LOS ANGELES – Minneapolis-raised Peter Macon should be one of the most recognizable new faces on TV, thanks to his scene-stealing role on Fox’s sci-fi series “The Orville.” As the grim second officer Bortus, he’s so lost in space he makes Spock look like the life of the party.
But even his two kids would have a rough time identifying Daddy under all that foam rubber, which is why he and his wife keep a bust of the character’s head permanently displayed on a bar in the family home.
“It’s an interesting case study, having my face on billboards all over town, but I could stand right under one of them and no one would know it’s me,” Macon said last month while circulating at a network cocktail party. “That’s funny to me.”
Twin Cities theater regulars are sure to recognize Macon without all the makeup, thanks to his formidable 6-foot-2 frame, clean-shaven head and nearly 30 years of experience playing memorable roles at Penumbra, Illusion and Children’s Theatre Company. His 2014 performance as Othello at the Guthrie impressed former artistic director Joe Dowling, who subsequently cast him in his production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Macon was so familiar with the role — he also played the Moor in Colorado and Oregon — that he was able to skip a week of rehearsals while he and his wife awaited the arrival of their first child. He landed in Ireland two days after she gave birth.
“A mixture of things makes Peter a great Othello,” Dowling said by phone last week. “The physical presence is an obvious one, and that magnificent voice he has. You absolutely have to believe that he wins battles and fights wars. But the great thing about Peter is his capacity for great tenderness and a wonderful sense of humor. If that’s not there, the play is just one long march toward murder.”
Bortus is by no means a cutup. In a pivotal early episode, the by-the-book lieutenant commander contemplates surgically changing the gender of his newborn since females from his home planet of Moclus are considered seventh-class citizens. The story line is typical for a series that tackles social issues in much the same way “Star Trek” did with its original run. But there’s guaranteed to be some “Spaceballs”-like zaniness in the mix, with the man behind “Family Guy” and “Ted” at the helm.
“We really do see it as a sci-fi, comedic drama in that we allow ourselves room for levity in ways that a traditional hourlong sci-fi show doesn’t,” said creator and star Seth MacFarlane when the show was launched two years ago. “So we’re trying to break some new ground here.”
Macon understands that he’s no Peter Griffin, but he’s also aware that he’s getting laughs by being the driest officer in the galaxy.
“If the cast of ‘The Orville’ were Winnie-the-Pooh characters, I’d be Eeyore,” he said. “In the ensemble, I’m the low note. I get a very limited amount of expression and dialogue to drive a joke home and so often I’m the butt of the joke. He’s like Lurch in ‘The Addams Family.’ He was really funny but he didn’t think he was funny. It’s super-challenging to get it right.”
Macon is much more animated when the cameras aren’t rolling.
“He keeps you very happy late at night, which is often 4 in the morning,” said Mark Jackson, who plays science and engineering officer Isaac on the series. “He’s got this off-the-wall sense of humor. There’s a Bortus dance he does that’s quite graphic. It’s probably best not seen by anyone not on the set.”
Before “The Orville,” Macon’s opportunities in Hollywood were largely limited to gritty guest-star roles on shows including “The Shield,” “Dexter” and “Bosch.” Showing the industry that he can handle lighter material reminds him of how the theater world used to think black people couldn’t do Shakespeare.
“I was 25 when I first played Macbeth and for three weeks I didn’t know what I was doing. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. They’re right. I can’t do it. I’m going to get fired.’ One day, I went outside during a break, full of frustration and angst, and just reminded myself that I’ve got to breathe and push the language as hard as you can. It’s the same here with the science-fiction language. You have to get underneath it and breathe.”
Macon credits much of his can-do spirit to his education at Minneapolis’ North High School. He remembers walking home from the Guthrie in 2005 following a matinee performance of “Oedipus Rex.” That’s when he spotted his 12th-grade English teacher driving by.
“I ran into the street, blocking traffic,” he said. “She got out of her car and I got down on my knees and thanked her for inspiring me. ‘If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.’ We were both weeping in the streets with cars honking around us. To be able to thank her in that way was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”
Macon hopes he can influence future generations in the same way, especially in the Twin Cities, where he would love to return for another stage role.
“You have to pay it forward,” said Macon, who is optimistic that the network will pick up “Orville” for a third season. “When you have the baton, you have to inspire those who potentially may be giving us jobs when we’re barely able to remember our lines.”