When James Duff , the creator of television's 'The Closer' needed a talanted and affordable actor to play the small role of a Civilian Surveillance Coordinator from Los Angeles Police Department's Priority Homicide Division, he didn't have to look far.
His longtime partner (and future husband) Phillip Keene, in his late 30s at the time, had just begun his acting career and was hungry for the opportunity. But first he had to convince Duff and producers that he could play the role even though he had so little experience under his belt – just a student film and a commercial.
"He didn't want me on the show," Keene told Headlines & Global News in an exclusive interview. "He said, 'No, no, no. I'm not doing that. I'm not playing that game.'"
Keene eventually locked up the role of Buzz Watson and has been a part of the cast for the last 11 and half years, first on "The Closer" and now on its spinoff series, "Major Crimes."
If he hadn't done well, Duff and the other producers were ready to give him the gentle boot.
"The thinking was, 'This will be a good training ground for him and if he's really awful then it won't be such a hardship and we can just ask him gently to leave,'" Keene said. "As James says honestly, 'We took ruthless advantage of you the first few years of the show.'"
Fortunately, the rookie actor didn't hurt anybody or bring down the show and was later promoted to series regular status by season four of "The Closer." This season on "Major Crimes," his character, Buzz, has taken a big step in becoming an L.A.P.D. reserve officer in addition to his civilian duties.
Despite spending more time out on the streets, Keene believes his character will retain his sense of optimism when it comes to judging his fellow man.
"I think the essentials of that character remain the same. He's still going to be that optimistic Boy Scout," he said. "Even though Buzz has seen all the horrors of murder and torture and things like that, he still thinks that – at heart – people are pretty good. I'm hoping he never loses that sense of innocence."
His enthusiasm for wanting to follow proper protocol has already put him at odds with his training officers, Lt. Andy Flynn (Tony Denison) and Lt. Louie Provenza (G.W. Bailey), but their conflict provides a comical beat in the overall score of gruesome murders that comprise the show.
"Of course, they're old-school cops. They've been doing it forever, so they know the ins and outs. They have a way of doing it and their way works for them," Keene said. "I think Buzz gets to see more of the inner workings of what cases are like. He's always been present there at the crime scenes... and now as an officer, he feels a little more connected to everything."
Keene credits his former and current cast members for providing him with so much support as he came into his own as an actor on both shows. He had the great fortune to work alongside Golden Globe-winner Kyra Sedgewick and Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons on "The Closer," as well as his current co-stars Denison and Bailey.
"I learned a lot from them just being there. That's an opportunity that no one really gets," he said.
The support and camaraderie also extends off set. The "Major Crimes" cast spends a lot of their time hanging out in the hours after work and vacationing together. Co-star Raymond Cruz even served as his best man.
"It really is a great family atmosphere to be in," Keene said. "That's a testament to how great the producers are, because it all starts there with the tone. They set an amazing tone where everyone's allowed to bring their A-game and really shine and do their jobs."
Keene and his co-stars also help support Bailey with his charity The Sunshine Kids, which is dedicated to children battling cancer. The kids will visit the set of "Major Crimes" and take an annual beach trip to enjoy surfing and boogie boarding.
As a former Pan Am flight attendant, Keene is also a volunteers at World Wings International, a philanthropic organization dedicated to raising money for many different charities, including those focussing on women's health issues and those in third world countries to obtain an education.
"Major Crimes" will finish its summer run next month with a "very emotional episode" that includes a trip to the cemetery. Keene couldn't tease much else. Buzz will say out of harm's way for the time being, but Keene wouldn't mind getting into some trouble when the fourth season continues this November.
"I'm hoping he's placed in jeopardy at some point and these other guys have to help him out or see how he resolves that conflict," Keene said.
"Major Crimes" airs on Mondays at 9 p.m. on TNT.