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NEW YORK (AP) — David Hyde Pierce returns to television this spring playing a familiar role — an erudite man who loves food, wine and art. But that has nothing to do with “Frasier”.
Pierce plays Paul Child, husband and head cheerleader to Julia Child, whose bubbly, encouraging voice and deft hands have brought the intricacies of French cuisine to American cooks through his television series and books.
“They’re two people of great depth, great complexity of character, who found each other, and I think we’re all luckier for that,” Pierce said. “I really liked Paul, having come to study him.”
HBO Max’s eight-part “Julia” traces her culinary heroine’s unlikely arc from home cook to national icon, while being supported by her diplomat-turned-artist husband. “You teach Americans how to taste life, and they listen; it’s (expletive) huge,” he told her.
Viewers will see Paul Child evolve from a snob who refuses to allow a TV in their home to a man eager to hold cue cards for his wife on the kitchen set of “The French Chef.”
“I think of him in relation to the character of Niles in ‘Frasier’ because they’re two characters who obviously both like food and wine and stuff like that,” Pierce said. “But I think of Niles as a person who lived in spite of his body. And Paul is a man who lives completely in his body.
Opposite him is Sarah Lancashire as the main character, nailing Julia’s vocal and physical tics, giggles and coos, jerky movements and sudden bursts of laughter. They make a fascinating couple – she impulsive and deliciously awkward and he more introspective and cautious.
Viewers will instantly recognize Julia, but may not know anything about her husband, who hasn’t made any appearances on her show and whose influence is more subtle. Take his kitchen: Paul was the one who drew the outlines of each pot and pan on a pegboard so they always came back to the right place.
“That combination of Julia’s spontaneity and meticulousness was really part of what made them such a great pair,” Pierce said.
The cast also includes Isabella Rossellini, Fran Kranz, Brittany Bradford, James Cromwell, Jefferson Mays, Judith Light and former “Cheers” student Bebe Neuwirth.
Created by Daniel Goldfarb, the series examines workplace politics, feminism, and the downsides of fame. Paul’s role is also an interesting model of what it means to be an ally. “It’s not easy for a woman to steal your shine,” he is told.
“It was just as Julia’s star was rising when hers was starting to dim,” Pierce said. “It’s an honor for him and a very important part of the relationship to look at this, especially at this time given the roles of men and women.”
Goldfarb, co-producer of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” said the marriage was unusual in that it evolved, starting in the old-fashioned 1950s and morphing into a modern, playful and vigorous partnership.
“It’s one of the greatest love stories of all time,” he said. “It kind of grew and changed, and they play different roles and different times in their lives.”
Chris Keyser, the showrunner and executive producer, credits Paul Child with his bravery for being able to see the world change and going with it.
“It’s something that I find very moving about characters in history who bridge two different time periods and are able to do that,” he said. “We find it truly moving and remarkable.”
The project was filmed during the pandemic, which made research difficult. Paul Child died in 1994, and Pierce was unable to access the couples’ cache of letters and writings at Harvard University due to the closure. But librarians read excerpts to him over the phone, and Pierce consulted the memoirs of Paul’s twin brother.
Pierce found in Paul Child a complex man, a former merchant seaman, who had a black belt in judo, played the violin and was dizzy. He had once got a job in Paris repairing stained glass windows in cathedrals. He recognized talent and acclaimed it, especially when it came from his wife.
“He suddenly realizes that she is a star. The things he sees in her — the thing that just makes her shine in his eyes — is something bigger than both,” Pierce said.
Later episodes deal with the costs of this pivot, the price it takes when someone willingly walks behind their partner and lets their own dreams slip away.
“There are times when you sit by yourself and look at your life and think, ‘Wow, am I done? I mean, I love doing this, but are all these accomplishments that I’ve started to do are behind me now?’” Pierce said.
These kinds of questions have real relevance as we emerge from the pandemic, Pierce said. The break gave us the opportunity to ask deep questions about where we are going and what we really want to do.
“COVID has forced so many people to take a step back from their lives. A lot of people, after more than two years, have looked at their lives that they took for granted and suddenly thought, ‘Is this do I want to do? Do I have to explore something else? So there is a funny parallel here.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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