In 2006, David Walton decided it might be time to quit acting. Things weren't coming together for him professionally and so Walton, a Boston native, began plotting a move to New York for a career change to banking. When NBC ordered a pilot called Heist, he landed a role playing a thief, and the show made it to the airwaves.
Heist lasted for only seven episodes, but it set a pattern for Walton. He has become NBC's go-to leading man, with a catch: None of the five shows he has starred in have made it past 11 episodes. His current series, Bent, a romantic comedy in which he plays a womanizing contractor attracted to Amanda Peet's single-parent homeowner, finished a run of a half-dozen episodes on Wednesday and awaits its fate.
"The first season of a show is kind of like an extended pilot," said Walton, 33. "You're only really on the map if it goes a second season. And I've never had a second season."
But, he said, he has gained some perspective along the way.
"When I started out, I was so optimistic, spending money recklessly, renting places in L.A. and New York," he said. "Then I woke up to the fact that series get canceled, and I got so pessimistic and scared of failing. Now I'm at the point where even with the highs and lows, I realize the life I have is almost impossible. I'm so grateful for it."
After Heist, he starred in Quarterlife, a 2008 drama hyped for its digital-age tie-ins and its aim at millennial-generation viewers. "I think I got paid, like, a hundred bucks to do it," said Walton, who played a lazily brilliant smooth talker. "It was the power of the names — Marshall Herskovitz, Ed Zwick." (Herskovitz and Zwick were the producers of My So-Called Life and thirtysomething.)
Quarterlife was canceled after five episodes. It was not all bad for Walton, who met his wife, actress Majandra Delfino (State of Georgia), on the show.
Then came 100 Questions, a young-love sitcom in which Walton "played the cocky guy that's got a heart," he said. "They burned that show off in the summer."
By the time that show's six episodes came and went, Walton had moved on to Perfect Couples, an ensemble comedy about relatively settled relationships in which he played a slightly unhinged, unrelentingly dramatic fiancé. While that show was running, Walton received a pretty clear clue to its fate — through yet another job offer. "I got the call from NBC: 'We'd like to see him for Bent.'"
Although Perfect Couples had low ratings, it also had a passionate fan base, and Walton's summons effectively dashed the renewal hopes of his co-stars. "It was a really awkward situation," he said.
But he met with Peet for a Bent read as Perfect Couples ticked off its 10 episodes. "The first time I saw him read, I knew it had to be him," said Tad Quill, the creator and executive producer of Bent. "This character makes a lot of dumb decisions but also often has the perfect one-liner. David can play cocky and absurd without turning into a buffoon; he brings this vulnerability, so you buy it."
NBC seemed happy to have Walton on board again. "He's an incredibly gifted comic actor," said Vernon Sanders, executive vice president for programming.
Peet, who plays a divorced mother who hires Walton to redo her kitchen, said: "I didn't know who he was, to be honest." She added, "Now I think he's so brilliant I can't believe we got him."
Walton said he had read reviews complaining that his Bent alter ego is "the same part I always play." The character, though, is a departure from his reliable Lothario — he has the familiar natural wit, but with a gambling problem and abandonment issues — and the basis of his most nuanced performance yet.
Then again, NBC's promos for Bent (ads featuring Walton and Peet simply read "Bad Boy. Good Girl") didn't do much to combat typecasting accusations. It's also possible that if Walton's characters blur together, that might be because none of them live very long.
Whether contractor Pete Riggins will outlast his predecessors remains to be seen. There are some ominous signs: Bent has had a rushed run (NBC showed episodes two at a time over three weeks) and it failed to overcome that scheduling slight with healthy ratings. The show earned some nice reviews — New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger advised viewers to "simply enjoy the chemistry between the two stars and admire the casting of the supporting roles" — but the pilot drew just 2.8 million viewers, and the ratings fell for subsequent weeks.
"I'm fully invested in this show, and I'll be so disappointed if it doesn't go forward," Walton said. "But I've been through this. You're depressed for a day or two, and then you move on."