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Christopher Meloni stretches his funny bone

“Gym Teacher: The Movie” finds Meloni playing an altogether different game — comedy — as the title character of this Nickelodeon family film.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Christopher Meloni is starting his 10th season as steely sex-crimes Detective Elliot Stabler on NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” For six seasons on HBO’s prison drama “Oz,” he played for the other side as a murderous psychopath jailed for life.

But “Gym Teacher: The Movie” finds Meloni playing an altogether different game — comedy — as the title character of this Nickelodeon family film.

He can readily offer three reasons:

  • He loves comedy. (Don’t forget, his feature credits include “Runaway Bride” and “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” and he deems the turning point in his career the 1990-91 NBC comedy, “The Fanelli Boys,” where he played a lovable lunkhead from Brooklyn.)
  • Besides, he felt comedically in synch with “Gym Teacher” director Paul Dinello, the co-creator of Comedy Central’s twisted “Strangers with Candy” along with Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris, who appears in “Gym Teacher” as Abby Hoffman, principal of Hamm Lake Middle School.
  • “I wanted to prove to my children that I actually work for a living.”

About time. With “Oz” and “SVU” strictly off-limits, 7-year-old Sophia and 4-year-old Dante have had to take on faith that their dad has a prosperous acting career.

Something for his kidsOn “Gym Teacher” (premiering 8 p.m. EDT Friday) what kids like Sophia and Dante will see, and what their elders are also welcome to enjoy, is a goodhearted, whacked-out story of a coach who pushes his students to excel — with hopes he can win the award for National Gym Teacher of the Year in the process.

But would that victory redeem the shame gnawing at Coach Dave Stewie since 1988? As a gymnast vying for Olympic gold that year, he lost the competition (and considerable self-respect) when he crashed into the vaulting horse instead of springing over it. Captured forever on blooper reels, it’s only the most public of Stewie’s humiliations.

“He’s inept in so many ways,” says Meloni with a laugh. “He’s cocky, but there isn’t a very strong foundation for that bravado.”

When filming began last winter in Vancouver, Meloni was seeking the right mix of silly and straightforward for his portrayal.

“But then I let go, and I said (to Dinello), ‘I am just going to get crazy. You tell me when to pull, and when to go.’

“There were times when he pushed me, like when I was playing dodgeball with the kids, and he wanted me to hit a kid with the ball. I said: ‘Wouldn’t that be a little irresponsible?’ He said: ‘YOU’RE a big kid!’ And I got it.

“I thought he made great choices, and pushed me in good directions.”

Meloni, 47, has pursued good directions since his early years growing up in Washington, D.C. Now he sits talking in a gorgeous apartment 60 floors above Central Park. A bit later, he’ll head for his Connecticut weekend home to join his kids and his wife of 13 years, production designer Sherman Williams. And he’s still feeling the buzz from his comedy break.

“Even as a child,” says Meloni, rubbing his closecropped head thoughftully, “I was enamored with the physical comedians — Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, the (Three) Stooges. You can dismiss it as slapstick, but their athleticism, their artistry, their ballet — I’ve always been drawn to that. I could’ve gone that route.”

He pauses to consider a career path like that of, say, Jim Carrey, a contemporary comic actor he admires.

All in the timingThen he recalls a favorite demonstration by the late Jerry Orbach, his comrade in the multi-series “Law & Order” universe, which was meant to illustrate the difference between drama and comedy.

“This is drama: ‘Get out!”’ And he accompanies the line with a theatrically exaggerated pointing gesture.

“And this is comedy: ‘Get out!”’ But he pauses a beat after saying the same line before he makes the same pointing gesture, which now looks laughable.

“It’s all in the timing,” Meloni says, “the rhythm of the words and the body. If you can do it — if you understand it and have the physical control — it’s really magical.

“Comedy is a lighter load for me to carry,” he says, quickly adding, “We have a great set on ‘SVU,”’ by which he means that the crew and castmates (including Mariska Hargitay, Richard Belzer and Ice-T) are cool. Lots of laughing and horseplay. “But then it’s time to do the scene.” He emits a world-weary, getting-back-into-character sigh. When cameras roll, things get heavy. “I put on my scowl lines.”

Is he starting to feel drained playing Stabler?

“I don’t know if it’s so much that, as other creative opportunities pulling at me,” says Meloni, whose contract is up at the end of this season. “That makes it more difficult to stay focused. And you HAVE to stay focused! I’ve seen enough shows toward the end of their run where you watch and think to yourself, ‘They’re phoning it in. They’re kind of trying — but they’re kind of not.”’ He has no intention of ending that way.

“Now, 10 years later, the writers really do their best to mix it up. They’re kicking up fresh ideas. And I still go to work every day really enjoying the people I work with. There’s such a sense of camaraderie.

“It’s the outside forces that I’m grappling with.” Other things to do, maybe (who knows?) more comedy. “The sounds of what’s out there are louder.”