Carol Stream native Eric Petersen owes his acting career to three seemingly unconnected events at Glenbard North High School.
1. He lasted about two weeks on the football team before deciding that the sport might not be his calling. "I was getting killed during practice," Petersen confessed. "I mean destroyed. I could barely walk after practice."
'Such a great place'Carol Stream native Eric Petersen, star of the new TV Land sitcom "Kirstie," reported that 98 percent of his fellow graduating theater students from downstate Bradley University moved to Chicago to become actors.
He did not.
"I knew how much I loved the city of Chicago and its people," Petersen said. "And I knew that if I ever lived there, I would never leave. As an actor, I knew I wanted to compete against the best of the best. I wanted to go all the way. I wanted to be on Broadway. I wanted to be on a TV show.
"There are some opportunities for that in Chicago, but they're limited. I knew I would have to go to New York or Los Angeles eventually. But I knew that if I moved to Chicago right after graduation, I would never leave. It's such a great place."
Ah, but one bright nostalgic spot dots the California horizon, at least for Petersen's taste buds.
"There is one Portillo's restaurant in Anaheim, next to Disneyland. When we go to Disneyland, we always stop without fail at Portillo's. It makes me so happy. It makes me feel like I'm home."
2. Because he joined the football team, he missed soccer tryouts.
3. So, a friend suggested that he audition for the school play, "The Hobbit." He was cast and thought, "Wow! Maybe this is something I would really like to do for the rest of my life."
Since then, Petersen played the understudy of the title ogre in the Broadway musical "Shrek" and stepped into the lead role full time for the show's first national tour. Later, he played the "guy with the pineapple" in Broadway's "Peter & the Starcatcher."
This week, Petersen starts a new career phase as Kirstie Alley's son in TV Land's original sitcom "Kirstie," premiering at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4.
Petersen plays dorky Arlo, the son Maddie (Alley) gave up for adoption years ago. He shows up one day wanting to connect with his mother, a Broadway star. The show also stars "Cheers" alum Rhea Perlman and "Seinfeld" co-star Michael Richards.
"I couldn't believe it," Petersen said after being told he had been cast, thanks to an initial audition recorded on his iPhone. "It was very, very exciting."
Not bad for a kid who once dreamed of becoming a cartoonist and maybe an animator.
In his senior year, Petersen decided to dump the cartoon dream and become a theater major at downstate Bradley University.
"I had to tell Dad and, at first, he was very disappointed," Petersen said. "Oh, Dad, I'm sorry! I'm leaving the highly lucrative career of cartooning for acting. Sorry I let you down there! Hey, it's not like I was planning to be a lawyer then changed over to acting, you know?"
Petersen didn't come to comedy because he loved it. Not at first. He used it as an improvised weapon while growing up.
"You know how some kids' defense mechanisms work?" Petersen asked. "Some get angry. Some get shy. My defense mechanism was to make people laugh. Growing up, I was really skinny and really short and a little odd-looking.
"I would do impressions. I would throw myself into a locker on purpose. I'd fall down and everybody would laugh. Just silly stuff. Telling jokes in class. I was always looking for a laugh."
He continues looking for laughs on the new TV series "Kirstie," whose main star hails from Kansas. Petersen thinks that their Midwestern connections got him the job.
"I can spot someone from the Midwest in a half-second of talking with them," he said. "It's a lot of the cliché things: People from the Midwest are a little bit nicer. They have a smile on their face. They're more down-to-earth, hardworking and nice to people, which is at the core of how I can spot someone, particularly from Chicago."
"Yes. We talk food and sports. Oh, my God! I miss Portillo's so much! I would do anything for a Lou Malnati's pizza right now! And we talk sports. Guys or girls, if you grew up in Chicago, it's a huge part of your life."
Speaking of Petersen's life, he met the woman who would become his wife after college. He had nabbed his first professional acting job at the noted Barn Theater in Augusta, Mich.
"I was mowing lawns, scrubbing toilets, rehearsing during the day and performing at night," he said.
At the theater, he met a young actress named Lisa Morabito. She popped up on his radar one night by performing the song "The Man Who Got Away" as a drugged-out Judy Garland.
"I thought that was insane!" he said. "And so funny. I tried to get her to date me for a couple of months. I eventually wore her down."
That was 10 years ago. Now the couple has a 3-year-old daughter named Sophie, born on the road. All because of a funny Judy Garland bit.
So what's the best part about being a Glenbard North grad about to tackle (football reference intentional) his first TV sitcom?
"I've gotten to realize my childhood dream, plus work with some amazing people," Petersen said. "I'm a pretty good person and I try to live the right way. Hopefully, if you're nice to people and work hard, good things will happen."
-- Dann Gire
-- Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking from people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would be good to feature, email them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.