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After four seasons playing America's favorite sarcastic dad on The O.C., Peter Gallagher is bringing the waterworks as a new beloved father figure on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. But his current character on NBC's new musical drama couldn't be more different than his previous iconic role: Instead of cracking jokes over bagels and schmear like Sandy Cohen, Mitch Clarke mostly sits on the couch while his family goes about their lives around him on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. And that's because he suffers from the degenerative neurological disease Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, which has caused him to lose most of his muscular functions, including the ability to make facial expressions or even talk.
Over the course of the first season, Mitch's diagnosis has gotten worse, to the point where doctors have given him only a few more weeks to live. And while the musical performances on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist are full of joy, the through line of the series is decidedly more emotional and gut wrenching as Zoey (Jane Levy) and the rest of the Clarke family comes to terms with the fact that Mitch won't be around for much longer. The O.C., meanwhile, mostly dealt family drama and relationship issues set within the cultural clash between the moralistic Cohen family living amongst the materialistic upper class Newport Beach society. But Gallagher says that both shows are a lot more alike than you may think.
"There's a lot of similarities between The O.C. and Zoey's in my mind," the actor tells EW. "There were similar circumstances when each one debuted; both shows responded to what was going on in the country in a really powerful way. The O.C. was right on the heels of 9/11. There was a drumbeat of xenophobia, a suspicion of outsiders, ready to condemn the other. And they struck me as such cowardly and unAmerican responses to what was perceived to be a threat."
That's why Gallagher remembers thinking "this is the greatest show ever written" when he first read The O.C. pilot about a troubled teen from a broken home being adopted by a wealthy family. "This is an extraordinary family dramedy," he says. "And this guy Sandy Cohen, a Jew from the Bronx, living in a WASPy neighborhood in Orange County, he's an outsider, he hasn't lost his sense of humor. He hasn't abandoned himself or who he is. And he's not afraid to open his arms and welcome others. And I thought, 'That's American. That's the story I want to be part of telling.' And Zoey's is a story about all that connects us, coming at a time when we couldn't be more divided."
When Gallagher read the script for Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, he got that same feeling from when he read The O.C. "I saw this as swinging for the fences and an unusual story, and a story I wanted to be part of," he says. "It's such a powerful story to be telling in our country at this point in our history where people are so divided. And I've also done a lot of musicals on Broadway, so many of which never saw the light of day; I've been in the most one most expensive flops in the history of Broadway! And you know how many musicals that never went anywhere? So a new musical is like finding a unicorn. And this guy, [creator] Austin Winsburg, wanted to do a new musical every eight days!"
Gallagher laughs as he remembered thinking that Winsberg was "insane" for trying to make that happen, but he was immediately in for the experiment. Now, one full season later, he still can't believe they were able to film a TV show with multiple musical performances in every episode. That's why, even though he knew playing Mitch wouldn't last forever due to the character's deteriorating health, he had to join the show. "It would be a wonderful thing to be part of, regardless of how long you're in it or how long you're not in it," he says. "It was just an experience I didn't want to miss. I'm just thrilled and delighted to see people responding to it. I'm seeing how many people have family members who have had PSP. So I don't really think about it to the end."
But he does admit that it's "hard to be part of a powerful story that you really love telling, knowing that you won't necessarily be with the story as it goes on," no matter how many seasons that may be. "It's bittersweet," he adds. "So it's like you're really thrilled to be part of a good story told well. And you want to stay with it. But you can't."
He's also grateful for the chance to play a father again after his time on The O.C., because even back then, taking on a patriarch role was "very important" to him. "The chance to be a dad was too good to pass up," Gallagher says. "We had a great relationship where I was able to bring some of my experience of parenting into the show because [creator] Josh [Schwartz] was 26 when he wrote the show so he wasn't exactly experienced as a parent. And he was receptive to my input."
Before, during, and long after Gallagher played Sandy Cohen, the character holds a special place in his heart. "I always found him compelling and I still do," he says. "I talk to people all the time, they’ll have a final or a thing they’re nervous about, and I’ll tell them my favorite expression: Sandy Cohen loves you. So in that same way, I thought that [Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist] is a show and [Mitch is] a character that can mean something to people too."
It already means something to Gallagher, who lost a loved one to a degenerative illness. "My mother had Alzheimer's for 20 years," he says. "So I had experience with brain diseases and the mystery of wondering about how much of the person you know is left or not." Gallagher remembers how he would sing to her and dance with her, long after she lost her ability to speak, up until she died. "Even in those last moments I really felt very connected to her," he says. "I saw and felt the mom I knew, even though I hadn’t spoken to her in ages. I believe that folks [suffering from degenerative neurological diseases] are still there, at least in some ways. So this is a great role."
And even with all his personal experiences and the extensive research he did into PSP, as well as relying on Winsberg's scripts and own experiences losing his father to PSP, Gallagher's barometer for making sure he was portraying Mitch's symptoms accurately was simple: "You know you’re not screwing it up too badly if the crew is moved," he says with a laugh.
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on NBC.