'One Tree Hill's' Paul Johansson on Craig Sheffer, Dan Scott, and saying goodbye to Tree Hill [Spoilers!]

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Wipe your tears, "One Tree Hill" fans -- and, if you haven't yet seen tonight's incredibly emotional episode, "Danny Boy," you'll definitely want to click away and come back later. Consider this your official spoiler alert.

In "One Tree Hill's" nine years on the air, Dan has survived a heart attack, a fire, a dog eating his donor heart, multiple car accidents, a psychotic nanny -- the list goes on. We didn't think we'd ever see the end of him -- and Paul Johansson agreed. "I thought Dan was a cockroach," he joked. "When nuclear winter came. Dan would be walking around in the ashes."

Instead, though, we finally said goodbye to Tree Hill's greatest, most dynamic and sympathetic villain in a powerful episode that featured a surprise guest appearance from Keith (Craig Sheffer), the brother Dan murdered in Season 3.

Johansson was thrilled to learn that Sheffer had agreed to return to the series again, nearly 6 years after his character's dramatic death in the school shooting episode. "I called him immediately," Johansson tells us. "Craig and I are boys, we're very close friends. I love him. I think he's so talented. I'd love to work with Craig again; I've missed him a lot."

Sheffer has appeared briefly in a handful of episodes since the character's death, but certainly none with the poignancy and impact of "Danny Boy."

"You know, when I read the script that he died in, I was torn, because I knew that it was great for the show; I knew it'd be very controversial," Johansson remembers. "That episode was just so contemporary in terms of what was happening in America at the time. On the other hand, I was very sad, because I didn't want to lose my good friend from Wilmington. I did, and I missed him greatly."

Though the fans sobbed through this episode, we had to wonder if, after nine years of shooting angsty, dramatic episodes, Johansson has gotten used to the turmoil.  It seems that the tearjerker scenes could become tedious after so many episodes, but Johansson assures us that it's just as emotional for the actors on set as it is for fans at home.

"No, we don't take it for granted. Not for Craig and I, or for James and I. Stories like ours are so rich. Our relationships as friends definitely colored the scenes," he says. "It's a beautiful life to be hired as an actor, to work with writers who give you this kind of material with this kind of depth. I never take it for granted, and I know that Craig doesn't either."

The biggest question for Dan Scott this season has been whether or not he's capable of redemption or deserving of forgiveness. We've certainly mused on the subject a fair share ourselves. It's been a central focus of Johansson's work since he began playing the character. Is salvation in the cards?

oth-dan-nathan-early-years.jpg"If I were still on the show, I wouldn't engage this conversation, because it's personal, background work that I do on the character. Since it's over, though, I'm happy to talk about it," he says. "Yes, I think that Dan has redeemed himself. I think that we are, from a moral standpoint as creatures, we are in constant flux of straddling that line of making choices that are either choices for the greater good or choices that are selfish. Those are things that are blurry. Dan completely lost his ability to differentiate between what was good for all, what was good for his sons, and what was good for him. All the bad things that Dan did to his sons, he did for them. He did those things in the name of teaching them, or guiding them, or in some cases forcing them into places where he thought they needed to go for a better life. All the things that Dan did, he did because he loved his sons -- especially Nathan."

As we saw in tonight's episode, though Nathan has forgiven his dad, Lucas remains unable to let Dan off the hook for killing Keith. For those of us who have been watching since the pilot, when Lucas was still rejected by Dan, and Nathan was still seeking Dan's approval, it's a powerful parallel. "It's painful, and it's tragic, and people don't forgive sometimes," Johansson says. "I think it's beautiful, dramatically, for the show, that Lucas didn't forgive him, because that makes Nathan's forgiveness all the more cherished by him."

It's also something that he can relate to on a personal level. He opened up to us about his own experience with his father and how it's reflected in his work.

"I've got a couple of brothers and we had a very, very tough childhood, we had a very tough dad," he reveals. "My dad grew up in a time when men were men and everyone was scared. He was really tough on us, a very tough guy who played professional hockey for many years, he says. "Two of my brothers are very unforgiving about the way that we were raised and don't really have a relationship with my father in a meaningful way. To watch that, to see the pain that that inflicted on my dad -- a lot of my work as Dan Scott over the years was a response to my father. I think that's one of the reasons I got hired for the job -- the conversations that I had with Mark nine years ago about my life growing up as a professional athlete and who my dad was. A lot of that was in the early Nathan and Lucas episodes."

Though Johansson's final episode was certainly on the emotional side, he also got to play action hero this season, particularly in last week's episode, where he literally took out the kidnappers with both guns blazing before taking a bullet for Nate. That side of it was part of the appeal for Johansson in returning to the series.

"Mark told me all about what I was going to be doing this year and I was so excited about it. What I loved was that, with the gravitas of trying to save your son from being tortured into a painful death, or even just having your son missing and all those fears, we also had the comedy. To have Tyler [Hilton] and Austin [Nichols] to play off of on the road to get there, and all those set up scenes that we did, knowing what was going to happen, the action stuff was a blast. Mark really directed us well in that episode."

In the end, though, Dan's was not a story of true heroism, but a story of a tragic man who, quite literally, needed a new heart. We know that Nathan has forgiven his many terrible deeds, and Lucas has not. But what about Dan himself?

oth-ravens-dan-121.jpg"I don't think Dan ever forgave himself," he says. "I think Dan was tortured to the end, over Keith's death, and never forgave himself. There's definitely a lot of religious subtext to this -- death, and humanity, your soul, the afterlife, all those things. I think Dan's worth as a human being is in his quest for forgiveness, and if he didn't have that, we wouldn't really care about him."

Johansson adds, "Mark  has given me the most beautiful, redemptive ending that any actor could ever hope for. It was a terrific season to come back for. I enjoyed myself immensely playing Dan Scott this year."

And -- whether loving Dan Scott or hating him -- we, the fans, certainly always enjoyed watching him. We thank Johansson (and Mark Schwahn!) for the nine great years and look forward to what's coming next for him -- Johansson tells us he's currently writing a feature with Nick Cassavetes and is set to begin directing it in about two months.

And now, if you'll excuse us, we're going to go cry some more. For a week, probably.



Photo/Video credit: Warner Bros.