‘Surviving Jack’s’ Christopher Meloni Reflects On Groundbreaking Gay Affair On ‘Oz’

Chris Meloni in "Oz" (HBO)

It’s the early 1990s and you’re a teen just trying to get through life…until your Mom goes back to work and your ex-military, no-nonsense Dad decides to take the parenting reins. That’s the main conceit behind Fox’s new sitcom, Surviving Jack,” which premieres tonight.

In the series,  based on Justin Halpern’s book “I Suck At Girls“, Christopher Meloni turns to comedy to play Dr. Jack Dunlevy, husband to wife Joanne (Rachael Harris) and ruler of the roost to teens Frankie (Connor Buckley) and Rachel (Claudia Lee).

Of course, it’s easy to recall Meloni for his twelve seasons hunting bad guys on Law & Order: SVUbut before he stepped into the shoes of Elliot Stabler, he was known for his breakout role as Chris Keller, the inmate on the HBO series, “OZ” who fell in love with another man, Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen). The series ran from 1997-2003.

I caught up with Meloni recently to see if he realized at the time of “Oz” just how groundbreaking playing it was for his role.

“It was a big deal,” the actor, who is a vocal supporter of gay rights, said. “I knew only because the reaction was so strong and I remember thinking ‘why is this a big deal?’ but then once you think about it you think it’s a whole section of people who haven’t had a voice. They weren’t represented as a whole human being or were portrayed as stereotypical of being fey or effeminate.”

Meloni is well aware that people might forget he’s done comedy before (he was part of HBO’s “1st & Ten” series and also appeared in the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere comedy “Runaway Bride“) but doesn’t mind. “It’s alright,” he said. “The ‘Law and Order’ gig was pretty strong and I think most people know me from that so that’s alright.”

Connor Buckley, Chris Meloni in "Surviving Jack" (Fox)

With “Surviving Jack,” Halpern, who is an Executive Producer alongside Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs” “Cougar Town”), Patrick Schumacker and Jeff Ingold, said at the show’s Television Critics Association panel earlier this year that though the book and the series is based on his growing up with his own father, he did have a rule in how Meloni’s character would be played. “I think the line we try to never cross and the line that my father won’t cross is I always feel like he’s saying what he thinks honestly [and] as a kid, I always knew where I stood.  He was worried I would go out into the world and live in what he calls a world of bullshit, which is, like, people in L.A. telling you, ‘Oh, this is great,’ but they don’t really think it is.  So I think we just never wanted the character to be mean.”

Meloni added that he recalled an abrasive TV character from the past in helping him find the right tone for his character. “I thought it was very important that he’s authentic.  And whether you agree with that authenticity or not…I mean, sometimes I would think of Archie Bunker without the racism. You know, what came out of his mouth was a little jarring at times, but he was truly coming from his heart.”

Lawrence also said that he’s seen Meloni with his kids and that he’s not a pushover with them to which the actor replied with a smile, “the highest compliment I have yet received in my parenting job was when I gave a look to my son like this [gives a deep, serious stare], and his response was this, ‘I don’t know if you’re kidding or not.’ And I went, ‘That’s where I want you.’

Here is the trailer from “Surviving Jack:”

[iframe http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/watch/Surviving-Jack/9100414492786382112/206759491832/First-Look%3A-Surviving-Jack/embed 580 476]

Surviving Jack airs Thursdays at 9:30pm on Fox.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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