Thirteen years ago, Brian Baumgartner was best known as the artistic director of Minneapolis’ now defunct Hidden Theatre and a veteran performer on several other local stages. Then he moved to Los Angeles, where he snagged the role of sweet simpleton Kevin Malone on “The Office.”
“We were all relatively unknown when it started. Some of us were totally unknown,” Baumgartner, 40, said two days before the series ends its nine-year run Thursday night. “Going to buy a loaf of bread is a completely different experience now.”
He took time out from grocery shopping to reflect on his stint on “The Office.”
Q: What do you think is the series’ place in TV history?
A: Only time will tell, but I think in terms of American network television it changed it forever. There had been British comedies and “The Larry Sanders Show,” which had a similar feel and no laugh track, but it wasn’t really being done on the networks. I think it also hearkened back to “All in the Family” in that it was a little bit subversive and not always nice. We dealt with race, homosexuality and other issues and not in a PC way. I’m tremendously proud of that.
Q: How much has Kevin grown up — if at all — in the course of nine years?
A: I think he’s evolved a lot. He started off as kind of a blank slate, but the writers started bringing out his childish glee over things.
Q: You’ve been with this character a long time. How do you make sure that you don’t get typecast in future projects?
A: I think you have to be diligent and not sell out. I come from theater, where I mostly did drama. It’s not a stretch for me to think outside the box. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I think my audience expects me to do something completely different. I’d love to come back to Minneapolis and do something. Just not in February.
Q: What are your favorite moments from the long run?
A: I think Kevin will best be remembered when Dwight (Rainn Wilson) tricked Holly (Amy Ryan) into thinking my character was slow. The scene that may have had the greatest impact was, strangely enough, a cold opening in which Kevin spills chili on the floor. We were a little worried it was going to be too sad and pathetic, but we found comedy in it. The group scene that was hardest not to laugh during was when Michael (Steve Carell) dressed up as Santa and wanted Kevin to sit on his lap.
Q: A lot of long-running series get criticized for sticking around too long. There are fans who think “The Office” should have ended when Steve left and that the last few seasons haven’t been as sharp. How do you respond to that?
A: I think it’s fair to say the year he left, we didn’t make a firm decision on where we wanted to go. Were we going to focus on another person more specifically? Are we going to go in a totally different direction? As a result, I think we stayed status quo, but without a key piece.
I vehemently disagree with that analysis this year. This season has really been about Pam and Jim and allowing their story to be told out. If we had ended their story earlier, it would have been too soon.
Q: What was the most emotional part of shooting the final episode?
A: I mean, sure, there were tears on the last couple days on the set, but the most emotional response was during the final table read [by cast members]. I’ll tell you why. It was because none of us had read the script at that point. We were learning what was going to happen just like the audience will.
Q: Where will you be watching the final episode?
A: I’m still contemplating it. I’m supposed to be out of town, but there’s a gathering here in Los Angeles that I may go to. Another part of me feels like our wrap party in Scranton two weeks ago was the best way to say goodbye. Steve came back. It was a lot of fun and very humbling. So, who knows? Maybe I’ll just sit at home and watch it by myself.