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Actor Patrick O’Brien takes center stage

| Rebecca Dienger

Patrick O’Brien is not a boastful man, but he doesn’t mind tossing out the fact that Oscar winner Tom Hanks once prepared to be his understudy. Not bad for a professional actor who says he’s more often known as “that guy” than by his given name.

That name — Patrick Thomas O’Brien — has appeared in the credits of such films as “Intolerable Cruelty,” “Stuart Little” and “Catch Me If You Can” with Leonardo DiCaprio. In “Pleasantville,” winner of a Broadcast Film Critics Association Critics’ Choice Movie Award in 1999, O’Brien played Roy, the bowling buddy to William H. Macy’s character. He most recently portrayed the doctor who delivered Brad Pitt’s eponymous character in the opening scene of the Academy Award winner “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

O’Brian’s Shakespearean theater performances span both U.S. coasts and have placed him on stage with Kelsey Grammer, Martin Sheen, Angela Bassett and Martin Short. During one festival in Los Angeles, he was almost called away when his mother fell ill back in his hometown of Eau Claire. Enter Hanks, prepared to stand in for O’Brien at any moment.

The 1975 UW-Eau Claire theatre graduate has worked on the small screen, too. His television appearances number in the hundreds, and that does not include the countless commercials that have been his steadiest and most lucrative jobs. He’s appeared on “The West Wing,” “CSI,” “ER,” “Home Improvement,” “Monk” and many other top-rated shows.

Regardless of this cross-country exposure over a 35-year career, O’Brien says it’s not unusual for a person to approach him with narrowing eyes and a wagging finger and say, “Hey, I know you. You’re that guy!”

Closer to his hometown, that guy is more likely to be called “O.B.” or even “Tweet,” a nickname inspired by a crew cut and a childhood resemblance to the beloved Warner Brothers cartoon character Tweety Bird.

Before a November 2010 performance at Eau Claire’s Grand Little Theatre, the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild fielded calls from people who couldn’t remember the name of his play and simply asked for tickets to Tweet’s show. A gathering of old friends afterward showed O’Brien — who has lived and worked in New York City, Los Angeles and most recently Minneapolis — that you really can go home again.

In December, he was back at UW-Eau Claire to deliver the fall commencement address and to receive the university Alumni Association’s highest honor, the Lifetime Excellence Award. Armed with applause signs and a deadpan delivery, O’Brien took the stage as the consummate actor, poking fun at himself, his apparent lack of fame and what the world perceives as success. Then his message turned into a serious challenge for students to do what’s important to them whether they’re in the spotlight or not.

O’Brien’s mentor and friend, Wil Denson, professor emeritus of theatre arts, nominated him for the award, citing a remarkable body of work and his representation of UW-Eau Claire “in the best, most honorable and professional way.”

Denson recalls O.B. as a hardworking student, both in and out of class, putting himself through school by working at various jobs, such as a hospital orderly by night, and doing the improbable, like learning to play piano in a matter of weeks for his role in “The House of Blue Leaves,” directed by Denson.

“Talent definitely has to be there, but the most important thing is flat-out persistence, and he had it,” Denson said. “He hasn’t changed a bit. He’s down to earth. He exudes great warmth. He’s unpretentious.”

O’Brien recalls Denson as a demanding director and remains grateful for the early challenges Denson put before him.

“He was a taskmaster,” O’Brien said. “He taught me that you can always dig deeper; you can always find something better. It was challenging in the right way because you wanted to do better for him — and to prove it to yourself, too.”

Not surprisingly, O’Brien was named “actor of the year” by UW-Eau Claire faculty, student peers and community members in 1975. He has fond memories of his university performances and particularly recalled opening night for “Guys and Dolls” during summer stock theater.

“We were in the Kjer auditorium,” O’Brien said. “Wil gathered us all together, and I remember him telling us, ‘No matter where you go and what you do, you are going to remember this night.’ And he was right. It was a great feeling to perform with my cast mates and friends. It was a thrill.”

O’Brien noted that an important aspect of his theater education at UW-Eau Claire may have been what it didn’t provide.

“The classes were, for the most part, devoid of all that arty-farty nonsense so common in acting instruction where everyone pretends they’re crazed Albanian dwarfs on a safari and can only communicate through grunts and whistles while carrying each other on piggyback,” he said.

Instead, O’Brien called UW-Eau Claire’s approach Midwest practical: “Here’s a script. What does it mean and how can we best convey the author’s intention to the audience?”

O’Brien believes UW-Eau Claire’s courses on directing and the opportunities to take on major responsibilities prepared him well for going off on his own to “the big city.”

That big city was New York. Denson said he would never advise his students to make such a move, but O.B. was up to the challenge. A former classmate, Susan Anderson, got a job playing piano on Broadway just after graduation. She secured an audition for O’Brien for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” O’Brien landed a role and ended up on stage with William Hurt.

“I was star-struck for awhile,” O’Brien said. “There I was with this Tony-award-winning guy. But when you share a dressing room with someone it’s not so glamorous after awhile.”

His Wally Cox looks and a propensity for vulnerable, winsome and even dim-witted character roles have consistently put O’Brien just left of center stage. He may not be the star, but he manages to get sympathy and laughter from his audience whether he’s “Tweedy Man,” “Gay Party Guest” or “Desk Clerk.” This endearing quality consistently garnered O’Brien stellar reviews like these from the Minneapolis Star Tribune in the early 1980s, when he appeared regularly at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis:

“Pat O’Brien does the funniest job of acting I have seen on a Twin Cities stage.”

“Some of the funniest moments in Twin Cities theatre have been the result of his comic work.”

“His mobile face is so wonderfully expressive that he warms the entire theatre.”

In 1986 O’Brien landed a role in a play in La Jolla, Calif., which later led to a move to Los Angeles when he signed with a midlevel casting agency. He then began appearing regularly on television. And teenagers began appearing regularly in his front yard, awaiting his appearance for an autograph. To this day he is most recognized for his portrayal of “that guy” — Mr. Dewey, the nerdish, terminally boring math teacher on “Saved by the Bell.”

O’Brien was amused and even flattered by the kids camping out on his lawn.

“But if they would have messed with my avocado tree, I would have gotten after them,” he said, noting that the avocado, citrus, macadamia nut and fig trees are what he misses most about his fast-paced Hollywood life.

O’Brien returned to the Twin Cities with his “Florida-raised wife and southern California kids” four years ago, and he couldn’t be happier. The body of regular work he amassed in a period of 22 years has provided income and exposure that afford him the ability to pick and choose his projects and to work at his own pace.

“I assumed that acting would be an avocation and that I’d have to keep the proverbial day jobs,” O’Brien said. “Supporting and raising a family with the inconsistency of an actor’s income was often difficult early on, but I haven’t had to fall back on a day job since 1978.”

The autograph requests don’t happen as often anymore, but O’Brien is just fine with that.

“I particularly like when a couple of comely 20-somethings ask to have a photo with me squeezed in between them,” he said. “Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’m old enough now that it’s ‘cute’ when I flirt.”

Recently, a young troupe of actors in the Twin Cities began staging episodes of “Saved by the Bell.” O’Brien saw an audition notice looking for a replacement for the person playing Mr. Dewey.

“As a goof I showed up at the audition, and I wish I had had a camera to capture the look on the director’s face when I walked in,” he said. “Since (getting the part) I’ve been playing, well, me on and off for the last year and a half.”

And whose signed 8 by 10s command a line of audience members after the show? The autographs belong to “that guy.”