NEW YORK -- Chi McBride, star of the Fox drama "Boston Public," has a helpful hint for all the ladies as Christmas approaches.
"If you ever want a better present," he says, "all you have to do is The Sigh. A man gives you a present and it isn't what you want, you go, 'hhhhhhhhhhhh.'
"And then, because WE'RE so stupid and so performance-oriented, we go, 'What's the matter? You don't LIKE this?'
"'It's not that. Thanks.' Just be as insincere in your gratitude as you can possibly be, and I guarantee you a tennis bracelet will show up sooner or later."
McBride chuckles slyly -- quite unlike Steven Harper, the hushed yet forceful principal he plays on "Boston Public" (Monday, 8 p.m.).
Overburdened by an impossible job, Harper has a shaved head, it seems, to give him more surface area for furrowing his brow. McBride, on the other hand, looks as if he doesn't have a care in the world.
One reason: He's not married. "Marriage is like college. It ain't for everybody." So consider him a drop-out. He was married twice.
'Pretty boring' past
A man of mountainous proportions impeccably turned out in a suit and fedora, McBride has the jovial quality of weatherman Al Roker and the plush charm of singer Barry White. He looks like a man who has just what he wants, who has jettisoned a past he calls "pretty boring and vague."
Chicago-born and -raised (hence "Chi"), McBride was a phone company service representative and, briefly, a standup comic until he took a bold step into acting after he was 30.
"I was tired of my life," he says, recalling the humdrum job that took him to Atlanta, where his goal was doing as little as he could.
"You know when a service rep says they're going to get your records? They tell you that, then they do what I used to do: Go and pop a bag of microwave popcorn and talk to their friends.
"My bosses never caught on," he chuckles. "They thought I was the hardest-working guy!"
He truly has been hardworking since he headed to Los Angeles a decade ago. And loved it.
Now 41, he has scored roles in movies including "Gone in 60 Seconds" and "The Kid" and, a year ago, the lead in a TV drama created by David E. Kelley, the Emmy-winning auteur of "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal."
Survived "Pfeiffer' series
"Boston Public" is McBride's third series. He was the bus-station janitor on the John Larroquette sitcom (1993-96). Then, in 1998, he landed the title role in an instantly notorious comedy called "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" (with the "p" pronounced).
Its premise held that a British nobleman (and black man, to boot) had found himself enslaved in the Lincoln White House as an adviser to the president, who, in best sitcom fashion, was a flaming goofball. Even prior to its brief run, the show was blasted for using slavery as fodder for comedy.
"If it was about what everybody said it was about, I wouldn't have done it," he declares. "And it didn't kill my career."
Even so, he says, when he auditioned for "Boston Public," Kelley didn't know him as a former star of "Desmond Pfeiffer." With reference to Kelley's movie-star wife, McBride quips: "The only P-feiffer he knew was Michelle."
His commanding Harper is a study in dedication, dignity and bottled-up rage.
"When he does blow up, the audience believes it," says McBride, explaining Harper's sotto voce style. "If the guy was on a 24-hour rant, I would be giving myself no place to go. And if there's no place to go, then there's no journey. And if there's no journey, nobody's coming with you."