Charles "Chip" Esten built his TV fan base as a recurring improv comic on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" He was quick-witted and fast on his feet -- remember those Scenes from a Hat sketches? For "Pick-up lines in a produce aisle," Esten immediately said: "Cantaloupe tonight?"
But singing was his strong point. Paired with fellow actor Wayne Brady, the duo pulled show-stopping, humorous lyrics from their minds on a moment's notice that still get thousands of hits on YouTube more than a decade later.
Esten's singing again on his newest TV role, but the lyrics are much more somber. As alcoholic, commitment-phobic Deacon Claybourne on ABC's Wednesday night hit "Nashville," he is the quintessential dramatic antihero.
He's a guitar player and recovering alcoholic who fell off the wagon when he learned he had a daughter with country star/former love Rayna James (played by Connie Britton), which she had hidden from him for 13 years. The fallout from that bender was a Season 1, finale-worthy car crash that caused the guitarist a career-ending hand injury.
Yet Esten says he still finds humor in his new TV gig.
"All the best dramas, I think, have a lot of humor in them. Callie Khouri (writer/producer/director of "Nashville") is a very funny woman. Our leading ladies, Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere (as up-and-coming country singer Juliette Barnes), are both very funny."
"In a recent episode where Deacon and Avery (played by Jonathan Jackson) were working together -- who knew they could be a comedy team? -- I had a ball with Jonathan," Esten says in a telephone call from Music City.
Esten actually got his start in drama before "Whose Line?", making his theatrical debut in London playing Buddy Holly in the West End musical, "Buddy." He performed the role for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip and later for former President and Mrs. George H.W. Bush at the White House.
It was while playing Holly that he appeared in the British version of "Whose Line?" When the improv comedy came to America's ABC, he was asked to be a recurring cast member.
"The great thing about 'Whose Line?' is that it had a small schedule. You would do a live show and from that one taping, you'd get three, even four, episodes. We could shoot an entire season over a handful of weekends," Esten explains. "So all the time I was on that show, I was available to do other things."
Those things included guest appearances that built his dramatic chops: "ER," "Cold Case" and "Big Love." He had a guest spot on "The Office" and played the dad on Disney Channel's "Jessie." He landed roles in movies such as "Swing Vote," "Thirteen Days," "61" and "The Postman."
As brooding Deacon Claybourne, his portrayal straddles a fine line between being the sympathetic hero and sorry sad-sack.
"There's a line to be walked; they walk it as writers, I walk it as an actor," Esten says. "Our writing staff is wise and know you can go to a place for only so long. An acting coach once said, 'Authentic emotion travels.' I thought that was pretty heady and pretty true because it's very rare anybody stays in one place very long. You take the hardest, saddest, darkest times and stick a little wry humor in there, something that gets you through.
"When I read the script, Deacon was an extremely well-rounded character. He's a good friend, good uncle and loves deeply, but he's flawed and has his demons. That's what you want to be able to play. On any given day, I don't know where we're going or what I'm going to get to do," he says.
Deacon's love for family is one trait that especially appeals to viewers about the character.
"He cares so much for his niece, and his concern comes through in a genuine way," says Ooltewah resident Phyllis Nicholson.
"Deacon is a loyal and talented musician and songwriter. He has battled alcoholism and feels guilt for hurting his family and friends. He's tough, tender and incredibly handsome and charming," agrees Julie Barringer, an employee of H&R Block, adding the character reminds her of country singer David Nail.
For Esten, the role has opened doors he claims "would wear my phone battery out" listing them all.
Two weeks ago, he flipped the switch to turn on the holiday lights at Elvis Presley's Graceland. His appearance there included performing an original song he wrote for the occasion. He has performed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and sang on "The Music of Nashville: Original Soundtrack Season, Vols. 1 and 2," which have sold more than 2.6 million digital downloads to date. He has two tracks on the "Season 2, Vol. 1" soundtrack, set for release on Dec. 10.
He's also performed on-set with some of country music's biggest names -- many of them in an episode celebrating Deacon's birthday.
"To a person, every one of them -- by the way they carried themselves and talk to you -- sort of talk you down from being blown away. They make you feel very comfortable and at home," Esten says.
"I've been a Vince Gill fan forever. When you meet him, he immediately puts you at east and disarms you. Brad Paisley is an insanely talented writer, singer and guitar player. But when you are around him, he's just got you laughing and he feels like a buddy.
"In my heart of hearts, I'm still amazed I am standing there with those people."
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...