For much of last season on Showtime's "The Big C," Oliver Platt played a husband with no clue his wife had been diagnosed with life-threatening cancer.
It was hard playing those scenes "in the dark," he says. "You had to really focus and forget that you knew." But how? "Well, you just do it. It's your job. You pretend."
Platt is pretty good at that.
But as his dark though ultimately life-affirming comedy returns for a second season (Monday at 10:30 p.m. EDT), Paul is fully informed about the grave condition of his mate, Cathy (played by series star Laura Linney). And while the needy, freewheeling nature Paul displayed before was a burden on Cathy (she even threw him out of the house for a time when the show began), now he's trying to grow up and support her in her fight against this illness.
As a dutiful husband, he even scores some marijuana from his bygone dealer to help ease Cathy's discomfort.
"I cannot believe that the guy I used to call 20 years ago still has the same pager number," Paul crows — "and that I remembered that it was listed under 'Bicycle Parts' in my address book."
Soon, he and Cathy are home, lighting up and getting baked.
For nearly a quarter-century, the 51-year-old Platt has flourished as a character actor who brings a lovable roguery, and insight as well, to his roles. Moon-faced and bulky at 6 feet, 3 inches, his performances range from the shrewd White House counsel challenging President Bartlet on "The West Wing" to Manhattan rapscallion Nathan Detroit in the 2009 Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls"; from the druggy, kinky lawyer in the TV series "Huff" to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in the miniseries "The Bronx Is Burning." Currently, he's appearing as The Man in Black, a CIA team leader, in the sci-fi hit "X-Men: First Class."
Platt cites his distinctly non-leading-man looks as an asset.
"What I was told early on was that, as an actor, I had a uniqueness: There wasn't anybody who looked like me, for better or worse, and we don't need to get into THAT any further, thank you," he says, chuckling.
The son of a career diplomat, he grew up in Washington and throughout the Far East as the family was frequently re-stationed. His interest in drama was a response to often being on the move.
"I was always a new kid in school and I figured out this was a way to plug in: I'd try out for a play and then I would have a group of friends," he says. But it was more than a coping device. "I also loved doing it."
Bitten by the bug, he majored in drama at Boston's Tufts University, then spent several years in the local theater scene before embarking for the big time in New York. He landed his feature film debut in the 1988 hit comedy "Married to the Mob."
The career he has enjoyed since then has been busy and eclectic.
"I'm drawn to stuff that I haven't done before," he says. "But at the same time, when you take a job, especially a high-profile job, you want to have a sense that you're not going to completely wipe out. So you try and balance things."
As an example of how things can go askew, he mentions "Guys and Dolls."
"I should have had more respect for the material," he says. "I thought, 'I did this in high school. This is going to be great!' And it was a very humbling experience. It was really, really hard." (The Associated Press' late drama critic, Michael Kuchwara, called Platt's depiction of Nathan "cautious rather than comic.")
"But I got deeply attached to that experience," Platt says, "and loved it, in ways that I could never have anticipated."
Platt married in 1992, and he and wife Camilla have three kids ages 16, 14 and 12.
"I don't take it for granted that I'll be offered work," he says. "There's a sense of gratitude that I'm able to support my family doing this."
They live in Greenwich Village, near the breakfast spot where Platt has joined a reporter one recent morning. Chained outside is his bike, which is a no-frills affair, oversized with a 70-cm frame and sporting a plastic dairy-crate basket lashed to the front wheel. After the interview, Platt will pedal off to do chores.
Through the years, he's been able to balance his personal life and career, never venturing too far from home for too long ("The Big C" is shot within commuting distance in Connecticut).
"Family life to me is incredibly important and fulfilling, and it keeps the noise of show biz in perspective for me," he says, adding, "My wife is very grounded, unimpressed by the superficial trappings of show biz.
"When I was younger, I had to do a bit of disentangling myself from the acting world. When I got on stage, it became a little too important for me. I needed to turn acting back into a job, instead of a survival mechanism."
But don't get the idea that Platt considers acting just a job. In his mind, it's a process of discovery for all concerned.
"The camera is such an incredibly accurate instrument that it sees way beyond what you're trying to project," he says, "and if you're lucky enough to keep acting, the audience is going to develop a sense of you that you aren't even aware of."
That's all part of the plan.
"What I do is far — far! — from the most important thing in the world," he says. "But it's important to me, and I've never had any doubt that I was doing what I was meant to do."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier