It could almost be a Glee storyline: at a family reunion in 2000, Patrick Gallagher was suddenly surrounded by concerned relatives. They laid out the reasons why he should give up his dream of being an actor and settle on something more sensible instead, like going to university. It was a full-on intervention, carefully planned, with chairs arranged in a semi-circle, and Gallagher in the centre, dumbfounded. His acting career survived the day, though. Gallagher stood his ground.
"I had to sort of convince them that this isn't a hobby," Gallagher said from his Los Angeles home this week. "Now they know that I'm actually doing this for real."
Gallagher, who grew up in Chilliwack, B.C., has hit the big time, with a role on the hit series Glee, where he plays the caustic high school football coach Ken Tanaka.
"Every time I go to work, it's kind of like going to Disneyland," he says. "The whole message and vibe of the show is so nice."
Glee, which recently won a prestigious Peabody Award, follows the quirky yet talented members of a high school glee club, on-stage and off, and the faculty members at their Ohio school. The show takes age-old teenage problems and gives them contemporary twists, offering life lessons - and comic relief - along the way. It's all set amid improbably well-staged musical numbers, as the glee club prepares to compete against other high schools.
"It was a big risk to do this show. We never really knew whether or not people would glom on to it," says Gallagher. "I mean, to be honest with you, it's one of those shows if I hadn't been in, I may not have watched it initially. On the surface it's about a bunch of kids in a high school glee club. Why would I want to watch it? And then you realize that there's so much more to this show."
Gallagher, 42, is the son of a Chinese mother and Irish father, both artistically inclined. His father taught Shakespeare - and acted. His mother taught music (and still does, in Fort St. John, B.C.). For years, she carefully clipped ads for cruise ships or theme parks hiring actors, and mailed them to her son. "This was even after I was working. It was kind of sweet," says Gallagher. "She's finally stopped doing that now."
Gallagher attended the National Theatre School and then moved to Toronto in 1993 to pursue his acting career. Between auditions and small jobs he worked as a bouncer at the club RPM, a doorman at Toronto's Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor Street (he fantasizes about returning to the hotel as a paying guest) and in Vancouver, as a waiter and "a terrible, terrible bartender" at a White Spot restaurant. He finally quit in May 2002, after landing a role in the Peter Weir film Master and Commander (although he stayed an extra week so he could work the lucrative Mother's Day shift).
He hasn't had a day job since. He landed television roles in several Canadian series and some high profile film roles, too: playing Gary the bartender in Sideways and Attila the Hun in the Night at the Museum films.
Then he was asked to audition for a pilot about a high school glee club.
Gallagher says it didn't take long to realize that there was something special about Glee. "I think we knew how good the show was from the get-go; you could kind of feel it as we were doing it."
He is one of three Canadians in the regular cast - along with Calgary-born Cory Monteith, who plays Finn, and Montreal native Jessalyn Gilsig, who plays Terri Schuester.
As Ken, Gallagher has a perpetual whistle around his neck, and a fire in his heart for guidance counsellor Emma (Jayma Mays), to whom he was briefly engaged. The audience can expect some changes for the character in the second half of the second season, which begins airing next week. "All I can say is Ken is not in the very best place," Gallagher reveals. "The Emma thing still affects him."
Gallagher speaks highly of his colleagues, especially Jane Lynch, who plays the love-to-hate-her cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester - and who had Gallagher crack up on set for the first time in his 15 years as a professional actor.
He's been lobbying for a chance to sing on the show. He's made a tape of himself belting out Radiohead's Creep (he says he kind of sounds like Paul Simon) and has given it to the show's producers.
Music has always been part of his life. He took piano and singing lessons, and was in his high school choir. "I remember being in grade ten at Chilliwack Junior Secondary School, wearing blue polyester pants and a white shirt, singing Up Where We Belong in a duet and being mortified."
Gallagher is an American citizen now, but still has strong ties to Canada - his family, in particular (his sister is Vancouver radio personality Margaret Gallagher).
"Vancouver and Toronto are still my home. I shouldn't say this, but I actually prefer Toronto to Vancouver. I know that's blasphemy, but I just like big cities. Not the Leafs, though. Canucks all the way."
New episodes of Glee begin airing tomorrow at 9:25 p.m. ET/PT on Global.