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Josh Charles breaks through on hit CBS drama

It's not in the same league with "Who Shot J.R.?" or "Will they get off the island?" perhaps. But surely one of the hottest questions of this new fall TV season is whether Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) will go beyond the kiss-and-text she shared with fellow attorney Will Gardner (Josh Charles) last year on "The Good Wife."

Publicity pictures for the second season of the CBS legal drama, which starts Tuesday night, feature Margulies seated on a couch between Charles and Chris Noth, who plays her philandering ex-con/lawyer husband (think Eliot Spitzer.) It's a high-class prime-time triangle, and it's nice to see the 39-year-old Charles in such big-name company.

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It's hard to believe that the former Baltimore School for the Arts student has been in the public eye for 22 years already, since his debut in "Hairspray." But he has, and it's been a career highlighted by some quality productions, such as the feature film "Dead Poets Society," Aaron Sorkin's ABC series "Sports Night" and HBO's "In Treatment."

For all that, however, Charles had not enjoyed breakthrough mass success until "The Good Wife," last season's highest-rated new network drama and one of only two network productions nominated for an Emmy as outstanding drama.

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"He's always been pretty selective in what he wanted to do," says Stan Charles, the actor's uncle, who is known locally to sports fans as magazine publisher and talk-radio host Stan The Fan. "Quality has always meant something to him, and that's why I'm so happy that he's finally at this point in his career where he's been able to match quality with hitting a mass audience in something that's smartly written and presented. I think he got a bit of mass audience with 'Sports Night,' but nowhere near the level of this."

(Photo courtesy of CBS)

The "level of this" now involves online write-ups like this one from the "Dude Diary" blog at crushable.com:

"Josh Charles is the most underrated dude in diary history. Beloved by rabid female fans everywhere, Josh was known for years for his role as Knox Overstreet in Dead Poets Society. … As defense attorney Will Gardner on the hit CBS legal drama The Good Wife, Josh might have the biggest role of his career. The actor — who previously dated Sheryl Crow and Jennifer Connelly — lives in New York and dates a ballerina named Sophie Flack. Anyone got any deets?"

For those who are not regular readers of "The Dude Diary," or don't have their Urban Dictionaries handy, "deets" are details.

While Charles will graciously talk acting all day in a highly analytic, cerebral way, during a phone interview he tried hard not to give away too many "deets" on the future of Will and Alicia in coming weeks.

He was already taping Episode 4 when we talked, and had seen scripts for several episodes beyond that. So he knew where the passion was or was not going to go this fall for his character, a partner in a prestigious Chicago law firm that employs Alicia Florrick after she's forced back into the workplace. His character and Florrick have a history that dates back to law school.

"When it comes to our relationship, Robert and Michelle [executive producers Robert and Michelle King] don't want us to repeat ourselves," Charles says. "And I think they did a really great job with that last year. And I think you'll see with the debut of the show that they do something, really, really, super — I'm trying to think of the right word here — fantastic in the way that they handle that situation. And it gives us a lot of different directions to explore this year with Will and Alicia."

Could he expand on what some of those "different directions" are? he's asked politely.

"I mean, I just don't think it's that easy," he says in an earnest tone that sounds just as polite right back at you. "People say, 'Is it this? Is it that?' Not to make too much of it, but you have two people here who have a really strong connection and have a history, a past — they have something intense. Sometimes those things go away, you never see those people again for the rest of your life. Other times, you maybe see them every now and then. And then sometimes, in this situation, they end up being back in each other's world — in each other's orbit."

Barely taking a breath, he continues: "And those things happen, and they are not always the easiest thing to articulate — human emotion and love and the past and unexpressed feelings. These are things that are very intense and very primal, and I think setting that in the workplace is very important, but I also think it's important that we deepen it and continue to improve on it and keep complicating it in a way that feels organic."

Talking to Charles is a little complicated in its own way. It feels like meeting someone really smart in, say, a humanities seminar and then going out for coffee with them and realizing they think more abstractly and are a lot more intense in expressing themselves than you are.

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In response to one last headline-hoping question as to where Will and Alicia are headed, he says, "I mean, Robert and Michelle are so great to work with. So many other shows I know would never have these two people kiss the way they had us kiss last year. Or they'd just keep that going and going and going. Or they'd have had us sleep together right away. But with Robert and Michelle, this is all so very well thought out, and so I have a lot of confidence in where they're taking us."

But he's not telling anyone exactly where that is.

For their part, the Kings, one of network TV's hottest writing-producing teams because of "The Good Wife," are equally confident in Charles and his ability to carry off the complicated task of getting millions of viewers to care about a character who has some less than admirable traits. Will is a lawyer who defends some bad customers and seems concerned only about winning cases. Nor does he have any qualms about destroying an opponent in court to do so.

"It's kind of amazing that Josh's performance goes down so easily — that you don't run into any bumps as you're watching it, because at bottom, this character is about as un-network-TVlike as you can get," Robert King says. "I mean, he's romantic. His chemistry with Julianne's character is extreme and pleasurable to watch. And yet, there is a conniving-ness under the character. He is a Machiavellian character, who doesn't think in terms of who really did it or who didn't do it in terms of whatever the crime is. He thinks in terms of 'How can I sell this to the jury?' And so you shouldn't really like him, because those are traits you usually don't like when you watch TV."

And yet, King says, "Josh kind of brings it all together with charm, a willingness to sell jokes, which is a TV talent that Josh has in spades: the ability to get a laugh. And that's not something that is sometimes easy for people who do dramatic work to do. Making a conniver seem as charming as the most likable character on another show might be is no small feat, and he never lets the audience ever notice how he does it in the acting."

Michelle King singles out Charles' "wordless scenes with Julianna" as being among her "favorites" of the series.

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"You can just feel the passion and longing there. It's heartbreaking in the very best way," she says."We adore Josh."

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Evidence of that adoration is found in the growing screen time for Charles during the first season.

"In the pilot, Josh didn't have a ton of screen time," Robert King says. "And that's probably in our minds where Will was going to hang. But then, once you start writing for Josh, you just kind of can't stop. It's so fun. You know you're going to get a fine-tuned performance that makes you laugh, makes you feel. So Josh just keeps getting a bigger and bigger share of what we're doing."

Charles says he can't get enough — that he's never been happier or more fulfilled in any acting job. And that's saying something when you consider that he's been onstage longer even than the 22 years since the release of "Hairspray," which is generally used to date the start of his professional career.

His part in the John Waters movie was actually filmed when Charles was only 15 — during a summer while he was a student at Baltimore School for the Arts, he says. And he was already something of a veteran then.

The lifelong Orioles fan started his career at the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center in the Catskills when he was only 10, after his parents read about the theater program in The New York Times' Sunday magazine. His father, Allan, is chairman and creative director of Baltimore's TBC advertising agency. His mother, Laura, is a former columnist for The Baltimore Sun.

"I first attended Stagedoor Manor in the summer of 1982," he recalls. "I was only supposed to go for one session my first summer, but had so much fun I stayed for the entire nine weeks. I went for four more summers after that and am glad I did. It changed my life. I got my first manager there and, more importantly, met some of my best friends still to this day."

For all his success in film and TV, Charles continues to return to the stage, as he did last year, playing The Gentleman Caller in a production of "The Glass Menagerie" at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., that received nothing but praise from the New York critics.

Living and filming "The Good Wife" in New York, he regularly returns to Baltimore, especially for Ravens and Orioles games, though he also sees his hometown teams in New York.

"I am a huge fan," Charles says. "I come back for many Ravens games in Baltimore with my dad. In fact, we just went to the opening Monday night game here in New York against the Jets at the New Meadowlands Stadium. I love sports, and it's a great way to keep me connected to Baltimore."

WJZ-TV reporter Ron Matz, a cousin of the actor who stays in close touch with him, says, "The thing about Josh is that he's never forgotten where he came from. He's very family-oriented. I like the fact that we stay in touch, but I love it that he regularly calls my dad, his uncle, who's 96 years old, just to say hi. If he's in town, he almost always stops over to see my dad, and it means so much. And it tells you a little bit, I think, about the kind of person he is even now with all the Top 10, hit TV show success he's earned — and is finally starting to enjoy."

On TV

"The Good Wife" airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday on WJZ, Channel 13.

Josh Charles

Age: 39

Education: Baltimore School for the Arts

Current role: Will Gardner on "The Good Wife" (CBS)

Memorable film role: Knox Overstreet "Dead Poets Society"

Memorable TV role: Dan Rydell "Sports Night" (ABC)

Hobbies: Avid fan of Orioles and Ravens

Residence: New York

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