LOS ANGELES – Vikings fans who attended the season-ending debacle against the Bears Dec. 30 still may be in a state of shock. But those who showed up early enough for the national anthem that afternoon at least caught one pleasant surprise: That lunch-loving, chair-hugging detective from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” sure can carry a tune. He’s also a proud Minnesota native who, despite the team’s lackluster performance, still bleeds purple.
“I hope people don’t blame me for them laying a big egg,” said Joel McKinnon Miller, 58, scooching into a booth on the set of his sitcom, shortly after shooting a scene last week with fellow cast member Stephanie Beatriz.
Miller talks about an upcoming visit to Duluth as if he’s heading to the Bahamas. He posts pictures of homemade tater-tot casserole on Facebook. He certainly isn’t among the bigger stars on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which includes multiple Emmy winner Andre Braugher and “Saturday Night Live” veteran Andy Samberg. But Miller definitely has made his mark as Norm Scully, a crewcut-sporting detective who, along with his partner, Michael Hitchcock (Dirk Blocker), wears laziness as a badge of honor.
“We are so lucky to have Joel,” said show co-creator Dan Goor. “He has become a big part of the show, because he’s just too funny not to be.”
A natural actor
Becoming a sitcom scene-stealer never entered Miller’s mind while growing up in Rockford, Minn.
When he wasn’t scrounging for autographs at the Vikings training camp, he was singing “How Great Thou Art” to relatives, earning dimes and nickels that he used to treat his cousins at the nearby candy store.
When he got older, Miller covered John Denver tunes at the Minnesota State Fair and performed as a 16-year-old at the Red Rooster Bar in Long Lake, Minn., where the only audience member was a passed-out drunk who occasionally recovered long enough to request “Jesus Loves Me.”
Opera was his greatest passion. His father would drive him every week into Minneapolis for lessons. Miller went on study classical music at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
But during the summer of his sophomore year, he discovered musical theater, playing Emile De Becque in “South Pacific” and Pseudolus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
“Acting didn’t require as much time working alone in a little practice room with a piano, having to learn all that diction,” said Miller, who met his wife during those college productions.
He proved a natural at theater, good enough to get an invitation to join John Houseman’s prestigious Acting Company. That took Miller and his bride to New York City, where he specialized in Shakespeare plays, even though he had never spoken the Bard’s words before.
After seven years, Miller moved to Los Angeles, waiting tables by day, going on auditions in the afternoon and tending bar at night. In 1991, he snagged a guest spot on “Murphy Brown,” then one of the most popular shows on the air.
The exposure led to steady work and the luxury of quitting his job as a waiter. But he held onto the bartending gig for several more years — until the evening a jealous co-worker drew a gun on him.
“That was the world telling me that I could probably stop with that job now and just do the acting thing,” he said.
He appeared on nearly 50 series, including “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “ER” and “CSI,” and landed a regular role as a down-home polygamist on HBO’s “Big Love.”
‘Like we were old friends’
On the audition circuit, Miller often found himself up against Blocker, another heavyset actor with the ability to be light on his feet.
“If I saw him in the room, I’d think, ‘Oh, screw it. I’m not going to get the role,’ ” Blocker said. “We had never talked. But as soon as we started working together, it was like we were old friends. We can finish each other’s sentences. We find the same things amusing. We’re moved by the same things. When we showed up for [cast member] Joe Lo Truglio’s wedding, we both pulled into the parking lot at the same time in the same kind of cars with both our wives driving.”
Initially, their “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” characters were little more than glorified extras, but they made the most of their screen time, improvising background bits such as Scully powdering his feet. On a recent day of shooting, Blocker and Miller whipped up a visual gag on their own, with Hitchcock loading up Scully with files until he was juggling a precarious stack.
“We developed a rapport with the camera crew, and they always wanted to know what we were going to come up with,” Miller said. “Pretty soon, the writers were taking care of it themselves, which was awesome.”
When the series moved from Fox to NBC this year, the show celebrated with a special episode that revolved around exposing the pair’s more illustrious past, when they were more Starsky and Hutch than Laurel and Hardy.
“The dynamic they’ve established is a sight to behold,” Goor said. “Maybe one day we can do a Scully-Hitchcock spinoff show, titled ‘Flattop and the Freak.’ ”
Miller hasn’t done musical theater since a 1989 off-Broadway production of “Up Against It,” with music by Todd Rundgren. But he got the chance to show off his pipes again on “Nine.”
“During the first season, Andy and I were waiting to shoot a goofy little bit, and I mentioned to him that I started as an opera singer,” Miller said. “Unbeknownst to me, he’s texting Dan Goor, saying, ‘Scully sings.’ ”
By the next week, the writers had come up with a scene in which the character breaks into an Italian aria.
“No one said ‘cut,’ ” Miller remembered. “So I ended up singing the entire thing. When I was done, there was complete silence and then Andy started a slow clap. The whole place erupted in applause. That was a sweet moment.”