Nick Offerman

The Man Behind the Mustache

2013-09-23T16:20:00Z The Man Behind the MustacheKathleen Dorsey and Tara McElmurry nwitimes.com
September 23, 2013 4:20 pm  • 

The man, the myth, the legend.

Nick Offerman, a native of Minooka, Illinois, has become a cultural icon for those looking to emulate a paragon of masculinity, largely due to his meat-loving, woodworking, cabin-dwelling character Ron Swanson from NBC’s Parks and Recreation sitcom.

Although Offerman sports the well-groomed mustache and some similar values to his character, in his new memoir, Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living (Dutton), he is careful to draw the line of distinction between fiction and reality.

“I am quite dissimilar from Ron, which is fortunate, since I need to exist in the real world,” Offerman says. “If folks want to imagine that I am my character, that means that our show is having a very positive effect, which sounds like a pretty good problem to me.”

And indeed, Parks and Recreation, now in its 6th season, is one of the most popular offerings in NBC’s lineup.

Many critics note that although the show started out as a concept very similar to The Office, it quickly branched out after the first few episodes to find its own unique and even optimistic voice as it tells the story of the citizens and government staff of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana.

Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope, a hard-working, slightly obsessive city government employee that idolizes Hillary Clinton and displays a deep, abiding love for waffles. In the series’ beginning, she was second in command in the city’s Parks Department, under the government-mistrusting, plaid-wearing mustachioed Ron Swanson.

The two characters lead the Parks Department through a series of mishaps and successes with the help of their coworkers, including April Ludgate (played by Aubrey Plaza), a sarcastic, apathetic former intern, and Tom Haverford (played by Aziz Ansari) a snobby GQ-wannabe, but who as Knope’s No. 2, is a good man at heart.

As the series stretched on in subsequent seasons, some characters have moved on to other jobs, and new characters have been introduced – some of the most popular being Chris Traeger (played by Rob Lowe) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), financial consultants sent from Indianapolis to make cuts within Pawnee’s government.

Though some cast members were virtual unknowns at the time the first episode aired, a few have experienced widespread career success during the course of the series, particularly Aziz Ansari, whose standup routines are increasingly popular, and Aubrey Plaza, who starred in the throwback comedy The To-Do List, released in August.

But arguably, no single character from the show has had as much widespread popularity as Ron Swanson.

From his penchant for hunting and woodworking (a hobby Offerman also shares), to his thick and luxurious mustache, Ron Swanson has become an almost mythical symbol of manliness in a culture that increasingly leads away from nature and ruggedness.

One of Swanson’s trademarks is the full-bodied mustache Offerman dons to transform into the manly parks and rec director. Offerman says, though, the stache was a creative decision and is not something that can be seen complementing his face on the regular.

“My boss, show creator Mike Schur, and I agreed that Ron would have a kickass mustache based upon one he had seen me sport previously,” Offerman says. “As a working character actor, I don't maintain one look, but constantly change my hair and whiskers, so I probably have the stache pretty infrequently.”

Offerman, as the physical embodiment of that character, is often reminded by fans of his iconic status, but says it was “an office I did not campaign for.”

“I'm glad that we citizens are making an effort to discern a standard screwdriver from a Phillips-head,” Offerman says, “but I try to reassure people that I am not half as manly as most of my family, nor a great many of the teenagers in Minooka, my hometown.”

Many aspects of rural Illinois life have informed Offerman’s personality, and by extension his character Ron Swanson. In his book, Offerman mentions that although certain personality traits are taken from his own life, his father and grandfather, both farmers, influence many of Swanson’s more rugged credos.

Offerman recounts many stories in his book of his formative years in and around the prairies of Minooka, a village of just under 11,000 residents, which is located about an hour southwest of Chicago.

Growing up, Offerman worked on the family farm. He still tries to visit the area about once a year.

“There are no finer people than the folks I grew up with in Illinois, both for manners and the ability to consume an astonishing amount of beer,” Offerman says.

After high school, Offerman matriculated at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he entered the theatre program and started on a lifelong journey of performance. After college, he and some friends relocated to Chicago and founded the Defiant Theatre, an independent theater company still performing in the city.

“The theater community in Chicago is the most creative and top-drawer group of artists working in that medium in the country,” Offerman says.

He makes a point to visit the Chicago area annually.

“I love to get back once or twice a year, despite a pretty full calendar. I love to see my friends in plays in Chicago, get a sausage pie at Gino's East, head to Minooka for some sweet corn or whatever else Mom and Dad are cooking. Recently I've begun to head for any purveyor of the fine and tasty meads from Solemn Oath Brewery in Naperville. Tough to beat their inventive and delicious menu, which is always evolving and surprising.”

Offerman’s saxophone skills have also been on display as part of Ron Swanson’s alter-ego, a successful jazz saxophonist and lady-killer called “Duke Silver.” He has played the instrument since his youth.

Though he never played the instrument professionally, the locals of the Minooka area may have witnessed the early developments of Duke Silver.

“The high schools of Lisle, Lincoln Way and Elmwood Park have all enjoyed my stylings in high school during jazz contests, but they [were] largely unaware of the lightning striking at their very feet,” Offerman says. “Probably because of my mediocre playing. I also played in the Minooka High School marching band when we played at halftime of a Northwestern football game once, but nobody saw it because the stands were empty.”

The stands may have been empty back then, but now, with the help of his characters Swanson and Silver, Offerman is anything but hurting for fans. With roles on various other TV shows throughout the years, including Will & Grace, Deadwood, The West Wing and Children’s Hospital among others, Offerman has become an influential presence on the TV screen. He was even named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive 2012: mustache Edition.

In his latest endeavor, Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living, hitting shelves October 1st, Offerman aims to bring fans and readers laughs and tips to live life as deliciously as possible.

“It's a humorous look at some of the fundamentals that make my life delicious, including some autobiographical cautionary tales,” he says. “My goal and hope is that it provides a hearty helping of chuckles to the reader, and perhaps a little instruction.”

Offerman wrote the book while working on play with his wife.

“I wrote at home and at my shop, and I wish I'd had more time to spend in reverie, staring out of a fishing cabin window at a breezy Minnesota lake, but, alas, I was in Los Angeles. It was fun anyway.”

Offerman’s wife Megan Mullally, best known as the wealthy, alcohol-binging, but ultimately lovable Karen from Will & Grace, can also be seen on Parks and Recreation as Tammy #2, Swanson’s second ex-wife.

Offerman’s book, though laden with many robust tales, takes a chapter to share the importance and hilarity of romantic love, in which he shows his gratitude to Mullally and tells the highlights of how the two TV show favorites came to be a couple.

The book offers many other pieces of advice and stories about how Offerman growing up and getting his start right in Chicago’s backyard, became the man who became “The Man” Ron Swanson that fans know and love today.

In a word, summing up how he lives a delicious life, Offerman’s secret: “Hustle.”

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