Evil geniuses—and the happily typecast actors who play them in role after role—have become such a staple of drama that they’re just as prone to cliché as the golden-haired heroes who inevitably defeat them. Gregory Itzin, on the other hand, is a genuine find, perfectly suited to our nefarious age. The devils he’s currently playing—sleazy ex-president Charles Logan on 24, brought back to wreak all kinds of havoc in the show’s final season, and CEO Ken Lay in Broadway’s biting and novel Enron—are bad in the way that Bernie Madoff and the Goldman boys were. They don’t twirl mustaches. They self-justify, whine, and cover their asses. When all else fails, they plead confusion. Itzin, 62, has found belated acclaim on both coasts by embodying not so much the banality as the befuddlement of evil.
The actor rolls into a booth at the Algonquin, along with his neat black fedora, with all the charm that Charles Logan lacks on 24. “Give me a Scotch rocks with a soda back, please,” he tells the waitress. “You got Macallan?” Itzin carries some southern twang and Texas swagger, probably left over from a just-wrapped Enron matinee (he’s actually from a small town in Wisconsin). His role on 24 could have been just another whistle-stop on a journeyman’s long ramble through TV bit parts (The Practice, The O.C., Friends). But in the Bush era, the show cried out for a grasping and shadowy vice-president, which Itzin tells me he nailed at his audition. Series co-creator “Joel Surnow—that right-wing hard boy—didn’t get me, which is why he liked me. I didn’t fit any mold he had, which I’m proud of.”
The part was intended as a three-episode arc in season four. That turned into an entire season as president. There was no intention of bringing him back for this season, until Itzin waged a charm offensive on his friend and Surnow’s co-writer Howard Gordon (incidentally a Democrat, like Itzin). He sent notes and e-mails; he wrote poems, including a saga about season five that found its way to the Internet (Google “An Ode to 24”). After a while, “I thought, ‘This is bordering on begging. Just shut the fuck up and leave it alone.’ ” But it worked; Gordon agreed to bring Charles Logan back.
In Ken Lay, Itzin had a real person to contend with. “I watched him, but couldn’t do him,” he says. “Lay’s reserved, quieter, and this play wouldn’t sustain that. I’m broadening it. A little harder, a little more folksy, a little more Bush.” No matter how corrupted Itzin’s operators are, their humanity, and their conviction that they’re doing right by God and country, comes from observing his father—a Marine and the mayor of his town. That dedication is “what makes doing these roles interesting to me, and apparently to people observing it.” His father died last year, at 92, and Itzin chokes up remembering how “he always had his eye on that gift of service.”
Itzin did have one close brush with executive power when the cast of 24 was invited to dinner at the Bush White House. His lefty friend and co-star Dennis Haysbert (whose character was assassinated with Logan’s consent) “was outraged. ‘How can you possibly go?’ I said, ‘I’m invited to the White House, and I’m going, no questions asked.’ To witness—to witness. And maybe to use at a later date.”