Billy Gardell’s career inspired by John Candy, Jackie Gleason

ON STAGE

What: Billy Gardell
Where: Platinum Room, Elements Casino (1708 Island Hwy.)
When: Thursday, June 6, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $49.50 from ticketmaster.ca or by phone at 250-391-0311

Billy Gardell’s small-screen career has bounced between major league and modest over the past 20 years.

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With Bob Hearts Abishola — a comedy about a mixed-race relationship between a nurse and her patient — set to air on CBS in the fall, Gardell returns to the big leagues.

“I’m going back to the playoffs,” Gardell said in an interview from his home in Studio City, California. “Who would have thought? At this age? My god.”

Gardell, 49, is best known for his role as Chicago police officer Mike Biggs on the sitcom Mike & Molly, which co-starred Oscar nominee Melissa McCarthy.

The series ended in 2016 after a six-year run and an Emmy Award for Gardell’s co-star, who has become one of the film industry’s most bankable leads.

Gardell has kept mostly to television since Mike & Molly wrapped, with a recent role as Elvis Presley’s unscrupulous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, in the eight-part miniseries Sun Records among his recent highlights.

Gardell said the switch to drama from comedy reignited his passion for performance. “I’m a big guy, so I gravitated to Jackie Gleason and John Candy, guys who didn’t just use the fact they were big for their comedy. They had some dignity about them, and could make a dramatic turn. I wanted to do something cool like that. And to go from Mike [Biggs], who’s a goody two-shoes, to the Colonel, who would sell his mother down the river if he got the chance, was a real honour.”

During the early part of his career, the Pittsburgh native (who was raised in Orlando, Florida) balanced bit parts in film and television with a successful standup career, which put him on the road 10 months a year at his peak.

He still tours the standup circuit, although to a much lesser degree — he does four or five standup dates a month, mostly on weekends.

Gardell will make his Victoria debut tonight at Elements Casino, one of only six dates he has scheduled through July.

Gardell’s standup pace began to slow down when his son, William, was born, and he fully expects to quit touring permanently when the 16-year-old graduates from high school and enters college. “I want to be present,” he said. “I want to be here.”

He struck comedy gold in 2010, when Mike & Molly premièred. The show had a significant impact on the longtime character actor, who had had recurring roles on Yes Dear (2001-2006) and My Name is Earl (2007-2009) before writer-director Chuck Lorre (of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory fame) gave him a shot as the lead opposite McCarthy.

Having cut his teeth on the standup circuit, Gardell had the skillset to handle the stress of Mike & Molly. That put him in good stead with Lorre, who gave Gardell the role of a sock salesman in Bob Hearts Abishola.

“It was a very big blessing my life that I got successful around 40. Having it happen to you in your 20s, it’s too much on the brain. It would have done me in.”

His grounding force has been his wife of 18 years, Patty, and their son. They keep Gardell’s two worlds — Hollywood and home life — separate. “I know what’s real and what’s work,” he said.

His everyman comedy is “without question” an extension of that dichotomy. Gardell said he is going to have a few longtime friends over to his house for his 50th birthday party in August.

It wouldn’t surprise those who know him to learn that Hollywood types won’t be receiving invitations, only “real” people who have known him for years, Gardell said.

“I’ve been hanging out with the same 12 friends I’ve had for 30 years. You need people in your life to tell you the truth, [so] that when you get successful, they tell you it’s not a good idea to buy a diamond piano.”

With roles on shows that are now in syndication, Gardell could afford to buy a jewel-encrusted piano, should he ever want to.

Unlike diamonds, however, acting isn’t forever. Gardell hopes to transition after Bob Hearts Abishola into an executive-producer position and a new world of possibilities.

“Before you find that vehicle that takes you to a good level of success, you think: ‘When’s it going to happen?’ And then it happens. If your mind is right, you treat it with gratitude. And I understood right from when Mike & Molly started that this was a gift. I resolved myself to enjoy it to the most of my ability, even through the fear.

“What you learn is you don’t have any control over anything except for doing good work. You have to trust that the powers of the universe are going to take you where they’re going to take you. The only thing you can do is show up and do good work.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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