James Denton knows a thing or two about turning heads. The actor was cast in his very first role thanks to an eagle-eyed churchgoer. "I was singing in the choir, and we used to do Easter musicals and stuff like that," he remembers. "This lady saw an Easter musical where I had, like, two lines playing Jesus. She was doing Our Town for this big celebration outdoors in Tennessee and said, 'I think you'd be great at this,' and talked me into it. That was how it started."
These days, Denton is inspiring decidedly non-churchly thoughts and generating water-cooler buzz as Mike Delfino, the dashing plumber with a secret on ABC's blockbuster Sunday-night hit, Desperate Housewives. The show blends sudsy storylines with compelling characters and a juicy mystery: Why did cheery suburban homemaker Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) take her own life?
As Mike, who may or may not be connected with this twisty central storyline, Denton is the resident male heartthrob on Housewives, inspiring a battle of feminine wiles between sweet Susan (Teri Hatcher) and scheming Edie (Nicollette Sheridan). Don't expect him to let that "hunky plumber" label go to his head, though. "You just have to figure, 'Well, it's a role in the show that's designed to make people pull for Teri's character and hope that she gets the right guy,'" he says. "No matter what you look like or how you play Mike, as long as you're not a serial killer, people are going to love you if you make Susan happy. That's really the way I look at it, because if you get too caught up in the whole 'romantic lead' or 'leading man' or physicality of it, then you just pick yourself apart, because you know there are going be women that watch the show and go, 'What's the big deal with him?'"
Denton's job doesn't merely require that he stand around and look handsome, however. It's been hinted that Mike has a hidden agenda and is secretly investigating the colorful residents of Wisteria Lane. Denton manages the neat trick of making Mike an engaging regular guy while also lending the character an air of sinister mystery. And though he doesn't know all of Mike's secrets, he says he knows enough. "I have to admit that it's just curiosity that I want to know more [of the storyline]," he says, laughing. "I don't need to know it. As long as you know where you're trying to get in the scene, what your intention is and who you're talking to and [what] your relationship [is], you really don't have to know what happens in Episode 15. It'd be nice, I'd love to, but it's really not necessary. [Housewives creator] Marc [Cherry] is great about making sure we're comfortable."
Long before he shared the small screen with scheming domestic divas, Denton was involved in community theatre in and around his hometown of Goodlettsville, Tenn., just outside of Nashville. His enthusiasm for the stage proved contagious. His father ended up building sets and props for that fateful production of Our Town and found himself similarly smitten with theatre. "He died not long after that—I guess he was into [acting] about four or five years—but he kind of found himself," remembers Denton. "He was a dentist and very introverted, and it was a really great thing for us to share in the last few years of his life, community theatre. Before he passed away I was back in my hometown at the bank, and the [teller] saw my name. She said, 'Oh, you're the son of the actor,' and I said, 'No, actually, I'm the actor.' She said, 'Oh, no, I just saw your father in Arsenic and Old Lace at Lakewood Theatre, and he was brilliant.' It was really fun for me that suddenly he was the actor."
Denton bounced around from show to show in the community before deciding to roll the dice and quit his well-paying advertising job to move to Chicago and try his hand at theatre. Shortly after arriving there, the actor landed his first role in A Streetcar Named Desire. "I had no idea what I was doing," he says. "I'm so glad that I didn't, because I would have been terrified. They hired me to play Stanley in this big 200-seat theatre in Chicago. I was so out of my league, but [I] survived it and went on from there."
Denton appeared in 16 plays during his five years in Chicago. "[It] was really necessary for me," he says. "I didn't go into any of the graduate schools for drama—in fact, I've never even been in an [acting] classroom of any kind. It was a great crash course, trial-by-fire time for me."
The actor eventually caught the eye of a friend of manager John Crosby. "He called me out of the blue and left me a message, 'Hi, I'm a manager from Los Angeles,' and I thought it was bogus. I didn't even call him back," says Denton. Luckily, Crosby was persistent. He called Denton again and had the actor put himself on tape for a sitcom Paramount was doing for CBS. Paramount bit, and before the actor had time to contemplate a move from chilly Chicago to sunny Los Angeles, Denton was on his way out to test for the pilot. "When I was flown out here, John, who became my manager, was able to say, 'Hey, he's just here for the weekend, Paramount flew him out, you've got to meet him while he's here.' Kind of an illusion of importance that was completely false," says Denton, laughing. "But you know how it is in this town. That made such a difference, because people were, like, 'Oh, he's only here for the weekend, they flew him out, gotta see him while he's here!' Little did they know: I was living in a $300 studio in Chicago, making $15,000 a year."
Denton relocated to L.A. and has worked steadily ever since in movies (Face/Off, Primary Colors), television, and theatre. One of his breakout roles was as the twisted Mr. Lyle in the cult sci-fi series The Pretender. During the show's run, Denton was also cast in the play In Walked Monk as Steven, "an Everyman, Tom Hanks kind of role." The actor spent several weeks morphing from sociopathic villain to nice guy every 24 hours. "It's an actor's dream come true, really," he says. "I was in heaven for a while there, because I just got to do such contrasting things. And theatre's so great, because you get to do the whole character arc every night."
Denton says Mr. Lyle's trademark costumes and sinister nature made getting back into character fairly easy. "There was a thing about Mr. Lyle: He wore very expensive suits and very slick clothes, and the character didn't have a thumb. He had crossed the Japanese mafia, and they had cut his thumb off. Once I put on the suit, put on the thumb-less glove, it was easy to slip into," he says. "He was kind of slimy and obnoxious, and it was such a fun character to play. After doing it for three years, I got to a point where I could slip into Mr. Lyle pretty quickly. That was much easier than the play; [it] was tougher to shift gears. It's much easier to be unlikeable than to sell yourself as likeable."
Prior to landing on Housewives, Denton starred in series such as Philly and last season's Threat Matrix, both of which were cancelled despite promising starts. This can be a frustrating situation for an actor, but Denton says it's important to develop a thick skin. "My only advice would be, don't take it personally. It's the same advice that you apply to everything in this business," he says. "There are so many influences that cause a show to succeed or fail."
And as far as succeeding as an actor in general, Denton says there's no pat answer. "I have gotten jobs in every way imaginable, and I have lost them in every way imaginable. I've lost jobs because I looked too much like the producer's ex-husband. I've also gotten jobs that I was a long shot for, like That Old Feeling, the Bette Midler movie. I had no business getting that job, but I walked into the audition, and [director] Carl Reiner said I reminded him of Dick Van Dyke. He insisted they hire me, even though the studio was determined to get a name."
When it comes down to it, he says, just remember to follow your gut. "The path has been completely different for all my friends who are successful. Everyone has a different way they arrived at it." BSW