Not many people can say portraying a superhero is their full-time job. Greg Grunberg, an actor on the critically acclaimed NBC series Heroes, spends his days playing likable cop Matt Parkman, an average Joe who wakes up one day to find he has the ability to read minds.
Even though Matt Parkman is just a character on a TV show, Grunberg, 42, is something of a hero in real life. Several years ago, Grunberg, a drummer in his spare time, put together a charitable rock group made up of primetime actors called Band From TV. The band donates all its proceeds to worthy causes.
Grunberg chose to donate his portion of the money to the Epilepsy Foundation, a condition that his 11-year-old son, Jake, suffers from. “It’s the most incredibly helpless and out of control feeling when your child is having a seizure. You have to just wait it out,” says Grunberg. “This is something I can do to have control. I can get behind the drums and I can raise $2 million in two and a half years for not just epilepsy, but other charities as well.”
He’s Got the Beat
Music was a huge part of Grunberg’s childhood. Although his parents weren’t big music nuts, his dad played the trumpet as a hobby. Growing up in Los Angeles, right off of the San Diego Freeway, Grunberg’s first concert was the Blues Brothers opening for Steve Martin in the Universal Amphitheater in the late ’70s. Blues, in particular, was a style that heavily influenced Grunberg’s music taste. He also enjoyed listening to the popular rock groups of the time.
“I was one of those kids who would go to my room, turn off the lights, and listen to full albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Yes’s Fragile,” says Grunberg.
Although he never took a music lesson, Grunberg started drumming on his own at age 12. He was given a castoff drum kit by his dad’s friend. “I’ve always been tapping and moving to the beat in my head—everybody has internal theme music,” says Grunberg. “I would tap anything I could get my hands on. I think my mom always thought it was a nervous tic since there is no caffeine available when you are 12.”
Despite never taking a drumming lesson, Grunberg had some heavy hitters as musical influences. Stan Lynch of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Max Weinberg of the E Street Band, Neil Peart of Rush, and Stewart Copeland of The Police, were some of the percussionists Grunberg admired.
“I’m not an accomplished musician but I can keep a solid back beat,” says Grunberg. “Some people are so technical that they don’t have that much soul to their music or they aren’t improvisational—I’m all improv, I just try to make it up as I go along.”
There was never a question as to what career path Grunberg wanted to pursue. “Acting has always been a passion of mine,” he says. Grunberg believes his big break in acting was his fortuitous meeting with Emmy and Golden Globe award winning producer, writer, and director J.J. Abrams in a sandbox when they were three years old. Abrams cast Grunberg in his first home movie filmed on Super 8 film, when he was only six. The two collaborated on later projects like Felicity and Alias, where Grunberg started his career as a TV actor.
During high school, Grunberg kept experimenting on the drums and would jam with friends who played other instruments. While majoring in business at San Diego State University and UCLA he helped pay for college by selling sample leotards from his father’s clothing business door to door at sorority houses.
He also played a drummer in a student film. “It was a USC Film School project and it was a story about a band,” Grunberg says. “I went through the audition process and none of the actors could play the drums so it was kind of like Greg Brady getting the part of Johnny Bravo—I fit the suit.”
Band Together for a Cause
After graduating from UCLA, Grunberg started a successful frozen yogurt delivery business called Island Yogurt and began landing small acting jobs on local commercials and TV shows. As a contestant on The Dating Game, Grunberg met bass player Brad Savage who worked on the show. The two musicians, along with another friend, started getting together and jamming for fun.
“We never gigged or did more than garage band stuff, it was such a hobby,” says Grunberg. “It’s one of those things like playing golf. You have to use those muscles otherwise they get rusty, so I always tried to keep drumming in the rotation.”
As his TV and film career progressed, Grunberg landed roles as entrepreneur Sean Blumberg on Felicity and CIA agent Eric Weiss on Alias with the help of childhood friend Abrams. Grunberg even accompanied Abrams on his Jimmy Kimmel Live! interview, sat with the band, and played a riff on the bongos anytime the conversation dragged.
Still playing just for fun, Grunberg kept drumming on the back burner while he worked on his acting career. It wasn’t until his son Jake was diagnosed with epilepsy five and a half years ago that Grunberg took his drumming to the next level. “People don’t talk about epilepsy and I want to remove the stigma attached to it,” says Grunberg. “I’ve always been a charitable person but, when you’re hit with something personally, it becomes a cause.”
The idea to form The Band From TV occurred to Grunberg when he was asked to play with other celebrities at the House of Blues. He saw the interest it stirred, and figured gigging with a band of celebrities would be a great way to raise money for the Pediatric Epilepsy Project and other charities. After guest starring on an episode of House, Grunberg convinced accomplished pianist Hugh Laurie, who plays the cantankerous Dr. House, to join the band.
As word got out, The Band From TV attracted many TV stars itching to live out their rock star fantasies. The band, founded in 2006, eventually included James Denton of Desperate Housewives (guitar), Teri Hatcher of Desperate Housewives (vocals), Jesse Spencer of House (electric violin), Bonnie Somerville of Cashmere Mafia (vocals), Bob Guiney of The Bachelor (vocals), Adrian Pasdar of Heroes (guitar), as well as a back up band of professional musicians.
Each celebrity has a charity of choice and the money made from the band’s successful CD/DVD combo Hoggin’ All the Covers (sold on Amazon.com) and its various concerts is split between organizations like Save the Children and The Conservation Fund. Playing lively covers like “Will It Go Round in Circles” and “Shake a Tail Feather,” Band From TV has performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, at TV Guide’s Emmys after party, as well as at the Mohegan Sun Casino.
“The band does it all for charity so we don’t take ourselves that seriously,” says Grunberg. “It’s like a rock n’ roll fantasy. What we lack in talent, we make up for in enthusiasm and fun.”
Besides being the “heartbeat of the band” and pumping up the energy in the background, Grunberg also shows off his pipes, which very few people even knew he had. “I fake it,” says Grunberg. “I’m playing a character so if my voice gets a little raspy, I sell it. I smile because it’s genuine and I’m really having a blast—I’m not faking that.”
The group gets together and practices about three times a month when they have a gig coming up. Grunberg practices on his DW Drums rehearsal kit and has a separate one for shows. “This drum tech crew comes before my gigs and sets up the kit,” says Grunberg. “That really makes me feel like a rock star.” Getting compliments from people like American Idol’s Simon Cowell and guitarist John Mayer doesn’t hurt Grunberg’s dreams of star power, either.
Ultimately, Grunberg hopes the band’s success will help find a cure for epilepsy and continue to assist the various charity efforts. Focusing on his own music goals, Grunberg would love to find a project where he can marry his love for percussion with his passion for acting. “If I didn’t have music in my life, I would probably go crazy,” says Grunberg.
Surprisingly, along with his music-related aspirations, Grunberg says he is working on getting over performance anxiety. “I want to get in a comfort zone like I feel with acting,” says Grunberg. “I’m always looking for a challenge to keep me on my toes and I get that level of excitement from playing live music. There is nothing like being in a band and playing together in front of a crowd. If someone drops out, you’ve got to keep going and that’s the exciting/scary part. But, when it all works out you just have fun. It’s infectious and you don’t have to be perfect.”
Jackie SAunders sanG with an a cappella group and jazz band in high school and is now teaching herself to play guitar. (firstname.lastname@example.org)