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He’s No Angel…
…But he plays one on TV. Leon Rippy feels blessed to play Earl, Holly Hunter's Last Chance Angel on the hit series Saving Grace.

In a career that’s spanned more than two decades, veteran movie and television actor Leon Rippy has played a cryogenically frozen country-and-western singer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a U.S. Air Force general in the movie Stargate, a wily bartender on Deadwood and Mel Gibson’s trusted friend and fellow colonial in The Patriot. But it’s as Saving Grace’s Earl, the tobacco-chewing Last Chance Angel to Holly Hunter’s feisty policewoman Grace Hanadarko, that Leon is really turning heads in the industry. “People stop me in the streets and tell me how much Saving Grace has touched them,” Leon states. “I’m the most blessed guy in the world to be allowed to do this for a living. I still can’t believe it.”

Leon Rippy
Photo courtesy TNT/Frank Ockenfels.

Faith & Friends (F&F) interviewed Leon at his California home.

F&F: How did you get into Saving Grace?

Leon Rippy (LR): My agent sent me a script. I read it and thought, Well, this is more than just a police story.

I prepared for two or three days with my wife, Carol. I was letter perfect. I’m gonna knock it out of the park, I thought to myself.

Well, I’ve had two or three horrible auditions in my career and this was one of them. I dropped several lines. I was so mortified, I stopped in the middle of my audition and apologized.

“Don’t worry about it,” they said, “it’s just dialogue.” “Well, that’s easy for you to say,” I replied. “You guys are sitting there with a job. I’m on this side looking for a job.” Somehow or another, I got a callback.

F&F: What do you like best about Earl?

LR: A lot of times Earl speaks in parables, and that’s kind of the way I talk. My wife understands me but I don’t know if the guy on the street would. I don’t want to say the character is like me because I don’t consider myself angelic or divine in any sense of the word, but his simplicity appeals to me.

F&F: How do you prepare to play an angel?

LR: I just bathe in the morning. (laughs) That’s my preparation. I know many actors who work themselves up into some sort of mild frenzy and then the director says, “Action!” I’m thankful that I’ve developed an acting style that doesn’t rely on that. When the director says, “Action!” then it’s time to do it right, just full-out. I’m just thankful I don’t have to break a sweat doing it. I’m guided by my emotion and that registers on my face. What you are seeing comes straight from my heart.

F&F: How do you feel about your role?

LR: It’s the role of my dreams. To have that sizeable a role with such a character and he’s a messenger of God! Look at the responsibility! (laughs) My first agent told me as I was leaving North Carolina to move to Los Angeles, “You let go and you let God, and everything will be fine.” And I have. I’ve been rewarded tenfold.

I stepped out in faith to move here. And faith is what got me through all of the crazy times as a starving actor. My family and I all feel protected spiritually and that’s obviously the root of our existence here on earth.

F&F: Are you a person of faith?

LR: Totally. I’ve wavered from time to time, but when I met my wife, Carol, things changed. I’m so thankful to her. I could never have made this journey without faith, and without her.

F&F: Has this role changed your beliefs?

LR: No, but it echoes my beliefs. Often, I’ll get a new script and I look at what Earl says and I think, Oh, my, I’ve said that.

F&F: What’s the secret to the show’s success?

LR: It all starts with Nancy Miller, the creator. As soon as I got the part, my wife told her, “Nancy, your script was just magnificent.” Nancy quickly replied, “Hey, it’s not me.” And that immediately endeared us to her because very few people in this industry will give credit to God first. But Nancy Miller does and that’s amazing. To be able to work with an actress as marvellous as Holly Hunter is amazing, too. Sometimes I get lost completely in what she’s doing and then I realize it’s my turn to speak! (laughs)

F&F: Why do you think the show is so popular?

LR: It’s touched a deep chord in so many viewers. When you read fan mail like, “I lost my faith years ago and I’ve now watched three episodes and I’m re-examining my life,” that’s much more of a role than I’ve ever had. I’ve been part of a lot of little stories but never one that conveys so much and touches people’s souls. If we can offer a bit of hope to the many that feel perhaps that they are past redemption, that’s incredible.

Ken Ramstead is the editor of Faith & Friends.

Originally published in Faith & Friends, October, 2008.




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