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St. Louisan heads into space on 'The Orville'

St. Louisan heads into space on 'The Orville'

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Gail Pennington is the television critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

J Lee could have made a career as a classical pianist. (He played at Carnegie Hall at age 12.) Or possibly given the NBA a shot (until basketball broke his finger).

Instead, the 34-year-old St. Louis native and Vianney High School graduate has headed into space. He plays navigator John Lamarr on “The Orville,” a comedy-drama set aboard a spacecraft and making its debut Sunday on Fox.

Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) created the series and stars as Captain Ed Mercer. You’ll find Lee on the bridge, sitting next to pilot Gordon Molloy, played by Scott Grimes. The cast also includes Adrianne Palicki as Mercer’s first officer (and ex-wife), and Penny Johnson Jerald as the ship’s doctor.

With the Orville visiting new planets weekly and staffed by an eclectic crew, comparisons to the original “Star Trek” are inevitable. That’s why Lee needs to point out that Lamarr’s uniform shirt is not red, the color traditionally worn by expendable “Star Trek” crew members, but in fact orange.

He wouldn’t change it. In fact, he wouldn’t change a thing about his job on “The Orville,” which shoots on a dazzling, two-level permanent set that’s as much like going into space as possible without zero gravity.

It’s a long way from 2004, when Lee was sleeping in his car and working as a receptionist at MacFarlane’s Fuzzy Door production company. Let him tell the story:

“After Indiana University, where I graduated with a double major in piano and theater, I came home and performed in a production of ‘West Side Story’ in St. Charles, and I got paid. I thought, well, I could stay and spend my money and have to save again, or I could just get in my car and drive.”

He did. “I believe if you have a plan and a goal, you can make it work,” he says, even if that means stretching your gas money to the edge.

And even if it means sleeping in your car. He had been staying with a relative two hours outside Los Angeles, but when he became a production assistant on MacFarlane’s “Family Guy,” the commute was too long to make twice a day.

Still, “the dream wouldn’t die,” he says. “That’s a St. Louis thing, not giving up.”

Eventually, he could afford his own place and could take time for his own projects, including film and music. He returned to the MacFarlane fold in 2011 as a writer on “The Cleveland Show.”

“The Orville,” set 300 years in the future, is his highest-profile role to date, and he’s already having a great time.

“You’ll find out lots of cool things about Lamarr along the way,” he says, not wanting to spoil any surprises.

Also cool is the fact that, playing a human, he has limited time in the makeup chair and doesn’t have to wear one of the elaborate masks painstakingly created for the characters of alien races, some of them fellow crew members.

In each one-hour episode, “we have a different mission,” and that means mingling with lots of nonhuman characters, all of whom have their own looks. “We either have a mission or a goal, sometimes on the ship and sometimes off.”

One of the pleasures of “The Orville” is working with MacFarlane, who arrives in the premiere as the ship’s new captain.

“Seth is a good friend, and he’s also a genius,” Lee says. “He’s a perfectionist, but he’s also so funny, he sets the tone on the set.”

The time is right for a show like “The Orville,” Lee believes. “Sometimes everything looks so dark, and we’re watching all these dark TV shows. This brings some lightness to the story.”

Back home, Lee’s mother, Carole Lee of St. Charles, will be throwing an “Orville” viewing party for the premiere.

“She’s my biggest supporter and always has been,” Lee says. “She’ll have her friends and the ladies from church and cheer for me.”

When he comes home, Lee most enjoys letting his mom cook for him. “There’s nothing better than eating with your family,” he says.

“I love St. Louis,” he adds. “But when I’m there, I always remember trying to get to LA, and it feels great to have made it.”

What “The Orville” • When 7 p.m. Sunday (time approximate after NFL coverage) • Where Fox • More info

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Gail Pennington is the television critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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