John Michael Higgins Recalls Working With ‘Deep’ and ‘Soulful’ Fran Drescher on ‘Happily Divorced’
A-lister John Michael Higgins found lasting love by breaking a few of his personal codes of conduct. “I had been an actor my whole life, but always had a rule that you do not date anyone you work with and you certainly don’t marry an actress — and I absolutely did both,” John, 56, exclusively tells Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now, with a laugh.
Not long after performing in a Connecticut production of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, he married his costar Margaret Welsh. “I met her and I was putty in her hands,” John says of his wife of 20 years, with whom he has a 16-year-old daughter, Maisie, and 13-year-old son, Walter.
While he found love in Connecticut, John achieved success in Hollywood with his quick-witted, fast-talking characters in films like Pitch Perfect and Best in Show, and the Fran Drescher sitcom Happily Divorced. But with his 2019 Daytime Emmy–nominated hosting gig on the new game show America Says, he may just have figured out the ideal platform for his natural comic talent — and he sees a common thread with his acting.
“I want to do good work that brings people joy or recognition,” he says. “And I want to facilitate those experiences for them.” We talked with John about his career, how he’s made his marriage last and why his kids are “the ultimate truth-tellers.”
Scroll below to read our exclusive Q&A with John!
You’re a natural on America Says. What do you enjoy most about it?
I have hosted award show–type things, but I’ve never done a game show. There are eight contestants per show and I do six shows per day, and it’s my job to find what’s interesting about them and make each of them characters. That part is never not interesting, interestingly. I’ve used interestingly three times! [Laughs]
Had you ever considered hosting a game show before?
A long time ago my agent said, “They would like you to do [2005–2010’s] Deal or No Deal.” At that time, the business had much more strict barriers between an actor, a game show host, a talk show host … you didn’t cross these lines. Nowadays, it’s the Wild West, but back then they said, “Don’t do it. You’ll never work as an actor again.” And pretty much the same agents were sitting at the table when this came up and they said if it looks interesting, go for it. The world had changed. I’m glad [America’s Got Talent host] Howie Mandel did it — he’s fantastic.
And you got a Daytime Emmy nod!
I’ve had a long career, but only a few nominations. So for all things, as a game show host … I did not see that one coming!
Do you have a favorite show you were in?
[The 2017–2018 sitcom] Great News. It was a ridiculous error [for NBC] to cancel that show, utterly baffling, and I was just warming up. It’s getting a second life on Netflix.
How was it making Pitch Perfect?
Very strange. Elizabeth Banks and I were buddies, and she called me in New York and said, “Would you come down to Baton Rouge and improvise some silly dialogue about a cappella?” I said sure. Liz and I sat in front of a tennis ball like we were watching a performance and started blabbing. I went home, forgot about it and then a year later, it’s a hit. I was like, am I in that? It was one day in my life. The headline is: Liz and I should not be paid for what we do in those movies. It should be illegal, and she’s the one writing the check!
You’ve played several gay roles, like in Best in Show and on Happily Married…
I’m not sure why, but I played the title character in a 1990s play, Jeffrey, and if you have success, people think, “He did it and it worked.” I agreed with everything in the show, but it resulted in a string of gay characters [onstage] and I was tired of it. Then Christopher Guest, who I idolized, offered me Best in Show, so that happened in film and TV. But the Best in Show guy I could play all day. Chris knows that any time he calls any of us, we’re there.
Did you like working with Fran Drescher?
Fran, I love dearly. She’s a deep, soulful, beautiful person and also a great star, a prima donna — I don’t mean that as a pejorative. She’s an incredibly good producer and she’s hilarious. I loved being around her.
What was your childhood like?
I was born in Boston, but I have no memory of it because we moved 15 times before I went to college. It was a military family. Tightknit. Four children. I was the youngest. None of my brothers or sisters are in show business. I don’t know where it came from, I just knew how to do it as a baby. And thankfully my parents were groovy enough to say, “OK, that’s clearly what he is.” So I became a child actor onstage starting professionally at age 9 or so.
Any secret to your 20 years of marriage?
Communication and respect are right at the top, but we’re also big conversationalists. We often will talk on subjects never having to do with showbiz. I’ve heard everything she has to say and I’m still surprised by her. I’m sure she’s bored to tears with me, but that has been a great solace in my marriage. I love having a drink with Maggie and just talking for a long time. That’s my favorite thing.
How has fatherhood changed you?
It’s a huge humility trip in a cosmic sense — you’re not the center of the universe. You can’t talk to a child for more than five minutes without learning something about yourself because they are the ultimate truthtellers, even when they’re lying. [Laughs] They make me laugh. Not, “That’s funny for a kid.” It’s, “Oh, that is genuinely funny.”
What are they like?
My son just turned 13 — he’s going to be embarrassed that I told his birthday. They have artistic temperaments like their parents. I think Maisie may be a writer.
How’d you describe this time in your life?
I’m middle-aged, and there’s a lot of middle-aged things, I think. I’m sort of focused on my kids. I had them a little bit late. They’re teenagers and it’s long going. I’ve done quite a range of things, and I’m sort of satisfied that I still have artistic expression in my life, but I don’t think about my career constantly. I’m thinking about life in big general terms — family, contentment and things like that.
How do you feel about your career?
If you’d told me at 26 when I was doing tragedies onstage that I’d be known for comedies at 36, or told me at 36 that I’d be a game show host at 56, I’d have laughed in your face each time. It’s an adventure in which every gig is pretty much a different life.
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