Before he became the victim of the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs," host Mike Rowe had scores of odd jobs. None of them, it turns out, put a single hair out of place.
He was a magazine telemarketer in college, the graveyard host pitching fake diamonds on QVC, the lone in-flight entertainment on American Airlines, an opera singer, an actor, emcee on a short-lived game show, narrator, the subject in several Tylenol commercials.
His plan, he says, was to take part in shows that were destined to fail. "Dirty Jobs" was a grave miscalculation.
"My career in this business had been a deliberate attempt to stay under the radar. I try to associate myself with projects that either fail or don't take a lot of time - do a good job, not be responsible for their failure, and move on to the next one and have six months off. Fundamentally I'm lazy," he says over lunch in a restaurant here.
"This just went wrong. I didn't think it would get the reaction it did and once it did, the network just kept ordering them."
The network has ordered 150 of them and Rowe will be celebrating that event on Oct. 23 with a two-hour special featuring 10 of the best and grubbiest co-workers Rowe has encountered.
Whether he's wading in mucky slime, dredging out cesspools or laboring in a mineshaft, Rowe conceived the idea for the show as a tribute to his father and grandfather.
"My grandfather was an electrician and a plumber and an architect and a mason, not trained in any of those things. He was just one of those weird guys that was born hard-wired with that ability. He could fix anything, anywhere; he built the house I was born in without a blue print.
"My dad, on the other hand, doesn't have any of those natural abilities. He was a schoolteacher, but he was the perfect apprentice, strong, patient. And when my grandfather had a stroke and wasn't able to do all the things he did as a young man, my father was there to basically be his arms. My earliest memories growing up were of my grandfather and my father working as this sort of apprentice team solving problems, no matter how dirty or disgusting. It's still mysterious to me because they would vanish and come back filthy and whatever the thing was would be fixed."
Rowe says he always wanted to do a TV show that celebrated those abilities. "To point a camera at people who would never have a camera pointed at them, to just pay an honest tribute," he says.
"I thought TV does a very bad job of portraying the common worker. They either inflate them into heroes, which they're not, or reduce them to punch lines, which they're not. So the thought with 'Dirty Jobs' was: 'What if I just do the work and try to keep up and had an unscripted conversation during the job? What would that look like?' I think maybe the biggest reason the show has worked is that the viewer knows we're not cheating."
Rowe, who grew up near Baltimore, stuttered badly as a kid. He was encouraged to sing and recite lines as a way of overcoming his handicap. "In 1989 I was a very serious annoying actor with long hair and a beard and doing 'Shakespeare in the Park' and restoration comedy and singing in the National Opera," he says.
"I was serious about that sort of thing in New York and D.C., and I lost a bet one day during intermission of this opera called 'Der Ring des Nibelungen,' 'The Ring Cycle' ... I'm dressed as a Viking during intermission, having a beer across the street. And the bartender was watching QVC. This started a conversation about the decline of civilization ... Turns out he's auditioning the next day and he bets me I can't get a callback. So I crash the audition. Not only do I get a callback, I get an offer on the spot. So I take it because I thought it would be nice to earn some money for a change."
He stayed at QVC for three years and three years later was hired by the Discovery Channel to preside over a romantic travel show. "It was the opposite of 'Dirty Jobs' - me and a pretty girl creating the illusion of romance in far-off places in five-star hotels," he chuckles.
Ten years of more odd jobs passed before Rowe, 45, donned his dungarees for "Dirty Jobs."
Unmarried, he's been with the same woman for "a long time" who runs a data base marketing company in San Francisco. "She's as mystified by my world as I am hers," he muses.
Rowe thinks that many desk-bound workers are dissatisfied with their hygienic jobs. "I think there are millions of people who just feel disconnected. How do you know when your day's over if it doesn't look any different than when you started? 'Dirty Jobs' is a very, very simple show with some very big themes. Even though the face of work has changed dramatically in this country, there still exists that underlying awareness (of the work ethic) that your granddad had. That - when we can find it and put it on TV - that's really cool."