01/12/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
As the father of an autistic child, actor Gary Cole has had to master two seemingly contradictory skills: Plan like crazy, then let go and stay in the moment. If, for instance she wants to teach his daughter Mary, 10, something on the piano, "it takes a lot of foresight," says Cole, 47. "Before I talk to her, I want to sit down and know how I am going to deliver it to her so that it's effective." But come lesson time, Cole sets expectation aside and lets the session take its own course. "I have no agenda," he says. "I can't or don't want to project ahead for Mary in terms of where she needs to be or what she needs to do."
Cole brings that same keen ability to stay focused, yet receptive, to his role as the new Vice President on NBC's The West Wing. He has had to slip into a tight-knit ensemble and make his presence felt without ruffling feathers. "He fit in really well with our cast, which is no easy trick," says Wing coexecutive producer Alex Graves. Cast as a Colorado rube in a world of sophisticates, Cole says he is already discovering that Vice President Robert Russell is "a little slicker and not as down-home as he projects." Cole's own ability to exude that complex blend of likability and unmined ruthlessness is fast earning him admirers on the set. "I adore having him on the show," says John Spencer, who plays Chief of Staff Leo McGarry. "He's got chops—and he's a nice guy."
Certainly he's got versatility. Cole has starred as the affable dad in the three Brady Bunch comedies, including one in which Mike Brady becomes President of the U.S. ("I think someone should talk to Martin Sheen," jokes his Brady costar Shelley Long. "His job may be in jeopardy.") At the other extreme, he's been the heavy in plays with Chicago's renowned Steppenwolf Theater Company and a murderer in the 1984 NBC miniseries Fatal Vision. Splitting the difference was his memorable turn as the passive-aggressive manager in the '99 cult classic Office Space. During that shoot Cole was all concentration, rarely smiling on set. Yet he ad-libbed moments that cracked up director Mike Judge. "Any time it was a Gary Cole day, we were so looking forward to it," Judge says.
It was while shooting the late-'80s NBC series Midnight Caller in San Francisco that Cole met his future wife, actress Teddi Siddall. "We met at a club called Bimbo's," Cole says with a laugh. "That's all you need to know." Not quite. "What makes us work," says Teddi, 50, "is that we hit it off instantly as friends. We didn't look at each other and go, 'Oh, bed!' " A year after marrying in '92, Teddi gave birth to Mary. "The day she got her DPT [diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus] booster at 18 months, she was perfectly healthy," says Teddi. Within days, Mary's face swelled. She stopped clapping along to songs. Her gaze altered. Six months later Mary was diagnosed with autism. "It felt like our world had ended," says Teddi. As Teddi gave up acting to devote herself to Mary, she says, "we began to let go of what we thought we were going to get and opened up a world we wouldn't have had an opportunity to know."
The first step was to enroll Mary in speech and occupational therapy and sensory integration. Initially commutes were long; progress was slow. Then a small miracle occurred. When Mary was 4, she made a beeline at a Christmas party for the host's dog and began singing carols and talking. "It was more talking than she usually did in a day," says Cole. That night on the Internet, the Coles found Canine Companions for Independence, a group that provides trained dogs for situations like theirs. In November 1999, after more than a year on a waiting list and after both parents had taken dog-handling courses, the Coles brought home Tattinger, a mixed breed, who has learned to do such things as put his body weight on top of Mary, creating a hugging sensation she loves.
Today Mary attends fourth grade at a public school, swims and acts in plays. When Cole is not shooting West Wing or films such as the upcoming comedy Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, he drives Mary to therapy. "I like spending that time with her because she's got a pretty full day," he says. As for Mary's future, the Coles are clear-eyed. "Mary is always going to have autism," says Teddi. Adds Cole: "It's also who she is." But that still leaves room for miracles, says Teddi. "We believe you have to work for them."
Jill Smolowe. Cynthia Wang and Kwala Mandel in Los Angeles