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by Ronald Sklar
PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: June 13, 2003.
Tom Verica stars as family patriarch Jack Pryor on the NBC sleeper hit
American Dreams. The role calls for the strong silent type: a challenge
which is not always as appreciated as it should be in a medium that often
displays the dad as the house fool. Here, Verica plays the solid rock. He
typifies the very greatest of the Greatest Generation, but now trying his
darnedest to provide gravity to a vulnerable family that is about to go up,
up and away with the sixties.
That turbulent decade, which is just about dawning as this series takes off,
is a TV writers American wet dream. There is built-in conflict and social
upheaval that actual series from that time couldnt dare address (imagine
Fred MacMurray instructing his three sons about the evils of segregation, or
Gomer Pyle actually going to Vietnam). Vericas character gets to
confront a wife (Gail OGrady) who is about to liberate herself from her
apron strings and hubbys final word. His son (Will Estes) may not want to
go the traditional rah-rah route. All manner of outside forces find
their uneasy way into his cozy Philadelphia home: civil rights, rock and
roll music and - probably next season
- long hair and mini-skirts.
However, its not all doom and gloom, as the shows millions of fans can
confirm. Theres plenty of music and dancing and general feelin groovy.
Eldest daughter Meg (Brittany Snow) becomes a dance regular on the
afternoon American Bandstand show, which was a local Philly TV staple
that took the nation by storm in real life.
Verica, a Philadelphia native himself, earned some unexpected preparation
for his career-making role. However, it was not the kind of experience you
would expect from the actor who plays such a rugged, old-fashioned
was on a local dance show in Philadelphia for a couple of years when I was
in high school, he says without an ounce of irony or regret. From what I
remember, it was a really hot show, and my sister really wanted to go on,
and thats what sort of generated it. So I took her down there and we both
With that, a star was born almost. The show, with the very 80s title of
Dancin On Air, made the young Verica a favorite among the Philly
after-school set. He shook his booty probably in designer jeans and a
Members Only jacket -- to such popular fare as Physical, Apache Rap and
Celebration. All the while, he was living the American dream of a future
Ironically, sis soon tired of all that air dancin, but Verica was on his
way to see what else he could do in front of the camera. After a brief lapse
of sanity as a college business major, he soon came to his senses and headed
to New York, where just about everybody dances and lives on air. He studied
with legendary acting teacher William Esper and got his first big break on
the Broadway stage, in Craig Lucas Prelude to a Kiss.
From there, the producers of the TV mega-hit LA Law discovered him,
and he was quickly signed to two half-seasons as the dreamy Billy
Ive been very lucky, and no one will tell you that more than me, he says.
All my training up to that point had been on stage, and then suddenly Im
sitting in the board room of McKenzie Brackman and it was surreal. I
remember my first day -- my introduction into Hollywood -- and Im sitting
here with all these people that Id watched, and I was laughing inside
because it didnt seem real!
Soon, he had racked up so many TV on-air miles that he became that face that
youve seen a million times, without a name to go with it. He made guest
appearances on everything from Frasier to Picket Fences to
NYPD Blue. He was a series regular on such much-see misfires as
Central Park West and The Naked Truth. More recently, he had a
recurring role on the popular weeper Providence, but he will be most
remembered pre-American Dreams as Elaines podiatrist boyfriend
on a classic episode of Seinfeld, called The Conversion, in which
he finds an unsavory skin cream while secretly rummaging through Elaines
that experience, he says, The four of them [Jerry Seinfeld, Jason
Alexander, Michael Richards and Julia Louis-Dreyfus] were phenomenal. It was
a great environment that was creative and supportive and funny as hell. They
had a great time.
Now, with his newfound notoriety as the conservative dad on a youth-oriented
show, Verica debated the pros and cons of this gutsy career move. After all,
he had come a long way from being a dancing teenager himself and he wasnt
sure that the American public would buy him as a middle-aged daddy-O.
had concerns initially about playing a father, because I wasnt sure if
anyone would buy it, he says. Im not a dad yet, but Ive been married for
three years. Its a great preparation. I draw
a certain degree from my father. He wasnt nearly as strict as this guy;
there are similarities as far as family values and unity and the importance
of tradition that my father always instilled in us that I have carried over.
My father was the baby of fifteen kids. They were an Italian Catholic
family, but very similar to the Irish Catholic family on the show. I was
surrounded by tons of relatives of all ages, so that was easy to draw a lot
of the basic communication between family members from that.
The other challenge was to play a character that lived and breathed before Verica
was conceived. He says, My character was born in 25 or 26 and served in
World War II, so a lot of [my character] is coming from that. I had an uncle
who did serve in WWII and I had a lot of conversations with him. I also read
Anatomy of a Race Riot, which was published around that time, and it
addresses all the reasons as to why they think it started. We were given
packets at the beginning of last season of everything that happened in
63 and 64, whether it was sports or politics or fashion, even what a
gallon of milk costs. They did the shorthand for us, and we were able to go
in and capture the rest.
The behind the scenes know-how include the inspiration of creator/executive
producers Jonathan Prince, and legendary TV personality/former Bandstand
host/Eternal Teenager Dick Clark.
says, Jonathan Prince, our creator, says that everybody is going through
change with the 60s, but the one antagonist, if there is one, is my
character, because he wants everything to stay just as it is. The challenge
of that is that some of the things he is doing this season -- if you told
him he would be doing them -- he probably wouldnt have believed it. The
reason why the show is well crafted and why this character is well crafted
is that hes based in his own reality, in the moment. Hes trying
desperately to hold on to what once was. The good times of the fifties and
the forties. As these changes keep hitting him left and right with his
children and his wife, hes either going to change and adapt with them, or
hes going to go under and his family is going to be destroyed. Were
certainly going to introduce those threats periodically to see that his own
growth will come through these situations.
And what of Mr. Clark himself? What was it like to have such a television
legend on the set?
Hes a great guy. He really is, Verica says. Hes exactly like you see
him on TV. Hes so friendly. Hes really selfless. It was Jonathan Princes
idea, and Dick really got on board and moved it to the next level. He comes
to quite a few meetings. Now hes one of us.
series, which is an ensemble effort, benefits too from having a co-star as
competent as Gail OGrady. He says of his pairing with his TV wife, a
three-time Emmy-nominated actress, The most important thing is, would the
audience believe that these two people have this twenty-seven-year history
together, and thats something that you just hope to have in chemistry with
two cast members and she and I just hit it off. We have a blast, and were
open to suggestions on how to make it organic and what we can base on the
history of this particular relationship. Shes really good and it goes well
between the two of us.
The reality is also driven by the show's economic
authenticity. Unlike some
other programs which shall remain nameless in which characters have jobs
that they never do and live in apartments that they can never afford
American Dreams is keeping it real, with anxiety-inducing money problems
and business bummers that are more American nightmare than dream.
Verica says, We have the advantage of nostalgia and people remember the
sixties, one of the most memorable decades in history. There were so many
things that happened, but it would be complete fantasy to see this working
class family in Philadelphia have everything they wanted and have the nicest
cars. The cars we have are still late-model fifties and theres one toilet
in the house and one phone in the house thats not tone, its pulse. Its
actually pretty remarkable stepping on the set and getting used to all these
things. Now its become second nature, which is really a testament to our
production design team. We know this is our house. Well first be in our
dressing rooms and on our cell phones, and then we walk onto this set and
suddenly were transported back in time.
good portion of America seems to be transported along with them every Sunday
evening. It seems that viewers are giving American Dreams a high
percentage score, concluding confidently that the show has a good beat and
that its easy to dance to.
Verica couldnt be happier about that. He says, Ive been involved with a
number of productions that sort of had a lot of promise and hope. This one
seems to have everything going for it. The material, the characters, the
actors, the writers, the production, the music it really has all the
elements. There is not a day that goes by that I dont feel very fortunate
to have this particular job. Weve got a solid audience now and were hoping
to build on that next season.
Were all tuning in to see how the Pryor family will experience what we know
is yet to come: Vietnam, hippies, color TV and Tiny Tim.
us Let us know what you
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