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Rick Fox on Competing with Wolowitz on Tonight's 'Big Bang Theory'

by Joel Keller, posted Jan 20th 2011 2:00PM
Rick Fox, Melissa Rauch and Simon Helberg on 'The Big Bang Theory' on CBSIf you're a fan of 'The Big Bang Theory,' you know how much of a struggle it's been for smarmy, velour-clad engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) to land a regular girlfriend. If you could think of someone who is the complete opposite of Wolowitz in every way, he'd probably look a lot like former NBA star Rick Fox. Now imagine that man being the former boyfriend of Wolowitz's current squeeze, Bernadette (Melissa Rauch). Comedy gold, right?

We'll find out tonight at 8PM ET on CBS, when the gang goes to a conference and Bernadette runs into Fox, playing a professor named Glenn who's there to do a lecute on global warming. Exepect a lot of jokes about height, clothes, relative handsomeness, and a whole lot of ribbing that's not going to reflect well on Howard at all.

I spoke to Fox yesterday about the part, about whether he feels he's becoming more known for his acting than his playing career, sharing a 'Dancing With The Stars' stage with Bristol Palin, and how he feels about his ex-wife, Vanessa Williams, playing the wife of an ex-athlete on 'Desperate Housewives.'

You're going to be playing Bernadette's ex-boyfriend?
(laughing) Yeah. Professor Glenn. Basically we're at a symposium and I'm there to give a speech on global warming. And Bernadette is there with Wolowitz and the rest of the cast. So we have history as a couple, and I'm surprised to see her in a relationship.

Is there a lot of shock and surprise that her ex-boyfriend pretty much looks the opposite of Wolowitz in just every single significant way?
(laughing) Yeah, it's the perfect villain for Wolowitz's world, to have to run into someone, without giving it away, it's very funny humor on his part as the episode goes along. But yeah, you know, I physically and visually look completely opposite than what I'm sure he expected to ever run into. And just even in size, I look like I would roll off a football field. And yet, here I am, at this symposium, giving a speech on global warming, and so I have some intelligence myself.

I don't know, I'd like to think that, you know, I would appear to be, if I was to compete with Wolowitz physically, would have the edge up, but in terms of intellectually, you know, I think that's definitely where he succeeds and competes. And that's something that has always challenged my character in this world, wanting to be seen as intelligent as well.

And you're not dressed like you're coming out of some 1970's porn film like Wolowitz does or anything like that. You look like Rick Fox, right?
(laughing) Yeah, I'm dressed like a professional getting ready to give a speech. More Al Gore-like than 'That '70's Show.'

Did you have to audition for this or did the producers approach you?
Well, I think the idea of me stopping by the set and watching a taping and seeing, just meeting me, and seeing me in person, gave them the idea of how hilarious it would be to have Wolowitz have to deal with someone like myself in the situation he's now in with the relationship to Bernadette. So it just brings up all the, because he is, when it comes to women, his whole character is one of always, you know, always tackling the ladies, always just throwing himself out there.

Hey, you gotta give him credit, as cheesy as he may look.
Oh yeah. He will definitely take the leap, you know?

So you visited the set prior to being cast this episode?
Yeah. I was actually a part on 'Dancing With the Stars' at the time, and my girlfriend Eliza was shooting an episode, so I came by to visit after not being eliminated. And I've been a huge fan of 'Two and a Half Men' and Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn and Bill Prady's work, and so now with their success with 'Mike & Molly,' I have a rooting interest for them, and expressed that I'd be a part of the show in some way. I think I said that on 'ET' one night, maybe. Maybe they heard. I don't know, maybe they heard. (chuckles)

Do you see this as being a recurring character, or is this a one-off thing?
You know, I think everyone that comes in as a guest star dreams of being invited back numerous times. You know, the expression of the character's been established now and they're off writing, and so I'd love to... I'll tell you, it ended with the possibility, so I think it's just a matter of where they're taking the show and where they're taking the characters. I'd love to spend my days in the Cheesecake Factory, disrupting things, or a professor at the university.

Yeah, you'd definitely be the tallest person in those lunchroom scenes.
(laughing) Right! Right, exactly.

How many people on the set knew you from basketball, how many knew you from 'Dancing With the Stars,' how many knew you from your acting?
You know what, it's just, the further I get away from sports, the more I'm recognized by people universally for everything I've done. But I'm now starting to work enough consistently that I run into a lot of the same crew. And so it's always telling for me when I show up on a set and I run into people I worked with on the last show I did, or shows or movies around town. And so that's always exciting. I feel like a part of the entertainment business in front and behind the cameras.

More so now than even when you were with the Lakers and you were married to Vanessa, even more so now?
Yeah, it's been 6 years since I retired, and I've been acting since '94. And sometimes I forget how much time I've been at it, and you know, progressing. You know, it's a career of acting. You know, I can do this until I'm a dead man in a casket, you know? So from that standpoint, my career as an actor has been as long, if not longer now, than my career as an athlete. And you know, I'll hopefully triple that going forward.

When you get onto sets, do people who are basketball fans get very starstruck and start talking to you about Laker games and stuff like that?
There's, yeah, initially, some of the work I did 4 years ago, there was still a lot of that. Now I think people have gotten accustomed to seeing me. There's still the odd few people that want a photo, or want to talk shop or basketball memories at lunch or between a take. But you know, everyone's pretty professional in this town. They know that when you're on set and you're blocking, or you're rehearsing, or you're shooting, they know not to step in and be disruptive in a way that's disrespectful to what everyone's trying to do. So I have no problem, you know, like I said, at lunch, or afterwards when you're out, talking to anyone that wants to talk basketball. I still do. You know, I love basketball.

Did you go on 'Dancing With the Stars,' to enhance your entertainment profile, or was there another reason?
My daughter just moved out to CA from NY and her and her mom have watched the show for many, many years, since she was a 2nd grader. I was asked on the original year, and subsequent years after that, if I wanted to do it, and I was extremely, extremely nervous about it. And you know, as I've been in retirement, anytime I go far enough for something where I recognize that I'm actually really fearful of doing it, I usually try to walk towards the light (chuckles) instead of away from it. And for me, it kind of was an opportunity to compete again, which I enjoy doing in any setting. I love competing. It was an opportunity to learn how to dance. I've always been the guy that stood on the wall, you know, and just smiled, and tried not to move too much.

At what point do you think people will stop seeing you as Rick Fox, former basketball player, acting on screen, and just see you as Rick Fox, actor? Do you think that's starting to happen now?
I would say every 5 years, I'm noticing more of that. There's a generation that doesn't even know I played basketball, you know, predominantly. The more gray hairs I get, the more I maybe age a little more... I think that'll always be a staple of who I've been. It's made me who I am. It actually opened the door for me to even recognize that I wanted to have a career as an actor. So I'll never turn my back on it.

But I do know that at some point, you know, because when I walk the streets, I get more "Hey, guy from 'Oz,'". That's what leads. But there's always the basketball fans that will say, "Oh Lakers, (but) oh I loved you on 'Oz.'" So I'm seeing the blend. And so I would say probably by the time I'm 45 and have worked even more, which is another 3, 4 years, people might go oh, Rick Fox, the actor.

Was it surreal to see Sarah Palin sitting on the 'Dancing' set, cheering for her daughter Bristol?
Yeah, it was... I followed the election, you know, I was part of the whole process. And so then to think, that I would someday be on stage dancing, and Sarah Palin would be in the audience cheering her daughter on, you could not have created that. So yeah, it's just a lot about the show was a completely unexpected experience. But such a valuable one.

Could you get pumped up for 'Dancing' the way you got maybe pumped up in the NBA Finals or something like that? Is it that kind of adrenaline rush?
The first 2 weeks were an extreme level of anxiety and stress around performing. I'd never had that much stress put on by myself to go out and perform anything. So I was surprised by that. I mean, I'd sweat through a suit. And you know, I'd sweat on the basketball court, that's acceptable. But nobody'd sweat through a suit. And so I know that's anxiety. That's wanting to do well and not sure how it's going to go. So it took me about 3 weeks to get relaxed into that. And at that point, then, it took me another 3 weeks to actually just get that it wasn't solely a dance competition, and getting all the right steps wasn't going to have me stay around. I needed to start showing more of my personality. And by the time I did that, got my best scores, but then unfortunately, America was like yeah, we've seen enough of you. (laughs)

Was it interesting that your ex Vanessa Williams is playing a wife of an ex-athlete on 'Desperate Housewives?'
It makes sense. I think it's something that she can pull from, you know. It's definitely something she can pull from and give to a character I haven't had the chance to really follow the character, but I hope it's doing well. It's a different show, you know, (my daughter) Sasha can't really watch it like she watched 'Ugly Betty,' but yeah, I'm happy that... I'll tell you this, I'm thankful for whatever character she's playing, because she's living in L.A., working here, and my daughter's going to school here. And you know, it was amazing when she did 'Ugly Betty,' but she had to go to NY. So I'm glad she's back.

'The Big Bang Theory' airs Thursdays at 8PM ET on CBS.

(Follow @joelkeller on Twitter and at www.facebook.com/joelkeller.)

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