Laughter: Now and Then


Broadway actor Eric Petersen ’03 made his debut as Arlo on December 4, co-starring in the new TV Land sitcom Kirstie with Seinfeld favorite Michael Richards and Cheers alumnae Rhea Perlman and Kirstie Alley. Petersen plays Arlo, the long-lost son of Alley’s character. Photo courtesy TV Land.

Many agree that laughter is the best medicine. Whether you appreciate the humor of present-day comedians or 1960s and 1970s icon Mary Tyler Moore who could turn the world on with her smile, comedians have a purpose that includes elevating the mood of our everyday lives.

Having brought laughter to the Bradley campus as a student, Eric Petersen ’03 is now on the main stage. He acts alongside veteran TV stars of sitcom classics Kirstie Alley, Rhea Perlman, and Michael Richards in TV Land’s newest sitcom, Kirstie. Petersen plays a major role as Arlo Barth, the son of a Broadway star (Kirstie Alley) who tries to connect with his birth mother following the death of his adoptive mother. 

As thrilled as he is to embark on a new adventure taking him from Broadway to television, Petersen remembers and credits the preparation he received while a theatre performance major in Bradley’s Slane College of Communications and Fine Arts.

A Bradley enthusiast, Petersen finds there is much to miss about the University. “When I first visited campus to see a friend act in The Kentucky Cycle, I looked out on the quad and saw people playing Frisbee and just having a great time and thought, ‘I want to come here.’” He readily notes his fondness for the people, the quad, Sigma Nu fraternity, the beautiful Hartmann Center, and Peoria, which he considers an idyllic Midwestern college city.

“At Bradley, I did not have to wait until my junior year to act on stage,” Petersen said. “My friends who enrolled in conservatory programs at big schools spent their first two years auditioning, rehearsing, and learning characters but not performing on the main stage. When I played Frank in Our Town as a freshman, I thought I was hot stuff, but my professors pushed me to be better and more responsible.” 

The Petersen family. Photo courtesy Eric Petersen.

The first of Petersen’s “big breaks” was playing William Barfee in the first national tour of the 21st Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. He said that his year on tour marked two milestones as he felt he was taken more seriously, and he began to earn a livable wage.

Pivotal to Petersen’s future success was mastering what he considers the biggest skill he learned at Bradley — leading a cast. More than just setting a good example by being on time, leading a cast is infusing your passion for a project to others, selling the show, inspiring the cast to be their best in the artistic experience, and pushing through when rehearsals are not going well.

“I applied what I learned at Bradley while cast as the understudy for Shrek in Shrek the Musical on Broadway when I got the call to go on the main stage for the first time,” Petersen said. “I had one rehearsal on stage, sat for makeup once, and had a total of six rehearsals, and here I was playing this lead role with big stars including Chris Sieber, Daniel Breaker and Sutton Foster.”

Petersen felt as if he stepped up to the moment. “I literally said to myself, ‘I have done this a million times at Bradley, and I can do this,’” he recalled. His performance caught the eye of Shrek writer Jeanine Tesori, which led to his casting in the national tour. A day before being offered the lead, Petersen and his wife, Lisa, found out that they were expecting their first child — their pride and joy, Sophie.

Petersen views Kirstie among his big breaks made possible by a small role selling Christmas trees in the holiday episode of the highly acclaimed sitcom Modern Family. “My character was not hilarious, but associating with a huge show like Modern Family gave me a stamp of approval,” he said.

Acting legend Tom Hanks is a personal hero of Petersen: “What I admire the most about Tom Hanks is the trust that audiences have in his performance and feeling that they will be taken care of through his authentic and truthful acting.” Hanks is both adept at comedy and drama, having revealed a deeper sense of humanity through his dramatic roles in Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan and Philadelphia

“I hope that my work affects the audience in a way that gives them a sense of fun, of laughter, of honesty,” Petersen said. “I want to be an actor who people identify with and trust.”

Both a comedic and dramatic talent, Petersen has a very bright future ahead of him. And we, the audience, are looking forward to being on the receiving end of both laughter and tears.

— Susan Andrews