Niceness seems to come very easily to Tom Cavanagh.
He embodies it with such effortless grace emanating from his big robin’s-egg-blue eyes that one is sorely tempted to think that he is incredibly, well, nice. And as Cavanagh himself admits, that may be the weak link in the charming actor’s chain.
“There’s a recurring theme to politeness,” the Ottawa-born actor says. “What you get a lot of times, especially in the States, is that Canadians are polite. . . . ‘You’re polite,’ which means you are nice, which means there is no real edge to what you do.”
In Cavanagh’s latest movie, How to Eat Fried Worms, the actor plays the dad to a young boy named Billy. The film, based on the 1973 Thomas Rockwell classic, tells the story of an 11-year-old boy who must eat 10 worms before sundown.
Billy, played by the talented young actor Luke Benward, takes on the dare not just to preserve his reputation, but to challenge the school bully. Billy must gulp down these slimy creatures, regardless of their size or how they are seasoned, to win. (The most difficult bite turns out to be a Canadian night crawler.)
As Billy’s dad, Cavanagh offers cryptic words of wisdom and moral support when the going gets tough, and Billy cannot face gnawing on another night crawler, or chomping down an earthworm covered in tuna fish and marshmallows.
It’s a role that seems to suit Cavanagh to a T, with his characteristic calm manner and down-to-earth charm.
“I decided to do the film because I’m a big fan of the book,” says Cavanagh, 42, who lives with his family in New York. “Actually, it was because I’m a good friend of the producer, Mark Johnson, and I lost a lot of money to him in a poker game . . . a bundle . . . almost a million.”
He’s joking, of course. And that light touch and easy humour is something he has become known for in Hollywood. It was visible when he played the lead of Ed, the TV comedy about a lawyer who moves to the small town of Stuckeyville and realizes his former hard-nosed, big-city lifestyle hasn’t brought him any closer to real happiness.
Cavanagh embodied Ed with immediate likeability, and his “winsome ways” (the New York Times) had such devoted fans that when the show was cancelled after four seasons, they took out full-page Save Ed ads in the trade newspaper Variety.
In his next show, Love Monkey, Cavanagh played the “instantly lovable” (Houston Chronicle) Tom Farrell, a music snob, trying to make it after being fired from a major record label for his anti-corporate views. The similarities between the Mr. Nice Guy roles were so apparent that some critics deliberately mixed up Ed’s and Tom’s names when drawing comparisons.
But Cavanagh’s difficulty is that no matter how well he plays Mr. Likeable, he won’t hit the celebrity A-list unless he takes on something darker, says Mark Dillon, editor of Playback magazine.
“Niceness is a double-edged sword,” Dillon says. “You can make a career out of it, but to take your acting to the next level, you have to take on edgier roles.”
Cavanagh says his edge is there, and he has some movies on the horizon that display it. How to Eat Fried Worms, while enjoyably yucky, is just not one of them.