Split Decision

Tempted by Divorce, Thomas Haden Church left his ranch for a spell in the city.

Gina Piccalo
  • Courtesy HBO

Thomas Haden Church was content running cattle on his 2,000-acre Texas ranch and tending to his two daughters when Sarah Jessica Parker called with an offer.

He was her first choice to play her soon-to-be ex in the HBO dark comedy Divorce.

"She said, 'I know you're probably going to say no — don't feel obligated to call me back if you don't like it,'" he recalls of his conversation with Parker, an executive producer of the show. "Apparently, I had a reputation of a guy that turned all TV down. Which is kind of true."

Church had two successful sitcoms in the 1990s, an Emmy for AMC's 2006 western Broken Trail and an Oscar nomination for his incorrigible lug in Alexander Payne's 2004 Oscar-winning comedy, Sideways.

And though he took occasional film roles — from the Sandman in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3 to a homeless man in the indie drama Cardboard Boxer — Church steered clear of television roles that would keep him away from his daughters, now eight and 13.

But he'd loved working with Parker on the 2008 indie drama Smart People. And he couldn't pass up the opportunity to collaborate with her and Paul Simms, the showrunner on Divorce's first season and now an executive producer of FX's Atlanta.

It also helped that Divorce creator–executive producer Sharon Horgan, the Irish actress-writer-producer who earned an Emmy nomination for her Amazon series, Catastrophe, had written a razor-sharp script.

"I really enjoyed working with [Parker] before, and HBO is the standard bearer," he says. "My daughters were a little bit older and I thought, if I got to move to New York for three or four months, this is worth it."

Divorce, which entered its second season in January, makes ample use of Church's molasses-slow, tinder-dry delivery. As out-of-work contractor Robert, he plays out one cringe-worthy encounter after another, from vomiting into a champagne glass when his wife asks for a divorce to awkwardly confronting the girl who deflowers his teenage son.

"You want your character to be authentic and believable, which are not really synonymous," he says. "I always wanted this impending doom that he was doing everything he could to prevent — and failing, horrifyingly at times — from spilling out. He just makes bad decisions, at really bad times."

Church is nothing like his character in that way. He says he's always been driven and ambitious. Born outside Sacramento, one of six children, Church spent his childhood moving around Texas because of his adoptive father's army career and subsequent government job.

"My inclination to do what I do started early on because of my mom's love for movies," he says. But Church didn't follow the traditional actor's path. He began working in radio in high school and was an established radio talent and voice actor by his late 20s. A Dallas audition led to a starring role in a TV movie, and he moved to L.A. in 1989 to give acting a year — against his parents' advice.

After a guest appearance on NBC's Cheers that same year, he went on to spend six seasons as a dim-witted airplane mechanic on NBC's Wings. Church left that show to star in his own Fox series, Ned and Stacey, opposite Debra Messing.

"When I got involved with something credible, I liked it," he says.

But the leading-man roles didn't materialize, and his career took an idiosyncratic turn. After a supporting role as a cowboy in the 1993 western Tombstone, Church moved back to Texas.

He'd expected to move into directing, but the success of Sideways gave him the freedom of choice he'd always wanted.

Which explains why, as soon as he ends this call with emmy, he's going back to preparing his calves for auction.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 5, 2018