For years, actor Tim Grimm was typecast as "a guy in a suit -- either a slick, bumbling lawyer or an FBI or CIA agent," as he puts it. But in his most recent roles, he's turned his collar and joined the clergy. In Heather McDonald's "An Almost Holy Picture," which opens Wednesday at Center Stage, Grimm portrays an ex-Episcopal priest. And in the new CBS-TV cop series "Turks," he plays Father Tom, spiritual adviser to the wife of the show's star, William Devane.
"It's a pleasant change," says Grimm, 38, who spent six years in Hollywood playing roles ranging from one of Harrison Ford's FBI buddies in the movie "Clear and Present Danger" to Marlee Matlin's sleazy attorney ex- husband in the NBC-TV series "Reasonable Doubts."
Another change for Grimm is that "An Almost Holy Picture" is his first one-man show. "I went into it thinking it would probably be the most difficult work I've ever done, and it hasn't let me down. Its sheer bulk is overwhelming," he explained over a cup of coffee in Center Stage's rehearsal hall.
Yet Grimm, whose theatrical credits include such prestigious regional stages as Chicago's Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters, actively pursued the role of Samuel Gentle, the priest-turned-cathedral groundskeeper in "An Almost Holy Picture." McDonald's play examines the ways in which Samuel's vocation and faith have been tested, first by a tragic accident, and later by the birth of his daughter, who has a rare genetic disorder.
Grimm's association with the play began last spring, when he played Samuel in a reading at the New Harmony Project, a script development program in his native state of Indiana.
"One of the first days up there, I was sitting with the artistic director and having lunch and this other guy comes into the room and I said, 'Good God, here comes Samuel Gentle,' " recalls playwright McDonald from her home in Arlington, Va.
"It was quite an electric evening," McDonald says of the reading. "He just seemed to connect to it from the heart."
Afterward, Grimm told the playwright he'd welcome a chance to do a full production. "I certainly fell in love with the piece," he says.
At the time, McDonald was already talking with Center Stage about the play, which debuted at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse in 1995. "The experience of it for an actor is so enormous. It's like the biggest mountain to climb," she acknowledges. "A lot of actors are afraid to do it. ... In other productions, there have been a number of actors who've turned it down out of fear." That wasn't the case with Grimm, whom she recommended to Center Stage and to resident director Tim Vasen, who is directing the piece.
Attending rehearsals has reinforced McDonald's initial feelings about Grimm. "I feel entirely confident that he's going to be ... rather extraordinary," she says. Watching him interact with Vasen, she adds, "is like watching a very sensitive, imaginative coach with an athlete who has to do something really challenging."
Grimm was raised Unitarian and graduated from Earlham, a Quaker college in Indiana. A political science major and theater minor, he was applying to law schools at the same time he auditioned for graduate theater programs. "All the auditions went very well," he says, and when the University of Michigan offered him a full fellowship to study acting, law school fell by the wayside.
As his sons, now 4 and 6, approached school age, Grimm decided to move from Los Angeles, despite a successful career in TV and movies. "I didn't want to raise them out there," he says. So he and his wife, actress and writer Jan Lucas, moved to Indiana, where Grimm's grandfather had been a farmer and where the actor purchased an 80-acre farm where he raises and bales hay.
Fatherhood and a love of working the earth are some of the things he shares with Samuel Gentle in "An Almost Holy Picture." But Grimm feels his connection to the character goes deeper than that.
"There are certain aspects I feel a closeness toward, so I don't feel it's a stretch -- his introspective nature, his relationship with the world," says Grimm, who takes time to reflect on a question before answering it, just as Samuel might. The actor pauses before adding, "He's a very private person who relishes the small things in life by making them remarkable."
Unlike Samuel, Grimm's character on the TV series "Turks" is a practicing Catholic priest. A recurring character, instead of a lead, Father Tom doesn't show up in the first few episodes. But after carrying a gun in more than a few movies and TV shows, Grimm clearly relishes the chance to portray one of the rare unarmed characters on a cop show.
"Turks" has drawn mixed reviews and is in the highly competitive slot of 9 p.m. Thursdays.
"We're thrown right into the fire, [but] predicting how a television show will do is something I don't think anyone can do," he says.
Grimm is familiar with the uncertainty of network TV. Although he spent two years on "Reasonable Doubts" and has played the recurring role of a military colonel on "JAG," he's also made a number of pilots that disappeared without a trace.
The reason a pilot isn't aired is often a mystery. That wasn't the case with "Frogmen." A show about former Navy Seals, "Frogmen" starred O.J. Simpson. Grimm, who played Simpson's ex-boss, was scheduled to do post-production work when the news broke about Nicole Simpson's murder and her husband's subsequent arrest.
"It was a huge surprise," the actor says. "To work with, he was a gentleman, a charmer. We palled around together, several of us."
In "Frogmen," Grimm played yet another "guy in a suit" and he'll be back in that guise in the small role of an FBI agent in his next movie, "Man of the People," starring Al Pacino, and scheduled for spring release.
For now, though, Grimm is concentrating on the more contemplative world of "An Almost Holy Picture" and Samuel Gentle. At a Center Stage lecture earlier this month, he said: "It's a blessing when you're able to link up with a character who's at the core of who you are."
What: "An Almost Holy Picture"
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays and 1 p.m. Feb. 24. Through Feb. 28
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
Pub Date: 01/31/99