In the HBO drama "The Gilded Age," Douglas Sills plays the ultimate status symbol for a social striver in 1880s New York City.
Sills has a dapper moustache and a certain impatience as Monsieur Bourdain, who heads the kitchen of a railroad tycoon's wife who is determined to impress her old-money neighbors.
"She has outfitted herself with every important accessory that would be part of the ruling class," he says, "and one of those is to have a French chef instead of having a cook.”
Only this French chef is a Detroit native and Broadway veteran who divides his time between acting and his family's business, a West Bloomfield commercial real estate company.
"Some people are waiters. Some people are paralegals when they’re not working. This is my thing, and I’ve learned a lot," says Sills, 61, who has been multitasking this way since 2007.
Premiering Monday, "The Gilded Age" is the creation of Julian Fellowes, the man behind the PBS megahit "Downton Abbey." Set in 1882 Manhattan, it immerses viewers in the upstairs-downstairs lives of two wealthy families and their servants. The settings and costumes are lavishly faithful to the era, the dialogue sharp and witty. And the performances? Even Maggie Smith's dowager countess would have good things to say about them.
Originally planned a decade ago as an NBC series, "the Gilded Age" moved to HBO in 2019. Filming was delayed in 2020 by the COVID-19 shutdown. In short, it has been a long journey for closest thing that television has to a "Downton Abbey" sequel. It tells the decidedly American story of George and Bertha Russell (Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon), a nouveau riche couple who've just moved in to their new mansion on East 61st Street, and their neighbors across the street, Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), aristocratic sisters who are too snobbish to socialize with the Russells.
There also are two new members of the van Rhijn household, namely Agnes and Ada's quietly progressive niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson, the daughter of Meryl Streep), whose father's death has left her penniless, and a young Black writer, Peggy Scott (Denee Benton) who befriends Marian and becomes a personal secretary to Agnes,.
The impressive cast also includes Audra McDonald, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Donna Murphy, Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin. The scripts weave real-life historical figures like architect Stanford White and American Red Cross founder Clara Barton into the narrative.
As Bourdain, Sills is part of the Russell family's downstairs staff and works side by side with the housekeeper, Mrs. Bruce. She's played by another Detroit native, Celia Keenan-Bolger, who won a Tony in 2019 for her role as Scout in the revival of "To Kill A Mockingbird" starring Jeff Daniels.
Sills says he is friends with Keenan-Bolger and knows several other metro Detroiters who've made it big on Broadway (including Sutton Foster, now in "The Music Man" with Hugh Jackman, and University of Michigan alum Gavin Creel, who starred in 2017's "Hello Dolly!" with Bette Midler).
"We have a lot of scenes together, and there is some talk that there may be a romance in season two between us," says Sills of the relationship between Bourdain and Mrs. Bruce. "We’re looking forward to that."
Born at Sinai Hospital in Detroit, Sills was the youngest of four children of Arthur and Rhoda Sills. When the family moved to Franklin during his childhood, he became friends with a kid who lived across the street, Sam Raimi, aka the future director of "Evil Dead" and three "Spider-Man" movies.
"He was a year older than me, and we used to play touch football and we’d have weekend-long games of Risk," says Sills. "We were big dreamers." Some of his earliest acting parts were appearances in Raimi's teenage projects, including a short film called "Civil War: Part II" and homages to the Three Stooges.
Sills went to Cranbrook Kingswood for high school and, after that, to the University of Michigan, where he says he studied a little bit of everything, including theater. After graduating, he considered law school as a practical choice, but his father, unlike most parents, encouraged him to pursue his dreams instead.
”One day he said: ‘If you want to do this theater thing, I think you should. I mean, you can always go to law school. But if you want to try this, why don’t you?' I was really lucky to have parents that felt that way.”
Sills continued his education at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where he studied classical and contemporary acting. He built a solid career in regional theater and on and off Broadway and has accumulated credits in everything from "The Philadelphia Story" to "Much Ado About Nothing" to "Little Shop of Horrors."
In 1997, Sills was nominated for a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for his title role in the swashbuckling musical "The Scarlet Pimpernel," a part that he originated. He admits that he could have stuck to Broadway musicals at that point, but he had other goals in mind.
”I just wanted to be challenged. I never wanted to be pigeonholed. My idea of a wonderful career, I was looking at Kevin Kline, who was doing musicals and straight plays and Shakespeare and movies," says Sills.
"My idea was to craft a career where I could do both. It was hard, and I think I sacrificed momentum in one or the other. I think if I had stayed pigeonholed in one, I probably would have had more success, but it was important to me to do a lot of different things."
Sills moved to Los Angeles for a while to pursue movies and television. He landed guest roles in numerous shows, everything from sitcoms like "Will & Grace" to crime dramas like "The Closer." He laughs when his role as Chadsworth Buckingham III in 2005's "Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo" is mentioned, another stop in his quest for variety.
According to Sills, he had just accepted a role playing MacBeth opposite Kelly McGillis ("Top Gun") as Lady MacBeth in Washington, D.C., when the comedy sequel came along. ”My manager at the time said: 'Listen, Douglas, you’re going to have a hundred MacBeths, but you don’t right now get a lot of movies. And (the first 'Deuce Bigelow') made $100 million. You’re not really in a position to say no.'"
Sills gave up MacBeth and says with a laugh that he had a great time making the film in Amsterdam, even though it didn't do that well at the box office.
In 2007, a few years after his father's death, Sills took a break from acting to help with the family real estate business, First Holding Management Co. in West Bloomfield. It turned into a three-year stay. He says he ended up reformatting the business in a way that has allowed him to keep running it and continue with acting.
"We’re building a hundred units in Ferndale right now. We’re rehabbing some old buildings also in Ferndale. ... We have properties in Brighton and Ann Arbor and Wixom and all over," he says.
Sills works in Detroit when he's not acting and does it remotely when he is. "We work together every day, even sometimes on the set in my dressing room," he says of his interaction with the staff. His two sisters live in Oakland County and also are involved with the business. Their brother, Larry Sills, died in 1987 in the Northwest plane crash near Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, Sills auditioned for "The Gilded Age." He's not exactly sure why he got the part, but he says a good friend who is French and Swiss coached him on Monsieur Bourdain's accent.
Filming was about to begin in March 2020 when the COVID-19 lockdown began. It resumed under safety protocols in the fall of that year and stretched through June 2021, according to Sills. Scenes were shot in Brooklyn, Long Island and Newport, Rhode Island, at indoor studios and an impressive outdoor lot where a portion of New York's 61st Street was built to look as it would have in the horse-and-carriage days of the 1880s.
“It’s pretty dramatic," says Sills. "They spent a lot of money, and I think it shows. I was just counting horses on the street one day."
"The Gilded Age" is extremely faithful to its era and can be enjoyed purely for the elegant soap opera of its relationships. But as a tale of fabulous wealth contrasted with poverty, it resonates in 2022. Sills says viewers can find the echoes in "what you see in the haves vs. the have nots and how truly the most stunning things ... were built by people who were working under very, very strenuous conditions" for little money and no health care.
For Sills and many of his fellow actors, "The Gilded Age" brought much-needed economic relief at a time when New York City's theaters were closed and people were struggling to make ends meet.
"We all knew we were crazy blessed because all our friends were out of work," he says. "Everyone wanted a job. So many people had to leave the city and move back with (their) folks ... just to keep food on the table.
We all felt we had won the lottery, no question about it," he adds. So, too, may TV fans who've been craving a prestigious vacation to another place and time from the safety of their home screens.
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'The Gilded Age'
9 p.m. Mon.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Douglas Sills co-stars in HBO series and runs a Detroit business