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Class reunion

Schoolmates from Newton meet again in 'The Office'

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / December 6, 2005

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BURBANK, Calif. -- B.J. Novak knew from the beginning that the coincidence was statistically improbable, but the depth of its implausibility did not fully hit him until it came time to explain the situation to a radio station in Idaho.

''[The DJs] asked, 'What's John Krasinski like?' I was going to tell them that I'd known John my whole life and that I had played Little League with him," Novak recalls on the set of ''The Office." ''But as I was about to say it, it sounded so bizarre in my head. I thought, 'They'll never believe this.' How do I even explain that two people from Newton South High School wound up on the same show?' I just made something up instead. They would have thought I was playing a joke on them if I told the truth."

What listeners of that station in Idaho missed with Novak's fib is the story of two boys who started playing Little League together for the Orioles in a Newton park and who wound up starring on a Tuesday night sitcom that has survived both early expectations that it would fail, and later, a female president on a rival network who has yielded a tremendous amount of power in the same time slot.

Novak and Krasinski star in the American remake of the British sitcom ''The Office," about a maladroit boss and his put-upon workforce. The sitcom-mockumentary enjoyed a fervent following during its deliberately brief run in the United Kingdom, and later on BBC America. The story of the show's American adaptation is itself remarkable given the recent spate of failed UK-to-US programs (hello, ''Coupling") and the malice of a cult following that was prepared to hate the remake of its beloved masterpiece. After an initial order of six episodes in its first season, NBC recently gave the green light for a full second season. But the fact that Novak and Krasinski, both 26 and both 1997 graduates of Newton South, ended up on this program together is almost as unlikely as the show's success.

''He was the home run king of Little League, did he tell you that?" asks Krasinski with a wide grin. Both men are taking a break from filming in the warehouse-like space that houses the show's set, and the persiflage and ribbing quickly follows the word ''Cut." ''There's a large oak tree in the Newton Centre park playground that is legendary because only a few humans have hit it with a baseball from home plate, and B.J. Novak is among them. And I was there that day."

''This is not an interview about my baseball skills," Novak says, turning a bit pink in the cheeks. ''That's a separate interview for the sports section."

The coincidence doesn't stop at playing on the same Little League team, attending the same middle school, or going to the same high school. Flash back to senior year, 1997, and Novak was writing and performing in the Newton South senior show. The leading man was Krasinski. Eight years later, Novak is a writer for ''The Office," and also stars as frustrated temp Ryan Howard. Krasinski's role on the sitcom -- amiable underachiever Jim Halpert -- is one of the show's central characters. Once again they're costarring, with Novak writing.

''I think John started acting as a direct result of my casting him in the senior show," Novak says. ''So technically, he has me to thank for all of this, right?"

When Krasinski emerges from filming a scene a few minutes later, he confirms that it's true. Before he starred in the senior show, Krasinski's only acting experience had been as Daddy Warbucks in a sixth-grade production of ''Annie" (''It was a bold interpretation, I didn't shave my head.") But after portraying one of his English teachers in the senior show, Krasinski started thinking seriously about acting.

''He was a normal, popular kid who just happened to be a great leading man," Novak says.

After high school, the two would occasionally run into each other at the Blockbuster Video on Needham Street during college breaks, but that was the extent of their contact. Novak went to Harvard with the specific intention of writing for The Harvard Lampoon, which he mentioned in his application to the college. An actor and writer throughout high school, he tried to turn his attention to writing full time at Harvard, majoring in English and Spanish. But Novak, whose father is best-selling biographer William Novak, never completely abandoned performing. At Harvard, he regularly staged ''The B.J. Show," a variety show that he co-wrote and cohosted.

The same year he graduated from Harvard, Novak landed a job as a writer for the short-lived sitcom ''Raising Dad" starring Bob Saget. After that, he appeared multiple times on Ashton Kutcher's ''Punk'd." In one particularly memorable turn, he posed as a driving instructor from hell, nearly bringing fizzy teen queen Hilary Duff to tears.

It was his acerbic humor and ability to throw a slow-burning stare that led to his current job in ''The Office." He was the first actor hired for the show -- before Steve Carell -- after executive producer Greg Daniels caught his stand-up routine.

''He started off with this joke where he said, 'I just graduated from college, but I didn't learn much. I had a double major. Psychology and reverse psychology.' I immediately knew I wanted to do something with him," says Daniels, whose credits include ''The Simpsons" and ''King of the Hill."

While Novak was at Harvard, Krasinski was at Brown University as an English major, eventually graduating as a playwright. Unlike Novak, who is compact, calm, and keeps his intense blue eyes fixed on a target as he throws off one-liners, Krasinski is tall, fidgety, and more likely to goof around about surviving ''the mean streets of Newton." Novak is the guy you would want to grab a beer with after book group, while Krasinski is the amiable, shaggy buddy you would play hoops with, and then try to fix up with your sister. He was recently named in People magazine's sexiest men issue as a sexy newcomer.

''John is a totally handsome tall drink of water," says ''Office" writer and costar Mindy Kaling. ''He's perfect for this show because he's a total flirt. I end up writing a lot of the romantic comedy story lines, and he's perfect for that."

Krasinski got his break in commercials -- most notably for Pepsi and Kodak -- and eventually beat out dozens of contenders for the role of Jim Halpert. Novak had no idea that Krasinski was planning to audition for ''The Office" but said as soon as he saw him, he knew he would land the part.

''He was the same natural he was in high school," he says. ''You can't tell he's acting. I'm actually convinced that he doesn't really know how to act."

For a one-camera sitcom with no laugh track that is going head-to-head with the Geena Davis-as-lady-president drama ''Commander in Chief," ''The Office" has pulled respectable numbers in its Tuesday time slot, particularly with young men. Next month, the sitcom moves to Thursdays, where NBC hopes it will inject some ratings spark into the currently flat evening.

In addition to ''The Office," both Krasinski and Novak have other projects in development. Krasinski has had several small but smartly chosen parts in films such as ''Kinsey," ''Jarhead," and Christopher Guest's forthcoming ''For Your Consideration." He'll also write the screenplay for a film version of David Foster Wallace's ''Brief Interviews With Hideous Men." Novak has signed on to write for a movie version of ''Get Smart," which will star ''Office" co-worker Carell.

''When they approached me about who I would want writing 'Get Smart,' I suggested B.J.," says Carell. ''The episodes of [''The Office"] that he's written walk the line between intensely funny and slightly offensive. But they always fall on the side of being funny. I also suggested him because I think he's going to be someone I'll be working for someday, and I want to get on his good side now."

Despite having found Hollywood success and striking fear in the heart of Carell, Novak confesses that there's one unfulfilled dream he and Krasinski share.

''John and I have talked about opening a Dunkin' Donuts together," he says. ''Yes, these are the shocking secret fantasies of young Hollywood."

Christopher Muther can be reached at