"James Denton: Desperate Plumber"
Desperate Housewives' maintenance man of mystery comes clean about censorship, the genius of Don Knotts and Teri Hatcher's breasts.
Interview by Dan Kapelovitz
Photos by John Russo
With its mix of humor, sex and intrigue, Desperate Housewives attracts millions of viewers to ABC each Sunday night. While most of the focus has (justifiably) been on the show's female cast--Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Eva Longoria, Nicolette Sheridan and Melrose Place-alum Marcia Cross--actor James Denton has been cutting through the wall of estrogen and garnering increasing attention for his portrayal of hunky, mysterious plumber Mike Delfino.
This newfound fame comes, of course, on the heels of a long career of roles distinguished and othewise. Prior to hitting paydirt with Desperate Housewives, Denton played the creepy Mr. Lyle on The Pretender, starred on Threat Matrix and opposite Kim Delaney on Philly, and had guest shots on several TV shows, including Ally McBeal and The West Wing. Denton also appeared in the films Primary Colors and Face/Off.
I met the Nashville native at a Mexican restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. The 41-year-old actor was gregarious throughout our conversation, offering forthright answers to all queries but one: he remained damnably tight-lipped about upcoming series plot twists. Sorry guys.
MEN'S EDGE: The Desperate Housewives-related promo on Monday Night Football was pretty controversial. Do you get many complaints about how risque the show itself is?
JAMES DENTON: Some advertisers pulled out, but what did they think they were buying? They saw the pilot, and the pilot was a little racier than the other episodes. I think they just got a lot of complaints, and they had to answer to their customers, which makes sense, but I think it's a little disingenuous to say they didn't know what they were getting.
ME: Does Disney ever try to censor the material?
JD: Oh, sure. They're pretty particular about what they show. They certainly edit the scripts and have conversations with the writers about what they are and aren't willing to portray. But the writers and the network are pretty much on the same page.
ME: They must also tell you not to reveal plot twists of upcoming episodes.
JD: Actually, [series creator] Marc Cherry won't tell us much. It keeps me from having to lie to people like you.
ME: Do they tell you what not to say politically?
JD: I actually was asked not to wear a John Kerry T-shirt at one event by a higher-up. I did wear a "Save The Planet, Vote Democrat" T-shirt on the red carpet once, and no one complained, but that's such a common-sense one, it's hard to argue with. It was interesting for me as a life-long Republican to have to vote Democrat this time. I was born and raised in the South, which is pretty conservative. I'm not a hard-line Republican, because I'm a lot more open-minded than that. I'm pro-choice and those things, but I typically vote Republican. I just got a bumper sticker on my truck: "Bush made me a Democrat." So it's been a really interesting election year for me--and disappointing.
ME: Did you vote for Bush in 2000?
JD: I did. It was more a vote against Al Gore as a Tennessean. He wasn't popular in Tennessee. I voted in California; so my vote didn't matter because Gore won California anyway. I think there were people who voted for [Bush] who were disillusioned and didn't realize how dishonest he was. If I had done more homework, I wouldn't have voted for him in 2000. But it did make me angrier when he turned out to be such a liar. It made me more impassioned to campaign for Kerry to try to keep him from winning again--to no avail.
ME: Do you get recognized all of the time now?
JD: A lot more. I've been on a lot of shows that nobody cared about. This one's fun because a lot more people are interested in the show, wanting to talk about the mystery and that kind of stuff. It slows down grocery shopping, because so many women at the store watch the show. I always end up talking to two or three people every time I go to Ralphs. It's fun.
ME: Do women ever come on to you in public?
JD: No. I only had one screamer in the grocery store who went crazy. Last year, I was on Threat Matrix. We were on Thursday against Friends and Survivor; so this year it's fun to know people are watching, and to know that all of your hard work is not sort of wasted.
ME: Do a lot of men watch the show?
JD: I saw a story in the Los Angeles Times that 40 percent of the viewers are men. It didn't really surprise me. It was described as Sex and the Suburbs. It's so not that. Because on Sex and the City, those women told each other everything; on our show, it's much more like the real suburbs--nobody tells anybody anything. Everything's a secret. The promos with all of the beautiful women probably attracted some men, but the mystery story line is pretty cool. It's got that dark edge, and people will watch anything funny.
ME: It's our understanding that your wife is a former actress.
JD: She was a theater actor in New York. She got her MFA at NYU and came to L.A. and got disillusioned with it and got into personal training, fell in love with it, completely quit acting and hasn't looked back. But it's nice that she did [acting], because when I have to do the big love scenes with Teri Hatcher or Kim Delaney, she knows the drill; so it's no big deal.
ME: Does your wife personally train you?
JD: We don't mix it. She offered, and it would be fun, but that just seems like a recipe for disaster.
ME: Any exercise tips for our readers?
JD: Just lots of Jack Daniels. My wife being a trainer helps, because when I'm at home, everything we keep at the house is pretty healthy.
ME: You shot a scene in which your character sees Teri Hatcher's character nude. Please tell us you actually saw her naked.
JD: She was strategically taped together so they had as little as they could possibly cover covered. Technically, all of her private parts were covered, but it was a joke because she was virtually completely nude except for a little bit of tape here and there. She was a great sport about it. When the actress is cool about it, it's easier for everybody.
ME: Her breasts are famous from that Seinfeld episode in which Jerry tries to determine whether she's had a boob job, and she says the famous line, "They're real, and they're spectacular." Is that true?
ME: Any behind-the-scenes romances?
JD: Eva [Longoria], Marcia [Cross] and Teri are all single, but they're all women. They're all straight; so none of them have hooked up yet. Not so far. At least not out in the open.
ME: Have you heard any strange rumors about yourself?
JD: Not so much. It's still about the women. It's not called Desperate Plumber. People are more interested in cat fights. I don't think [the men] are important enough to have rumors about.
ME: Do plumbers thank you for representing them?
JD: Not yet. I had a couple comment on how nice my house was.
ME: What's growing up in Nashville like?
JD: It's great--it's a music town so nobody really becomes actors. Reese Witherspoon is from Nashville, and that's the only other actor that I know of. I just went to Chicago to do theater and stumbled into the professional, on-camera side of it. I didn't start until I was 28. My last real job was selling air time for CBS affiliates. I quit that when I was 28, and that was the last real job I had. I beat the system. I've been able to do this full-time for almost 15 years.
ME: Did you ever want to be a country singer?
JD: No, I never had any interest in it. Because there's so much of it as a kid, you sort of rebel, so you hate country music. I never had any musical aspirations at all.
ME: I read that your mom was the Queen of Edisonia. What
the hell is that?
JD: Thomas Edison lived in Fort Meyers, Fla., so they have a big pageant called the Pageant of Light, and she was the queen of it. That's a big deal--nowhere else but there.
ME: Why'd you change your name from Jamie to James?
JD: James was my given name, but I was a junior; so I was Jamie as a kid. When I came out here, my manager thought that casting directors might think I'm a girl, and when I did Threat Matrix, they thought Jamie was a little light. This was the biggest role I'd ever done; so I said fine. It was my real name anyway, and once you do it, you can't really go back, especially when you're 40; so now I'll just be James.
ME: Are you familiar with romance author Jamie Denton?
JD: Our fans run into each other all the time on the Internet. Maybe that will stop at last.
ME: Is it a coincidence that you were in two movies with John Travolta?
JD: No. He got me the job in Primary Colors. I was in Face/Off with him, which was a really long job--it took about six months to shoot it, and we got to be friends. He was working prep for Primary Colors, and introduced me to Mike Nichols. That was a great job because Billy Bob Thornton, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates--just to watch them work--all those guys, that was a fun year--Face/Off and Primary Colors.
ME: Did Travolta try to convert you to Scientology?
JD: Not at all, never mentioned it. I was surprised, because most people, given the amount of time we spent together, will at least mention their religion, and he never once brought it up--to his credit, because I think it's pretty personal.
ME: Who are your favorite actors?
JD: Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall. I love Travolta too. I love David Caruso. I know it's not cool, but I do. I watch CSI: Miami. I think he's interesting. I like Dennis Franz. I'm a big Don Knotts fan. I think Don Knotts is a genius. The only actor who ever won an Emmy every year he was on TV.
ME: Do you have any relationship advice?
JD: If any of my friends heard you ask me that, they would laugh hysterically. I got really lucky with this one. I have a long track record of really horrible relationships and a divorce behind me; so I'm not the guy to ask. I just got really fortunate with this one. We're so right for each other. We were just lucky that we were both available. We were in our 30s and had both been around the block a couple of times and knew what we wanted and, thank God, we were both free. I don't know what kind of advice that is.
ME: Have you ever had a run in with a real-life desperate housewife?
JD: Only my own, and I divorced her. I ran into one that was desperate to get away from me.
SIDBEBAR: DENTON'S DAMES
A primer on Desperate Housewives' frantic femmes
Character: Susan Mayer
TV Archetype: Single MILF with a heart of gold
Distinguishing Characteristic: Tight, hip-hugger jeans
Most Desperate Moment: Accidentally burning down her rival's home
Character: Bree Van De Kamp
TV Archetype: Stepford wife on acid
Distinguishing Characteristic: Red hair that looks like it belongs on a mannequin
Most Desperate Moment: Covering up her son's hit-and-run accident
Character: Lynette Scavo
TV Archetype: Overworked mother of four
Distinguishing Characteristic: Blond hair dangling in her face because she doesn't even have time to comb it
Most Desperate Moment: Getting hooked on ADD meds and stealing them from her friend's kid
Character: Gabrielle Solis
TV Archetype: Horny, husband-hating housewife/Latin sexpot/clothing-label whore
Distinguishing Characteristic: She's always in her panties or other revealing outfits.
Most Desperate Moment: Sponge-bathing her comatose mother-in-law, whom she is partly responsible for rendering comatose
Character: Edie Britt
TV Archetype: Hot-to-trot divorcˇe/slutty real-estate agent
Distinguishing Characteristic: Her bare back, as seen on Monday Night Football, which caused
about three people to complain to the FCC
Most Desperate Moment: Almost getting murdered because she (indirectly) stole her neighbor's stationery
Character: Mrs. Martha Huber
TV Archetype: Nosy neighbor/minor character who gets bumped off early in the series
Distinguishing Characteristic: Death
Most Desperate Moment: Getting murdered, then being wrapped in a rug
(This article first appeared in the February 2005 issue of Men's Edge Magazine)
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