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Whether they crackle around us like lightning or tiptoe past us unremarked, defining moments happen to us all. They can happen at any time, but for Nick Offerman, we’re guessing one of the first occurred in a fourth grade vocabulary exercise when his teacher defined the word nonconformist: “It’s somebody who, whatever everybody is doing, they do the opposite.” In a 2015 interview with The Believer, Offerman recalled raising his hand and saying, “Mrs. Christiansen, I would like to be a nonconformist.”
That’s a tough profession around these parts (these parts being Hollywood), where folks tend to look sideways at strangers who don’t fit in. But if you have some talent, they’ll find you a type. Ironically, Offerman’s early film and TV career is a roll call of burly authority figures: one sergeant, two sheriffs, two deputy chiefs, a couple of special agents, a colonel and at least five police officers of various sorts, if the Wikipedia tally is correct. So how did he finally come to embody Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation’s ultimate oddball contrarian?
Let’s back up a bit. Offerman grew up in the Midwest heartland in a church-going, solid values family with a dad who could fix almost anything. Besides woodworking and canoeing, Offerman’s chief hobby as an altar boy was maintaining a stoic facade while trying to crack up his cousin in the front pew – likely another defining moment for an actor now known for stealing scenes with just the raise of an eyebrow. Ice cream runs to town with an uncle who played forbidden Zappa on the radio first opened his eyes to a world beyond Minooka, Illinois. A less illicit drive with a girlfriend to the University of Urbana-Champaign for a dance audition led to another revelation: you could actually study plays and acting. A trail of influential Chicago theater groups and sawdust followed, Offerman occasionally trading his stage carpentry skills for roles at Steppenwolf or The Goodman.
A move west brought another revelation: L.A.’s theater scene did not rival Chicago’s. Staying true to who he knew he was as an artist wasn’t easy. In testing for pilots, he repeatedly heard, “He’s a little weird, he’s a little too interesting, he’s a little too intense.” But Offerman, always more oak than willow, stayed the course. After reconnecting with underground theater and co-starring on Comedy Central’s American Body Shop, the casting buzz was, “We found this great guy, he’s so weird and intense and interesting…” Oh, Hollywood, you crazy mixed-up kid.
After trying repeatedly to cast him in The Office (it never quite worked out), the show’s producers offered him Parks and Recreation. He played his manly, mustachioed individualism for laughs, which were all the funnier for their complete lack of irony. You got the feeling Ron Swanson would eat DIY hipsters for breakfast, if he didn’t prefer a nice steak instead.
Anyone who wonders what’s next for Offerman hasn’t been keeping up. He’s since appeared on FX’s Fargo, and stars with Michael Keaton in The Founder. He has at least three film projects in the works: The Hero (with Sam Elliott), Infinity Baby (with wife Megan Mullally) and Jeff Baena’s dark comedy The Little Hours. He builds boats and maintains a no-joke woodworking shop, plays music and still does some standup and theater when he can. He’s also written two books and has just published another, Good Clean Fun. After chatting with Mr. Offerman, we’ve arrived at a philosophy of our own: Happy is the man who can entertain others. Happier still is the man who can entertain himself. Happiest of all is the lucky bastard who can do both.