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Bad Boy: Hoosier Actor Dean Norris
First, Breaking Bad. Now, Under the Dome. How he conquered TV.
1. Last fall, with the series finale of Breaking Bad, South Bend native Dean Norris said goodbye to the most momentous role of his 29-year acting career: Hank Schrader, DEA agent and brother-in-law to TV’s unlikeliest drug kingpin. For Norris, now starring in Under the Dome, this month cements his reputation post–Breaking, as Season 2 of his new vehicle premieres on CBS. The Hoosier plays “Big Jim” Rennie, a morally ambiguous car salesman and town councilman.
2. When Norris wrapped his final scene in Breaking Bad, he went straight to his hotel to collect his things and hopped the last plane to an Under the Dome shoot in North Carolina.
3. Norris got his first television “break” on South Bend’s Beyond Our Control, a variety/comedy show produced by high-school students, playing the likes of Ted Kennedy and Pope John Paul II.
4. He caught the showbiz bug from his dad, Jack, who ran a South Bend furniture store by day and, on weekends, sang and played guitar in a band that covered Sinatra songs at bars and wedding receptions. Norris, also a musician, sometimes joined him onstage.
5. Not yet a teenager, Norris played Edward, Prince of Wales, in a 1973 Notre Dame student performance of Richard III. Later, while attending Harvard, he went off-campus to act in productions at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I’m standing backstage in tights and a codpiece, watching grown men onstage, and it was just electric,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air. “I thought, man, if I could do this the rest of my life—be a repertory actor—I’d be a happy man.” His second choice was investment banking.
» MORE: Show and Tell—We Dig Through Norris’s South Bend High-School Yearbooks
6. Norris was waiting tables in L.A. when he got the call that he’d won a part in Lethal Weapon 2. He hung up the phone, took off his apron, and walked out of the restaurant.
7. Now 51 years old, he has gone on to play dozens of law-enforcement roles, with Breaking Bad being only the most famous example. “If you stop in any donut shop and see three cops eating donuts, one of them is going to look like me,” he has joked. “I have a coppiness about me.” One of his best friends is a sheriff in California.
8. In Lethal Weapon 2, his first movie, Norris played a cop.
9. Under the Dome producers Steven Spielberg and Stephen King (who also wrote the novel from which the TV drama is adapted) are both big Breaking Bad fans. They insisted that Norris not give them any spoilers on how the series’s final season would play out.
10. Hollywood might credit Bruce Willis with blazing a trail for bald actors in leading roles. But Norris gives props to Dennis Franz and NYPD Blue—on which Norris also appeared—for casting “real-looking people.” (If you haven’t seen it, the “dome” in Under the Dome refers to a giant glass shell and not Norris’s head.)
Illustration by Gluekit; photos from the South Bend Clay High School Minuteman courtesy St. Joseph County Public Library
This article appeared in the June 2014 issue.