Funny turn of events

Alan Dale is loving the chance to make people laugh, writes Dominic Corry

Alan Dale, second from right, during filming for 'Auckland Daze'.
Alan Dale, second from right, during filming for 'Auckland Daze'.

As a boy in the early '80s, I knew him as "The Monster". He was only slightly more of a cad than George Clooney's Dr Ross on ER, but Dr Forrest, the ladies' man played by Kiwi actor Alan Dale in the Australian soap opera The Young Doctors was dubbed "The Monster" by his medical colleagues for his libidinous ways.

His acting career in Australia was subsequently defined by Neighbours' kindly patriarch Jim Robinson, whom he portrayed for eight years, but these days he's one of the most visible actors in American television, with high-profile roles in everything from The O.C. to Lost to Entourage to Once Upon A Time. Not to mention films such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Late last year Dale accepted an offer to appear as himself in the second season of local comedy show Auckland Daze, which premieres this Thursday. While in town to film his scenes, he found some time to chat about the strange turns his career has taken, and why he leapt at the chance to play a role in the beloved local satirical series without having seen it.

In person, Dale is quick-witted; sardonic and extraordinarily frank - a far cry from the parade of stern authority figures he's played in seemingly every single American TV show of the past 10 years. He began our conversation by telling me how his part in Auckland Daze came about.

"I was sitting in my lounge chair at home in Los Angeles, feeling good because it looks like Barack's going to win, and I got an email from Imogen Johnson, who's my agent here, which said that this show called Auckland Daze is being made, and if you're in the area they'd love you to do something with them. I wrote back that I won't be in the area, but thank you very much for thinking of me.

"Then they came back and said 'We could make you in the area if you're free'. But I was doing an episode of Once Upon A Time and was about to do an episode of Body of Proof. As it happened, there was a gap that was just long enough. So I said 'Yeah, let's go!' It's been a bit frenetic."

The production staff were shocked upon picking him up at Auckland airport to discover that he hadn't seen the show.

"I just hadn't had the chance!

I had no idea about what it was. I did know that it was a comedy. When I arrived in the country I went to my hotel and I studiously watched a couple of episodes and I loved it.
I just loved it."

"I wasn't so sure about the things they had me saying in the script because I was mostly talking about how wonderful I am. Which, you know, as a New Zealander, you don't like to do that. But it's all in aid of the comedy. So even if I did look terrible the show should look good."

So although Dale is one of the hardest working actors in America, he doesn't get a lot of chances to comedy - which worked out in Auckland Daze's favour. I asked if he feels frustrated by the types of roles he gets to play.

"To make a living as an actor you take what you can get.

"I met this acting teacher soon after getting to Los Angeles and one of the things she told me was 'Know what you're selling'."

"It took me nine months to get the first gig after arriving. I did The X-Files and 24 - then I did Star Trek: Nemesis, which was a great role, but the film was a flop.

He points to his role as the devious Caleb in soapy drama The O.C. as a turning point.

"I really enjoyed that because he had some humour, he was a naughty boy. He was a fifty-something guy with a twenty-something girlfriend in a bikini. The lovely thing about being in Los Angeles is that there is always something to do, even if it is playing the same character a lot."

Lost was another major role for the actor, but Dale was just as befuddled by the series as the rest of us.

"Once Upon A Time is written by two of the Lost writers. We had lunch last year to talk about it and the first thing I said when we sat down was 'Was I a good guy or a bad guy [in Lost]?' And they looked at me and said 'We don't know either'. The logic of the show was taken very seriously, but when you worked on it all the time, you could see the holes."

Although he hasn't lived in New Zealand since the late 70s, he still considers it home, and appears somewhat bemused that he is rarely claimed as one of our own.

"I didn't really make it here - it was overseas. Here, people don't know me from a bar of soap."

But he's happy to fly the flag for New Zealand in Hollywood.

"They can't shut me up [about New Zealand]. I say this categorically, the only reason I ever left was because of my career.

I would've never left otherwise. It's a priority to come home. For work or otherwise."

Dale cites the six months he spent playing King Arthur in the London production of Spamalot as the highlight of his career, and having now played another comedic role in the TV2 comedy Hot In Cleveland, is keen to do more of the funny stuff.

"It became very trendy to do single-camera comedies, which is all fine, but traditional sitcoms are still loved.

"They'll come up with a new way to do those, and hopefully I'm there. As the old dude."

Auckland Daze season two premieres Thursday at 10.05pm on TV One.

- Herald on Sunday

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