Desparate Housewive's James Denton On Lasting Love

Desparate Housewive's James Denton On Lasting Love

James Denton panicked when the new script for the ABC hit Desperate Housewives had him taking his shirt off. The 41-year-old actor wasn't unaware of the plotline involving his character—in which more than one of the women on Wisteria Lane were hot-blooded, lonely, and oh-so-susceptible to the charms of the neighborhood's only tall, rangy bachelor, a mysterious plumber named Mike Delfino—but Denton had assumed that the topless moments would go to the buffed kid who played the gardener. Now he had less than two weeks to turn himself into an object of desire.

Denton devised his own training regime: "Stop eating." For ten days, he sustained life on "Red Man chewing tobacco and Jack Daniel's—and that's no exaggeration." He ran every morning. And he went to the gym every day. "I knew I could bulk up quicker than I could lose weight," he says. "I tried to beef up the top half so the middle would look smaller." The crash course worked—his "six pack" became legend. The ultimate accolade followed a few weeks later, when People magazine featured him in its "Sexiest Man Alive" issue. It's now official: James Denton, hottie. James Denton, hunk.

There is one household, however, where this view is not shared, and that is Denton's own two-bedroom North Hollywood home. He's no sex symbol here. He's "Jamie," a guy who cuts his own lawn, finds fame alternately distasteful and amusing, and thanks his lucky stars that he met Erin O'Brien, an actress who abandoned that difficult career to become a personal trainer, mother, and —truly sorry, ladies— thoroughly contented wife.

The best part about Hollywood clichés is how untrue they are. John Wayne avoided military service in World War II. Marilyn Monroe, the most desired woman in the world, died alone. Rock Hudson was gay. To that list of ironies, add James Denton, the hunk with washboard abs who can't wait to get home every night.

It isn't that he doesn't love acting. He does. But growing up in Nashville, he was not the kid in the drama club who knew the words to all the songs in the musicals. He played sports, graduated with honors from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and started a career in advertising sales. His father, a dentist, acted in community theater; at 23, Denton joined him in a local production of Our Town. Five years later, he quit his job to take a shot at acting full-time. He spent a few years in Chicago, where he scored part after part in plays and practiced serial monogamy: "Living with someone meant you could afford a one-bedroom apartment, so you'd date for a few weeks and say, 'Hey, let's save money and move in together.'"

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.

Sign Up for the YourTango Newsletter

Let's make this a regular thing!

"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