When actor John Ross Bowie received the script for the ABC sitcom Speechless—which focuses on a family with a child with special needs–he learned that many actresses had taken a pass on the role of the mom because of concerns that if the show were done poorly, it would be too much like an Afterschool Special or that the mom’s character could come off too shrill. But Bowie thought about it in another way.
“Those are all legitimate risks, but what if we get it right?” Bowie recalls thinking. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we nailed a show like this and got the tone just right? Isn’t that kind of worth the effort?”
That’s just what they did–the show is funny, realistic, and heartwarming–all while showing the audience what life can be like when someone in the family has a disability.
Back with Minnie
Minnie Driver, with whom Bowie had worked with on About a Boy, plays the mom, Maya Dimeo. Bowie says he’s glad to be working with her again and with the entire cast. “I really, really wanted the job [playing Jimmy, the dad]. I am still pinching myself that it worked out,” he says.
Inspired by creator Scott Silveri’s own life experiences, the show tells the story of the Dimeos family. Their oldest child, JJ (played by Micah Fowler), has cerebral palsy. The cast rounds out with Mason Cook and Kyla Kenedy as Dimeo siblings Ray and Dylan respectively and Cedric Yarbrough as Kenneth, who works as JJ’s assistant.
“I think the show is unique in the sense that it deals with having a child with a disability with a genuine sense of humor. All families have challenges, and whether it’s a child with a disability or socioeconomic challenges—both of which the Dimeos have—they tend to cope using their sense of humor,” explains Bowie. “I think the show is nailing that really nicely, and I think that’s why it’s working.”
Bowie’s character Jimmy is loosely based on Silveri’s father and playing a character based on a real-life person can be tough. “I’m still kind of daunted by the responsibility. Sometimes Scott’s on the set, and I’ll ask him if what I’m doing is something his dad might do. I realize that Jimmy is his own character and Mr. Silveri is his own person, but given that the show is about this sensitive topic, I feel a certain responsibility to if not get it right, at least not get it appallingly wrong,” says Bowie. “Scott has assured me that his father enjoys my work thus far. Honestly, that’s better than any review. It’s a real nice shot in the arm, and it makes me feel like I’m right on track.”
Growing up in Midtown Manhattan, Bowie says that he didn’t immediately want to become an actor. “You meet a lot of your parents’ friends who are actors and who are really struggling or you meet child actors who are being driven crazy by the demands on their time. So, I got kind of spooked by the whole thing and decided I was going to study to be a teacher instead,” says Bowie. After earning a degree in English and education, he taught high school for one year. “And it broke me like a twig,” he jokes.
For a while, Bowie played in a band, worked for a pharmaceutical company, and eventually began breaking into commercials. “Commercials led to TV, and TV led to movies here and there,” says Bowie. “I have somehow managed to make my living as an actor for something like 15 years now.”
Many people know Bowie for his unforgettable role as Barry Kripke on The Big Bang Theory. He still occasionally appears as Kripke on the show. While he’s known for working on many sitcoms, Bowie says that he got his start in TV playing in hour-long cop dramas, where he always played a suspect. “There came a point where at almost every audition I had, I had to say some variation of the line, ‘You guys think I killed her?’ Seriously, I had to say it an about 20 different auditions,” Bowie says.
Working in comedy, though, has challenged him differently. “There are some people who were born with good timing, and I think my comic timing is pretty solid,” says Bowie. When he goes over a script, he may make little tweaks with how he presents lines to make what he says as funny as possible when it’s called for. “It’s the closest I’ve ever come to being a scientist—like standing in front of a dry erase board trying to figure out the best way for the equation to work.”
It’s a Dad Thing
Bowie, a father of two, says that he’s not sure he could have played the role of Jimmy as well if he didn’t have kids of his own. “Jimmy’s approach to parenthood is a combination of warm and funny that I certainly aspire to. I don’t always hit it. I think that I am able to bring a lot of my fathering approaches to Jimmy,” says Bowie. “The idea of wanting to fight for your kids, but also knowing that your wife is probably better at, it is something that rings true for me.”
Speechless appears on ABC Wednesday nights, at 8:30 p.m. Eastern/7:30 p.m. Central. Check local listings for more information.
About Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski
Michele Wojciechowski is the award-winning author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box, writer of the award-winning humor column, Wojo’s World®, and future award-winning stand-up comic and speaker. Like Bowie, Wojo thinks that comedy timing is about tweaking and much like putting together a puzzle to see what fits. In case you’re wondering, she always does the outline first. For more Wojo and lots of funny stuff, check out her website at www.wojosworld.com.
Feature Photo courtesy ABC Television