Jeffrey Dean Morgan beats all as ‘Walking Dead’ baddie

‘Overwhelmingly the fans have welcomed me as a part of this weird, dysfunctional family,’ actor says

Frazier Moore
Associated Press

New York — As 2015 neared its end, Jeffrey Dean Morgan was a busy actor.

One day, he was busy on the New York set of “The Good Wife” in his role as Alicia Florrick’s caddish cuddle toy, flashing his devilish grin at series star Julianna Margulies.

The next day he was jetting down to the Georgia woods to play a bona fide devil in the Season 6 finale of “The Walking Dead.”

Morgan had landed the show’s plum role of Negan, a grinning, swaggering bully who, with a band of marauders, began tyrannizing Rick Grimes (series star Andrew Lincoln) and the good guys he leads.

Morgan knew that during the gory scene he was there to film he would be killing off one of the series’ fan favorites. He just didn’t know who it would be. Even after the two-night shoot had wrapped, he still didn’t know whose skull he had bludgeoned with his barbed-wire-enhanced baseball bat.

Only in May 2016, when production began on Season 7 (and a month after the season 6 cliffhanger had horrified its audience) did Morgan learn the awful truth, as filming of the same bloody night resumed, to be completed now with its shocking reveal.

When that episode premiered in October, an audience of 17 million was there to witness the ghastly execution of not just one but two beloved characters, Glenn and Abraham, whose noggins were pounded into crimson pulp as even carnage-hardened fans wailed, “Too much!” Thus was Negan established as a despot whose reign of terror would reduce tough Rick to tears.

That’s the dire situation as “The Walking Dead” returns for its midseason premiere on AMC at 9 p.m. EST Sunday with Negan squarely in charge.

Which can be a mixed blessing for the actor who plays him.

“There are people out there who hate my guts, and I hear from them, too,” says Morgan with a knowing laugh during a recent chat. “But overwhelmingly the fans have welcomed me as a part of this weird, dysfunctional family.

“The relationship this show has with its fans,” he adds, “is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.”

Not that Morgan, at 50, is new to either the acting game or fan response.

His many credits include love-her-and-leave-her freelance gumshoe Jason Crouse on “The Good Wife,” a stint on “Supernatural,” two seasons as the harried Miami hotel mogul on “Magic City,” and — keeping “Grey’s Anatomy” devotees sobbing — as Izzie’s bedridden lover, who was desperately awaiting a heart transplant.

But none of that prepared him for “The Walking Dead.”

“It’s a life-changing experience,” says Morgan, a strapping fellow with an easygoing manner and — yes — gleaming choppers. “I can’t walk down the street anymore. I got to look in my rear-view mirror to make sure I’m not being followed home. Now, that’s all part of my reality.”

Morgan quickly learned that the “Walking Dead” troupe is as much like the CIA as like a hit show.

“Everything,” he marvels, “is shrouded in secrecy.”

Just recall that dread killing scene, with Negan strutting and brandishing his bat, “Lucille,” as he taunted his captives with “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe”: Other than Rick, every character, one by one, was filmed being finished off to help safeguard the “real” victim’s identity, according to Morgan.

Then, as a diversionary tactic, “we leaked footage of me killing Maggie,” who, of course, remains very much alive. “That’s a lot of time and effort to go through to try to save your story. But the cast and crew, they’re all used to living in this world.

“There’s a real sense of family when you go through an experience like this,” Morgan says. “It’s why the cast is so tight. We put ourselves in this bubble while we’re shooting — and while we’re NOT shooting. Even now, I have to watch every word I say. I’m still not used to that.”

As an early fan of the “Walking Dead” comics, as well as the TV series they inspired, Morgan was well-versed in Negan long before he won the role.

“I find him fascinating,” Morgan says. “The most important thing to realize is how smart he is. That’s easy to forget, because you see him come on with his bravado and the smart-ass quips. But whatever you’re thinking, he’s already two steps ahead of you. He’s always poking at your rib cage and wearing that grin. Remember those assholes in high school? He’s that guy! But on this show, you can’t run home to mama.

“He’s a larger-than-life character,” Morgan sums up with pleasure. “Still, at some point, Negan’s gonna have to get his head cracked by Rick.” I can’t say when, or how, or even if I know. But he’s gonna HAVE to!”

No wonder Morgan is smiling as he says it. He knows that will be another great scene to play.

‘The Walking Dead’

9 p.m. Sunday