“Parks And Rec’s” Jim O’Heir Saves Puppies, Is Generally Awesome

He’s played a cross-dressing Santa, hosted a small-town radio show, and auditioned for the Ron Swanson character. A chat with the Pawnee Parks Department’s most lovable loser.

One of the most outstanding and crucial aspects of Parks and Recreation is that every character is fully formed and incredibly lovable. They’re all crucial too, from the leads (chiefly Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope and Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson) and big regulars (including Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford and Rashida Jones’ Ann Perkins), down to the key bench players.

That’s where Jerry Gergich comes in. A simple, happy, hardworking, and incessantly bumbling regular Joe, he’s the man every character loves to irrationally hate. Tiny mistakes, like calling a mural a “murinal,” earn him heavy mockery — but make him even more endearing to fans.

The smiling Gergich is played by veteran actor Jim O’Heir, who is everything you could want him to be: cheerful, a team player, and, when asked his hobbies, quick to mention a love of rescuing animals.

O’Heir talked to BuzzFeed earlier this week. (Some spoilers ahead, if you haven’t finished watching this season’s episodes yet.)

Jerry retired a couple of weeks ago. Is this the end of Jerry on the show?

Jim O’Heir: To be perfectly honest, I’m kind of sworn to secrecy. I’m supposed to blame the producers. But in the Jerry retirement episode, you did see where I get to come back a couple of hours a week. So without giving too much away, it’s open to a couple of different options, but I’m really not supposed to say. It’s tough, because I don’t know, I think it’s kind of obvious.

So what does a perfect day in retirement look like for Jerry?

JO: Of course he wakes up, he puts together the perfect breakfast for his family, they all sit down and have his morning sing-along because that’s just what the Gergiches do, and the perfect day would be like a weekend day where they’re all together — because for Jerry, there’s nothing more important than his family. So there would be some family time, but Jerry also likes to read and pull out the occasional cigar and have relaxing time. So the perfect day would be they’d have their breakfast, mill about, and then everyone hop in the car because they’re going to spend their day in Muncie where they’re probably going to find a little lake, maybe rent a pontoon boat, and cruise around the lake for a couple of hours. And Jerry will have a cigar, and his beautiful wife Gayle will be telling him throughout the day what a wonderful husband [he is] and how he is the most handsome man she’s ever met in her life. Then a wonderful dinner and then home.

Did you ever come up with a backstory as to how Jerry married Christie Brinkley?

JO: Well, when this was all even coming together, there was a couple of options. I believe this was Amy’s idea; she thought it might be funny if since Jerry was so put upon at work and abused, when he got home he was this tyrant, so maybe there was this scrawny little nervous woman who was a chain smoker who was like, “Oh my god, he’s home!” And that would have been a funny way to go, but I don’t think it would have had any longevity because it would mean that he had this crazy life at work, where he’s always the punching bag, and then he goes home to this sad life too. It wouldn’t allow the characters at work to do what they do to him, because the reason they can do what they do and Jerry can let it roll all off his shoulders is, he doesn’t care. He knows what he’s got; he goes home to the most amazing family.

So, I think he and Gayle were at Sherm’s Sundry Shop, because as Jerry has said, she certainly wasn’t his type when he saw her. I believe the quote is, “Long legs, blonde hair, big breasts? Eww, not my type at all.” So somehow, I think Gayle came on to Jerry. She saw something special in Jerry, probably started flirting, and the two of them hit it off. They have the same interests; family is huge for both of them. Remember, Gayle took Jerry’s virginity when he was age 24, and she was very gentle.

You also auditioned for Ron Swanson. Where do you think you’d have taken the character?

JO: I gotta tell ya, Nick Offerman, who I actually was with yesterday, I just can’t imagine anyone in the world doing it better than he’s doing in it. I think what Nick is doing is unique on television right now. The Ron Swanson character is special. I like to think that I’d bring that to it also, but actors are actors, and we’re right for certain roles and we’re not right for other roles. Not everybody is right for every role, that’s just life. So when you go into an audition, you hope to do your best, and in this case they liked something they saw and brought me back for Jerry. I like to think I’d be in line with what he’s doing, but that is Nick Offerman’s role.

In interviews, cast members do their best to forget or snub Jerry and you. Is that a gag you’re all in on?

JO: Oh yeah, it’s constant. We’ve done Paleyfest, and literally I’ll be answering questions and Nick Offerman will go, “Next.” And what I love about it is the audience goes crazy. What that says to me is they’re in on it; they totally get it. At one point, we were doing group interviews, and it was Nick or maybe Chris Pratt, and they called me “Tim” instead of Jim, as if they didn’t even know who I was. I love ballbusting in life; my buddies are big ballbusters, so for me that’s ideal. I love that kind of back-and-forth. When I see that reaction of people watching it, it makes me people realize they’re in on it, so I think that’s awesome.

What are your hobbies?

JO: I have a couple of little obsessions. One of my obsession is animals. I’m into dog rescues. It drives me crazy when people go to pet stores and buy dogs. There are so many dogs that need a good home. And this sounds crazy, but I really believe they know what is happening and are appreciative, and I just think they make for the best pets. I could also sit in a movie theater for 24 hours and be a happy camper. I love television. I recently treated myself to my new favorite car, so I love getting into that and just driving.

What kind of car?

JO: It’s a Volvo C70 convertible. Dude, oh my god. And I had no need for it. It was one of those things, I went to a charity event, one thing led to another, and the next thing you know, I’m driving the damn thing. And I just fell in love with it. To this day — I’ve had it since November, and the second I get in it, I just feel good.

Before you were an actor, you were a radio DJ. Tell me about that time in your life.

JO: As a radio DJ, I was on WRIN-WLQI. And even when I repeat it, it’s horrifying. My morning sign-on, because it was in Rensselaer, Indiana, it’d be, “You’re on the air with Jim O’Heir in Rensselaer.” Ugh, oh my god, pathetic. I’d gone to broadcasting school and studied broadcasting, and you end up with this little reel. So you start sending it all over the country; I lived in Chicago, and certainly WGN and all the big ones in Chicago weren’t going to look at you, you’re brand new. So you send them all over the country, and everyone is giving you these phone calls and interview you over the phone and it never pans out. All of a sudden I get this call from Rensselaer, Indiana, and cut to the chase, they wanted to give me a shot. So I packed up and I moved and I was making $120 a week. And it was an AM-FM building; they had both stations, so I was literally working there around the clock for $120 a week. But you pay your dues, so I was like, that’s cool.

But then, I get on the air, and it was a market for farmers, so I was doing pig reports. People would call in, “I have two cattle that I need, but I also need an oven toaster, so I’ll swap a cattle for an oven toaster.” It was the craziest stuff I’d ever heard in my life, I’m from Chicago and didn’t deal in that stuff. So it was very confining as far as what you could and couldn’t do on the radio, because it was who you were talking to. They don’t want to hear my thoughts on the news of the day. That’s not what they cared about. So I knew ultimately, at least that market wasn’t what I wanted, so I said, I’ll stick it out for a few years and you’ll head on to the next radio avenue.

But in the meantime, through a bunch of different avenues, I ended up hearing about Second City and someone contacted me, someone had heard some bit I had done and suggested I go to their training center. And I said, well, this isn’t what I want to be doing right here; let this be a middle ground and then I’ll do a training and I’ll head to some station after that. But the training opened my eyes. The minute I started, I knew this was where my world was. Performance, acting, it changed everything. For good or for bad, it changed everything. Because actors, there are a million of us out there for every role. As much as I enjoyed radio, and at this stage in my life, I would love to do it again, but it’d be a whole different world, because I would do it in a format where I could give my views and laugh and joke.

So it was a whole different point in my life that led me to Second City, and my buddies, we had a comedy group called White Noise. I knew that if I had to wait tables or whatever, this is what I had to do for the rest of my life.

Prior to Jerry, which was your favorite or most prized role?

JO: I’m labeled a comedic actor, which is awesome. But I love getting the occasional dramatic role too. Some of your best dramatic actors are ultimately comedians. I did an episode of Boston Legal where I was a cross-dressing Santa. And I got to work with James Spader, and he was just unbelievably amazing. And the role had so much going on. The first time you see me in that episode, I’m in a dress. It was just, what the hell is that? It opened up a lot of eyes, a lot of letters, a lot of young people and parents saying it was so wonderful to see [this], representing their children. I think it was one of my most important roles, but I also had a great time with it.

Did you audition? Did you see a casting notice that said, “We need a cross-dressing Santa,” and you said, “I’m your guy?”

JO: He’s only cross-dressing in one scene. The rest of it he’s just regularly dressed. I auditioned for the role, and the funny part is I had done an Ally McBeal [episode] years earlier, and it turns out, since it’s David E. Kelley, a lot of the crew was the same crew as Ally McBeal. And my first scene was in that dress. And I’m not embarrassed by it, but I don’t wear dresses, and I’m meeting people in a dress. But it turns out a lot of them were the same crew that I had known from years ago, so that made it easier. But still, it’s different; I’m a dude, I was meeting everyone in a dress, with makeup and boobs and the whole thing. It was crazy.

Going back to your radio show, you should do a podcast.

JO: I would love to do a podcast, because I’ve done so many of them, guesting on them. Plus anything goes, which I love. Do whatever the hell you want to do… It’s not like you even have to do all the fancy stuff. I’m 105 years old now, so I’ve met a few people, so I could have a bunch of guests.

Who’s your favorite sports team?

JO: I’m not a big sports guy in general, but I love the Bears and I love the Cubs. You have to decide; you’re either a Sox or a Cubs fan growing up. And then I lived in Wrigleyville and went to a million games sitting in the bleachers, never knowing what the hell was going on with the game and just drinking and being ridiculous.

So let’s say Jerry doesn’t come back, but they give him a spin-off. What would that look like?

JO: I think it would be too much. God knows I’d give it a shot, but I don’t know how much of the Gergich family you can take. Though now that you say it, because I haven’t put any thought into it, it would be interesting to meet Jerry’s family. Not his personal wife and kids only, but who brought Jerry into the world. What are the siblings like? Wow, that would be interesting. Otherwise, yeah, I think a Jerry sitcom would have had to have taken place 30 years ago. I don’t know that there could be a Gergich family sitcom in this world right now. But then again, put some crazy family members into the mix, who knows? Because remember, there was a story line where his daughter was dating Chris Traeger, and they were doing a lot. And of course horrifying Jerry — just what they were saying in front of him. So his kids, as much as they were raised with wonderful values, they’re doing their own things.

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