SMU alumnus Brian Baumgartner ’95 – a.k.a. Kevin Malone from the hit series “The Office” – brightened up the cool and cloudy afternoon during his stop at Meadows School of the Arts for a conference hour with students November 14.
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As expected, Baumgartner brought laughs to Margot Jones Theatre, where he spoke about his journey from SMU to Hollywood. His comedic genius permeated the question-and-answer session with students. They laughed uncontrollably, and even he couldn’t contain himself, cracking up at some of his own lines.
There also were touching moments. Upon seeing one of his former professors, Baumgartner leapt out of his seat with joy and gave Bill Lengfelder a heartfelt hug.
“You are a comedic genius,” Lengfelder said to the actor. “You came in brilliant, and you left brilliant.”
During the hour-long session, Baumgartner revealed that one of his favorite memories involves another famous Meadows alum.
When the Greer Garson Theatre first opened, Meadows invited accomplished alumni back to SMU to join in the celebration. Among those attending was award-winning actress Kathy Bates ’69. Baumgartner is a huge fan of Bates – “who doesn’t love Bates,” he interjected. His mother secretly contacted the actress, and for Christmas that year, he received an autographed book from Bates. Fifteen years later, when she made special appearances on “The Office,” Baumgartner was able to pull out that autographed book.
“I am getting a little emotional,” he said. “It was a special moment. And she’s Kathy Bates. She’s awesome.”
After graduating from SMU, Baumgartner went on to help found the Hidden Theatre in Minneapolis with fellow SMU graduates. He served as artistic director.
“I couldn’t visualize the path to move to New York, so that’s why I founded the company. Even though it’s horribly cold, Minneapolis was more livable,” he said.
While in business for about five years, the company experimented with putting on original plays and recreating works by comedians such as Steve Martin.
“It’s a lot of work getting a business going,” he said, “and we were relatively successful at what we were doing.”
Baumgartner later performed with several prestigious regional theatres in Minneapolis, including the Guthrie Theater, Children’s Theatre Company and Theatre de la Jeune Lune.
After taking a year off to try film and TV, he moved permanently to Los Angeles. Four months later, he landed a role on “The Office.”
“We knew we had something special from the second episode called ‘Diversity Day,’” he said.
But, in the beginning, the audience didn’t share the cast’s enthusiasm. At first, the ratings were terrible, he said. He recalls a moment in Steve Carell’s trailer. He was sitting opposite John Krasinski, and they were bummed about their ratings. “Well, we got to do 12 episodes. That’s pretty cool,” Carell said.
Shortly afterward, the show found its audience and became a hit, running from 2005 until May 2013. Over nine seasons, the show received 42 Emmy nominations and won five awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series.
“The reason for the success of that show was college students watching. There is no doubt in my mind. Young people embraced something new,” he said.
Baumgartner has spent 2014 trying to recreate his identity as an actor. He dabbled in a few TV and film drama roles, and “spent the last year saying ‘no’ to anything that resembles Kevin. You have to constantly reinvent yourself.”
Baumgartner wrapped up the Q-and-A with these words: “Everything is valuable. No path is better or worst. They say take advantage of SMU, and that is 100-percent right. Go out and experience other parts of the University. SMU teaches you there is more. What you are learning here is so important.”
– Leah Johnson ‘15