Sandy Cohen, the public defender Peter Gallagher plays on The O.C., may seem like the squeakiest-clean father figure since Stephen Collins suited up to play Reverend Camden on 7th Heaven. But the sex, lies and videotape bad boy insists that although his character wears a halo, it's plenty tarnished.
"I don't think Sandy wakes up in the morning and decides to be a do-gooder," he says. Rather, "I think he comes from a long tradition in New York and certainly in the Bronx of pink-diaper babies who have a healthy mistrust of the government and the police."
As such, Sandy's taking-in of jail-bait teen Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) isn't so much the attorney acting out of heroism, but out of habit. "The mistake of Sandy's life or the most illuminating thing he does is respond instinctively at a moment [after meeting Ryan's mother] when he sees that this kid who has great potential has no chance... no future. Just in a spontaneous moment, he says, 'Here, take my card... If you get in trouble, give me a call.'
"He's probably driving home thinking, 'God, I hope he doesn't call me,'" he adds with a chuckle. "But he does."
It is such relatively small moments that Gallagher sees as the real reason that The O.C. is KOing its competitors. "This show finds the heartbreak and the drama and the humor in what appear to be everyday decisions," he suggests. "We don't need a corpse washing up on the shore every day. We do have violence and some wrecks, but there's not an explosion every day, so it's not outside the realm of the audience's experience. In a way, I think it dignifies [the soap]."