If ABC had promoted Justin Walker on "Brothers & Sisters" with the slogan "save the serviceman, save the world," then maybe actor Dave Annable would be getting the attention he deserves.
Annable's problem child is the unsung hero of the TV season, a character who is more sympathetic or believable than any of NBC's cartoonish "Heroes."
Justin -- the youngest legitimate member of the large, fictional Walker family -- has battled drug abuse; his family's inability to understand or deal with his problems and treat him like an adult; and the U.S. Army's desire to get him back in action before he was emotionally ready. He has also been the first sibling to embrace the illegitimate sister, Rebecca (Emily Van Camp), they never knew they had.
It's a rich role for Annable, who had one of the more memorable and poignant scenes of the TV season in January. While in group therapy, Justin asked his bickering family to deal with him as they do everyone else. He ended the confrontation by playing a beautiful recorded message sent to Afghanistan by his mother (Sally Field).
It was the kind of emotionally rich scene that even made some grown men cry. While "Brothers & Sisters" is widely viewed as a "chick series," Annable knows its viewership is crossing gender lines even if men are a little apologetic about liking it.
"It is so funny," Annable said in an interview in California. "I hear that quite a bit. One guy said, 'Your show is not too [expletive deleted] bad. It's good.' And he walks away."
The actor was pleased that Justin didn't walk away from his military obligations and agreed to return to active duty after originally planning to fight Uncle Sam with the aid of his lawyer brother. In a TV contrivance, the Army also gave Justin six months to recover from the mental strain of his previous stint in Afghanistan. With the six months about to end, that story line will be played out in the May sweeps.
The story line has extra power because many people in Annable's age range don't think about the war on terror, because they aren't eligible to be drafted and what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn't seem to affect them. Annable said he was in the same boat until he did some research for his role.
"I went down to San Diego Veterans Hospital and talked to six vets who were like 18, 19, 20 years old," said Annable. "When you think vets, I think Vietnam vets. I don't think 19-year-old kids. What these guys have seen and were sharing with me was absolutely incredible. It was such an eye-opening experience for me as a person, not an actor. This kid was like 19, and he was getting fired at, and he said, 'This is all over oil; that's what we're dying for.' And this is what is going on in their heads. So I think it is really brave and important that we're telling this story in the TV world as best we can. To get the nation aware of what's going on with these kids when they're coming back."
He asked the veterans about the effect their experiences had on relationships with their families, since that was something his character was going through.
"They said, 'No matter how hard you try and tell them, they can't understand,' " Annable said.
"That creates sort of a barrier. . . . That is pretty harsh stuff that is going on."
Annable realizes how lucky he has been to be working in television with an all-star cast that includes Field, Calista Flockhart and Rachel Griffiths. "It is like going to Disneyland every day," he said.
He couldn't have been further away from Disneyland growing up in the Poughkeepsie area and attending Plattsburgh State College. "I went to play hockey," said Annable. "I'm a goaltender, and when I got there there was a 6-4 Swedish goaltender, and I'm like there is no way I'm going to get to play."
He switched to hockey play-by-play for the college station and got into acting after his sister spotted an advertisement in the hometown newspaper for auditions.
"It was a really random thing that I got into acting," Annable said. "I wanted to go into television when I was growing up. I wanted to be a comedian, but it turned out that I'm not that funny. So, Plan B."
He made a couple of call-backs and commuted eight hours by bus from Plattsburgh to New York City for a commercial audition. He got it.
"So I dropped out of school," Annable said. "I have a semester left. My mom still hasn't forgiven me."
After quickly signing with an agent, he got the first of four failed pilots a few days later.
"I thought I was going to be like [George] Clooney, who had like 12 [failed pilots]," said Annable, who eventually was cast in a short-lived Fox drama, "Reunion."
Now he's living large. He was recently linked romantically to Kate Walsh of "Grey's Anatomy." And his friends back home have shared in his success by coming to Hollywood events.
"It is totally 'Entourage,' " said Annable, who at least is a hero to his friends.