Pop Culture

‘Lights’ star will run plays for another season

Touchdown, Panthers. “Friday Night Lights” will return for a second season. Time for celebration.

The tailgate party starts, of course, with the hardcore viewers who wrote letters, spoke out and urged NBC not to let this gem of a drama disappear into TV oblivion. And the folks in Texas who like to see their state, and their passion, displayed so intelligently for all America to see.

But the one person who might’ve jumped a little higher or yelled just a little louder “yippee” when he got the news would be actor Kyle Chandler, a.k.a. Dillon High School football coach Eric Taylor.

Chandler’s had a healthy career as an actor, and knows he couldn’t really complain if his “Lights” were dimmed after only one season. Chandler had a nice run on the war drama “Tour of Duty” in 1990, co-starred in the ABC Emmy-nominated series “Homefront” and then had the lead in CBS’ four-season run of “Early Edition,” in which a man picks up the next day’s newspaper and can see the future.

But then came 2006, where everything in Chandler’s world changed dramatically.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Chandler appeared on “Grey’s Anatomy” as a hunky Seattle bomb-squad officer blown to bits after removing a live device out of the stomach of a patient. Before the show aired, he knew "Grey's" was popular, but not that popular.

“[After] I did that episode, I could walk down the street with a baseball cap and sunglasses, and everyone knew me,” he recalled. “When I found out I was blowing up, I loved it.”

While that role enhanced his visibility with “Grey’s” watchers and TV executives, his career really blew up later in the year when he was cast as the coach in “Friday Night Lights,” a role played only a few years earlier in the movie by Billy Bob Thornton.

Deep in the heart of TexasTo prepare, he went down to Austin, where the show is filmed, and met with several high school coaches. The mission: Learn the special ingredients that makes Texas High School football so intoxicating to Lone Star state locals.

“They were as gracious as could be and wanted to share all the information they could,” Chandler says. “What I learned early on is that they all had one thing in common: They coach high school football because they love the kids.”

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Once filming began, Chandler says he felt renewed every time he stood on the field and wore those sunglasses and blue jacket, blowing his whistle at his young actors. But he and the writers also knew the show wouldn’t succeed if Taylor was one-dimensional, putting all his energy on the football field and none at home. Enter Connie Britton as wife Tami Taylor.

Britton, who was concerned that her role would be minimal on the show (as it was in the movie, in which she played the same character), asked that her role have substance. When the writers named her one of the school’s guidance counselors, she got her wish.

And Taylor got himself someone who could knock some sense into his character every once in a while. He sees their relationship as the strength of the show.

“One thing Connie and I agreed on is that our characters will live together forever and watch each other die,” he says, proudly. “That allows us to share our heart and soul. When they fight, it’s with the knowledge that they’ll be sleeping in the same bed that night.”

And to the actors, the match-up feels that strong as well.

“When Connie and I are working, if we’re improvising, if I’m going to allow myself to play the fool, she won’t let me fall,” he says. “As an actress, she will stand and clean me up before the scene is over.”

Season one ended on a couple of life-changing notes. First, Tami alerts Eric that she’s pregnant — an event neither was expecting, as their only other child is now in high school.  And Eric has accepted a job a few hours away from Dillon, as an assistant coach at a major university in Austin. It took him a while to make up his mind and give the college a firm answer, but when they pushed him for a decision, he told them he’d take the job.

So what happens now? Chandler doesn’t think Taylor would back out after giving his word.

“He shook hands with the guy,” he says, recalling the scene. “He’s going to explore his dream while [Tami is] pregnant. I want to see Coach in as much trouble as possible. I want him in a dilemma.”

That shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange. Following a year in which he watched his teen daughter turn into a young woman, saw his assistant coach being accused of racism and was forced to risk his career to help his star running back turn his life around after taking steroids, “dilemma” is where Coach Eric Taylor lives.

And Chandler can’t wait to bring it on again next fall — surrounded by a cast and crew that mean more to him professionally than anywhere else he’s worked before.

“I’m excited (about the future),” he says with vigor. “What we have here, as actors and artists, every actor would fight for.”

Stuart Levine is a senior editor at Variety. He can be reached at stuart.levine@variety.com.

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