Desparate Housewive's James Denton On Lasting Love

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Desparate Housewive's James Denton On Lasting Love
The inside scoop on hunky James Denton's happy marriage.

He was a natural actor, easy in his skin, smart about creating his characters, and no trouble for his directors; he got himself noticed and moved to Los Angeles. Because his pleasant features revealed nothing of the man inside—he could be a villain or a solid citizen, as needed—Denton worked consistently in one critically acclaimed and commercially doomed TV series after another (e.g., The Pretender, Threat Matrix). In his early thirties, he had the young actor's requisite brief and unhappy marriage: "an honest mistake, mutual confusion," he says now.

And then, five years ago, he went to audition for a play. Reading with him was Erin O'Brien, a friend of the playwright who had taken a part just for fun. "Jamie walked through the door," she recalls, "and I went, 'Wow, I'm in trouble.'" Denton didn't get cast. Erin—still very much involved in a doomed relationship—was relieved. A week later, though, another actor dropped out and Jamie was in.

 

"We started as friends," Erin says. "After rehearsal one day, he asked, 'Ever go out for a beer?' That's how we started hanging out, shooting pool. It felt safe, because you're telling yourself: 'I'm not going to be in a relationship for a while.' And because you're saying 'This is who I am'—you're not trying to hide the bad parts." There was another safety valve. Jamie and Erin shared a common mantra: "Nobody else with a head shot." In other words, no romance with another actor. "Being with a struggling actor is hell," Jamie says. "And two actors together—one is always failing. Or both of you are. There's not enough support to go around."

Erin felt the same way. "I'd been badly burned in a relationship with an actor," she says, "and wasn't looking for another." But as they grew closer, Jamie told himself that pursuing Erin didn't violate the rule: she was no longer a professional actress. And Erin's resistance was weak; because they'd started as friends, she saw "no big surprises" ahead. And so, as he had done before, Jamie popped the question: "Want to live together?" She had the better apartment, but he owned his. And he had a dog. So Erin moved into Jamie's duplex in the valley, thinking more of love than marriage.

Erin O'Brien Denton comes from Minnesota, and it shows. She is blonde and clear-eyed, quick-witted and plain-spoken. Her charm lies in her directness; she's such an obviously good person you almost forget to notice she's really attractive. Which is fine, because Erin has no ambition to be arm candy.

Like any number of Midwesterners, Erin always knew there was "something else." She graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in theater, worked as an apprentice in a Minneapolis children's theater while being a foster parent for two mentally disabled kids in a youth home, and then, "with two suitcases and a boom box," moved to New York. There she sang in an a capella trio, worked as a nanny in the Hamptons, lived in 11 apartments in 11 years—and came to a hard decision about acting.

"When you have a dream and you try to make a living at it, it becomes a business," she explains. "I hated that. I wanted acting to be my art. So I thought I'd find something else I liked as much, then do acting as a hobby." Her discovery? "I love to teach women to exercise. People do it for lots of reasons. I do it for health and well-being, so it gives me great satisfaction to train older women who have never exercised and don't know what it is to be in their bodies." A tough-minded woman with a hard body, Erin wasn't looking for a man to take care of her. Like Jamie, she'd had a brief, unfortunate marriage that only confirmed her desire for independence. "It took time for me to let myself be dependent on Jamie," she says. Then both had to confront the Legacy of Mom and Dad.

"My parents were amazing people who had no business being together—and they knew it," Jamie recalls. "There was no fighting, no screaming … but silence is just as dysfunctional. They had three kids, and that was the glue. They stayed together for us. I wasn't aware of the dynamics of my parents' marriage until I was out of college. Then relationships start to be about 'Will we settle down?'. My parents had nothing in common; I wanted to have a lot in common with my partner. My parents came from very different backgrounds, and that was always a problem. I wanted a woman from a similar background. And so I ran from relationships that reminded me of my parents."

As did Erin. "My parents married when my mom was 21 and my father was 22," she says. "They had five daughters and a hobby farm on 11 acres and a house on a lake, so I thought they had a terrific marriage—until I started therapy. Then I saw: They're snipers."

She was determined to avoid relationships with men she'd be tempted to criticize. Jamie had been raised as a Southern Baptist and, she assumed, was the kind of Republican who'd describe himself as a "fiscal conservative." He was a member of the National Rifle Association, too. For a Minnesota liberal like Erin, that wasn't promising. Then she learned that Jamie had decidedly blue-state politics, and had joined the NRA to be closer to his father, who was a hunter.

None of these happy discoveries made a wedding the obvious next step, though. "We knew we wanted to be married if we were going to have kids," Jamie explains, "so we weren't in any hurry to marry. It was going to happen in reverse order—not very old-fashioned. Our thought was to get married before our child was born and hope he couldn't do the math."

Three years after Jamie and Erin got together, she became pregnant. This created a certain romantic problem: How could Jamie propose in a way that had any emotional credibility?

"I didn't want Erin to think, 'OK, I'm pregnant, marry me,'" Jamie recalls, "so I didn't bring it up for a long time." Erin's birthday arrived. They had dinner at home. He gave Erin a present.

Her sisters called: "Get a ring?"

"I got some really cool jeans," Erin told them.

It was late in the evening when Jamie dropped to one knee and produced a ring. He cried. She cried.

"It was great," they say. And the ring? Did it, as the commercials for diamonds suggest, set Jamie back three months' salary?

"Not at my present salary," he says, with a laugh. "But at that point, yes. Because I was out of work. That ring was my residuals from The Pretender and one Aquafresh commercial." The wedding was in Las Vegas in December of 2002, with just their two best friends in attendance. Erin was showing, in a black dress that bared her belly. ("Genius," Jamie says.) To everyone's delight, the Little Church of the West had wooden pews, an organist, and a minister who acted as if this were the only marriage service he'd ever performed.

"He talked about the value of marriage and the value of love," Erin remembers. "We were shocked."

"It exceeded expectations," Jamie adds, "and we got change from $100." But then there is the moment when the jokes end and Jamie speaks from the heart.

"The biggest surprise about our marriage is that Erin was out there," he says. "That was a real shock. I was convinced I'd have to settle. And I was comfortable with that. But I didn't have to. I didn't have to."

Erin, too, knew she'd found something special. "When you're this old, you can't not carry baggage," she had told Jamie. "You have to decide what to keep around and what to throw away. With you, there's a lot I can throw away."

A few months later, back in the real world, Erin endured 49 hours of labor at home (real labor, with Jamie timing contractions every five minutes) before forsaking the midwife and rushing to the hospital. Finally, a beaming doctor held Sheppard up so the new father could cut the cord.

"Aren't there people who do this?" Jamie asked. Having been a nanny, Erin was determined to do most of the parenting herself. She hired someone to care for the baby two days a week while she returned to work part-time at Crunch. Jamie's new job on Desperate Housewives was no problem. With ten major characters in the series, he usually hasn't been needed on the set for more than a couple of days a week, so he and Erin have traded off child-care responsibilities.

Jamie also mows the lawn and works around the house, because, as he says, "it's hard to justify hiring anyone when I have this much free time." He is his own personal assistant, too. "No BlackBerry—I'm too incompetent," he admits. "We use dry-erase marker on a calendar tacked on the refrigerator."

Life may get more complicated with the arrival of their second child. And Erin is aware, of course, that Jamie may be more in demand than usual for some time. Or maybe not. He's the "mystery character" on Desperate Housewives, and when the mystery gets solved, who knows what will happen to him?

"Scary, isn't it?" he muses. "In every show I've ever been on, you look over your shoulder to see if the suits are pulling the plug. Now I'm on a show that's safe and is clearly going to be around for a while, and you worry that you're going to be killed. It's a whole different paranoia." It's not as if the cast knows what's going to happen; the only person who has any clue is the show's creator, Marc Cherry.

"I'm told there's a big bomb dropped in the season finale," Jamie says. "I hope it's a cliffhanging bomb. My concern is that Mike ends up as Teri Hatcher's boyfriend. If that happens, do I get a richer life—or am I expendable?"

Right now, as the show's testosterone catch, he's essential. And that means he and Erin spend a great many evenings at charity dinners and industry events. This is not quite the life they dreamed of. It's simpler for Erin—"I try to brush my hair, and I've started wearing makeup"—but she's not part of a national obsession. Jamie is, and it's not always easy.

"We went over to the rehearsal of the American Music Awards because I was a presenter," he says. "And suddenly a news crew was interviewing me and Dick Clark came over. Erin leaned over and said, 'Bet you wish you'd taken a shower.' I've got to keep reminding myself: I'm a hunk now."

Most of the time he's philosophical about it: "My window of 'hunky' opportunity is closing so quickly, I've got to enjoy it for what it is." The People magazine honor? "A belly laugh—especially for Erin. You just have to throw up your hands. At my age …"Some things haven't changed. The Dentons still play in a co-ed softball league, and Jamie, a left fielder, still revels in dazzling catches worthy of an ESPN highlight reel. They own a hundred acres in Montana, and they're holding onto the dream of moving there at some point when Desperate Housewives, or whatever the next money-maker turns out to be, has faded to sepia. And they still think that all they really need is a slightly bigger house.

And who knows, they may be right. They have the kind of balance that allows them to take Jamie's transition from character actor to bigtime heartthrob as a happy cosmic joke. Asked why their marriage works, Erin turns to her husband as she answers: "Because I don't wake you up in the middle of the night and want to talk."

"Right," Jamie responds. "No 1a.m. conversations. And, more profoundly, she gets me. And tolerates me. A lot of tolerance."Jamie and Erin know Wisteria Lane isn't real. They are making sure their marriage is.

Jesse Kornbluth, a former contributing editor of YourTango, edits the cultural concierge Web site headbutler.com.