James Urbaniak says one of his friends calls him “Dr. Red Herring,” a guest star whose appearance throws mystery-show investigations off course.
Law and Order fans will recall what is perhaps his most memorable “red herring” role. He played the creepy brother of Amy Sedaris' tech-savvy character on SVU, a man whose penchant for filming inside public bathrooms only served as a lead to an even more disturbing crime.
He's also the guy known for playing real guys, including Jack Lessenberry in You Don't Know Jack, Robert Crumb in American Splendor and David Bowie in The Venture Bros.
“When I first moved here, I started getting a lot of guest slots on TV shows, one-show appearances,” Urbaniak says. “It's hard to be good on TV. … If you're just coming in to be one person on the show and you kind of fit into the formula, it's hard to make it seem real and make it seem lived-in.”
The other thing that's happened for Urbaniak in Los Angeles is Thrilling Adventure Hour. A few months after moving here from New York in 2007, he met Ben Acker, co-creator of the wildly successful live shows based on the radio drama format. He soon joined the ensemble cast and started playing a wide variety of characters.
“They have a World War II flying ace, square-jawed, All-American kind of guy named Jefferson Reed,” he says. “I enjoy playing that because that's not the kind of part I would ever be cast in in the real world. It's a radio show, so anyone can be anything.”
But Urbaniak is perhaps best known for his primary role in Adult Swim's cult hit animated series The Venture Bros. He plays Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, the hapless family patriarch with a boatload of unresolved childhood issues, who manages to become both more sympathetic and a bigger jerk over the course of four seasons (two more are in the works).
“The show is weirdly nuanced,” Urbaniak says. “There have been little glimpses into the slightly more humane Dr. Venture. They are always glimpses, and he'll still sell your kidneys at the drop of a hat.”
Urbaniak lives in that strange middle ground that many actors in Los Angeles inhabit: He has a rabid following among animation fans but can walk into a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Melrose without anyone turning their head.
Online, it's a different story. An avid user of social networking platforms Twitter and Tumblr, Urbaniak interacts daily with fans (who sometimes become friends), publicly chatting about news, Venture Bros., his career and Internet memes. He mentions one fan-turned-friend who managed to track down a clip of a one-off voice acting role he did for MTV's turn-of-the-century hit cartoon Daria, something he had never seen before. He says, “These things are nice, especially when you're a moderately successful character actor.”