On Shameless, William H. Macy plays the world's most deadbeat dad.
He stars as Frank Gallagher, a boozy, shiftless grifter whose brood of six mix-and-match offspring (do any of them share the same mother?) care for one another and, by necessity, him. The oldest daughter, Fiona (played by Emmy Rossum), is the family's de facto mom, a Wendy to Frank's derelict Peter Pan.
"Derelict" is putting it mildly. Frank is abrasive, self-absorbed, scheming and delusional, a pickled patriarch whose most dignified moments find him passed out on the bathroom floor of the family's ragtag South Chicago digs, or on a random street corner or maybe in a public park.
But somehow the family stays afloat, even with Frank dragging everybody down.
"For all the craziness they go through, it is a tight-knit family, an honest family that loves each other fiercely," says Macy. "That's what the show is about."
Shameless began its third season recently with Frank coming to in Mexico, not sure how he got there and with no funds or credentials to get himself home.
Ever the schemer, he figures out a way. Just as, this week, he figures out a way to score some drinking money: He volunteers to take a neighbor's infant to the doctor for a scheduled vaccination, then spends the cash meant for the doctor at his favorite bar. He pricks the baby with a thumb tack to simulate a shot, and shares a few drops of his whisky to calm the baby's crying.
"I pride myself on taking the script and saying, 'I can do this!'" says Macy, clearly gleeful at the depths to which Frank routinely sinks. "I take all the stuff the writers can shovel my way!"
"Once or twice I've said, 'Too much. Too despicable. It's over the line,'" Macy admits with a laugh. "But it's the writers' job to push that line, to put every character in really uncomfortable situations. So we have a good, healthy tug of war."
The show barrels along a path that is both heartbreaking and hilarious, while Frank sets the pace with his appalling level of substance abuse.
The series doesn't glorify drinking, however riotously drinking is depicted. (Frank would be nobody's choice as a role model.)
And Shameless recognizes that, in a MADD-enlightened era, inebriation is no longer automatically a joke.
"But to claim 'being drunk isn't funny' is not true," Macy hastens to say. "Being drunk can be very funny!"
If Frank is reliably scruffy, there's one big change coming up. As Macy displays at this recent interview, his hair, previously near shoulder-length, has been shorn.
"I cut it for the show. I cut it on the show in a future episode. I won't give away why," he says.
Although he has achieved offbeat leading-man status in such films as Fargo (for which he landed an Oscar nomination) and the made-for-TV Door to Door (which he also co-wrote), the 62-year-old Macy has had a busy career on screen and on stage as a celebrated character actor.
But a few years ago, he got the hankering to headline a TV series.
By then his wife, Felicity Huffman, was flourishing on Desperate Housewives, Macy notes, "and she loved every part of it. I was jealous. I said, 'I want to do TV, too!'"