Most of the Kiwi actors who have built careers in Hollywood — from Nola Luxford through to Cliff Curtis
— set up shop in the US before turning 30. At that age Alan Dale had just started his screen career; he would be in his early 50s before deciding “to take a chance” on Los Angeles. Since then Dale has carved out an impressive gallery of authority figures on television and film, including turns in such high profile TV shows as The OC
, Ugly Betty
It was Dale’s late parents who opened his eyes to drama. Theatre-mad, they built a 100-seat amateur theatre in Auckland; Dale found himself backstage, working the wind machine. At 12 he was doing comedy at school talent shows.
After leaving school, Dale realised that he “got the same buzz” from rugby and theatre. But there was more longevity in the later. During a six-month stint as a milkman, he listened in while a radio DJ walked off the job. The same day he talked his way into taking over. The day he got offered the afternoon slot, Dale learnt he had won his first screen role, playing boss of the radio station in 1976 soap Radio Waves
. Though the show did not last, it offered “nine months of solid work and great fun”.
Finding local opportunities lacking, Dale headed for Australia and soon landed three and a half years work as one of the doctors on soap The Young Doctors. Dale found fame following the launch of Neighbours in 1985. Dale spent eight years playing solo father Jim Robinson, but the experience ended badly after he argued that showmakers Grundy were underpaying the cast, while selling the show around the globe.
Dale then returned to NZ to join fellow Kiwi export Erik Thomson
in shortlived police series Plainclothes
. Finding it hard to get ongoing parts, Dale worked on a number of American productions that were shooting in Australia. After discovering some American castmembers were getting $70,000 for a week’s work, he decided it was time to try his luck in the US.
By the start of 2000 Dale was living in LA, and offering himself as a fresh, cheap, “middle-aged face”. At drama classes he realised the best bet was to work out the specific types of roles he had the best chance of being cast in; “others in the class said I was a little bit Anthony Hopkins and a little bit Sean Connery and that went into my head”.
After his first US-based role, forgotten 2001 series Signs of Life (about a struggling rock band) guest roles quickly followed in ER (as a South African) and The X Files. Alpha males and authority figures began to pile up: generals (Dominion), senators (The West Wing, The Killing) and kings (fantasy series Once Upon a Time). Dale has also played a number of presidents, vice presidents and prime ministers (Homeland, 24, Australian mini-series Secret City).
It was big business magnates that made the difference. In 2002 he played dodgy tycoon Caleb Nichol on new show The OC. The show’s mixture of melodrama, sex appeal and self-parody generated media heat. Dale was understandably disappointed when his manager told him he was down to have a heart attack and drown late in the second season.
But bad luck begat good luck. The OC’s next season was widely panned; meanwhile, after another actor proved troublesome, Dale was called back at a day’s notice to join new show Ugly Betty. Dale played the publishing mogul who picks Betty to work as PA to his magazine editor son. The show won a Golden Globe and awards for its ensemble cast; further mogul roles followed on Lost and Entourage (as fictional owner of Warner Brothers).
By now New York Observer writer Christopher Rosen was arguing Dale had become the guy to call when casting directors needed a conservative-looking authoritarian. “When he comes onto the screen, audiences immediately take him seriously, since he radiates rich, smug and serious.”
It hasn’t been all smug, serious and stateside. Aside from a stint playing himself in Brit screen parody Moving Wallpaper, the longtime Monty Python fan grabbed the chance to extend his comedy chops, when he sang and danced in West End musical Spamalot. Dale played King Arthur, followed by a man making horseclopping noises with some coconut shells. He also has fond memories of portraying a gay English waiter to American rapper Bow Wow, for a comedy pilot that never took off.
‘20 Questions With ... Alan Dale’ (Interview) What’s On Stage website (Broken link). Loaded 10 March 2008. Accessed 21 August 2013