven and Hell Part 3' I remember doing a scene where I got stepped on."
But persevering has served him well, if only because the years have added some gravity to a face that otherwise evoked only the predictable. "What I see in Kyle is what I see in Patrick Dempsey: a layer of age that makes him more interesting," said Linda Lowy, the casting director who brought Mr. Chandler to the attention of Peter Berg, the creator of "Friday Night Lights."
For his part Mr. Chandler seems unburdened by the idea that he was ill deployed for so long. "I became very good at rejection," he said.
Growing up in Georgia, the child of parents who bred Great Danes, Mr. Chandler was not moved by grand ambitions. At 18 he arrived at the University of Georgia in Athens with little focus.
"I tried pre-med and pre-law, but I just wasn't a great student," he said. "Then one night I was with a girl in Athens and we bummed some cigarettes from some people and started talking, and it was just one of those moments. I thought, 'O.K., here are some interesting people,' and it turned out that they were all in the theater department." Not long after, Mr. Chandler secured a role in a local production of "The Comedy of Errors."
"The first thing I liked about it," he said, recalling the sense of theater's camaraderie, "was that it was full of strange people."