Tony Hale

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There's no better laboratory for a comic actor than the constant flow of behavior to be observed on New York streets. For the past eight years, Tony Hale has made it his home, settling a few months ago with his new bride into an East Harlem apartment, largely financed from roles such as the quirky Uncle Hank in a three-spot package for Sony, the penny pinching dad in the delivery room for Citicorp and the over-the-top "Mr. Roboto" pantomime for Volkswagen. He also has the distinction of co-starring with the Taco Bell Chihuahua, but Hale is probably best known, at least within the ad world, for his role as the dog (played entirely straight but without prosthetics or a costume) in Devotion, director Frank Todaro's contribution to the first Sony "Dreams" HD short-film festival. They had worked together on the Sony commercials, as well as spots for Staples and Dunkin' Donuts.

In Devotion, Hale seems at first to be an obsessive lover devoted way beyond reason to his girlfriend. Only as the piece plays out do viewers begin to understand the gag. "Tony is brilliant, no matter what I ask him to do," says Todaro, who wrote Devotion with Hale specifically in mind. "His timing is incredible and he has this vulnerability that you can't fake - it comes from a place that isn't just a veneer of the emotion." To give Hale an even greater challenge, Todaro shot out of sequence, but "Tony always had that dog quality while retaining the presence of mind to not give away that he's playing a dog."

When Todaro cast actress Susan Isaacs as Hale's "owner," he was unaware she and Hale were in a sketch comedy troupe together, and all three contributed to fleshing out Todaro's idea, adding details like Hale following Isaacs and waiting for her outside the bathroom. "I had a dog while I was growing up, so I just thought about him and my friends' dogs," Hale says. "The commercials I've done are very smart and very well-written," he adds. "The comedy comes from truth, and I've never had to 'sell' it, which always gets an actor into trouble, because it won't come off as authentic. Most of the time, I play a quirky sidekick, and I just kind of highlight what there is to make fun of myself."

Hale won't be available for commercials work for a while, unfortunately. He's about to make the actor's inevitable move to Los Angeles now that Fox has picked up his sitcom pilot - the working title is Arrested Development - from Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment. He already has a bit of experience in developing a character over several episodes; Sony liked his Uncle Hank character (a strange guy who lives with his sister's family and is so obsessed by every gadget Sony makes that he hardly ever leaves his attic room) well enough to expand the original three-spot package into a series of 10 two-minute pieces that ran in Circuit City stores.

A sitcom is on the scale of an epic compared to a commercial, so Hale's learned not to go too deep into character when auditioning for spot roles. About all he knows when he arrives at the audition studio is who the client is and whether he should dress casually or corporate. With only about 10 minutes to prepare, "you just improvise, have fun with it, and use all the nervous energy," he says. "When you get the role, you know they chose you because of what you did in the audition, and you just build on it during the filming."

Hale caught the acting bug in seventh grade, but didn't commit to acting until after he had earned a journalism degree and worked for several years as a youth minister in Tallahassee. He moved to New York eight years ago and began training at William Esper Studios and The Barrow Group. "To be a working actor is such a blessing," says Hale, who hasn't had to don his waiter's garb for the past three years. "Auditioning is an actor's job; performing is play."

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