Feature Story

Living the dream

Regan and Jennifer Burns

Regan and Jennifer Burns

With a swipe of his arm, Regan Burns sent everything—pens, paper, keyboard—flying off the casting director’s desk and onto the floor.

Moments earlier, Burns had been auditioning for a role as a person with autism on the popular 1990s TV series “Party of Five.” He had all the lines committed to memory. No problem. Acting out the scene? That was a challenge for the young actor.

“I’m probably doing every horrific stereotype ever,” said Burns, a 1990 graduate of Radford University’s Department of Theatre.

Sitting opposite the casting director at her desk, Burns realized his chance for a role with Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt was fading. “The bad thoughts are creeping in,” Burns recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I’m not doing this right. She’s not liking it. I have to do something.’”

Then the idea came to him, “I’m going to have an outburst.” That’s when his arm met the desktop. “Then I started hitting myself in the head like I was having an attack,” he said.

He looked at the casting director and realized she was horrified, and rightly so. After a brief, awkward silence she said, “OK, get out.”

“Uh, do you want me to pick up…,” Burns began. “No,” she said, “just get out.”

As he walked out the office past other actors waiting to audition, he recalled, “They all looked at me like, ‘What did you just do?’”

The secretary had called security.

“I remember thinking, ‘I have a feeling I’m not going to get this role,’” he said.

You know Regan Burns, and if you were on the Radford University campus in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, you may know him as Rob Burns, an actor in campus theatre productions. Almost certainly, you have seen him on television. The dude is everywhere.

Burns’ IMDb Web page has a mile-long list of TV shows (not “Party of Five,” of course) and movies in which he has appeared. His first TV role was in 1999 on the Brooke Shields sitcom “Suddenly Susan,” in which he had one line: “Hi, my name is Jeff.”

Since then, the versatile Burns has appeared in TV notables including “Weeds,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Reno 911!,” “Boston Legal,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Ellen Show,” “The Hughleys,” “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “The Drew Carey Show.” He helped create and starred in the Comedy Central show, “Halfway Home.”

Burns even hosted “Oblivious,” the popular comedy game show that aired on TNN/Spike-TV for a couple of years. He played different roles in each episode, asking trivia questions of people he stopped on the street, in supermarkets or other public places. Contestants won money if they answered correctly.

“That was huge,” Burns said. “I had done a lot of guest starring, co-starring and recurring roles on a lot of shows, but when you get your own show, that’s huge. That puts you on the map.”

The “Oblivious” gig involved improvisation, which he honed as a member of The Groundlings Sunday Company comedy troupe in Los Angeles working with such comedic actors as Cheryl Hines, Will Forte and Oscar Nunez.

Burns did 44 episodes of “Oblivious,” which earned outstanding ratings for Spike-TV. “It went on to be a huge hit in Canada, Australia and some countries in Europe,” he said, and even landed him an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Robert Regan Burns came to Radford University on a gymnastics scholarship, a sport in which he had excelled through his four years at South Lakes High School in his hometown of Reston. His high school team won a state championship, and he placed in individual state competitions.

With scholarship offers from North Carolina State and James Madison University, Burns said he chose RU because “it appealed to me, and I loved the gymnastics program.” He competed in gymnastics his freshman year and did well.

“He was really good for a guy his height, about 6-foot-3,” said Paul Beckwith, who was head coach for RU gymnastics from 1981 to 1994. “He was really strong, but he was tall, and in gymnastics it’s a disadvantage having your feet so far away from you when you’re doing stuff. Trying to do rings when your arms are three-and-a-half feet long, each, is a huge disadvantage.”

As a sophomore, however, after more than a year and a half of five-hour-a-day training sessions along with physical therapy and ice for aching muscles, Burns began to realize the pommel horse and rings were not in his long-term plans.

“I woke up one morning and asked myself, ‘Why am I spending so much time doing something that’s taking such a toll on my body if it’s not something I’ll be doing for the next 30 or 40 years of my life?’“ recalled Burns, who still keeps in shape through running and weight training.”I think I took it as far as it could go.”

At about the same time, Burns discovered theatre. Though he started at Radford as a communication major, a part of him yearned for the stage and the spotlight. He took a few acting classes and was hooked, changing his major to theatre.

“It took a little while for me to get the nerve to make the switch,” said Burns, who kept communication as his minor, but theatre became his focus.

“He brought the same level of discipline to theatre productions that he had in gymnastics competitions,” said Chuck Hayes, a retired Radford University theatre professor. “He is just an amazingly disciplined and amazingly focused person.”

Burns worked on a number of shows with the RU Department of Theatre, and he worked hard, said Theatre Professor Monica Weinzapfel. “He had a dedication to his craft. I think that is why he is so successful.”

Burns’ acting skills at Radford weren’t confined to the Porterfield Hall stage. Wife Jennifer Warren Burns ‘92 recalls a convincing, heart-winning performance as a car mechanic.

Jennifer was a theatre major, an aspiring actress herself, and had been friends with Burns for about a year on the Saturday morning when she had to trudge across campus through a foot of snow because her car wouldn’t start. Arriving at Porterfield to help build a stage for an upcoming production, Jennifer told everyone about her car misfortunes. “And out of the big group of people there, I heard someone say, ‘Oh, I’ll take a look at it for you.’ And it was Rob!”

The two made a deal: Burns would check out the car, and Jennifer would fix dinner for him. (“I went a courtin’,” Burns said.) As Jennifer made dinner, she could hear Burns outside working away with his tools.

“So, months and months later, after we had been dating, I found out he actually knows absolutely nothing about cars,” Jennifer said, laughing. “He was only banging on stuff underneath the hood of my car to make it sound like he was doing something. He told me that day the problem with the car ‘must be internal.’ Too funny! And, no, he didn’t fix it.”

“The rest is romantic history,” Burns joked. “It’s more of a movie of the week than a feature film.”
Having declared his theatre major later in his college career, Burns said he felt he had “crammed it all in” and needed more education, training and experience. He auditioned and was accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, a prestigious degree-granting acting school in New York. He studied there for two years while earning scholarships, working odd jobs and living on the fifth floor of a run-down apartment building in Manhattan. “It was squalor, man,” Burns said. The second and third floors were condemned. On the first floor lived an “old cat lady who had about 50 cats and rabbits in her apartment.”

Regan, Jennifer, Jackson, and Killian Burns

Regan, Jennifer, Jackson, and Killian Burns

Sometimes people would break into the building at night and try to kick his door in. “It was starving artist all the way,” Burns said. “It was one of those places that would look very cool in a music video, but when you live there, you’re like, ‘This kind of sucks.’”

While studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts gave Burns more experience, he said, his training at the celebrated school was of no different quality than his earlier education at Radford.

“It was fascinating to me that I learned just as much at Radford as I did at an esteemed arts school like the American Academy of Dramatic Arts,” Burns said. “When I got to New York, I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be all new and different and advanced.’ And then after a while, I was like, ‘I’ve kind of done all of this at Radford already.’”

Burns graduated from the academy in 1992, the same spring Jennifer earned her bachelor’s degree at Radford. Both eager to pursue acting careers, the two weighed their options and debated staying in New York or moving to Los Angeles.

“Do we want to be poor, starving artists in New York City where there are no beaches, or do we want to go out to California where it’s 85 degrees every day and it’s beautiful?” Burns said of the couple’s choice. “So we came to Cali together and then lived out here for several years and then tied the knot.”

Jennifer said with a laugh, “I moved up to New York for the summer to stay with Rob or Regan, whatever you want to call him. Then we drove down to Virginia for my brother’s wedding, and two days later we drove to California.”

Since moving west, taking up acting as a profession and changing his name, Regan Burns, like most actors, has had his fair share of ups and downs. The biggest high may have been hosting “Oblivious,” he said, but starring in a popular TV show doesn’t guarantee there will always be work. “There’s nothing like the job security of an actor to make you completely lose your lunch every day,” Burns said.

That insecurity is part of what persuaded Burns’ brother, David ‘99, M.S. ‘04—aside from realizing his passion was teaching—to set aside his acting career after two years in L.A. with his wife, Amy Panek Burns ‘06, M.S. ‘08. David is now chair of the English Department at Northwood High School in Saltville. Wife Amy is with Mount Rogers Community Service Board in Marion as a psychotherapist specializing in counseling for children, adolescents and families.

For Regan and Jennifer, however, “It’s all we’ve ever known,” she said.
Setbacks also come when shows are canceled or pilots are not picked up. Burns was cast as Officer B. Arthur in “The Ellen Show,” the early 2000s sitcom starring Ellen DeGeneres, only to see the show canceled.

“The first thing you do is call your bank and ask, ‘How important are my mortgage payments?’” he joked. “Is that something you guys want me to continue to pay?”

Being canceled, like being laid off from any job, is never a barrel of laughs, but Burns puts such possibilities out of his mind. People on the set of his current show, Disney’s “Dog with a Blog,” regularly ask him if he thinks the program will be a hit.

“You can’t worry about that,” he said. “You just have to go out there, enjoy what you’re doing and make the best show we can.”

However, Burns, now 44 (“How dare you ask my age!”) has been acting for more than two decades and has a solid reputation and body of work. He has the confidence of agents and management, which means good prospects for “reads” and auditions.

“There’s always another gig around the corner,” he said. “I’ll have a TV show for two years, and it goes away. Then, I’ll do a bunch of guest-star appearances, and those will go away. Then I’ll do a bunch of commercials. You never know what the future holds.”

If you never saw Regan Burns on “Oblivious” or “The Ellen Show,” or playfully mocking celebrities on VH-1’s “Best Week Ever,” you’ve most likely seen the guy asking, “What’s in your wallet?” or asking people in a shopping mall to take the car-insurance taste test.

“You name it, I’ve sold it,” Burns said. “I can’t think of a product I haven’t hacked for the man at some point in time.”

Burns has done more than 200 national commercials and numerous local and regional commercials, and he enjoys the work, mostly.

“Some are easy. Some are brutal,” he said. “The thing with commercials is, there’s so much thought that goes into those 30 seconds that sometimes it’s overthought. It’s like they’ll say, ‘Regan, when you say ham, don’t say ham, say hammmmm!’ They’ll break down every moment of a spot.”

It’s his work in commercials that has garnered him the most attention from the public, he said. When he was doing commercials for a popular beer company, he couldn’t go out in public without someone yelling at him, “Hey, Beer Man!”

“I could win an Academy Award, and yet I could walk down the street and people would be like, ‘You’re the guy from the soup commercial,’“ he said. “For whatever reason, commercials stick with people.”

Movies also seem to stick in viewers’ minds. Burns, a huge Bill Murray and Michael Keaton fan, has had roles in a few commercial and independent films. He had a part in Bobcat Goldthwait’s movie “God Bless America” earlier this year. He will be in an independent film titled “Wrong” that is due out in 2013.

Perhaps the most bittersweet story Burns tells about his career involves Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson in the 2005 film “The Island.”

Directed by Michael Bay, famous for his action films like “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor” and the Transformer series, the film featured Burns in scenes shot in Detroit with McGregor and Johansson. About a month before the film’s release, Burns got a call from one of its production coordinators.

“Just to give you a heads up—it has nothing to do with you—all of your scenes have been cut out of the movie,” Burns heard on the phone. “And I think you need to know why,” the production coordinator said.

“OK, why?” Burns asked.

The explanation: All of Burns’ scenes were shot in a Johnny Rockets restaurant with Coca-Cola décor throughout.

“One of the movie sponsors was Pepsi-Cola,” Burns said. “And Pepsi wasn’t happy there was a lot of Coke advertisement in the background. There went the scenes.”

Burns was understandably disappointed, but he shrugged it off. “Michael Bay is one of the biggest
directors around,” he said. “Scarlett and Ewan are really big. Some of the best actors in the world get cut from movies sometimes. At least I know it wasn’t for the performances.”

Regan Burns “relishes the opportunity” to be in movies and is ready to read for a role when the opportunity arises, but he’s super-ecstatic about his latest TV gig.

In “Dog with a Blog,” a 30-minute Disney Channel sitcom, Burns portrays a child psychologist who marries a woman who, like his character Bennett, has kids from a previous marriage.

Sounds a little like “The Brady Bunch,” right? It could be except that Tiger, the Brady dog, couldn’t speak or write. But Stan, the pup on “Dog with a Blog,” not only speaks and writes, but he posts his ideas and opinions on the Internet.

The show is one in a string of TV show on which Burns has worked for Disney: “Wizards of Waverly Place,” “Sonny with A Chance” and “Zeke and Luther.”

Two youngsters eager to see Burns on “Dog with a Blog” are Jackson and Killian Burns, Regan and Jennifer’s 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.

“They’re so excited,” Jennifer said. “We’ve been out at the set a few times, and our kids have gotten to know the kids who play Rob’s kids on the show. They’re excited for their friends to see their dad on the show. It’s different. They’ve seen all his commercials, but this is the first time they’ve been old enough to see him on a TV show. They are so proud of him.”

Jennifer admits to being super proud too.

“He has refused to give up, even with a terrible economy when things are hard for everyone, especially in the entertainment business where there are so few jobs anyway,” said Jennifer, who gave up acting to be mom. “Things got incredibly harder two years ago, but he never gave up, and I never gave up on him.”

Burns said his tenacity comes in part from a love for his craft and the thrill of the “actual acting. Sometimes I think maybe I should put a suit on and go get a desk job, but I love acting so much.”
The biggest thrill comes from being on the set of a production he knows is good. “It doesn’t have to be an Academy Award-winning film or Emmy-winning show,” he said. “If it’s really smart and entertaining, I get happy from that. If it’s just a guest-star role on ‘Weeds’ or ‘ER’ or a show I feel is high caliber, I get a real sense of accomplishment.”

Burns admitted he doesn’t mind the recognition either. “You have to understand, I have literally trillions of fans around the world. Trillions!” he said. “And to translate: When I say trillions, I mean four. It’s pretty much the same number.”