Most actors love to get their teeth into a juicy part and chew it like a dog. It's a rare actor who can win a role by doing nothing.
But Brian Baumgartner did just that. The Atlanta native plays the double-chinned, balding Kevin on NBC's "The Office." When he first read the script it defined Kevin as "spectacularly unspectacular." Baumgartner wasn't even insulted when his agent insisted he try out for the role. "This guy — really there is nothing spectacular about him. You've got to take a look at him," the agent said.
"That's where we started," grins Baumgartner, 36, who's considerably more animated than Kevin ever was.
In fact, when Baumgartner showed up to audition for the role he was given the part of Stanley to read.
"I was familiar with the British version of 'The Office' and there was a character named Keith. And I knew I could do that, and that I could play the simple guy in a way that was believable and not like what you see so often, someone pretending to be simple — a caricature. So I was originally given the [lines] to audition for the role of Stanley.
"And I knew that was not right. So I took a risk, and when I went in to the audition, I read those [lines] as though I were Kevin. At the end of the discussion someone said, 'Why don't we give him this other character?' ... And that's how the part was won."
When he finished, someone — he thinks it was executive producer Greg Daniels — asked him, "How did you do that?"
"I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Well, it was like there was nothing happening but something was happening.'
How he did it was by performing all kinds of variable roles (including Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman") in the theater for eight years after graduating from Southern Methodist University, where he majored in theater.
But acting was not his first love. In fact, had it not been for a botched surgery on his leg when he was 15, he might be playing first base for the Atlanta Braves.
"I started in sports, doing basketball and baseball and had a slight condition with my leg which was from birth. I could've lived forever and not been bothered, but I was so interested in sports that I got surgery to try to work some things out. ... They say whatever you believe in, God or the universe works in mysterious ways. ... What happened, it was a normal surgery and they had to end up breaking the bone, it was sort of twisted, then something happened and something burned through to my Achilles' tendon on my heel, which was just a mistake, so I had to learn to walk. I was a teenager in a wheelchair, later with a walker. I had to relearn to walk."
Because he was active, he tried to find some other outlet for his adolescent energy.
"So I started doing theater as a teenager. I fell in love with it. But just really thought it was going to be a high school activity."
Then he took a six-week summer theater course at Northwestern University between his junior and senior year. That sealed his fate.
"I really fell in love with it there and decided it was what I wanted to go to school for."
Baumgartner's dad is a doctor in Atlanta, but neither parent objected to his quixotic field of choice.
When he first arrived in L.A., Baumgartner gave himself a year to make it in television. He booked a couple of commercials and landed a unique role on "CSI."
"I'm embarrassed to tell you what I played on that," he says, studying the floor.
"I don't know if I can look you in the eye and tell you what I played. It was so degenerately terrible, and I'd never even heard of it. My mom would be ashamed of me telling you, but apparently there's a fetish thing that is where people dress up in big furry costumes and rub up on each other. I was a dog, dog man. So I did that and 'Lyon's Den' and then I think from there I met the folks from 'The Office.' "
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