You know Mike O’Malley. Or you think you know him. What do you know him from? Maybe you recognize him from something you’ve seen on TV, but you can’t place it. Or you can’t shake the feeling that you grew up with him. Was he a neighbor? Did you go to the same high school? It nags at you. You know him. But, like, know him.
“I have this Irish face, man,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who look like me.”
The truth is, if you’re a millennial of a certain age, you grew up with O’Malley, who was a formative pop culture figure as the host of the game show Nickelodeon GUTS before becoming a fixture on TV series like My Name Is Earl, The Good Place, Snowpiercer, and, especially Glee, on which he played Burt Hummel, the heartwarmingly supportive father of a gay teenage son.
That uncanny familiarity he projects is the whole point. It’s one of the reasons he’s been a near-constant screen presence over the last 30 years. (Yes, that influx of gray hairs comes from the revelation that this upcoming year marks the 30th anniversary of GUTS.) There may be a lot of people who, as he says, look like him, but you know him, specifically. It’s also defined a certain kind of role he’s played.
Maybe it’s that Irish face, one that looks just right when he’s wearing a baseball cap and flannel shirt, but he’s been TV’s quintessential Everyman. If the “sitcom dad” character type became a walking, talking human being, he would look and sound like Mike O’Malley, who has played it for hundreds of episodes across multiple sitcoms, most famously Yes, Dear, which ran on CBS for six seasons and 122 episodes.
Talking with O’Malley, you get a sense of why he’s so tuned in to playing the type of person that everyone feels like they know. “There's a lot of guys that I know who are like me,” he says. “You try to be a good guy. You want to be a good dad. You want to be a good brother. You want to be a good son. You want to be a good friend. You find joy and fellowship in gathering with people. You also want to have fun. You want to have a sense of humor, and yet also you want to talk about serious things.”
After creating the series Survivor’s Remorse and writing on Shameless, he’s now working as the showrunner of Starz’s new drama Heels, about two brothers who are the star wrestlers of a bootstrap league in small-town Georgia. The name is derived from the age-old concept that in any wrestling league, you need good rivals. One is the hero and one is the villain, or the “heel.” In this case, the siblings, played by Stephen Amell and Alexander Ludwig, are the characters on opposing sides.
A world in which men wearing flashy underwear body slam each other and hurl scripted insults while fans cheer in between chugs of cheap beer seems at odds with the grounded, Everyman relatability that we just described. That is, until you watch the show, which centers the spectacle of the ring with an emotionality and focus on the tortured ties of working-class families—think Friday Night Lights, not Monday Night Raw.
“I understand why people would think, oh gosh, these wrestlers, they’re just these big dudes who don’t cry,” O’Malley says. But don’t be surprised while watching Heels when they do. And then when you do, too. A lot. At this show about...wrestlers?
Talking with O’Malley, you crack that the secret to the show isn’t that it’s about wrestling. It’s about what it always is with him, and has been since he was hosting GUTS and rooting middle-schoolers on as they scaled the Aggro Crag in pursuit of fleeting glory. It was what it was about when he was playing the TV dad who is capable of changing his heart in defiance of society’s expectations of him, or writing for a series about a poor family in Chicago scraping by the best they can.
It’s about average people who are capable of and who expect greatness, even if that greatness is within the confines of average things. O’Malley is remarkably philosophical about that, actually, talking about what it means to care—really care—about what you do, no matter what station of life you’re coming from or how big or small what you’re doing might seem to other people.
You have that sense that you really know Mike O’Malley. But maybe that’s because Mike O’Malley really knows you.
“What was eye opening to me was how much the people who wrestle and are trying to put on a show care, and that's what we wanted to honor,” O’Malley says.
Everybody cares, and everybody should empathize with that, he argues, explaining how even I, a person who had to pretend to know who Stone Cold Steve Austin was in sixth grade in order to avoid being bullied at lunch, could somehow feel deeply attached to a TV series about wrestling.
As a journalist, he explains, putting on a therapist’s hat, he imagines that I take the responsibility that I have seriously when I’m working on a story. “You're trying to be great, because you got into writing because you believe that you have something to say or a way to distill what is happening so that when people read that article, they're like, ‘Oh man, that's really cool. I have a little insight into human beings that I didn't have before I read that.’ So that is how I engage in this work. It’s why it matters to me, and why I like doing this job.”
Someone shouldn’t be surprised, he says, that a person who owns a restaurant takes care to make sure the tables look nice, the utensils are clean, and the music is good. “It doesn't matter that it's not the biggest restaurant on Fifth Avenue in New York. It just matters that you are expressing yourself and creating a place where people find joy.”
If that makes sense for the restaurant owner, or for O’Malley as a TV showrunner, or for me writing this article, then why wouldn’t it make sense for these brothers mounting a wrestling league in rural America? Of course we should all be able to relate to it.
“As a parent who has three kids, I’m trying to get them to understand that their life, how they spend their time, and what they do is who they are,” he says. “That's injected into the show, too.”
All philosophical talk and wisdom is also tempered by some straight-talk logic and self-deprecating humor. Asked whether he was ever hankering to get in the ring and try some of the wrestling moves that his actors were learning, O’Malley scoffs.
“No, no. My mother didn’t raise stupid kids.” He lets out a long laugh. “Even when I hosted Nickelodeon GUTS, I never wanted to try what the kids were doing because I didn’t want to end up with a fracture. I'm at the point where I just like to do the physical activities that keep me from getting over 200 pounds.”
It’s as wild to him as it is to us that we’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the Nickelodeon game show. O’Malley was 24 when he booked the gig. Now he’s 54.
O’Malley had just moved to New York from New Hampshire, where he grew up, for acting school when his agent submitted him to host a show called Get the Picture for Nickelodeon, the kids-focused channel that was becoming increasingly popular as cable and satellite-TV subscriptions boomed in the ’90s.
After shooting about 115 episodes, he went on a mall tour with Nickelodeon to market the network. He was immediately treated as the older brother to the network’s young, excitable viewers. That popularity led to him being cast on GUTS, a super-charged obstacle course where kids would compete, and, later, Figure It Out, a panel show in the vein of What’s My Line?, but for kids.
“It was part of the monoculture being experienced by the country at that time,” O’Malley says. The fact that Nickelodeon was, then, arguably a fool-proof option for kids’ entertainment only made it more popular. “Parents could trust the programming and not have to worry about anything. It was just for kids, but it was also celebrating kids. That was just so much fun.”
Those same kids are the ones who, a little over a decade later, would become so touched by his performance on Glee. Having the connection of being so formative for a certain generation at different milestones in their lives and journeys has been special for him.
“People come up to me still and say, ‘Hey, I just want to let you know that the father-son relationship you had on that show has helped me talk to my father and my mother about who I really am,’” he says. “And vice-versa. There are parents who say, ‘My kids came to me and said to watch this show so that we can talk about what I don't want to be a difficult conversation.’ That's when drama can really help.”
O’Malley was nominated for an Emmy for his work on Glee. The character of Burt Hummel, a mechanic in Ohio figuring out how to handle being the single dad to a gay son whose interests rarely overlapped with his own, was supposed to be a one-episode stint. Fans were so moved by the storyline that he ended up starring in 47 episodes.
He credits creators Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk for the deep connection his character had with viewers. “That was a gift,” he says, then laughing: “And I’m waiting for another gift from those guys. I’ve got three kids to raise.”
In the meantime, he’s given himself his own acting gig. On Heels, he plays a rival promoter of another wrestling league, a gregarious, mustachioed showboat in a bandana and biker leather. He's also the showrunner of the series, and he’s incredibly proud of what he accomplished: A drama series in which the lead actors are tossing their bodies around each other in a confined space...in a pandemic. But he misses being in the ring, so to speak, himself.
“I'm just trying to get back to where somebody offers me another Yes, Dear, for God's sake,” he says. “Ryan Murphy, can I play Sarah Paulson's husband in something? For God's sake, we had a good time on Glee. Can we get another one?”