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Peter Gallagher on Being the Busiest Man in Show Business

Peter Gallagher is one of the more ubiquitous men of a certain age on TV lately. He played the excellently named Dean Koons on the last season of Californication, and most recently he’s been juggling duties on Rescue Me and Covert Affairs, playing (respectively) a wry priest (his arc sadly just ended with last week’s “Forgiven”) and the director of the CIA. He’s also about to begin shooting Conviction with Hilary Swank and will be seen this fall in the Christina Aguilera vehicle Burlesque. After leaving us an amusing message on our voice mail, Gallagher spoke cheerily and at length (and then sent us a series of photos from his eclectic acting — and hockey-playing — career) about his recent gigs, how being Sandy Cohen changed his life, and — perhaps most important — his famed eyebrows.

I’m used to seeing you play characters who are generally upstanding mensches or in some way distinguished. Was the comedy of your character on Rescue Me, Father Phil, an attraction?
Oh my God. I tell ya, it’s like I’ve been starving for punch lines. It’s so nice to have someone actually write something funny for you. I haven’t watched myself yet; I figure I will eventually. I just laugh my ass off. It feels like the best job in the world — you can relax. And you just look around and marvel at the fact that they’re being allowed to wander around Brooklyn and Manhattan dressed up as firemen.

You seem like the busiest guy on TV lately, being on Rescue Me and Covert Affairs at once …
I’m competing with myself as only I could! I was just desperately searching for ways to pay for tuition [laughs]. Denis [Leary] is an old, old friend of mine, and Father Phil is one of the best parts I’ve ever had, and only a pal like Denis would know it would be a good part for me. And Covert Affairs, it was all totally coincidental. Doug Liman directed the pilot of The OC, and Dave Bartis, his partner, was a producer on the first season of The OC, and since then we’ve been talking. They called me a year ago about the part, and I asked, "What’s the asshole quotient?" He said zero, so I was like, "I’m in!"

How far back do you and Leary go?
Denis and I are both like from the neighborhood in some ways. The whole Irish-American thing is something we don’t have to explain to each other. We had been hearing for ages that we should meet each other, and I saw him at a bar — shocking! — and I went over and introduced myself. So that was the beginning of our friendship. He got me playing hockey with the Rangers in Madison Square Garden once. Gretzky was playing for the Rangers at the time, we were living on 71st Street and my son was a great goalie, and Denis calls up and says, “Hey, Pete, Wayne wants to know if you want to play Friday.” I was like, what are you out of your fuckin' mind? But he said my son would get to meet the Ranger greats, so I said, “Oh, okay.”

There’s a generation of TV viewers that will always know you first and foremost as Sandy Cohen. Is it strange to be so attached to a character — having had an over two-decade career before you played him?
I love it. The crazy thing is, there are certain people who call me Sandy, and other people who’ll say, “Yo, it’s the king. Fuck me, your majesty!” [This is a reference to his role in American Beauty.] But I love Sandy; I felt very lucky it should be that role I got to play on that show.

For a show that was full of supposed next big young things, you seem to have actually fared the best.
Yes, I did not say “Na na, na na na!” Okay, now I”ll do it: “Na na, na na na.” [Laughs.] You know, let’s see where they are in 30 years. I could’ve been one of those young … You know, first fame, or success of any kind, can be toxic. For all the people involved, it’s like, “Wow, everything Mom said is true, I’m great!” You stop asking questions and think you have all the answers. But then you realize, Oh, it’s actually more about just showing up every day and trying to get as many at bats as I can.

Please explain the forthcoming work of art that the movie Burlesque appears to be. Who do you play?
I play Cher’s husband. I’m Mr. Cher! Which is funny, because I hadn’t seen her since she was my date in The Player twenty years earlier.

I’d imagine she looks … somewhat different now?
You know what — not much! She’s lookin’ pretty good. The choreographer was one of my hot-box girls from Guys and Dolls, and the club we shoot in, it’s a club you just wish was somewhere. It looks like it’s from Paris at the turn of the century, or that club downtown, the Box they call it or somethin’ like that? There was something marvelously wacky about the whole shoot. I think some of that will really translate. It’s gonna be kinda wacky. I kind of have a good feeling about it. I think it’ll be … memorable? [Laughs.]

We can’t speak to you without discussing your eyebrows, which are amazing. Have you found them to be a great asset in your career?
You know what, we’re very close. I don’t see them all the time, but I know they’re there. The response to them has absolutely flummoxed me. As I said, I don’t see them and everybody in my gene pool has got ’em. You go to certain areas in Ireland and I’m a dime a dozen, so it’s like, what the hell are they talking about, it’s just my eyebrows! The funny thing is, growing up I was much more concerned about my lips. Little did I know, years later they’d be upstaged by my eyebrows. I’m bemused and surprised. And grateful that they’re still very much in evidence.