From Col. Parker to the concert stage
Billy Gardell, who brings his comedy to Minglewood Hall on Saturday night, describes the arc of his career as “23 years to an overnight success.”
A standup comedian turned sitcom star turned dramatic actor, Gardell, 46, is best known for playing the Chicago police officer who is one half of “Mike & Molly,” the six-season CBS comedy that aired its series finale on May 13.
Mike’s wife, Molly, was played by Melissa McCarthy, who in the past few years has become one of the two or three most popular movie comedians in America. But if Mccarthy’s level of superstardom so far has eluded Gardell, the Pittsburgh-born (and Pittsburgh-loyal) longtime standup comedian has not wanted for work — “My Name Is Earl,” “Bad Santa” — or challenges.
For the past three months, Gardell has been in town as part of the ensemble cast of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the eight-episode CMT dramatic series about the Memphis-based birth of rock and roll in the 1950s. Gardell could be a scenestealer, and not just because his plus-size physique will offer a contrast to the leanand-hungry Southern sex appeal of Drake Milligan as Elvis, Christian Lees as Jerry Lee Lewis and Chad Michael Murray as series nexus Sam Phillips. Gardell has one of the juiciest roles in the program: He is Col. Tom Parker, the Dutch-born showman who became Elvis Presley’s manager.
A graceful big man in the tradition of Jackie Gleason, Zero Mostel and Oliver Hardy, Gardell is in every episode of the series. He And awaaaay we go: Billy Gardell performs Saturday at Minglewood Hall.
said he researched his role, but “I don’t think anybody knew Col. Parker except Col. Parker.”
The first season of what CMT hopes will be a longlived series begins in 1952, with the so-called “colonel” operating a “Colonel Tom’s Dancing Ducks” amusement in Memphis; follows Parker as he begins
to manage the careers of such Nashville country stars Eddy Arnold (Trevor Donovan); and concludes with the meeting of Parker and Presley.
“He’s a bit of a con man,” Gardell said of Parker. “There’s a part of him that’s a shyster, but also a part of him that’s a visionary.”
Gardell — who cites
sitcom star turned dramatic actor John Goodman as a role model — said shooting in Memphis “has been lovely. Playing these iconic characters, it really helps to be in the city where these events happened. There’s a real atmosphere in Memphis.”
He said he and many of the cast members took a field trip to Graceland, and many have visited Sun Studio on their own or in smaller groups. He said the results of the exposure to Memphis should be evident.
“I absolutely think they (CMT) are looking at this as their version of ‘Mad Men,’ their foray into the highestquality television.
Gardell concludes his work on “Million Dollar Quartet” Friday (shooting in Memphis is scheduled to wrap July 9), so he expects his Saturday show to be something of a farewell celebration, with many cast members present. Whoever attends, he said, will experience what he calls “working-class humor,” evocative of his Pittsburgh roots.
“My topics are very much real life,” said Gardell, whose act now relies heavily on his experiences as a husband and father.
“Millon Dollar Quartet” is set to debut on the CMT (Country Music Television) cable network in November. Gardell said he hopes the series is a success, and that he’ll return to Memphis soon, to become Col. Parker once again.
“He’s a really fun character to play. It’s a case of giving the devil his due.”