Here’s the thing about John Stamos: Everybody knows him.
Kindergartners getting their first look at kid-cuddling, mullet-rockin’ musician Uncle Jesse Katsopolis on Full House reruns approach Stamos on the street to ask why his hair’s so short. Mom and Dad both recall Stamos as Uncle Jesse from their own youth and also as ER’s paramedic-turned-intern Dr. Tony Gates as they got older. And Mom and Grandma likely share feverish memories of Stamos’ entrée to television as raven-haired rock roll runaway Blackie Parrish on General Hospital.
And then there are generations of Beach Boys fans who hope Stamos will appear with the band to drum up some “Good Vibrations” at their local fairs and festivals, as he’s done semi-regularly for the past 26 years.
That’s an awful lot of entertainment ground to cover — and an awful lot of people who believe Stamos is the best friend they’ve never met when they spot him at the gas station or grocery store.
“I’ve always had that middle kind of fame, where it’s not crazy and paparazzi are following me around,” Stamos says. “But everywhere I go, people just kind of smile. That’s the difference between television stars and movie stars: You’ve been in their houses since they were kids, so people feel like you’re family.”
Still, Stamos admits that being part of Full House — which has aired in reruns near-endlessly since the series finale in 1995 — made it tough for him to gain consideration for other shows and feature films. “It was difficult for years after doing the show to move on and show people that I wasn’t just that mullet-headed, Elvis-loving Uncle Jesse,” he says. “But now it’s fun and I embrace it. Parents thank me. I’m happy that it made people happy.” Actually, Stamos says, he’s downright tickled to see retro sitcoms become cool once more, especially in the face of today’s R-rated TV landscape.
“I grew up watching those shows,” he says of such syndicated staples as Happy Days, The Brady Bunch and The Dick Van Dyke Show. “In fact, Henry Winkler was one of the first stars I ever met, and he was so kind and so nice to me, asking questions about me and what I wanted to do. And Garry Marshall is like my godfather, actually. You know, I’ve had so many of my dreams come true that I have to keep challenging that and keep coming up with new stuff because I have been so lucky.”
The actor can cross one major challenge off his list when he stars as The Rev. Stephen Drew, a man of God with multiple secrets, in Chris Bohjalian’s Secrets of Eden, premiering Feb. 4 on Lifetime.
“I hadn’t played a pastor before,” Stamos says of what drew him to produce and star in the film adaptation of Bohjalian’s best-selling 2010 novel that affectingly merges the horrors of spousal abuse and the relief and redemption found in faith and love. “They sent me the script and said, ‘Oh, the last five pages you’re going to love. So I read it and said, ‘Well yeah, but what do I do with the first 85 pages?!’ Because I didn’t really know how to play it. This is not your obvious bad guy — I’ve done those. It was a lot harder to play Stephen than an obvious, broad-stroke villain.”
According to Bohjalian, Stamos found exactly the right emotional colors. “John is so poignant and so powerful as Stephen Drew,” says the author, who wrote the novel having learned that two-thirds of all homicides in Vermont (his adopted home state and the setting for both book and film) in the past 15 years have involved domestic violence. “If Lifetime’s Secrets of Eden encourages even one woman to escape an abusive relationship, it will have earned its two hours on TV many times over.”
To help bolster that outcome, Stamos brought aboard his former ER director Tawnia McKiernan, daughter of iconic television producer/writer Stephen J. Cannell and herself a TV veteran. “She came in early on with a lot of great ideas to make the movie and the story a little more subtle,” Stamos says. “She had a good take on the domestic abuse issue and perhaps a little more personal take on that, so that helped. Unlike some of these kind of loud, ‘bang the message over your head’ TV movies, I think this one you have to get a little closer to your TV. You have to listen a little harder.”
With more than a dozen television movies on his resumé, Stamos credits the genre for allowing him to build a broad stable of characters that Hollywood — and, to an extent, his early television successes — denied him.
“I’ve never really had a place in feature films, so over the years TV movies have allowed me to stretch a bit and play characters that you’d maybe see in a [theatrical] movie,” Stamos says. “Early on, even before the Full House days, I stressed out about it — ‘I gotta be a movie star! I gotta make movies!’ But for many years I’ve been very happy in television. Thanks to Full House and ER, I’ve been able to make a few dollars and sit back and just take things that I really want to do or go and do theater for a year. In the last two years, I haven’t found the right TV show, the right vehicle for me, but I think this year, I’m going to do at least a pilot. I’d like to be back on series television.”
Last year’s rumor mill had Stamos returning to sitcoms much sooner than he thought, following the epic undoing of former Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen. “I was on a red carpet and people were like, ‘We hear you’re going to take over for Charlie …’ and I was like, ‘What?!’ [And then] he was on Piers Morgan and I was sitting with my mom and I said, ‘This might be interesting — let’s watch it.’ Charlie is a friend of mine — I’ve known him over the years — so he was talking away and then Morgan says, ‘What about John Stamos replacing you?’ And Charlie just starts blasting! ‘Stamos will ruin the show!’ My jaw was on the floor! I mean, I was sitting next to my mother!
“Yeah, there were discussions, but they never said, ‘this is your role,’” Stamos says of the part that eventually went to Ashton Kutcher. “It just didn’t seem right for me to do.” Asked what kind of show will finally lure him back into fans’ living rooms on a weekly basis, Stamos says that the off-camera environment will prove equally as important as what is produced on-set.
“I did a single-camera comedy a few years ago called Jake in Progress and I liked that,” Stamos says. “I like the little comic storytelling half-hour. But especially as I’ve been getting older, I would like to get up, go to work, laugh and have fun and come home and have a life. I guess it was my ER experience, where I didn’t have any other responsibilities other than being an actor — I liked that the best.”
While he searches for that perfect pilot, Stamos says he’s happy to bask in the wisdom of another ER vet and longtime fan favorite. “I saw a big movie star the other day, and I won’t drop any names — George Clooney — and he put his hand on my shoulder and we were kind of marveling that we’re still around after 30 years of doing this,” Stamos laughs. “Believe me, I’m not even in the same stratosphere as George Clooney, and it was so sweet of him to include me in this. But we’re still working — that’s the amazing thing. For me. For him, you understand why. But for me, I should have been gone a long time ago. And I’m grateful that I’m still around.”
Secrets of Eden image © 2011 A&E Television Networks LLC, All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: George Kraychyk