You know him as Arnie Becker in “L.A. Law” and Roger Dorn in “Major League.”
This week, Corbin Bernsen is out with a new romantic comedy called “First Lady.”
“It is a rom-com [about] a woman who’s married to the president,” Bernsen told WTOP. “He dies in office, it’s an election year and his vice president takes over. He’s unmarried and he needs a first lady.”
So, the widow steps in as first lady to the new president, which isn’t unheard of.
“Evidently, this has been done in history a couple of times,” Bernsen said. “There have been first ladies not married to the president who act in the duties of the first lady.”
The plot thickens when Bernsen’s character arrives.
“Into the mix comes an old flame of hers from back when they were teens, King Max of a country that we’ve made up with an accent that I’ve made up and a wardrobe that fits a lot of places,” Bernsen said.
“I come in and rekindle this old romantic relationship as she’s going through this election process. In the end, everybody ends up happy.”
What’s the trick to fronting a fictional nation like Groucho Marx’s Freedonia?
“If you’ve got a fictional country and you don’t even place it — we don’t say if it’s between Turkey and Iraq; I didn’t know what continent it’s on — you’ve got to come up with an accent that’s not quite this and not quite that, but you’ve gotta be consistent.”
Either way, he enjoyed working with co-star Nancy Stafford of “Matlock” (1986-1995).
“‘Matlock’ goes back to NBC when we were doing ‘L.A. Law,’ so we’ve known each other forever,” Bernsen said. “She’s one of those actresses who has gone about her life, kind of like myself. You don’t over-promote yourself to such a largeness. You’re just living life with friends and family. We’ve always said, ‘Let’s work together.'”
To this day, “L.A. Law” (1986-1994) remains one of only five shows to win the Emmy for Best Drama four times, joining “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” “The West Wing” and “Hill Street Blues,” which was also created by “L.A. Law” creator Steven Bochco.
“It was certainly part of the progression of television,” Bernsen said. “The kind of shows that we were coming out of were … ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ ‘Fantasy Island,’ things like that. ‘L.A. Law’ comes along after ‘Hill Street Blues’ and starts getting into the real topical issues of the day. It was one of the first shows to do that before ‘Law & Order.'”
How did he approach the lead role of law partner Arnie Becker?
“I always played him as an emotionally damaged guy who covers it all up with all of his money, girls, wining and dining,” Bernsen said. “I always saw him as a guy who closed the door and he was alone and he was a wreck, which my secretary, Susan Ruttan playing Roxanne, always recognized.”
He says Becker was one of era’s most complex dramatic characters.
“It was a wonderful character because it was rich,” Bernsen said. “It wasn’t just a character who has chains around the neck, drives a Porsche and everything’s perfect. It’s a guy who had layers to the character, layers of unhappiness beneath that. We got to explore that and that’s why the show worked so well and won all the Emmys.”
Still, many folks will remember him for his role as Roger Dorn in “Major League” (1989). His rivalry with Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn saw locker-room brawls before Dorn’s stoic approach the mound in the title game to say, “Strike this mother f***er out.”
The comedy boasts a deep bench of Hollywood heavy hitters — Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Wesley Snipes, Dennis Haysbert, Margaret Whitton, Rene Russo and Bob Uecker — but his favorite remains James Gammon as gruff manager Lou Brown.
“When I hand him the contract, he throws it on the ground and urinates on it,” Bernsen said. “Just that voice, ‘Dorn! What’s this olé?’ Then when we’re all arriving at camp, he’s saying something about us being good and high priced. Berenger says, ‘What about him?’ And he says, ‘That’s Dorn. He’s just high-priced.'”
In the sequel, “Major League II” (1994), Bernsen plays Dorn more for comic relief.
“I’m not saying it’s a mistake I made, it’s sort of the nature of the beast, but you try to take the highlights of the first and build on them for the second,” Bernsen said. “The second one was more about the pathetic part of Roger Dorn. He gets hit the back when he wants to win the game. That’s why I think the first movie is a better movie.”
He holds special affection for the third film, “Major League: Back to the Minors” (1998).
“It’s completely dismissed by everybody and a lot of people won’t even call it a ‘Major League’ movie, but oddly it was a return [to the first] because of the young characters that came up. … Check out the third one again, and if you don’t expect it to be Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger, you’ll see some of the structural stuff you saw in the first.”
These days, you can also catch Bernsen streaming on such TV shows as “The Punisher” (Netflix), “The Resident” (FOX), and “Hap and Leonard” (Netflix). He also appears across Edie Falco in the CBS show “Tommy,” which just debuted this month.
“I play the ex-chief of police of Los Angeles and she’s the new police chief of Los Angeles,” Bernsen said. “Needless to say, we butt heads.”
But first, check out his new movie “First Lady,” playing in select theaters now.
“What’s delightful about it is, given everything that we’re in the middle of, whatever side of the aisle you’re on … it’s nice to have in that world of Washington a moment where it all works. … It’s a nice escape from this very divisive political environment we’re in. Love wins all.”
Hear our full conversation with Corbin Bernsen below: