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Dean Norris’ memorable role as DEA Agent Hank Schrader on “Breaking Bad” led him, in a roundabout way, to Chuck Lorre’s new CBS sitcom “United States of Al.”
“Chuck was a big fan of ‘Breaking Bad’ and he cast me in six episodes of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ as a colonel,” said Norris, 58, who also plays Uncle Daddy on TNT’s “Claws,” returning in June for its fourth and final season.
“‘Claws,’ like ‘United States of Al,’ is a Warner Brothers show, so when they announced the end of ‘Claws,’ within a couple of weeks I got a call saying, ‘Chuck wants to talk to you about a new show,’” Norris said. “They sent me a script, I felt I could do it and loved it and met with Chuck and that was that.”
“United States of Al” (Thursdays at 8:30 p.m.) revolves around Marine veteran Riley (Parker Young), who’s trying to readjust to life in suburban Ohio after serving in Afghanistan. He’s brought his Afghan interpreter/best friend Alwamir (“Al”) over to live with him at home with his dad, Art (Norris) — also a veteran who runs a construction company — and his sister Lizzie (Elizabeth Alderfer). Her husband, a chopper pilot, was killed in the war.
“Art is a middle-to-older Midwestern guy,” said Norris, an Indiana native who graduated from Harvard and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. “The early, easy comparison is to Archie Bunker, but in no way is Art that opinionated or political or racist…he’s a middle-American guy who’s not hip. To me, he’s more like a ‘Honeymooners’ type of guy,” he said, referring to Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) from the classic sitcom. “He’s a working-class stiff just trying to make his way in the world and dealing with his kids.”
Norris was hired for “United States of Al” when the project was announced back in 2019. “Because we were going to shoot ‘Claws’ from January to June [in New Orleans], Warner Bros. carved out a week for me to come in and shoot the pilot. Everything was set to go and all of a sudden COVID hit,” he said. ” ‘Claws’ shut down and this show shut down. Everything shut down. Luckily, when we came back to do ‘Claws’ in the fall, I was able to fly to LA to do the [‘Al’] pilot, which we shot in October. We did the first read-throughs on Zoom.”
Norris said that pivoting back to the sitcom world has been an interesting experience.
“It’s a completely different acting form [from drama],” he said. “I find it so fascinating and so specific. The difference between what makes something funny or not is razor-thin; it’s still athletics, but it’s like football versus basketball.
“Luckily I get to do this with the king of sitcoms,” he said of Lorre. “It’s a good space to be in. Side note: [Lorre] comes to the various rehearsals and tapings, and he has the best laugh you’re ever gonna hear.
“When Chuck laughs you’re like ‘Oh, thank God.’ “
For Norris, whose acting career dates back to the mid-’80s, “Breaking Bad” continues to resonate. He and Steven Michael Quezada reappeared as DEA agents Schrader and Gomez in the fifth season of prequel series “Better Call Saul” — and Hank’s home-crafted beer, Schraderbrau, marketed by Norris, could be returning.
“The first time it was kind of a limited-time, big blowout thing and it sold really well,” he said. “We’re trying to get it together in time for Oktoberfest this year.”