And A Happy Star

NEW YORK (AP) — “There are shows,” says Chris O’Donnell, “that never garner awards, that aren’t considered highbrow in any way — but that lots of fans really enjoy and keep coming back to watch.”

These days, viewers (especially media critics) hail a new Golden Age of Television. But O’Donnell’s formidable “NCIS: Los Angeles” is systematically absent from any such honor roll, as are the others in this franchise-troika: the original “NCIS” (in its 13th-and-counting hit season, with Mark Harmon as star) and “NCIS: New Orleans” (which premiered two seasons ago). The trio routinely occupies the Nielsen Top 20.

“We fly under the radar in some respects,” says O’Donnell, who will wrap this season Monday at 10 p.m. EDT on CBS. “We’ve had our heads down, working hard for seven years.”

Even as he salutes a series like AMC’s “Breaking Bad” (“one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen — television or film”), he notes how the splintering of audiences, with boutique shows that cater to each niche, is the current TV trend.

“I don’t know how many big network procedurals like ours there are gonna be in the future, and it’s exciting to be part of it,” he says over lunch at his Manhattan hotel during a recent visit.

“NCIS: Los Angeles,” as anyone who cares already knows or can easily imagine, is an LA-based unit of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service charged with undercover assignments to apprehend dangerous and elusive criminals who pose a threat to the nation’s security.

As with its “NCIS” siblings, ingredients include plenty of action, ample intrigue, a dash of flag waving, a pinch of humor, and a healthy blend of likable, attractive characters (including O’Donnell as Special Agent in Charge “G” Callen, along with LL Cool J, Barrett Foa, Daniela Ruah, Eric Christian Olsen, Linda Hunt, Miguel Ferrer and Renee Felice Smith).

For its audience, averaging some 12 million viewers (including DVD playback), “NCIS: Los Angeles” boasts a goes-down-easy formula that seems to spring naturally.

“If only it was that easy,” laughs O’Donnell. “But our production is a well-oiled machine. We don’t screw around. I hear all these horror stories from other shows about ‘Fraturdays'” — a dreaded catch-up condition where filming, having fallen behind for the week, stretches all day Friday into Saturday’s wee hours. “We don’t ever do that. For us, 7-to-7 is a pretty normal schedule.

“And shooting in LA the past seven years — that’s a real luxury for an actor,” adds O’Donnell, 45, who considers himself a family man even more than an actor, and, with his wife, Caroline Fentress, has five kids ages 8 to 17.His series premiered in September 2009 as a spinoff of “NCIS.”

“But it wasn’t like I did this one series and it was a hit,” he hastens to add.

He cites “Head Cases,” a Fox comedy-drama where he starred as a hotshot lawyer whose career derails after he suffers a nervous breakdown. Premiering in September 2005, “Head Cases” became the season’s first new series to be axed, after just two airings.

“On the other hand, I had so much success when I was a young guy,” says O’Donnell. “It came very quickly.”

Growing up the youngest of seven kids in a suburb of Chicago, he modeled as a teen and landed jobs in commercials.

Then, after numerous auditions for films, “the impossible happened: I was cast in ‘Men Don’t Leave’ (1990). My first time in New York, in this very hotel, 17 years old, I auditioned with Joan Cusack. That was it. Then my dad took me to P.J. Clarke’s for dinner.”

After that, he won the plum supporting role to Oscar-winning Al Pacino in 1992’s “Scent of a Woman.” He played Robin in “Batman Forever” (1995) and “Batman & Robin” (1997).

“But deep down, I knew it wasn’t going to last like that forever.”

He was right. “I’ve been both hot and cold, and I know I’ve got it pretty good now. So, as long as we can keep turning out stories we feel good about, I would like to keep doing this show for a long time.

“On other shows, I see younger actors who are thinking about leaving and who want to have a movie career. They think the grass is always greener. But it’s hard out there!”

On “NCIS: Los Angeles,” he says gratefully, “We’re working some pretty green pastures.”

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