Closing the Deal

Jon Tenney, Princeton-born star of TV’s The Closer, has a knack for turning small roles into big breaks.

When Tenney plays the exit game, he says people assume he means New Brunswick. When he tells them he’s from Princeton, he says they often respond, “Princeton? That’s not New Jersey.”
Photo by Andrew Eccles/TNT.

It’s probably not a good idea to challenge a writer’s vision when auditioning for a part on his television series, but that’s exactly what Princeton native Jon Tenney did when he read for the role of Sergeant David Gabriel on TNT’s hit drama The Closer.

Tenney told the show’s writer and creator, James Duff, he was not feeling the romantic relationship that had been written for Gabriel and Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (the character played by series star Kyra Sedgwick).

“I remember being in the room and saying, ‘I don’t really see this character. I think, one, you need to get somebody a little younger, and two, I don’t think you should make the romantic interest somebody in the squad,’” says Tenney. Instead, he suggested the love interest should be Fritz Howard, a character with only one scene in the pilot.

Fortunately for Tenney, Duff was a fan of his acting. The writer liked the idea of putting Tenney, a brown-haired, brown-eyed heartthrob, in the Fritz Howard part. He presented it to his superiors, who asked to see Tenney’s audition. “They instantly saw something that was missing from The Closer—which was a window into Brenda’s personal life,” Duff says.

Tenney got the part, and the character was expanded into a central figure, eventually marrying Sedgwick’s character. “That one scene in the pilot was almost instantly transformed into a seven-year run,” says Duff. “Jon Tenney’s ability to recognize a big opportunity in a small part helped change our show.”

It was not the first time a small role created a big opportunity for Tenney, 50. His career can be traced to third grade, when he appeared in a school play and was “bitten by the bug.” Two years later, he began studying acting at Creative Theatre Unlimited in Princeton. During summers, he joined the Princeton Street Theater, a group that performed out of a converted RV for audiences of 75 to 100 people. “At the time, I sort of thought [Princeton] was just like every town,” he reminisces.

“I look back on it now, and I think what an unbelievably rich cultural environment to grow up in.”
The Tenney household was a rich cultural environment itself. His father, a research physicist in the nuclear fusion department at Princeton University, loved the theater and participated in the chorus of many community musicals with the Princeton Junction and Back group based at the McCarter Theatre. “He sang all the time,” Tenney recalls. “We used to fool around and sing barbershop together.”

Tenney studied drama and philosophy at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and then drama at Juilliard. A connection from his college theater days put his resume in the hands of Mike Nichols, who was casting a national tour of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. It turned out to be a big break. “I toured around the country and met all these Broadway producers who put me in all these Neil Simon plays like Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues,” Tenney says. “All of a sudden, I was a young kid in my early 20s, and I had a couple of Broadway shows to my credit.”

Tenney had saved a little money from his Broadway tours when a friend approached him about producing and starring in a modest off-Broadway staging of Tartuffe. During a performance, he caught the eye of a casting director, who got him to California. A Los Angeles Times review of his performance in Romeo and Juliet landed on the desk of a casting director who was searching for someone to play a love interest for Candice Bergen in the CBS comedy Murphy Brown. “If I hadn’t used that little money I saved up to produce that little off-Broadway production, I would have never got the TV job,” says Tenney.

Tenney since has appeared on numerous TV shows, including Equal Justice, Crime & Punishment, Brooklyn South and Kristin. His film credits include the romantic comedy Fools Rush In (1997) with Salma Hayek; You Can Count On Me (2000) with Laura Linney; and most recently, the superhero film Green Lantern (2011) with Ryan Reynolds.

But the role for which Tenney is best-known is that of level-headed FBI agent Fritz Howard in The Closer. The series, which has garnered five SAG Awards nominations for an outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series, is entering the second chapter of its seventh and final season. (The first 10 episodes aired during the summer, 5 new episodes begin November 28 and the final 6 episodes will run next summer.) “I feel very, very lucky to have been involved with a project that’s gone on as long as The Closer has,” he says. “You really don’t get to do that in this profession.” 

Tenney will be making his TV-directing debut during one of the show’s last six episodes. “The people I work with are really great, and they’re giving me a shot—I just don’t want to blow it,” he says with a laugh. In 2012, he’ll also costar with Claire Danes in As Cool As I Am, a film about self-centered parents who married too young.

Tenney, who has a daughter with his former wife, actress Teri Hatcher, is especially excited about marrying his girlfriend of six years, producer Leslie Urdang from Queens, New York. The couple hasn’t settled on a ceremony location, but Tenney jokes, “We both have the East Coast in our blood.”

The self-described Jersey boy currently resides in Los Angeles but returns often to visit his sister in Manalapan and one of his brothers in Skillman, and for the corn and tomatoes, which he dubs “second to none!” He also reunites every year with his childhood friends. “We go down to the Jersey Shore and talk about all things Jersey,” he says. “And that’s a good thing. I feel very connected to New Jersey.”

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