Slimming Billy Gardell relishes TV success and 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 “star in the North” who helped him through tough times and kept his family on track. Chuck Lorre, the eminent producer who cast the actor-comedian in “Mike & Molly” and again in “Bob Hearts Abishola,” “literally changed my life.”

The praise seems heartfelt, living up to the way Gardell presents himself: a working-class guy who considers himself remarkably lucky to have landed a network TV star twice. He’s not overly self-effacing — he’s proud to stretch himself as a stand-up and actor — but not one to brag.

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

“I just can’t believe this (expletive) has 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 butt, and I’m starting 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 reunion. In the new sitcom, Bob and Abishola cross paths in a hospital: he is a middle-aged man who has had a heart attack; it is the young nurse of the cardiology unit born in Africa who takes care of him. He pursues her and they get married.

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

Both shows have the “same secret sauce, which is love wins” even when the couples have to deal with differences, he said. “I think if you’re lucky enough 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-proclaimed “chubby kid” who got the idea he could be funny on TV when he saw the portly Jackie Gleason on “The Honeymooners.” Gardell began as a stand-up, influenced by his father’s eclectic tastes which included albums by George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bob Newhart.

“I’m pretty much in the middle of the road, meat and potatoes” as a comedian, Gardell said. “I’m talking about being married and having a kid. Very blue-collar, very Midwestern sense of humor — don’t take it too seriously.

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

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

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

Lorre “helped me to play this role, because I was terrified. I thought, “I don’t know if I’m on a track, if I can do this,” Gardell recalled. “And to my wife’s credit, when I got the call from Chuck, she said, ‘You have to.'”

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

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

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

While Gardell worried — for no reason, he says — that giving up alcohol meant he wouldn’t be funny, he didn’t shy away from gaining weight to improve his health. Viewers of ‘Bob Hearts Abishola’ have seen him lose weight as a result of gastric bypass surgery and careful eating. His health has improved dramatically, including his blood pressure and type 2 diabetes which he says is “gone”.

“I am happier than I have been in many years,” Gardell said, but warned that he was not telling others to follow his example and have the surgery, which he had considered for a while. years before suffering 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 things that are going to help me make healthy choices.”

Gardell said he received no reaction from the creators of “Bob Hearts Abishola” to go from a big comic to a significantly less heavy version, with Lorre telling him it fit the post-heart attack need for his character to be healthy.

“We’ll just acknowledge it on the show that you take better care of yourself, because that’s the truth,” Gardell Lorre recalled telling her.

Although he appreciates the job security, he considers his wife and their college-going son Will a real gift.

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

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