Chicagoans on Demand: Windy City Stars Take Over TV

Chris O'Donnell, Erica Hubbard and Jane Lynch went from Chicago upbringings to Hollywood.

What do Chris O'Donnell, Jane Lynch, Zach Gilford and Gary Sinise have in common?

1. They're all on TV this fall, and 2. They're all from the Chicago area.

With new shows starring O'Donnell, Lynch, Colin Egglesfield, Danny Pudi and Aimee Garcia joining old standbys starring Gilford, Sinise, Cassidy Freeman and Jeff Garlin, you can't turn on your TV without watching a former Chicago resident.

Factor in non-Chicago natives who went to school or worked here--Misha Collins, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, for example--and prime-time TV is bursting with Windy City ties.

Many of the actors from freshman series with whom I talked didn't have a definitive explanation for the Chicago mafia's takeover of the TV schedule, but they do have theories.

"Maybe purely by a numbers standpoint there are a lot of us," joked O'Donnell, who stars in the freshman hit "NCIS: Los Angeles." "I figure some of us [had] to make it through."

O'Donnell was kidding, but he may be on to something. He met up with several former Chicagoans, including Jeff Garlin and Joe Mantegna, at last month's Chicago/LA Link Reunion Party, the revival of the annual Windy City West parties sponsored by Chicago restaurateur Rich Melman in the 1980s. (More from Chris O'Donnell)

With Chicago's reputation for turning out actors from sketch comedy giants Second City and iO, its well-known theaters, it's little wonder Chicago-trained actors are all over TV. Pudi, who stars in NBC's "Community" and studied at Second City, said Chicago's sketch and improv comedy scene is second to none.

"It's just a really great city in terms of networking, working and learning from the people who are so good at what they do," Pudi said. "It's just got such a great pipeline--Tina Fey and all these good comedians--they get their chops there and move to another city and take it to the masses."

Pudi also mentioned the city's major drama programs, including Northwestern and Columbia College. Many of the more than 3,000 alumni of Columbia College living in L.A. work in entertainment jobs, said the college's vice president for institutional advancement, Eric V.A. Winston.

And although not all of those Columbia College grads are actors, one who does credit her training at the school for helping her in Hollywood is Erica Hubbard, who stars in ABC Family's "Lincoln Heights."

"That was very important to me, the [theater] training," she said. "I think people take that and carry it to L.A. and they end up getting a lot of opportunities because they have that training on the stage."

Lynch and Garcia both got their starts in Chicago theaters. Lynch says the "guerrilla training" she received in Chicago's theater scene has helped her adapt to all kinds of situations on both TV and movie sets. She learned how to "heighten and explore," she said, because sometimes you're not given a lot of good material in the script.

"I think my training in Chicago taught me to really take advantage of [what I'm given] and also show up with my own ideas, not expecting people to spoon-feed me," she said. "That is really, I think, great training to have in this business because it's very easy to get lazy."

Lynch claims that she's gotten lazy, but it's hard to believe. With her scene-stealing roles this year in Fox's "Glee" and Starz's "Party Down," plus several films, Lynch could say that she's the hardest-working gal in showbiz. (More from Jane Lynch)

And yes, her strong work ethic can be traced back to Chicago.

Garcia says she learned to work hard here too, while honing her skills at Piven and other Chicago-area theaters. Currently starring in NBC's "Trauma," Garcia believes, as does O'Donnell and Hubbard, that Midwestern values play a part in the success of Chicago actors.

"You can take the girl out of Chicago," she told reporters during a recent phone call, "but you can't take Chicago out of the girl."

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© Erica Hubbard, 2008. All Rights Reserved.