'Mike & Molly' Star Billy Gardell, in Detroit April 12, Stunned by Sudden Success

Apr 9, 2012 at 1:56 pm
One last chance. That’s all Billy Gardell was willing to give Hollywood two years ago before packing his bags and returning to the three rivers and Primanti Bros. sandwiches of his native Pittsburgh. Had fate not let him claim the winning ticket to a prime-time TV series, the surprising CBS hit sitcom Mike & Molly might be known today as Molly.

“I didn’t even know my ticket was going to get punched, to be honest with you,” says Gardell, who will showcase a standup comedy act sharpened by decades of live experience at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 12, at Sound Board in the Motor City Casino Hotel. (Doors open at 7; you must be 21 or older with a valid ID to attend.)

“I’d been doing standup for 22 years, with different little [acting] parts here and there, and for the last couple of years before Mike & Molly I just hadn’t booked anything on television,” he relates, while running errands for his wife on a precious LA day free of TV tapings. “I found myself on the road 35 weeks a year, away from my wife and my 8-year-old boy. It was wearing on us, so I was actually going to go back to Pittsburgh.

“I said to a buddy, ‘I’m going to ride out one more pilot season here in Los Angeles.’ And Mike & Molly was my last audition of the last pilot season I was going to be here. It was literally a Hail Mary in the fourth quarter.”

And he is finally on a winning team. After snatching bit roles in films like Bad Santa and You, Me and Dupree, Gardell has landed in comedic clover at 42 as the overweight, unfortunately named cop Mike Biggs, with a Top 20 series regularly watched by 13 million people a week. While he’s drawing favorable comparisons to a young Jackie Gleason, Mike & Molly has proved an even greater launching pad for his co-star, Melissa McCarthy, who won an Emmy Award for the show and emerged as the breakout performer in the smash movie Bridesmaids.

Such explosive success could spark jealousy on the set between veteran comics, except that

“She’s been nothing but gracious about it,” Gardell says. “If anything, it’s brought us a little closer. Our whole cast is very close that way. I think we all feel that if we do great work and treat each other with respect, then this thing can be a pleasure for everybody, including our fans, for as long as possible.”

In his standup act, Gardell says Detroit audiences will see “a little more of Billy and a little less of Mike,” which sounds hard to believe for a man who attacks the scales at well over 300 pounds.

“I think the two cross over very nicely,” he explains. “I come from a blue collar town, and most of my sarcasm was learned at the corner bars, so any towns where they take pride in their work, and work ethic and common sense, like Detroit, I tend to do well. I do very well from St. Louis east. When you get into the higher altitudes, they’re not so sure about me.”

While Mike’s ongoing battle against his waistline mirrors Billy’s real life struggles, Gardell says the producers of Mike & Molly have been uncommonly supportive about his weight.

“They’ve been very cool about it. They said they were just looking for the guy who could do it right, and apparently I was that guy. They said, ‘As far as your health goes, we’ll hire you a trainer if you want, but we just want you to be healthy. If you lose a little weight we’ll write it into the show, and if you gain a little weight we’ll write it into the show. We want it to be a very organic experience.’”

Gardell says he didn’t long for a hit TV series just to bolster his standup career, as some comedians do, but admits, “Standup’s my first love, and the blessing of having a hit show is enjoying those big crowds. That’s something every comic dreams of.”

He adds, “I’m very blessed that my success came at this time in my life, I’ll tell you. Because there’s definitely a level of gratitude, having been in the [Hollywood] system for so long and then finally getting a break. It really gives you goosebumps, because you know how special it is.”

Tickets, $40 and $35, are available at all Ticketmaster locations, Ticketmaster.com and the Motor City Casino Hotel box office. To charge by phone, call (800) 745-3000.