MINNEAPOLIS — On a recent afternoon, James Denton walked into a Twin Cities establishment and did something he hadn’t done in 13 years: He paid for a haircut.
Thanks to a steady stream of television roles, most recently as dreamboat plumber Mike Delfino on “Desperate Housewives,” the actor enjoyed the standard Hollywood perks: free shoes from Kenneth Cole, assistants who will dash into highway traffic to fetch you a tuna sandwich, a trim whenever your hair grows more than 1/16 of a millimeter.
But those extras disappeared the moment Denton decided to move to Chanhassen, a Minneapolis suburb, last August so that his Minnesota-raised wife, fitness expert Erin O’Brien, could be closer to her sister, who is battling cancer, and so their young kids could be part of a respected school system.
“I definitely took one for the team,” Denton said before sitting down to a Mahi-Mahi burger across the street from the famed Guthrie Theatre, where “Housewives” co-star Ricardo Antonio Chavira played Stanley in a 2010 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
It’s the kind of role Denton could see himself in — if the Twin Cities theater community gives him a chance. But Denton is well aware that directors might be skeptical of a TV performer who has gotten more attention for his hunkiness than his thespian skills.
“My wife and I were watching an episode during Season 6 or 7 and she turned to me and said, ‘You’ve got to learn how to act again, dude,’” he said. “That’s pretty good advice.”
It’s not the first time Denton, who turns 50 on Sunday, has felt like he’s starting over. After graduating from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville with a journalism major, he sold advertising for radio stations in his hometown of Nashville. Then a taste of community theater (in the chestnut “Our Town”) made him decide to take a stab at professional acting in Chicago at age 24.
Successful roles in the world premiere of “Flesh and Blood” and — yep — “A Streetcar Named Desire” led him to Los Angeles, where he had a smooth run, appearing in two John Travolta movies, “Primary Colors” and “Face/ Off,” followed by the television series “The Pretender,” “Threat Matrix” and, finally, “Housewives.”
“When you’re on TV, you’re really only free about six weeks out of the year,” he said. “That removes you even further from the theater world.”
What Denton lacks in recent experience, he may make up for in name recognition. He travels regularly to Paris to help promote the Daniel Hechter clothing line and recently went to Disney World to host a Christmas show. Warriors in Pink, an organization that helps cancer patients pay their medical bills, has been using him as a spokesperson, and the Angel Foundation, a Twin Cities-based group with a similar mission, has snagged him to emcee its Jan. 26 fundraising event in Minneapolis.
Angel Foundation president Vicki Stute expects that Denton’s presence will help ensure a 15 to 20 percent boost in ticket sales, compared with last year’s gala.
Denton believes his stature as a TV personality could help attract audiences for local productions — but he doesn’t want to come across as pompous.
“I think it’s crazy not to take advantage of the fact that I’m the guy from ‘Desperate Housewives,’ but you don’t want to sound like a jerk,” he said. “I’ve got to find a way to walk that fine line.”
Denton wouldn’t be the first to make the transition from small-screen success to local-theater regular. Linda Kelsey earned five Emmy nominations for her work on “Lou Grant” before moving back to her hometown, where she has performed steadily, most notably with St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre.
Kelsey said she initially may have gotten roles because of her star status, but she’s convinced that coming off a network series carries only so much weight.
“This is a really savvy theater community,” she said. “They know talent when they see it and they’re going to judge you on merit. We’re not star-struck in that way.”
Denton has already gotten a sense of what it’s like to be yesterday’s news. He recalls getting a two-page spread in People’s Sexiest Man Alive issue during the debut season of “Housewives,” only to watch his picture get smaller and smaller every subsequent year, until he finally wasn’t included at all.
“Charities used to be able to auction off a lunch with Mike Delfino for $20,000. Now I wonder if anyone would bid $100,” he said. “You have to be able to laugh about it.”
Denton isn’t abandoning Hollywood altogether. He recently shot a movie with Kevin Pollak and hopes to continue doing at least one film a year. And if he never makes a name for himself in local theater, don’t think for a moment that he’ll become a desperate house husband.
“If I don’t work at all here professionally, I’ll still be happy,” said Denton. “My wife is happy and my kids are with their cousins. You can’t beat that.”