Veteran actor Craig T. Nelson, best known as the star of the 1990s sitcom Coach, is well-prepared to play patriarch Zeek Braverman on NBC’s Parenthood, which airs on Tuesday evenings. While Zeek has four kids and six grandkids all trying to navigate their complicated lives, Nelson, 66, can relate — with three children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild of his own.
AARP spoke to Nelson — who also appears in the upcoming film The Company Men, which hits theaters Dec. 10 — about how Zeek’s on-screen life and Nelson’s real one can sometimes blend together.
Q: When you first saw the script for Parenthood, what appealed to you about the show?
A: It was pretty honest, I thought. It was based on the fact that these people are flawed, and I like that. I didn’t see any real heroes in this. I just saw families trying to manage.
Q: Have there been scenes on the show that remind you of incidents you’ve had with your own kids?
A: Oh, yeah. It’s fairly constant. We had a scene in the first show where I’m talking to my oldest daughter about self-esteem and her sense of worth. I’ve had that scene many times with my oldest daughter. I’m a father and a grandfather and I’m in a series that involves kids, so I’m gonna find something that’s close.
Q: When your kids started having kids, what sort of guidance did you give them?
A: Basically, to stay ethical and have integrity. They’ve applied those principles to raising their kids, and when I spend time with my grandkids, that’s what I notice more than anything else — an ability to communicate on a level that’s got some honesty to it.
Q: If one of your kids does something with their kids that you think isn’t the best way to handle something, do you find it tough to hold your tongue?
A: Depending on the age of the child, I’ll talk to them or the parent. It’s about framing it so it’s not harsh or critical, but usually I’ll get right in there.
Q: Are your kids in show business, too?
A: My youngest son is a writer. He wrote for The District and CSI: NY.
Q: Is there a lot of industry discussion between you?
A: Yeah. I try to give him some insight. I read his material, and we critique it together.
Q: That’s got to be a great benefit, having a dad in the business.
A: Sometimes. Sometimes it can be a noose around your neck.
A: There are people that don’t like what I do, and it comes back to haunt him. In some ways it can be a benefit, but in some ways it can’t. Also, whatever he feels he has to live up to is hard for him. I try to make it as easy as I can.
Q: What advice have you given him on how to handle it when it comes back to him in a negative way?
A: That I got the same response, and I wasn’t involved with anyone in the business. It’s just one of those things. This is a business of rejection, and you have to be able to handle that and move on. It gets hard, because you feel like you’re being judged personally, but that’s not the case at all. Half the time it has nothing to do with that.
Q: Is it true that you went off at one point and lived in the mountains for eight years?
A: I moved to Northern California, near Mount Shasta, in 1973, and built a log cabin there. No running water, no electricity. I had two kids at the time, and my youngest son was born up there. I did a lot of stuff — logged and farmed and surveyed.
Q: Why did you do it?
A: A number of reasons. I was doing stand-up and had been a comedy writer, and I wanted to get out and try something different. I was very dissatisfied at the time.
Q: Did you get what you hoped for?
A: I got out of it much more than I ever hoped. I had never built anything before. A guy had given me a book, How to Build Your Own Log Cabin. I cut down the trees and hauled them up. I started to build a chicken coop first, just to get an idea of how to build something. It was a work in progress the whole time. It never was really finished. We needed a place to live. There was an ax and a saw. I had a chainsaw, but we had no electricity and I didn’t have a generator, so it was about learning a lot of stuff.
The basic thing I learned was that I could survive.