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Versatile Hollywood Actor Finds His Niche

Success in Hollywood comes by way of many different routes. For actor Christian Clemenson, the road started in a small-town in the Midwestern state of Iowa and has led to a role on a television series called Boston Legal. Mike O'Sullivan spoke with the actor about his work and why he loves it.

He is one of the faces that viewers see again and again in different programs and movies. Christian Clemenson is a character actor who has played an Air Force officer, a doctor, salesman and priest, and dozens of other roles.

In the 2006 feature film United 93, he played real-life hero Thomas Burnett, a passenger on a jet hijacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001. The plane crashed killing all aboard near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Burnett and fellow passengers resisted the hijackers, after Burnett called his wife to explain what was happening.

TOM: "I'm on United Airlines 93 from Newark to San Francisco. The plane has been hijacked. We're in the air. One guy knifed a guy and they're saying they've got a bomb on board. Please call the authorities."

Today, Clemenson has a role on the weekly TV network series, Boston Legal, playing a brilliant but quirky lawyer named Jerry Espenson. The role earned him a 2006 Emmy award for outstanding guest actor in a drama.

His road to Hollywood began in Humboldt, Iowa, a small town in the vast expanse of the U.S. Midwest.

"They claim the population is 5,200," he said. "The census will tell you the population is about 3,000, but they still maintain it's 5,200."

As a boy, he delivered papers for the Des Moines Register, which gave him a scholarship to a prestigious East Coast boarding school favored by the families of the rich and famous.

"I ended up getting admitted to the school called the Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. And that changed my life," he added.

Lonely and far from home, he joined a drama group. He maintained his interest in theater after he finished high school and went on to study at Harvard University.

Later completing a master's degree at the Yale School of Drama, he set off for New York to work in television and on Broadway, then came to Los Angeles, where he auditioned.

"That's sort of the life of a character actor in Los Angeles," he explained. "For someone like me, you begin slowly. And you audition and audition and audition. I remember I was looking at a diary I kept when I first came out here, and the number of auditions I went out on, and nothing happened."

But beginning in 1985, he started getting parts in series and movies.

A three-episode assignment on the drama Boston Legal became a recurring role, where he plays opposite stars James Spader, William Shatner and Candice Bergen.

Clemenson works 12-hour days that start at six in the morning, and he says working in Hollywood is not quite as glamorous as some people think.

"That is not an easy life," he noted. "And yes, there are these few moments, and they are only one a year where suddenly it seems glamorous where you get to dress up in a tuxedo and smile on a red carpet, but that is unusual. Most of our work is really, really difficult."

He says the lure of money and fame did not bring him to Hollywood. He is here because he loves acting, the process of bringing a character to life.

"I come to work and I create something special," he said. "And I go home at night, and I have this tremendous sense of satisfaction. I know I'm lucky."

He says there are no guarantees in the entertainment business, and an actor is never sure if his current role is his last one. But the satisfaction of acting keeps him in Hollywood.

A nine-week long writers strike has put production on hold for many actors and crewmembers, including Clemenson. He says he hopes the strike will end soon, so he can get back to the studio to do what he loves doing.