Weekend Entertainment: Slimmed-down Billy Gardell savors TV success, family life

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Billy Gardell is scrupulous about giving credit where it’s due, at home and at work.

He describes his wife, Patty, as the “North star” who helped him through tough times and kept their family on track. Chuck Lorre, the prominent producer who cast the actor-comedian in “Mike & Molly” and again in “Bob Hearts Abishola,” has “literally changed my life.”

The praise sounds heartfelt, a match for how Gardell comes across: A guy with a working-class background who considers himself remarkably lucky to have landed as a network TV star, twice. He isn’t overly self-effacing — he’s proud of stretching as a stand-up and actor — but not one to brag.

CBS is bringing “Bob Hearts Abishola” back this fall, safe from the cancellation ax that claimed three other network sitcoms (“How We Roll,” “B Positive” and “United States of Al”). Folake Olowofoyeku stars opposite Gardell in the series that wraps its third season Monday at 8:30 p.m. EDT.

“I just can’t believe this (expletive) happened to someone twice. I’m still in disbelief,” Gardell said when congratulated on the pickup. “My wife says I have a horseshoe in my rear end, and I’m beginning to think she’s right.”

In “Mike & Molly,” which ran for six seasons, Gardell and Melissa McCarthy played a couple who met at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. In the new sitcom, Bob and Abishola cross paths at a hospital: He’s a middle-aged guy who had a heart attack; she’s the young, African-born cardiac unit nurse who tends him. He pursues her and they marry.

He says Lorre had him at “‘You’re a compression sock salesman who falls in love with a Nigerian nurse.’ How do you not smile at that? Where else are you going to hear that?” Gardell said.

The two series have the “same secret sauce, which is love wins” even when couples have to deal with differences, he said. “I think if you’re lucky enough at the end of the day to have a hand to hold, then you’ve won the game.”

Gardell, born in the Pittsburgh borough of Swissvale, grew up in Pennsylvania and Florida after his parents divorced. He was a self-described “chubby kid” who got the notion he could be funny on TV from seeing portly Jackie Gleason on “The Honeymooners.” Gardell began as a stand-up, influenced by his dad’s eclectic tastes that included George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bob Newhart albums.

“I’m pretty middle of the road, meat-and-potatoes” as a comedian, Gardell said. “I talk about being married and having a kid. A very blue-collar, very Midwest sense of humor — don’t take yourself too seriously.”

He combined club dates and acting, with recurring or guest roles on a variety of TV dramas and comedies including “The Practice,” “King of Queens” and “My Name is Earl” and as a voice actor for animated shows including “Phineas and Ferb.”

But the work had dwindled and Gardell figured his career “was kind of done in Hollywood…. Nothing had happened for a couple years, and my wife and I weren’t in the best place at the time, and I was trying to make sure we were OK.”

He had quit drinking (“It was out of control,” he said) and was focused on repairing his marriage when the offer came for “Mike & Molly.” He first reaction was to say no, out of concern for his family and some serious self-doubt.

Lorre “helped talk me into doing that role, because I was terrified. I thought, ”I don’t know that I’m a lead, if I can do this,’” Gardell recalled. “And to my wife’s credit, when I got the call from Chuck she said, ‘You’ve got to.’”

The producer, whose hit comedies include “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men,” is a fan of Gardell on- and off-screen.

“There’s something magical about Billy that makes you root for him. That makes you care,” Lorre said. “ And of course comedy is in his DNA. If the joke is any good, he’ll make it great.”

Gardell himself is “a joy,” Lorre said. “He’s kind and thoughtful towards everyone on stage. He’s a daily example of the consummate professional.”

While Gardell worried — without cause, he says — that giving up alcohol meant he wouldn’t be funny, he had no hesitation about taking off weight to improve his health. “Bob Hearts Abishola” viewers have watched him slim down, the result of gastric-bypass surgery and careful eating. His health improved drastically, including his blood pressure and the Type 2 diabetes that he said is “gone.”

“I’m happier than I’ve been in many years,” Gardell said, but cautioned that he’s not telling others to follow his lead and get the operation, which he’d considered for years before undergoing it.

“It’s a very personal decision. For me it was right. I want to be clear about that,” he said. He still has to guard against obesity and strives to “surround myself with the things that are going to help me make healthy choices.”

Gardell said he got zero pushback from the makers of “Bob Hearts Abishola” about transforming from a big funnyman to a noticeably less-hefty version, with Lorre telling him that it fit with his character’s post-heart attack need to be healthy.

“We’ll just acknowledge it in the show that you’re taking better care of yourself, because that’s the truth,” Gardell recalled Lorre telling him.

While he appreciates the job security, he considers his wife and their college-bound son, Will, the real gift.

“The life that my wife has built for me and our son has always been more important than my career,” Gardell said. “As long as your life outside your career defines you, then you’re not defined by the ups and downs of your career.”