“I just have to tell you, your friend, Glenn, is fantastic,” Shawn Levy, the director of “Night of the Museum” and the upcoming “Deadpool 3,” told him at the game.
“Well, have you ever seen him before?” said McElhenney.
“I only know him from ‘Sunny,’” said Levy, “and I just never put two and two together.”
Since 2005, Howerton, 47, has played Dennis Reynolds on the FX sitcom with McElhenney, Charlie Day and Kaitlin Olson. (Danny DeVito arrived in Season 2; the show’s 16th season arrives in June.) Dennis is a handsome man with ugly ways, a predatory narcissist who just happens to keep zip ties and duct tape in his trunk. “Sunny,” on which Howerton also serves as a writer, has maintained its popularity as the cable era morphed into the streaming era, becoming the longest-running live-action sitcom in television history. (Surpassing, yes, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”) And while Howerton has had a range of small outside gigs, one network sitcom starring role (“A.P. Bio”) and a few dramatic close calls — nearly beating out Chris Pine to take on Captain Kirk and Chris Pratt for “Guardians of the Galaxy” — he is best known for playing Reynolds of the patented “D.E.N.N.I.S. System.”
Which is to say he occupies an odd spot in popular culture. “Sunny” is a television staple, lauded by fans for putting a fearless, satirical twist on hot-button topics such as abortion, race and sexual harassment. But the closest it has come to an Emmy is being nominated three times for stunt coordination. That general lack of establishment respect extends to Howerton, whose turns on “Sunny” range from sordid soliloquies to the slapstick of a covid-induced coughing fit.
“The most frustrating part,” says Day, “is we just sold out Royal Albert Hall, two shows with thousands of screaming fans, yet within the industry somebody might be surprised that Glenn is a great actor. And it just goes to show you that they’re not actually watching the show. Or they’re not watching it closely enough. Because for any person who’s a real fan of ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,’ there’s no question in their minds that Glenn is an elite performer.’”
Damon Lindelof, the “Lost” and “Watchmen” creator, believes Howerton’s performance in “BlackBerry,” which arrives in theaters May 12, could change how he’s viewed in Hollywood.
“[Leonard] Nimoy wrote two autobiographies,” says Lindelhof. “The first one’s called ‘I Am Not Spock’ and the second’s called ‘I Am Spock.’ Glenn’s gratitude for ‘Sunny’ is sincere, but he is definitely a multi-hyphenate talent. One of the stories our town loves to tell is the ‘who knew?’ story. Who knew this guy, you know? So in addition to his talent and the performance that he gives in ‘Blackberry,’ that narrative is a very powerful narrative. The town simultaneously has kept him inside of a box and then wants to take credit for opening the box.”
It can be easy to overlook Howerton. In the “Sunny” stratosphere, nobody approaches DeVito’s level of fame, McElhenney has his feelgood soccer team with Ryan Reynolds, Olson’s regularly stealing scenes on “Hacks” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and Day has a nose for blockbusters, whether “Pacific Rim,” “Horrible Bosses” or his latest turn as Luigi in the billion-dollar-grossing “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”
Yet Howerton’s performances, particularly his ability to deliver epic monologues — search out the phrase “because of the implication” from Season 6 and watch “Time’s Up for the Gang” in Season 13 — make him an irreplaceable part of the show.
“Glenn gets the responsibility of being as much of a straight man as you’d ever get on ‘Sunny,’” says Megan Ganz, who wrote the “Time’s Up” episode. “He’s sort of the smartest one, the most reasonable one. And maybe that’s just because he’s the classical-trained actor of the bunch. So they know he can pull it off.”
“Charlie and I are always talking about the fact we can’t do what Glenn can do,” says McElhenney. “And anything that I’m doing on that show, Glenn can do.”
Last month, Howerton arrived in Toronto to attend the Canadian premiere of “BlackBerry” with director Matt Johnson, co-star Jay Baruchel, and a slew of other crew and cast members. The film had already earned praise at the Berlin International Film Festival. This screening had special meaning because “BlackBerry” was a Canadian product and the real Jim Balsillie, whom Howerton played in the film — even adopting his male-pattern baldness — would walk the red carpet. All day, interviewers asked if he was concerned about meeting Balsillie for the first time since he portrayed the mogul as a tyrannical, phone-smashing loner.
“Hopefully, he doesn’t sock me in the face,” he joked on BNN Bloomberg earlier in the day.
During a break from about two dozen promotional interviews, Howerton sat in a conference room and scarfed down a sandwich as he explained what was at stake as release day neared. This meant explaining the challenge of doing “Sunny” for so long, of loving the show but sometimes wanting out.
Talking to Howerton, he can comfortably bounce from talking about his favorite De La Soul record to defending his questionable routine of eating cereal while driving. (That habit, when relayed to his work pals in “Sunny,” would be immortalized with DeVito rear-ending him mid-spoonful during Season 8.) Where Howerton grasps for words is when he talks about his career. He wants to stretch. He just doesn’t want to come off as a complainer.
“I’m constantly struggling to separate when confidence becomes arrogance,” Howerton says. “The fact that there’s still things I want to achieve and do in this business, that’s kind of cool. Maybe I don’t get to be in movies until I’m in my late 40s.”
“A lot of people think, ‘oh, he’s a funny guy, a comedian,’” says his wife, Jill, a former actress and now producer. “And he recognizes how fortunate he is, but he also can’t deny these feelings. It’s ‘I don’t want to say goodbye to this, but I have a yearning to play different characters.’”
Which brings us to 2017, when Howerton actually did quit “Sunny.” He felt hemmed in. What’s more, he didn’t want to just leave. He wanted “Sunny” to wrap after 12 seasons.
“If you guys want to keep doing it without me, good on you,” he remembers telling McElhenney and Day. “But I think it’s a mistake. To me, the reason the show works the way it works is because it’s the three of us contributing. We do a three-man pass on every single script and that, to me, is the special sauce.”
They didn’t agree. Larry David once told them to never shut down “Sunny” and used “Curb,” which he brought back after a six-year hiatus, as an example of how to keep going. It is rare anybody has this much creative control in the business. And DeVito always reminds his younger colleagues to cherish that.
He referenced “Taxi,” the acclaimed series on which he played dispatcher Louie DePalma from 1978 to 1983.
“What we did when we went to work there that first week, we looked at each other, and we knew we were involved in something special every day,” says DeVito. “So when I started on ‘Sunny,’ I said, you may think it’s a cable show or whatever the f— they call it, but, and I don’t want to get Shakespearean on you, but it’s like a band of brothers and sisters. We are in the middle of something you have to savor. And I think these guys have done it.”
Ultimately, Howerton returned to “Sunny” in Season 13 as an actor and, by Season 15, dug back into the writing. In between, he took on Jack Griffin, the self-centered, exiled Harvard philosopher on NBC’s “A.P. Bio” and kept pushing for dramatic roles. Then last spring, the script for “BlackBerry” arrived.
Director Matt Johnson co-wrote the screenplay about the mobile device company founded above a bagel shop in Hamilton. He wanted Howerton to play Balsillie, who had served as co-CEO of Research in Motion as it grew from a technology company with just over a dozen workers to a $20 billion-a-year powerhouse.
“This is the first time I ever got something where I read the script and my first reaction was, and this is terrible, but ‘why are you offering this to me?’” says Howerton. “Like, why aren’t they getting a massive movie star to do this?”
In reality, Howerton had trained a lifetime for a role this meaty. It’s just that you would have to dig into his résumé to know it.
Glenn Howerton III got his start in acting, or acting out, to entertain his older sister, Courtney, and his parents (Glenn Howerton Jr., a pilot who mapped out targets in Vietnam and eventually became a commercial pilot, and Janice, a schoolteacher). After several moves, the family eventually settled in Montgomery, Ala., where Glenn acted in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, attended a special high school for the arts and eventually made his way to Juilliard.
“One of the things that I always said to all of the students with which I worked, you can have all the talent in the world and if you aren’t committed to what you are doing, it won’t matter,” says Randy Foster, a former teacher. “And Glenn had this commitment to a work ethic even as a high school kid. He learned every line before everybody else did.”
There are times when Howerton thinks about writing a book on acting. He finds it annoying that they’re always written by instructors because, for him, the greatest revelations have come through performances. Take a disaster at Juilliard in Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart.” As the action took place, Howerton lost track of time as he chatted backstage with a friend, snacking on carrots. When he discovered his error, he sprinted to the stage but he was still late and, as he performed, launched bits of carrot into the air.
“After the play, I distinctly remember walking back to the dressing room, and I remember numerous faculty members walking by me and just looking at me and shaking their heads,” Howerton says. “My first feeling, of course, was, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I did this.’ And then after I walked by, like the third or fourth, faculty member that was shaking their heads, all of a sudden I had this thing of like … people make mistakes.”
Soon one professor asked if he even wanted to be an actor.
“And I said to her, ‘of course I want to be an actor,’” remembers Howerton. “Just because I missed an entrance? And I walked away from that conversation saying, ‘I’m just going to go back to having fun.’ That’s always been my guiding principle as an actor. If I’m having fun, the audience is having fun and it’s good.”
As Reynolds on “Always Sunny,” he can make even the sleaziest plan sound legit as he delivers it without pausing for chuckles or playing to the cameras. And he can still surprise his partners on the set. They all talk about 2021’s Ireland episode, when Howerton’s Dennis tries to mask the fact that he has covid at a meeting with a real estate broker. After promising he can “pinch off” a cough, Howerton delivers a series of squawks right up there with Tony Randall’s “Odd Couple” honk.
“There’s no actor trick, it’s not like he researched coughs or tried to tap into the emotion of what a cough is,” says Day. “And then we’re there on the day and he’s doing it a little bit, but he’s not going as far with it as he can and so I say, ‘can you try coughing but instead of what you’re doing, can you push it to a thousand? And then he goes crazy. It’s not easy to actually make those noises, but it certainly doesn’t surprise me. It was brilliant.”
What drew Johnson to Howerton for the role in “BlackBerry” was how brilliantly Dennis lost his temper on “Sunny.” He could see him as the sharp-dressed martinet serving as the foil to the video-game-playing geeks at Research in Motion. In the finished product, Howerton’s performance hits several notes. The tantrums sparked nervous laughter during the Toronto screening. Even Balsillie enjoyed the show.
The first time Howerton saw an early cut of “BlackBerry,” he complained. He worried that his performance came off as too caustic. On the phone, Johnson told him the test audiences felt otherwise. They loved Balsillie’s fight. Johnson also listened to some of Howerton’s suggestions, though. He restored some earlier footage, which showed Balsillie hungering for a better job and getting fired. That made his motivation clearer.
Now some of Howerton’s biggest fans, people he’s worked with in the past, hope that “Blackberry” will deliver the message McElhenney had for Shawn Levy. You like the performance? Cast him in your next movie.
“Hollywood is, at all times, really driven by fear,” says Mike O’Brien, the former “Saturday Night Live” writer who created “A.P. Bio.” “So hopefully ‘Blackberry’ will show this and people will say, ‘okay, now we want him to do that again.’ And they’ll try to repeat in doing great dramatic roles for a long time. Then Glenn will have to break out and return to comedy.”