Jim O’Heir, who played clueless, good-natured bumbler Jerry Gergich on “Parks and Recreation,” says he slipped right back into character for Thursday night’s episode — which reunites the cast for the first time since the beloved NBC sitcom ended its seven-season run in 2015.
“Absolutely, but I was nervous about it,” says O’Heir. “The way it came to pass was, [the cast] has a text chain called ‘Parks Family Text’ in which we’re all in each other’s faces all the time, which has been lovely. Then we got an email from [series co-creator] Mike Schur who said he’d gotten a call from NBC and wanted to know if we would do something.
“We were all on board in about an hour and then I thought, ‘Oh God, I gotta do Jerry. This isn’t just a table read,’” he says. “But [reviving Jerry] was a comfortable little shoe, and here’s why: the writers know the characters so well and they wrote for all of us, which made it easy.”
“Parks and Recreation” starred Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, a sunny bureaucrat working in the Parks Department of (fictional) Pawnee, Ind. In addition to O’Heir, the ensemble cast included Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Rashida Jones, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Adam Scott, Retta and Rob Lowe — all returning for the 8:30 p.m. episode to raise funds for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund helping food banks nationwide. (The actors are donating their salaries.)
In the episode, Leslie is determined to stay connected to her friends during social distancing. It also marks the first time a scripted broadcast TV show has addressed the coronavirus pandemic.
“It takes place in the present-day, and [Jerry] is still mayor of Pawnee, and Leslie is in charge of parks across the country and, because she’s Leslie, she’s obsessed with all of us and needs to hear from us,” O’Heir says. “Jerry doesn’t know what the hell is going on and Leslie helps him with all the silly stuff.
“I literally had tears in my eyes after reading the script, and the fans are going to go crazy,” he says. “Each character has that trait the fans love about them.”
O’Heir shot his part of the episode from his home in L.A., with a little technical help and creative help from Schur and “Parks and Recreation” executive producer Morgan Sackett.
“We got the script and then set up a table read, so we Zoomed for that. Everybody was in on that call,” he says. “Then about 12 hours later we got rewrites, which is what you do after a table read, then they said, ‘OK, here’s the thing: you have to do this on your own. You’re going to be lighting director, cameraman, makeup person, hair, etc.’
“One wall of my house is glass looking out into the backyard. That would not be Jerry’s house,” O’Heir says. “So I had to create Jerry’s room, and it needed to be nighttime, even though I was shooting my scenes at 9:30 a.m. I put dog beds outside my window to keep the light out … and they dropped off cameras in a big plastic box that contained a tripod, a light and instructions. Thankfully 90 percent of it was assembled since I’m so technically pathetic.”
O’Heir shot his scenes on Zoom with Schur and Sackett directing him and Schur playing the shows’ other characters — so O’Heir, as Jerry, could react accordingly. “Mike was reading the other lines; he knows all the characters and all their cadences and he knows how I’m probably going to say a line,” he says. “By the time I was done, it took about two hours, and there was a car waiting outside to take the tape for editing. They had it all down.”
O’Heir says the reunion episode was a huge surprise, since there were no plans to bring back “Parks and Recreation” anytime soon.
“We were always asked, ‘When are you coming back?’ and, to be honest, we weren’t,” he says. “There were a number of reasons. It was too soon, since we’d only been off the air for five years. Mike has always said it would take two things: that everyone wants to do it and that he needed to have a story to tell.
“Well, wow — now there’s a helluva story to tell.”