He's played a crazed killer, postured as the vice president and voiced an animated bunny.
Yet, actor Gary Cole, who grew up in Rolling Meadows, insists it's just a coincidence that he's played such a wide variety of roles during his 30 years in Hollywood.
Where you've seen himActor Gary Cole, who grew up in Rolling Meadows, has starred in more than 100 movies and TV shows, including:
"The Good Wife"
"The West Wing"
"Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby"
"The Brady Bunch Movie"
"There's very little planning. Very little has happened on purpose in terms of my choosing. It's just what's surfaced at specific times. It's always who's available and what the schedule is. There's very little sitting down stroking my chin saying, 'Hmmm, what will my next move be?'" he said.
Comedy has always been Cole's strong suit, with standout performances as the annoying boss Lumbergh in "Office Space" (a character briefly resurrected in State Farm Insurance TV ads earlier this year), the moronic Reese Bobby in "Talladega Nights," and goody two-shoes 1960s dad Mike Brady in "The Brady Bunch Movie."
But he's done an equal number of complex roles as a dramatic actor, earning critical praise and winning multiple Jeff Awards for his performances at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Cole's latest performance is a serious one -- as a high-ranking Canadian Air Force officer with a dirty secret in the TV movie "An Officer and a Murderer," which airs 7 p.m. Saturday, July 21, on Lifetime.
Before he made it to Hollywood, Cole was just a Northwest suburban kid listening to popular comedy albums on the record player in his family's Rolling Meadows home. Some of his favorites were Bill Cosby's "Wonderfulness," "The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart" and Steve Martin's "Let's Get Small."
"I actually memorized several of the albums and lip-synced them, but basically to myself, pretending I was in a nightclub somewhere. I don't think I did it in front of everybody," he said.
Then, in 1978, while bartending at Some Other Place (also known as S.O.P.s) in Arlington Heights, some friends cajoled him into reciting album excerpts for the bar patrons, and he was a big hit.
"I was always ripping (material) off," he said, laughing.
Cole was first introduced to theater while watching his sister perform in plays at the former Forest View High School in Arlington Heights. He took to the stage himself at Rolling Meadows High School and Illinois State University, where he connected with the founders of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Cole left college during his junior year to perform at Steppenwolf, which, at the time, was housed in a little space in Highland Park.
Cole has since starred in more than 100 movies and TV shows, yet it's not unusual for strangers to say, "Hey, Lumbergh!" when they see him. Lumbergh was the software company boss Cole played in the 1999 movie "Office Space" -- a character who became a pop culture icon for trying to raise office morale with Hawaiian shirt Fridays and speaking in a droll voice that said, "Ah, yeaaaah, hi," and "Greaaaaat."
"'Office Space' I loved doing," Cole said, noting that the movie was initially considered a flop and didn't become a cult classic until years later. "None of us saw that coming. We knew we were doing a movie we thought was really funny, but we didn't know the impact it could have had."
Cole says he also gets recognized by die-hard fans of the TV shows "The West Wing," where he played the vice president of the United States, and "The Good Wife," where he was ballistic expert Kurt McVeigh.
He's even voiced a number of animated characters, including a bunny in "Hop."
"One of the most fun characters I played on a television series, which didn't last long ... was a show called 'American Gothic' that Shaun Cassidy created. I would have loved to have done that show forever. That character was so funny yet demonic. It was really good writing, and a really good idea. I loved all the people on the show."
Cole, 55, who now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter, continues to vacillate between drama and comedy. He recently did some original comedy sketches for the popular video website FunnyOrDie.com, and he is now in New York doing a dramatic role in a new Sam Shepard play called "Heartless."
"It has some comedy in it. It's dark comedy for sure," Cole said. "If I keep at it, sooner or later, (comedy) is going to pop up at some point."