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Jeff Daniels Is at the Peak of His Career in Two Roles Decades and Worlds Apart — Career Watch

Having reinvented himself with "The Newsroom," Jeff Daniels is now in his prime, delivering unforgettable TV characters in Hulu's "The Looming Tower" and Netflix's "Godless."

Jeff Daniels, "Godless"

Jeff Daniels, “Godless”

Ursula Coyote/Netflix


Welcome to Career Watch, a vocational checkup of top actors and directors, and those who hope to get there. In this edition we take on Jeff Daniels, who’s riding the swells during the current television tsunami. He’s not only in constant demand, but the adroit character actor has become a star. 

Bottom Line: Always a reliable working actor in movies, theater and television, 62-year-old Daniels broke out in his 50s with a huge career boost from Aaron Sorkin, who cast him as a gruff workaholic network anchor Will McAvoy in HBO’s Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning series “The Newsroom.” After playing the character, a news veteran trying to keep up with the times, Daniels hasn’t looked back. “I’m working in my 60s,” he marveled. “Look at any decade in my career: it’s not how they draw it up in star school. The only way to keep my career was to have as wide a range as possible. You accumulate all the stuff you’ve learned by the time you are my age. Now I kinda know what I’m doing.”

The Newsroom - Fixed the internet gif

Certainly the new television has been his friend. “It feels like a perfect storm,” he said, “with the home entertainment centers, flat screen TVs and better sound, with companies like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, HBO and Showtime [programming] edgier, stronger, more adult-oriented material. Those movies are not being made any more. Any actor will tell you to chase the writing, get a good script. The writers are respected more in the new television. With ‘Godless,’ ‘Newsroom’ and ‘The Looming Tower,’ it felt like artists were in charge.”

Career Peaks: From the start, Daniels specialized in playing the straight man to stronger women. The lean six-foot-two Michigan actor broke out in James Brooks’ Texas-Nebraska Oscar-winner “Terms of Endearment” (1983) as the feckless husband of Debra Winger’s Emma Horton. That was followed by his turn opposite wacky femme fatale Melanie Griffith in Jonathan Demme’s 1986 romantic comedy “Something Wild.” Daniels could do anything–slapstick comedy (the “Dumb and Dumber” trilogy launched in 1994), Woody Allen comedies (“The Purple Rose of Cairo,” 1985), action adventure (“Arachnophobia,” 1990), or drama, in such films as Gary Ross’s 1998 “Pleasantville,” Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours” (2002), and in 2005, George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.”

Jeff Daniels with Russell and Matthew Dennis Lewis, "Godless"Godless

Jeff Daniels with Russell and Matthew Dennis Lewis, “Godless”

Ursula Coyote/Netflix

Latest Misfire: Daniels co-stars with Paul Rudd in “The Catcher was a Spy” (IFC), which did not make a splash at Sundance (Tomatometer: 50 percent). The 2014 sequel “Dumb and Dumber To” did not match the success of the original — topping out at $157 million worldwide — and Daniels has no plans to revisit it.

Assets: As Daniels got older he gained gravitas — and danger. James Gandolfini told his “God of Carnage” theater co-star Daniels to try TV roles at HBO. Aaron Sorkin’s “Newsroom” followed, with Daniels as the word-spewing, womanizing, angry, Machiavellian network anchor with an ethical streak. He kept playing conflicted authority figures like John Scully, who ousts the Apple founder in “Steve Jobs,” and the NASA chief trying to get his astronauts home in “The Martian.”

Awards Attention: Nominated for four Golden Globes and three Primetime Emmys, Daniels won the Emmy for Leading Actor in a drama series for “The Newsroom.” But this year, his dual roles in two limited series, Hulu’s “The Looming Tower” (as real-life FBI chief John O’Neill battling with the recalcitrant CIA for information to prevent an impending Al-Qaeda threat), and Scott Frank’s Netflix western “Godless” (as a vicious one-armed villain who embodies the lawless west), have him in the Emmy race once again — for lead and supporting, respectively.

“Godless” writer-director Scott Frank said he wanted “The Lookout” star Daniels to be like Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

“Leone cast Henry Fonda as a bad guy who always played a good guy,” Frank said. “It seemed effortless. I knew Jeff could do it. Some actors are innately sweet and can’t hide it. Their kindness is there and you feel, with anything vicious or evil, they have trouble going there, they give off a generous vibe. Jeff is different. He’s a kind, thoughtful person, but he is also very introspective, and can be very dark. He has this side too that makes him complicated.”

THE LOOMING TOWER -- "Tuesday" - Episode 109 - The CIA becomes aware that Hazmi and Mihdhar are gone and must relay that to the FBI. O’Neill accepts a job as head of security at the World Trade Center. Soufan is sent back to Yemen. Hazmi, Mihdhar and Atta head to Vegas for a final indulgence. Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) and John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels), shown. (Photo by: JoJo Whilden/Hulu)


For late FBI agent John O’Neill, there wasn’t a lot of video to look at, except for Alex Gibney’s 1997 Frontline interview and Larry Wright’s book. Daniels also spent time with O’Neill’s old FBI partners to absorb their interrogation techniques. “I learned about the good and the bad, the strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “He was all over the place, he lived larger than life, searching for something: girlfriends, family, wife. He was leading double and triple lives. He’s a cad, going around seeing how many women he can get. I made the choice he was searching for something, he had insecurity. He’d give an incredible pep talk so people would run through a wall for him, and then say, ‘How was it, was it OK?’ He was looking for home and love in all the wrong places, but the FBI, that was home, that was his mistress. His true love was midnight working the phones. He loved it. When that was taken away from him, which it was, he was truly lost, and decided to straighten up on his new job. That was tragic.”

The western was challenging in a more physical, tactical way as his hardened one-armed outlaw Frank Griffin was also a tender father figure to stolen orphan Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), teaching him how to survive on the wild frontier. Daniels stuffed his arm in his pants behind or in front — it was also digitally removed. “Frank was so much fun to play,” he said. “He’d put a bullet in a guy’s hand and quote the Bible. He’s committed to both things. I don’t know what he has — some kind of mental illness, he was damaged and raised in bad circumstances, it just screwed him up so much. In his head, this is normal. Sometimes people disappoint him and he has to shoot them. Once you get the way he thinks, it’s fun, and it’s all about the beard and the hat.”

Daniels had the sense to know he’d better learn how to ride horses with one arm and his weight unevenly distributed, but he still got thrown off his horse three times on location in Arizona and New Mexico. “I got thrown off once with 20 horses coming behind me,” he said. On the second to the last day of shooting he lost patience with a runaway horse and jumped, breaking his wrist.

THE LOOMING TOWER -- "Tuesday" - Episode 109 - The CIA becomes aware that Hazmi and Mihdhar are gone and must relay that to the FBI. O’Neill accepts a job as head of security at the World Trade Center. Soufan is sent back to Yemen. Hazmi, Mihdhar and Atta head to Vegas for a final indulgence. John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels), shown. (Photo by: JoJo Whilden/Hulu)

“The Looming Tower”

JoJo Whilden/Hulu

Current Gossip: The Central Michigan University dropout and Detroit Tigers fan is still married to his high school sweetheart, Kathleen Treado, with whom he raised three kids. He founded the Purple Rose Theater Company in Chelsea, Michigan, his home town.

Next Step: Atticus Finch in Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” assuming the rights issues get worked out. “We’re moving ahead,” he said. “I hope I get to play him.”

Career Advice: Keep on chasing the hard stuff. Make more records and win a Grammy, trod the boards on Broadway and win a Tony, go back to high-end feature film roles and land an Oscar — and the EGOT could be his.

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