The fascinating TV career of Craig T. Nelson, from sitcoms to crime shows

By: H&I Staff    Posted: May 9, 2019, 10:55AM

For us, personally, our first encounter with Craig T. Nelson came in Poltergeist. The Steven Spielberg-produced (and some say, er, "ghost" directed) 1982 blockbuster cast the relatively unknown actor as the prototypical early-'80s dad. He became a model man of the era, transitioning from the free-spirited '70s to Yuppie-dom. Heck, in one early scene he reads Reagan: The Man, The President while his wife rolls a joint. He was suburban, aspirational, manly, good with his kids, and with a pinch of repressed counterculture cool.

Nelson perfectly nailed the part of a man who once had a wild past and now found himself in a role of heavy responsibility. In many ways, he continued to play that same role, from playing Tom Cruise's football coach in All the Right Moves to the hippie, Vietnam-vet patriarch on Parenthood.

But Nelson's roots were in comedy. He began his showbiz career performing stand-up and honing his improv skills as a member of the Groundlings. So it should not have been a surprise that he was equally skilled in sitcoms and dramas.

With Nelson headlining The District on H&I, we wanted to shine a spotlight on his earlier television career. Let's take a look.


The Mary Tyler Moore Show


Nelson landed his first television appearance in 1973, playing a love-struck auto mechanic on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In the episode "Mary Richards and the Incredible Plant Lady," he's not smitten with Mary Richards so much as he is in love with her attention to her car's health. He begs his boss to meet the woman who takes such good care of her carburetor, which is so clean you can eat off it.


Charlie's Angels


For his next one-off television role, Nelson switched to playing a bad guy, a pistol-wielding diamond thief in a crew that kidnaps Kelly. "Angels on the Run" also happens to feature a rare appearance of Craig T. Nelson's beard.


Wonder Woman


Yep, a goon again. Only in "The Deadly Sting," Nelson was on the wrong side of another tough woman — Wonder Woman.


WKRP in Cincinnati


"Oh, great! I love weird," Nelson tells Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) in "Out to Lunch," a more serious episode of WKRP that delves into the salesman's drinking problem. In his meatiest role yet, Nelson plays a client and bar buddy of Herb's. He strings the radio man along until revealing that he no longer works for his agency, poor Herb.


Chicago Story


Released around the time of Poltergeist, Chicago Story, at last, gave Nelson his first lead role, playing a lawyer in what was essentially an early prototype for series like Law & Order and all those "Chicago" dramas on NBC. Despite its great cast, including Dennis Franz as a tough cop character that would define the rest of his career, the show lasted a mere 13 episodes, crushed by Dallas and The Dukes of Hazzard in the ratings.

Image: The Everett Collection


Call to Glory


Another ahead-of-its-time one-season-wonder, the Air Force drama Call to Glory not only predated Top Gun, it also cast Elizabeth Shue, who looked like she had just stepped off the sets of The Karate Kid and Back to the Future. Again, the show's failure was no knock on its quality, more a result of the stiff competition, namely Hardcastle and McCormick and The Scarecrow & Mrs. King. Not even heavy promotion during the 1984 Summer Olympics could help it.

Image: The Everett Collection




Ah, we come to the huge hit. As Hayden Fox, head football coach for the fictional Minnesota State University Screaming Eagles, Nelson at least had the opportunity to show off all his comedic training. Paired with his dimwitted coordinators (Jerry Van Dyke and Bill Fagerbakke) and his whipsmart love interest (sitcom veteran Shelley Fabares), Fox brought levity to a profession that was typically treated with pomp and reverence on television. Coach helped humanize coaches, making audiences realize they could be more than stern sergeants.

Image: The Everett Collection


The District


The underrated cop series The District allowed Nelson to seamlessly transition back to drama. The show and Nelson's character were based on Jack Maple, the real-life crimebusting Washington DC Deputy Police Commissioner who helped clean up the Big Apple. The show also launched the career of costar Justin Theroux, who would later appear in… seemingly everything.




Finally, we end our journey with Monk, which gave Nelson a small but crucial role in the series finale. A running thread throughout the comedic detective series was Monk's quest to solve the murder of his wife. In a way, Nelson was the "One-Armed Man" of the series, finally cornered by Monk in the tense last episode. Both a judge and a crook, Nelson ends up putting a gun to his head in the suspenseful reveal.