MODESTO — Former Modestan Timothy Olyphant has been in dozens of movies and TV shows, but the biggest acclaim of his two-decade career has come from his starring role in the FX series "Justified."
The show, which kicks off its fourth season Tuesday at 10 p.m., netted the 1986 Beyer High School graduate a 2011 Emmy nomination for outstanding lead actor in a drama series and accolades from TV critics across the country.
Olyphant stars as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a lawman who enforces justice in unconventional ways in his Kentucky hometown. The New York Times recently described the show, inspired by the stories of novelist Elmore Leonard, as a "colorful mix of dry humor, graphic violence and twisted characters."
Graham Yost, the series creator and showrunner, said he knew early on that he wanted Olyphant for the part.
"It was clear he was the Raylan of our dreams and of Elmore's dreams," Yost said. "He's a cool guy. Yet there's a strength and a danger underneath there that we can tap into. He's also not bad- looking. The other thing about Tim we knew because of 'Deadwood' that he looked good in a hat."
Olyphant, 44, previously starred as sheriff and former U.S. Marshal Seth Bullock in HBO's gritty Old West series "Deadwood," which aired from 2004 to 2006.
He most recently appeared in the 2011 movie "I Am Number Four," in which he played the guardian to an alien. He also voiced the role of Spirit of the West in the animated film "Rango." His movie career, which dates to the mid-1990s, includes appearances in Bruce Willis' "Live Free or Die Hard," "Scream 2" and "Go" opposite Katie Holmes.
But it's "Justified" that critics love best. Several publications, including Entertainment Weekly, listed it as one of the 10 best TV shows of 2012.
Olyphant said he's proud to be in the series and is grateful the show has continued so long.
"I love the job. The material is very fun to do day in and day out," he said. "The actors that I get to work with are great."
Born in Hawaii, Olyphant moved to Modesto when he was about 2 and stayed in town until he graduated from high school.
Now living in Los Angeles, Olyphant most recently visited Modesto over Christmas, bringing his wife and three children to stay at the home of his mother, Katherine Wright.
"It was relatively easygoing," Olyphant said. "We hung out in the neighborhood and visited friends. It's been a while since I've been there. It was good to be home. The kids wanted to go to Grandma's for Christmas."
None of his other family members live in Modesto. His father, John Olyphant, who is divorced from his mother, now lives in Arizona, and his two brothers have moved out of the area. Older brother Andy lives in Tarzana and younger brother Matthew lives in San Rafael.
Wright said all three of her sons have shown persistence and dedication in their careers. "I've always told them whatever you want to do, you can do it," she said.
Acting bug hit late
Still, she was surprised by Timothy's choice to get into acting. He was never involved in theater in Modesto and instead put his attention into swimming, gaining enough skill to compete in national tournaments.
At the University of Southern California, he majored in fine arts. It wasn't until he took an acting class at the University of California at Irvine that he decided he'd like to be onstage.
Olyphant made the bold step of dropping out of USC a month before graduation and moving with his wife, Alexis, to New York City to study acting.
He waited tables to make ends meet and landed his first big role in a pilot for a remake of the TV series "77 Sunset Strip." Unfortunately, the show went nowhere after producer Clint Eastwood dropped out.
But he received encouragement to keep going when he was cast in the off-Broadway play "The Monogamist" and won the Theater World Award for debut performance in 1995. The next year, he starred in the original stage production of the one-man comic off-Broadway show "The Santaland Diaries," written by David Sedaris about his experiences working as an elf at Macy's.
Career gains steam
Small roles in movies such as "The First Wives Club" and "A Life Less Ordinary" were followed by his first major film role as Mickey in "Scream 2" opposite Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Jerry O'Connell and Jada Pinkett.
Olyphant has worked steadily in films and TV since then, managing to stay in the game in one of the most competitive industries. In recent years, he has been a guest star on the NBC comedy "The Office" and the FX legal series "Damages" opposite Glenn Close.
"He's always had something going on with work," said Wright. "Most of what he's done has been very good. He's been selective about what he's done."
He has maintained a strong family life, something not everyone in Hollywood is able to accomplish. He has been married 20 years and is active in the lives of his children, ages 9 to 13.
Olyphant said his main activity other than the show is driving his children to various activities. He said parenthood has become harder as his oldest daughter has become a teenager.
"I wouldn't wish a 13-year-old daughter on my worst enemy," he joked. "No, all the kids are really good. We got lucky."
None of the children watch "Justified," Olyphant said. "I don't know if we're shielding them or if they're not interested."
Fourth season surprises
Olyphant is excited about the storyline in the fourth season of the show, which will focus on a 30-year-old cold case that unravels back to Raylan's boyhood and his father's criminal dealings.
"We're doing something different," he said. "We didn't want to do the villain of the year. We had so many great characters we wanted to take advantage of. We have a world of good guys and lots of bad guys."
An addition to the cast this year is comedian Patton Oswalt, who will play Constable Bob Sweeney. "That guy's money," Olyphant said. "He's so good and so funny. He's a very talented guy. We've been lucky. We have nonstop amazing talent on the show."
With the popularity of the show on the rise, Olyphant gets recognized more by people on the street these days. He likes the attention because it means people are watching, but he has his limits. Although he is happy to shake hands and talk with people, he doesn't sign autographs.
"Tim is a very, very private person," said Wright. "He really values his privacy, and he values protecting his wife and children."
Her son loves being an actor but he hasn't put his whole identity into it, she added. "Timothy says, 'This is my job and what I do for a living, but it isn't me, it isn't who I am. There's more to me than that.' "
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2313.