Whether he’s playing Ron Swanson in “Parks and Recreation,” Forest in “Devs” or Frank Fisher in “Hearts Beat Loud,” Nick Offerman is immediately recognizable as that hunky actor with a twinkle in his eye and a lush crop of facial hair. So closely has he come to be identified with his mustache and beards, plural, which range from just-beyond-stubble to “full bush,” that some fans are taken aback when some new role demands he be clean-shaven.
Nick’s humor is dry, understated and often conveyed wordlessly, through masterful timing and manipulation of his brow. Call me a sick puppy (you won’t be the first), but the performance of Nick’s that I’ve found most hilarious to date concerns a quote he found on Twitter a few years back: “I saw Nick Offerman without his moustache. I vomited and died.” He followed this citation with a plainspoken reminder to his audience that the face they may feel at liberty to trash was made by his parents, who would be hurt by such a remark.
Humor is a weird thing. In this case, it was something about the juxtaposition of a cruel comment thoughtlessly hurled into cyberspace for all to see, and the way Nick brought his own reduction from complex individual to objectified celebrity home to the world of Mom, Dad and genes, that left me weeping, doubled over with laughter. He did it all with a straight face, which made it all the funnier. And even as my diaphragm spasms left me gasping for breath, I was sharply aware that he was engaged in the serious business of moral counsel, doing his part to make the world a kinder, more caring place. Which made it wickeder still – I mean, we’re talking the Golden Rule, delivered via a heartfelt response from a typically confident character to a self-entitled tweet. Welcome to Nick’s world of serious fun.
Mention Nick Offerman and most of those familiar with his name will conjure an image of Ron Swanson, fictional director of the Parks and Recreation department in the (also-fictional) town of Pawnee, Indiana. The part made Nick a household name, especially among those under the age of 60. What many don’t know is that (1) Nick had been acting for a couple of decades before he became famous for his role as the series’ pivotal character, and (2) in a very important sense, he credits his success as an actor to woodworking. “From the age of 16, my tool box and framing bags saved my life again and again over the years,” he told me. “I became an artist by the good graces of the lumberyard.”
Nick grew up in Minooka, Illinois, a small Midwestern farm town he describes as “Norman Rockwellian,” located “about an hour and fifty years southwest of Chicago.” He was blessed to have “charismatic examples of woodworking” in his own family, and in particular cites his father’s “intrepid ability to take a competency with hammer and nail and saw and build legitimate pieces of oak furniture” for their home. His father, Ric Offerman, had had no woodworking instruction. “Everything was put together with nails but still very gorgeous. That was what first instilled in me that with our hands and a bit of cleverness we can make wonderful things in wood.”
Nick’s parents grew up on farms four miles from each other. His dad taught social studies in junior high. “He was very much a renaissance man,” Nick says. “He had a farmer’s capability when it came to earning income for his family. He drove a school bus, coached sports, worked on a blacktop crew, did hired-hand work for my mom’s family.” His mom, Cathy Offerman, was about 20 when she had her first child; she became a homemaker, raising four kids (Nick is the second) and, Nick says, “wielding all the superpowers of any member of the Laura Ingalls Wilder family.” When the youngest was out to school, she finished a nursing degree and became a full-time labor and delivery nurse in Joliet, Illinois, a profession she pursued for 25 years.
“They’re really incredible Americans, my mom and dad,” he goes on, calling them “people who would fit neatly into the fellowship of Wendell Berry’s fictional community.” Not that he appreciated this as a child. It wasn’t until he went to theater school that Nick realized how bucolic his childhood had been, working with his uncles and his mom’s family who raised pigs, corn and soybeans. “I was fascinated with them, with working on a farm, riding bikes with my cousin and playing baseball – enjoying the fruits of these wonderfully home-economical parents.”
Born in 1970, Nick describes himself as “a child of Saturday morning cartoons.” The nearest theater was in a town about 20 minutes away. They went to the movies once a month, which was a special treat. “It seems like a storybook childhood. We were not overly wealthy, but I was unaware because my life was extremely rich in other ways.”
Minooka formed Nick’s entire world. In his junior year at high school, he and the rest of his cohort had to declare their plans for a career. It was before the widespread use of computers for printing, and he vividly recalls the high school guidance counselor presenting him with a list of 36 worthy professions printed in purple ink from a ditto machine. “You had to pick one,” he says. “Mine isn’t really on here,” he told the guidance counselor. “I think I want to entertain people, like, be an actor.” The counselor responded with something along the lines of “I don’t think you can get there from here.”
Fortunately for Nick and the rest of us, his girlfriend at the time was auditioning for the dance department at the University of Illinois. He drove her to the audition. While chatting with some theater students in the hallway, he learned you could get a degree in theater there – and get paid professional wages to perform in plays. “And I said ‘By god, I knew it!’” He auditioned for the school’s theater department, which accepted only 16 actors a year. He portrays his acceptance in characteristically modest terms: “They had just run up [against] a shortage of meatheads. In any theater department you need a couple of beefy meatheads to carry the talented people on and off stage. I got there just in time.”
“I had some great teachers,” he continues. One, Shozo Sato, a master of Zen arts from Japan, taught them kabuki. He took them touring in Japan and Europe, performing a kabuki version of “The Iliad.” There was also a class in set building – “a bunch of suburban kids who don’t know a standard from a Phillips head, and I step in and they look at me like I’m a ringer.” He began to appreciate his abilities as a carpenter, which he’d learned on the farm and in summer jobs framing houses. The theater department started paying him to build scenery.
Because of the extra time spent on tour, he took five years instead of four to graduate. He considers the additional investment unquestionably worthwhile, though he insists he “still wasn’t very good at acting” by the time he graduated. “But people kept me around because I was good at stage combat – sword fights and fisticuffs. They figured out that if they gave me a couple of small lines in a play, I would build the whole set.”
After college Nick moved to Chicago, which has a thriving theater culture (or did, before COVID-19). Carpentry proved an important part of his income there. He built scenery for big theaters including the Northlight, Victory Gardens and Shakespeare Repertory, and acted in plays at night. But his favorite memories of Chicago involve a company, the Defiant Theater, that he started with some friends. “We did some of the greatest work of my life, because of the freedom that your mid-20s bring with them. We had no budget. We’d go see shows at the big theaters…and they’d do something cool on the stage and we’d go back to our storefront theater and say, ‘we want to put a car chase in this play’…. We would build a couple of cars out of refrigerator boxes or luan and have stage hands dressed in black shove these boxes around the stage. We learned that if you engage the audience’s imagination, they go along with it. Together we all agreed that this was a high-speed car chase happening onstage, and that had them rolling in the aisles. It makes for a more rewarding theatrical experience than all the budget in the world can provide. It was one of the first establishing moments in my body of work, of understanding the value of wabi sabi, the imperfections being the thing to showcase.”
Nick moved to Los Angeles in his late 20s. Chicago had been good to him, but like most people, he thought of LA as big-time. “Things had been going very well in Chicago, both onstage and backstage,” he explains. “I didn’t get rich financially, but I lived like a king. I thought that living in LA would be a continuation of that arc. I was dead wrong. LA is just not a theater town. At all! My 27-year-old manhood, such as it was, was built on the rock of my professional work in the theater…and so I spent a few years kind of flailing, trying to find my footing. Which in my late 20s meant drinking too much bourbon with my best friend, and trying to find the footbridge from youth to adulthood.”
He turned to freelance carpentry – cabins in people’s yards, decks, “the biggest things I could [do] without needing to be a licensed contractor.” His eye had been caught by the work of Greene and Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright – the Gamble House, the Blacker House, the pieces at the Huntington Museum – which he says “really knocked my socks off.” He also became aware of Sam Maloof. Nick started working details from these inspirations into his decks and other jobs, and describes his first bridle joints for a decorative deck railing as “just revelatory.” When he got a gig to build a yoga studio, he decided to use post-and-beam construction. “Those were my first mortises and tenons. I also worked in bridle joints,” both types of joinery he’d seen in antique furniture. He experienced a kind of epiphany: “I think I’ve accidentally become a woodworker.”
“I had a couple decades of carpentry in which at times my peers and I would make fun of any woodworker we came across, especially in the scenery shops of Chicago,” Nick recalls. There was a very nice guy named Brad who sometimes would bring his very nice roll of Two Cherries chisels…and we would make fun of this sensitive artist with his nice chisel roll because scene carpentry can be so much more brutal an existence. In the scene shop, chisels are used exclusively for opening paint cans.” There would be no more making fun of sensitive woodworkers.
An acquaintance gave Nick a stack of Fine Woodworking magazines. “I saw that magazine for the first time at 28 or 29 and just flipped out,” he remembers. He spent a few years teaching himself, up to the point where he built a blanket chest with dovetails (“probably a Becksvoort project,” he adds, invoking one of his furniture-making heroes) and a couple of Nakashima tables. “While my acting career was going better and better, with every woodworking project I would up the degree of difficulty.” At some point he knew he had to try a small boat, because it would require a whole new way of working with the material. “My friends with [professional] shops hated me then,” he remarks, “and they hate me to this day, because they need to crank out kitchen cabinets to pay their LA shop rent, and I’ve had the good fortune of my acting jobs making it so that I could choose my woodworking projects.”
Even so, he describes his years in LA before he met Megan Mullally, who is now his wife, as “the nadir of my adult life.” Their meeting, in 2000, was a fortuitous by-product of his stubborn determination to pursue his original métier. “I know this is a TV and film town,” he remembers thinking, “but my whole thing is doing theater, so even though it’s not necessarily what’s done, I’m going to do a play.” Some casting directors hooked him up with an audition for a play called “Berlin Circle.” He won a role. (Naturally, he also helped build the set.) Megan showed up as a fellow cast member. Nick says their meeting, and the relationship that grew out of it, “really did save my life. Here was an opportunity to clean up my act and…become a productive citizen.” He adds, “I don’t believe I’ve had an unhappy day since.”
Several years later, Megan got a job in a Mel Brooks production of “Young Frankenstein” on Broadway. In keeping with their commitment to avoid spending long stretches of time apart from each other, Nick planned to move with her; he hoped to find a space in New York where he could build his first canoe. There he met his friend Jimmy DiResta, whom he describes as “a master of filming all of his work and making it palatable to viewers.” Jimmy agreed to shoot the whole canoe-building process at Nick’s shop space in Red Hook, Brooklyn, an experience he considers “a graduation” to realizing that “really, anything is possible with wood.”
“In 2008, after 18 months of astonishing audiences with her powerhouse talents, Megan finished her run on Broadway and we headed home to Los Angeles,” Nick wrote in follow-up correspondence. “I am grateful for the life lesson that resulted from that time. Had I obeyed the typical actor’s narcissism, I would have stayed in LA ‘in case I got a TV pilot or some great movie gig,’ thereby missing out on a year and a half living happily with my bride for the very slim chance of something good. Instead, by making our marriage the priority, I got to witness her triumph first-hand (I saw the show 25 times), I got to build my first 18-foot cedar-strip canoe, I did a film with Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst and an award-winning musical (“Adding Machine”). Conan O’Brien had turned me on to road cycling, and I got my first nice bicycle, which I then rode every day 18 miles round trip to my shop in Red Hook and back to the Upper West Side. The moral being that by remaining open to life’s possibilities, and placing my relationship above my own selfish needs, I think I reaped a good deal more bounty than I would have otherwise.”
Patience made possible by woodworking pays off
With each year Nick worked in film and TV, his roles became more frequent and substantial. People told him they thought he had something unique. “Stick around,” they’d urge. That helped him persevere through the kind of times that have sent plenty of others back to more conventional ways of making a living. The seed of his big break came when he auditioned for “The Office.” One of the writers, Mike Schur, who went on to be part of the creative team for “Parks and Recreation,” wanted to cast him in the “Office” role for which he’d auditioned, but Nick ended up having a conflicting gig, so Mike wrote Nick’s name on a Post-it Note and kept it for future reference.
When they got around to making “Parks and Recreation,” NBC didn’t want Nick, who was then 38, in the role of Ron Swanson – the character was written as someone 20 years older. But Mike and his co-creator, Greg Daniels, were adamant. “They saw something peculiar in me that they weren’t prepared to do without.” He compares it to Gary Knox Bennett’s once-infamous (and now quite famous) nail. “It’s just a matter of experience and talent and a lot of luck and serendipity.”
After two decades, his acting career finally took off. Up to then, he’d had a one-man woodworking shop with occasional helpers. Now, he realized, “I’m going to need to put some employees in the shop or it’s gonna sit here in the dark.” He hired RH Lee, then the Offerman Woodshop crew grew to five or six. Nick started touring as a comedian, a performance genre he claims he’d never had in his sights. (This is literally incredible to most of us who know his work.) “I’m a theater actor,” he offers by way of explanation. “I perform other people’s writing. But when colleges began mistakenly inviting me, I took advantage of the opportunity to talk to a couple thousand young people, and now I’m apparently a humorist.” (He is definitely a humorist.) At the same time, his skills in playing the guitar improved – so of course he wanted to learn to make one. He read some books, which tempered his bravado a tad. “Every book ends with an admonition about getting just the right amount of shaving for the sound but to keep it from being so thin it would explode.” To ease himself into the craft, he started with a ukulele, “because their strings are plastic and it’s going to be a less painful mistake.” He describes the ukuleles he has built as his primer course in preparation for acoustic guitars.
Artists in pandemic mode
As with sports, Nick observes, performing artists generally require an audience. Even in TV and film, which don’t require a live audience, groups of people are part of the process: actors, directors, camera people and more. His 2020 schedule had him touring in England and Europe, as well as shooting the next series of “Making It,” his show with Amy Poehler about working with your hands. All of these plans have been cancelled or severely postponed.
“It’s quite dejecting,” he remarks. “I have never experienced this as an adult. I’ve always been able to find some way to make myself feel useful. Those of us that are lucky enough to not have to be on the front lines of dealing with the pandemic or with the social unrest we’re undergoing…. For me, my self-worth is predicated on feeling like I’m doing somebody some good, somewhere. And under the auspices of this lockdown I can still do some good for my household and immediate family and some friends…. I’m figuring out some ways of doing some good for my audience, or my fan base. But it’s really been very strange.”
He recently spoke with an older actor friend who was having a hard time; he had to remind him, as well as himself, that “a lot of people in the world go through stuff like this” – the lack of paid employment, the isolation from friends and family, the extreme limitations on travel and other activities – “all the time. The fact that this is entirely new to us feels like an incredibly privileged position to be in,” he says.
“The things I can do as more of a contribution are reaching out to my friends and family and asking, ‘How’s it going in Minooka? …in England?’ Shows are beginning to strategize ways to keep creating content.” In addition, he has made three comedy specials available online at nickofferman.co, with all proceeds going to America’s Food Fund during the pandemic. “I wanted to find a way to provide this content for people who find me funny, but I’m very comfortable financially, so I don’t feel good plugging my wares, so I thought what if I donate all of my ‘wares’ to America’s Food Fund?” I’m much better working for a show or a film. I’m not a great lone wolf. So I’m really looking forward to smarter people than me putting me back to work.”
In the meantime, he’s working in his shop. Some friends are running local grass-fed meat programs; he buys a box of meat every so often and gives it away as a gift.
And he’s working on another book, his fifth. (His others are “Gumption,” “Paddle Your Own Canoe,” “Good Clean Fun” and “The Greatest Love Story Ever Told.”) “That,” he says, “feels very medicinal.” This one is a book about our relationship, as humans, with nature – or lack thereof. “The stuff that I’m reading, the homework I’ve been doing for it over the past couple of years, that’s personally an incredible salve. It feels like what Wendell Berry would hopefully consider ‘good work.’ And down the road I should also get paid for it,” says Nick.
“Books remain the bedrock of democracy,” he believes. “As a clumsy and flawed human, when I can look past all of the distractions of modern life, it is in books that I find the signposts pointing me towards the pursuit of decency. Even in some books not about woodworking.”
With thanks to Cathy Offerman for hunting down early pictures.