Offerman brings 'American Ham' to his alma mater

In his breakthrough role as Ron Swanson on the TV sitcom "Parks and Recreation," Nick Offerman delivers his lines deadpan.

He picked that up while growing up in Minooka, west of suburban Chicago.

"My dad and his father before him, Ray Offerman, mayor of Minooka, had this great stentorian sense of humor," Nick Offerman recalled. "They loved to dispense wry comments while keeping a straight face, which I always found funny."

Offerman's delivery as the droll, meat-loving, government-hating Swanson also was influenced by the late actor Paul Gleason, who played the gruff principal in "The Breakfast Club" (1985).

"I thought he was funny being so overly authoritarian, carrying too big of a stick. That always made me laugh," Offerman said.

The actor, whose star is rising — he recently achieved a pop-culture pinnacle by voicing a character on "The Simpsons" — left Minooka after high school to study acting at the University of Illinois.

He will return this week to present, on Saturday evening at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, his "American Ham" show.

His wife, Emmy Award-winning actress Megan Mullally, sometimes accompanies him in that show as part of her band Nancy & Beth. The group won't be with him at Krannert.

"They're not available," he said. "That weekend I believe they have a show on the Santa Monica pier with Jack Black and Tenacious D."

The "American Ham" performance at Krannert is a benefit for Japan House, founded by now Professor Emeritus Shozo Sato,

While here, Offerman also will co-host with Sato and his wife, Alice, an "East Meets Midwest" dinner next Sunday at Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign.

Tickets for the dinner, also a Japan House fundraiser, were $325 per person — and the 45 seats sold out overnight.

Sato was Offerman's mentor at the UI, and they have remained close since he graduated. Sato officiated at the 2003 wedding ceremony of Offerman and Mullally. And last year, when Sato had his final Kabuki performance at Illinois, Offerman flew here to attend it.

During that visit, Offerman toured Japan House, a unit on South Lincoln Avenue of the College of Fine and Applied Arts that was built in 1998, five years after he graduated.

"He was truly taken by this place," Japan House director Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud told the UI News Bureau. "A week later, he called and made his first donation, and asked what else he could do. It's really heartwarming that with his busy, busy schedule, he's willing to do this."

Hirsute brand

Offerman is now on tour with "American Ham." When Nancy & Beth aren't with him, the show is "much more hirsute and atonal," he said.

Speaking of hirsute: Offerman's facial hair, particularly his oversized mustache, is a big part of his brand.

"People spot my mustache a couple of blocks away, and they come running," he joked. "They don't have a great interest in dealing with me. They just want to get to know the mustache."

Offerman said as a performer he's always used "the full complement of facial hair styles.

"I've done every possible variation in the spectrum, including a couple of versions of the Mr. T coif," he said. "The mustache is just one of the tools in my kit that came to bear when things took off for me."

After all, it's not like he's a famous carpenter and people love his hammer technique and go crazy after learning he's equally skilled with his crosscut saw and socket set, he said.

Actually, Offerman is an accomplished woodworker who owns Offerman Woodshop in East Los Angeles. At offermanwoodshop.com, it's described as a small collective of woodworkers and makers who focus on hand-crafted, traditional joinery and using fallen trees from throughout northern California and Los Angeles.

With all the acting work coming his way, Offerman doesn't have as much time as he would like to spend in his shop.

"I spend a couple of days in the shop most weeks," he said. "My team of elves gets to have a lot more fun than I do. I do a lot of administrating."

Good luck

Even before he became a sort of cult figure as Ron Swanson, Offerman said he had good luck finding movie roles — in fact, major roles in lesser-known, Sundance films.

Now mainstream movie makers who are fond of "Parks and Recreation" are giving Offerman "shots" at roles in their films.

And Offerman's enjoying that.

And he doesn't mind that it was Ron Swanson who brought him attention from mainstream directors and audiences.

"Nobody knew who the hell I was before," Offerman said. "I was enjoying a great life of anonymity, playing character roles as a dependable sort of veteran of the business.

"That has its great advantage. I could go to the grocery store without having to take my picture with somebody behind the meat counter. Once 'Parks and Recreation' took off, and people began to enjoy it so much, it opened up a lot of very wonderful new sorts of opportunity."

Among his more recent big-screen roles are Don Fitzgerald in "We're the Millers," released this year and starring Jennifer Aniston.

Offerman also has roles in the Terrence Malick film, "Knight of Cups," and did voice work in "The Lego Movie." Both are expected to be released next year.

And though he loves portraying Swanson, Offerman said, "Whenever we wrap it up and are done with Ron, to counterbalance Ron, I need to play some cowardly, mincing fop, somebody who cries a lot."

Important lesson

Even with all of his success, Offerman continues to follow the most important lesson he learned at the UI from his "sensei," Sato:

"He told me to always maintain the attitude of the student, that that is the path to a happy life," Offerman related.

The actor admired other UI faculty members as well, calling the Department of Theatre faculty "absolutely top-drawer."

He cited in particular Professor Robin McFarquhar, a fight choreographer and movement specialist, as "one of the most exceptional teachers" he's ever come across "in the entire world."

"He tirelessly was always improving his own knowledge so he could then impart that to his students," Offerman said. "He taught me guts, among other techniques."

Offerman said when he spoke to UI theater students two years ago he broke into tears when he mentioned McFarquhar because he felt such gratitude for his work.

Offerman came to major in theater at the UI in a rather odd way. He had performed in plays in high school and "definitely had a penchant" for performing.

But he didn't know then that he could become a professional actor.

"I didn't see any path to that kind of career," he said. "Then there was an incredibly fortuitous  meeting in my junior year of high school. I drove my girlfriend to the UI when she auditioned for the dance department."

During her audition, he "loitered" in a Krannert hallway where he encountered a couple of theater students. They told him they were majoring in theater so they could go to Chicago and be paid to be in plays.

"I was actually gobsmacked," Offerman said. "I didn't know one could do that. I went home from that beautiful day and said, 'Mom and Dad, I'm going to audition for a theater department.' They said, 'What the hell is that?' I said, 'I'm not sure, but let's get some brochures.'"

Kabuki influence

While at the UI, Offerman studied Kabuki theater with Sato, an internationally known Japanese master of Zen arts. As a theater director, Sato is best known for adapting Western classics to Kabuki.

With Sato and other students, Offerman toured Japan and Europe. In 1993, Offerman and a few of the students who had taken that trip founded the Defiant Theatre in Chicago.

Offerman said the company's explosive and acrobatic style was influenced by Kabuki and Tex Avery cartoons. He said Kabuki continues to inform his work as an actor.

Offerman also said he's willing to continue to be Ron Swanson, even though he and the rest of the cast never know what the fate of "Parks and Recreation" will be.

"Every year we get invited back for another season we're as pleased as punch and feel incredibly lucky," he said. "The fate of NBC is a little precarious these days; depending on how the network is doing affects whether they want to see us back next year."

"Park and Recreations," though, was about to start production on its 100th episode, which Offerman called incredibly exciting.

"We feel lucky we've been able to stick around this long," he said. "As long as we have fresh stories to tell, I'll be very happy to wear the mustache."

If you go

What: Actor and University of Illinois theater alumnus Nick Offerman presents his "American Ham" show, described as a "veritable smorgasbord of cautionary tales, tunes, and tips for prosperity, with minor nudity"

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U

Tickets: $30 for the public and $10 for UI students (proceeds go to Japan House on the UI campus)

Information: 333-6280; http://www.krannertcenter.com

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