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‘Sheldon’ dad gives nod to family, friends for shaping role

The writers of “Young Sheldon” treat their lead characters gently, with touches of humor and pathos that don’t feel forced or treacly in this family-friendly CBS sitcom.

That’s given series co-star Lance Barber latitude to add some nuance to what could be a too-easy stereotype as paunchy Texas high school football coach George Cooper Sr. on the series, airing Thursday nights at 8:30.

“I know that guy and I am that guy to some degree as a parent and a husband,” says the Michigan-born Barber, 45. “There’s the inside dynamic as a henpecked husband and the struggle of a kind of old-school dad with a kid he doesn’t understand. I’m using the men I grew up with there, for sure.”

Barber as Cooper in “Young Sheldon.”
Barber as Cooper in “Young Sheldon.”CBS

To the uninitiated, George is father to series protagonist Sheldon Cooper (Iain Armitage), a 10-year-old genius navigating high school in mid-’80s East Texas with the rest of his family: helicopter mom Mary (Zoe Perry); impish twin sister Missy (Raegan Revord); older brother Georgie (Montana Jordan); and Meemaw (Annie Potts), his sassy-yet-supportive grandmother. The series, now in its second season, is right behind progenitor “The Big Bang Theory” as TV’s most-watched comedy. (“BBT” star Jim Parsons, aka Sheldon Cooper, narrates “Young Sheldon.”)

Barber, the married father of two — a 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son (the same age as Young Sheldon) — says he’s based George, in part, on his own family. “My dad passed away when I was a year old but I did have a relationship with my two grandfathers, two very different guys who were similar in some ways,” he says. “They were men of a certain age and a certain generation which George is: he was born in the ’40s and served in Vietnam, which defined the kind of man he is. There are classic masculine traits he displays, and I took some of those from my grandfathers.”

Barber credits series creator Chuck Lorre and the show’s writers with guiding the character’s development.

“Chuck had an idea what he wanted [George] to be, a guy people like and root for,” he says. “I like the idea he’s a guy who lacks the tools to understand a kid like Sheldon but he’s doing the absolute best he can with what he has. I hope that’s how I play it.

“Those guys do exist and exist without being cartoons or stereotypes,” he says, “which is why I took things from my grandfathers and the guys on the periphery of my life who made sports their lives. I had a perspective because it’s so different from who I was.”

Barber had a history with Lorre before “Young Sheldon” came along, appearing in an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” as bully Jimmy Speckerman. “I like to think work begets work, and I had luck with Chuck [on that episode] … and he brought me in for [CBS sitcom] ‘Mike & Molly’ to test against Billy Gardell, who’s a terrific man and actor and deservedly got that show,” he says. “But I think I stayed on Chuck’s radar.” (Gardell appears occasionally on “Young Sheldon.”)

Barber takes center stage in Thursday night’s episode. “George gets a big college coaching job offer in Oklahoma where he would have to pick up and leave the state. It’s a terrific opportunity for George, personally and financially, and he has a choice to make,” he says. “I’ll just say that [the episode] paints George as very sympathetic.”

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