Whether he’s wrangling murderous puppets in Chicago’s theater scene or raising the ire of Leslie Knope, actor Jim O’Heir has just one rule: be nice.
Fans of the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation know Jim O’Heir as the bumbling but affable Jerry Gergich (or, if you follow one of the show’s finest running jokes, “Larry Gengurch”). In 1990, Chicago knew him as the stage actor who played with mutated puppets.
A native of Lansing, Illinois, O’Heir moved to Wrigleyville to hone his comedic chops at Second City. There, he found some like-minded people, five of whom joined him to create White Noise—a controversial black-comedy group. O’Heir credits this team with launching his career: one of their shows, written by teammate Pat Cannon, traveled to LA and put him on the radar of several agents. That show was Stumpy’s Gang.
“It was a 90-minute one-act, and it was lunacy,” he says. “By the end I’m laying in a pool of blood. There was video, there were special effects. There were puppets spewing blood [and] singing opera.” Despite the stomach-churning content, O’Heir’s performance was praised for being both funny and heartbreaking. Being the amiable person he is, O’Heir even remembers the angriest reviews with fondness.
As he recalls, one of the worst said: “Though Jim O’Heir seems like a nice enough fellow, he should be embarrassed to do what he’s doing in the privacy of his own home, let alone onstage.” And then there was Chicago Reader’s Mary Shen Barnidge who, after seeing the show, headed to a nearby bar to discuss it until 1 a.m. “That’s a good review, because whether you like a play or hate a play,” O’Heir says, “the fact that hours later it was still the topic of discussion meant we did something.”
The Evolution of a Gengurch
More than two decades later, the longtime stage and television actor is still inspiring conversation, bringing a teddy bear’s warmth and a dodo’s competence to his role on NBC’s Thursday-night comedy anchor. Though Parks and Recreation is true-blue comedy, O’Heir’s varied experience—and real love for the work—brings Jerry/Larry to life week after week. “I put time into figuring out what’s going on with Jerry/Gerry/Larry, whoever the hell I am every day.”
Larry wasn’t always loveable. When Parks began, no one knew what direction the show or its characters would take. Amy Poehler thought Jerry, who was consistently the butt of workplace jokes, could be a tyrant outside the office. However, showrunners Mike Schur and Greg Daniels knew that for audiences to care, Jerry had to be sweet. They also paired him with a stunning wife and three devoted daughters. “The reason you can sustain a character like this,” O’Heir says, “is because…he [has] the most amazing home-life. The price he pays is [that he’s] the guy who is crapped on here and there.”
Despite the crapping, O’Heir—like Jerry—prefers to look on the bright side, pointing out that Pawnee’s civil servants really care about his character. They have, after all, resisted his leaving. “What I love,” he adds, “[is] he’s all-forgiving. He fumbles, he goofs up, but he’s been there a lot of years and loves these people.”
We learned more about the man behind the stalwart Parks Department employee:
If, as presented in the Chicago Reader review of Stumpy’s Gang that described his performance as “ursine,” he were a bear:
“As I’m getting older, I guess it would be a polar bear. Everything on me is turning white.”
If any casting directors are reading this, he wants to be:
“To be a bad guy. I’m labeled as ‘Oh, loveable Jerry!’ Which is great, but—a bad guy. Just a really rotten dude would be fun to play.”
If his beloved rescue dogs are as cute as advertised:
“I’m sitting with two of them as we speak: one is snoring, and one is passing horrible gas. Aspen and Rex. I just don’t understand walking into a pet shop and buying a dog—even people who have a passion for a certain breed. If you want to go down that road, I get it, but I also guarantee: for every dog you love, there is a rescue.”
In the spirit of Larry, he offers one nice quote about his castmates:
Amy Poehler: “Super simple: nicest woman in the world. Super talented.”
Rashida Jones: “She’s gone, but I would just say…sweet and lovely.”
Nick Offerman: “An inspiration. Super talented.”
Aziz Ansari: “Young and brilliant!”
Aubrey Plaza: “Once you get to know her, there’s nobody sweeter, even though…she’s got that exterior about her. Heart of gold.”
Chris Pratt: “Literally the biggest heart in show business. The kindest man alive.”
Retta: “She’s my girl! One of the funniest people I’ve ever known.”
Rob Lowe: “We’re visually twins. Sweet, wonderful man, with amazing Hollywood stories.”
Adam Scott: “I’d feel terrible if I forgot everybody. Let’s see…Oh! Adam Scott! [He] is an [all-around] great guy, [and] such a great family man.”