J.K. Simmons, the star of Growing Up Fisher, a delightful new family comedy on NBC, initially wanted nothing to do with the show.
But it’s not because the in-demand character actor disliked it. Simmons loved the premise from the start: He plays an extraordinary individual who refuses to let blindness keep him from doing anything he sets his mind to.
Simmons — a supporting player on such acclaimed TV dramas as Oz, Law & Order and The Closer — just didn’t want to take on a Growing Up Fisher-size workload.
“I wasn’t looking to be the lead of any show,” he says. “I don’t like to work that many hours. I’d rather be home with my family.
“And I certainly wasn’t looking for the additional challenge of playing a blind man.”
Yet here he is, as Mel Fisher, a successful trial lawyer and devoted family man.
Remarkably, most of Mel’s closest work colleagues don’t even know he’s blind. He carries himself with that much grace in a seeing world. Meanwhile, at home, Mel does all the typical dad stuff, from playing football with his son to teaching his daughter to drive.
Growing Up Fisher premieres at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, after Olympic coverage of the Closing Ceremony, and then moves to 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays.
Ripped from real life
The main character and his accomplishments are inspiring, especially in light of the fact that he’s based on a real person, the father of series creator and showrunner D.J. Nash.
That’s why Simmons ultimately relented and decided to come aboard: The material was just too good to resist.
“To me, this show hits the trifecta,” says Simmons, 59. “It’s funny and it’s smart and it’s heartfelt and sweet without being maudlin or saccharine. That is increasingly rare on television.
“And aside from still working more hours than I wish I was, I haven’t enjoyed a TV job more.”
It’s never easy for an actor to be immediately believable as a blind man. “There’s more to it than just what you do with your eyes,” Simmons says.
What’s more, here he has the added challenge of playing a blind man who fools people into thinking he sees normally. That is more complicated than it sounds.
“There’s so much going on in my brain in addition to the usual stuff like knowing my lines,” he says. “I often feel like I’m trying to walk, chew gum and do nine other things at the same time.”
Yet to Simmons’ credit, he pulls it off.
The Jenna factor
In the debut episode, in addition to playing football and parallel-parking a car to perfection, Mel rides a bicycle on a busy street and chops down a tree with a chain saw.
If the character weren’t so likable, we might resent him for making us feel like underachievers.
Mel’s adult son (voiced by Jason Bateman) is the narrator, fondly reminiscing about his life with such a remarkable father. What’s more, the boy also has a memorably offbeat mom (played by Jenna Elfman) who is often more childlike than her two kids.
“Despite the fact that I don’t watch all that much TV, I had been a fan of Jenna’s going back to her Dharma & Greg years,” Simmons says. “The fact that she is significantly younger than I am and way too pretty to be married to an old, bald guy is a little bit of an ego bump for me.”
The pilot episode opens with Dad and Mom splitting up (while managing to keep the family as close-knit as ever) and finally sharing Mel’s “secret” about his blindness with the world.
Simmons has yet to meet his real-life counterpart in person, but they have talked on the phone a number of times.
The real Mel, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, plans to take a cross-country flight next month from the east coast to visit the Growing Up Fisher set and to meet all 167 people (cast, crew and office staff) who have jobs because he inspired his son enough to create this show about him.
“He’ll get a hero’s welcome when he arrives,” Simmons says. “There’s no doubt about that.”