'Major Crimes': Tom Berenger reunites with Mary McDonnell

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To track Tom Berenger's history with series television, you have to go back to the early years of "One Life to Live."

Another promising young actor named Tommy Lee Jones was on the then-ABC daytime serial during that period in the 1970s, but except for the occasional guest stint or miniseries - such as "Flesh & Blood" later that decade, or last fall's History hit "Hatfields & McCoys," which earned him an Emmy Award -- Berenger largely has kept his work focused on movies, including the classics "The Big Chill" and "Platoon" and the popular comedy "Major League."

However, one weekly TV role has lured him back, at least for a while.

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On Monday, July 8, Berenger begins a three-episode arc on TNT's "The Closer" spinoff "Major Crimes" as the estranged husband of Capt. Sharon Raydor ( Mary McDonnell). A natural charmer, he re-enters her world when he is added to Los Angeles' roster of court-appointed attorneys. He still has a gambling addiction, which keeps her cautious ... and makes her worry when her teenage ward, Rusty ( Graham Patrick Martin), takes a shine to him.

"I know three people on the show, so it's a little bit of a reunion," the friendly Berenger tells Zap2it. "I did a comedy in Spain with G.W. Bailey ( 'Rustlers' Rhapsody'), and Raymond Cruz worked with me on [the movie] 'The Substitute.'

"And then Mary McDonnell and I did a fabulous play back east with Kevin Spacey ( 'National Anthems'), two acts and three characters, and it was sold out ... so this was like old home week. They're a really nice bunch over there, very relaxed and very happy, and that's always good."

Berenger and McDonnell both have had Kevin Costner as a co-star, he in "Hatfields & McCoys" (for which Costner also won an Emmy) and she in "Dances With Wolves," which made her an Oscar nominee. They didn't really swap Costner stories on the "Major Crimes" set, according to Berenger, who enjoyed applying their shared stage past to their latest stint together.

"We played a husband and wife back then, and now here I am playing her husband again! We kind of joked that we already had the chemistry going, and it was just really easy. You could walk right into it."

Though he considers his new alter ego "a little comic relief" for the police procedural "Major Crimes" is, Berenger hastens to add his character isn't totally light.

"He has a drinking problem," Berenger says. "That's part of the subtext, and though he got over that, he still gambles a little bit. And he likes it, card games and all that. Maybe it was worse when he was drinking.

"I'm kind of basing it on a friend of mine," notes Berenger. "He didn't have a drinking or gambling problem growing up, but the subplot just reminds me of him. And also of 'Mad Men,' which I'm a big fan of. I talk to my daughter about it, and it's like we're talking about real people when we talk about the characters."

Also a professed fan of "Downton Abbey," Berenger has several feature films awaiting release after his 2010 part in "Inception" -- including "Reach Me" with Sylvester Stallone and "Quad" with fellow Emmy winner Aaron Paul ( "Breaking Bad") -- but he recognizes how many actors long serviced by movies are finding juicy roles in television drama now.

In fact, following his "Hatfields & McCoys" experience, Berenger is advocating a bigger return of the miniseries. "Let's say it's a novel or a historical piece. You can cover it pretty well (in a miniseries), and you don't leave huge gaps. If you're trying to do a two-hour movie of a novel, there's always something missing, whether it's really good characters or subplots. You can keep those in a miniseries, and I like that."

Berenger also likes playing different shades of people, something the "Major Crimes" job affords him within one role. "When I was young, I wanted to do that," he says. "If you wanted to be an actor, you wanted to play different characters, and I've had those opportunities.

"Even in 'Hatfields & McCoys,' the guy's a psychopath, really ... lovable within his family, but that's who he is. People like Humphrey Bogart have done that, even well after 'Casablanca,' with 'The Caine Mutiny.' You feel kind of sorry for him at the end."

Though Berenger's "Major Crimes" arc has a definite endpoint for now, he's open to returning to the series later.

"They haven't said anything to me about it, but Mary and I were talking about it. I said, 'This looks like something where I could come back,' and she said, 'I hope so!' It was fun, and it was a change from the squad room. Maybe it'll be like Mark Moses, who plays Duck Phillips on 'Mad Men.' He disappeared for a while, then he came back. They do that a lot with the characters on that show. It's kind of like real life."
Photo/Video credit: TNT