William Devane, left, is a president in the early stages of Alzheimer's on '24: Live Another Day,' with Kiefer Sutherland. (Daniel Smith / Fox)
Even his hair looks presidential.
In his long, varied career, actor William Devane has played more than his share of bad guys, romantic leads and comic characters. But he’s best known to audiences for his political roles.
It makes sense. There’s gravitas in Devane’s demeanor and an authority in his voice that commands attention and respect. He looks and sounds like an idealized version of a politician.
Since earning an Emmy nomination for his star-making turn as President Kennedy 40 years ago in the ABC movie “The Missiles of October,” Devane has played presidents on “Stargate SG-1” and in Christopher Nolan’s 2012 blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises.” He was the secretary of State on “The West Wing” and the secretary of Defense on “24.”
He’s adding another POTUS to his resume in “24: Live Another Day,” Fox’s reboot of its Emmy Award-winning 2001-2010 series. In fact, Devane’s reprising his role as James Heller, who was introduced as a tough, no-nonsense secretary of State on “Day 4” of “24” in 2005.
“ ‘Missiles of October’ certainly typecast me, there’s no question,” said Devane, noting he finds it amusing that someone who “graduated from high school with nine shop credits” keeps getting cast as university-educated, highbrow commanders in chief.
Devane, 74, has been acting for decades, including memorable roles as a ruthless agent in “Marathon Man” (1976), Natalie Wood’s love interest in the 1979 miniseries version of “From Here to Eternity” and the villainous Greg Sumner from 1983 to ’93 on the CBS prime-time soap, “Knot’s Landing.”
But contemporary audiences know him best as “24’s” James Heller. In the earlier season on “24,” Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) was working for Secretary of State Heller and having an affair with his daughter, Audrey (Kim Raver).
This time around, President Heller is in London with Audrey and her husband, Chief of Staff Mark Boudreau (Tate Donovan), attempting to finalize a deal involving military bases with the British government. Bauer, who has been a fugitive since the series ended, comes out of exile when he learns of a deadly terrorism plot that could mean the end of Heller and, of course, his former flame.
Devane says he tries to build conflict in his roles. “You always try to find the argument,” he explained. “As (director) Elia Kazan said, ‘If you can’t find the argument you can’t find the play.’ ”
So when Devane first met with the producers, he told them he was interested in playing a president “that doesn’t want to be president, he can’t handle it,” said the actor over the phone from London, where he’s been filming “Live Another Day” since January.
The producers had come up with an even better conflict — Heller’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
Executive producers Manny Coto and Evan Katz were plotting out the 12-part series last year when they thought of bringing back Devane.
“First, we wanted Audrey in the show,” said Katz. “And separately we wanted a president that was affected with early Alzheimer’s. We just had a brainstorm moment. Heller is the perfect person to (have) early Alzheimer’s and Audrey is working with him.”
Heller’s dementia, said Coto, is “playing out quite wonderfully in the season and it leads to one of the best episodes of the year coming up. We think we have treated it in such a way that it is going to be surprising how it plays out.”
Devane found inspiration for his portrayal of President Heller and his struggle with dementia in the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died in April.
“He had a position about characters,” said Devane. “You have a public character, you have a private character and you have a secret character. I kind of tried to apply that to this.”
Devane also is starring in the real-life sports film “50 to 1,” which opened Friday. He plays Dr. Leonard Blach, one of the owners of the American thoroughbred Mine That Bird, the underdog winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby. The film also stars Christian Kane as co-owner Mark Allen and Skeet Ulrich as trainer Chip Woolley.
The film was close to Devane’s heart because he’s a passionate horseman and former polo player.
“I don’t play polo anymore because I am too old,” said Devane, who lives half of the year in Thermal, Calif., near Palm Springs, and the other half in Montana. “But we still have a half a dozen horses _ a couple of young horses we are teaching how to play polo and older horses that are real trustworthy when you get them up in the mountains.”
The film’s director, Jim Wilson, knew he wanted “someone who knew his way around a horse” for Blach. “When I first got ahold of him and sent him the script, he was actually training horses up in Montana.”
Devane, Wilson said, was the one everyone looked up to on the set. “He does command the room,” said Wilson. “When you work with him on set, you don’t need to question does he have his lines down. He knows his mark. He doesn’t suffer fools and I mean in the best sense.”
The actor spent a day with the real Blach but pretty much stuck to the script to create the character.
“He’s such a nice guy I had to take it a bit more arch in order to keep the conflict going with the kids,” he said of Kane and Ulrich’s characters. “I kept trying to build a little conflict like I’m the dad and you are the kids.”
As soon he completes production on “24,” Devane’s heading home to Thermal and taking his horses in a trailer to Montana.
“I’ll fish for a couple of months,” he said. “I have a little place in the woods and room for the horses. It’s 130 in the desert and they’re real happy to get out of there.”
‘24: Live Another Day’
'24: Live Another Day'
9 p.m. Monday