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St. Albans native returns to meet fans of 'Stranger Things'

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Look familiar? Joe Chrest appears on “Stranger Things” as Ted Wheeler, but the St. Albans native has had roles in dozens of television shows, films and on the stage. He’ll be at Coal River Coffee Company in St. Albans Saturday evening.

There’s not much point asking Joe Chrest about the goings on in Hawkins or even what the meddling kids of “Stranger Things” are up to next.

Chrest, who plays Ted Wheeler, the hopelessly sedate father of Mike and Nancy Wheeler on the hit Netflix show, said, “I don’t read the scripts.”

He appears Saturday beginning at 6 p.m. at Coal River Coffee Company in St. Albans. Chrest explained that was partly because he legitimately enjoys the show as a fan. He has a small part, anyway, and it’s fun to see the story play out.

“Besides, my character is in the dark,” he said. “He’s rooted in that home. He’s not involved with demagorgons or anything going on at the lab.”

The St. Albans native said earlier in his career, he really liked to delve into the world of whatever show, film or stage production he was part of.

“I was heavy into research,” Chrest said.

But there didn’t seem to be much point for him to do that here, so he talked it over with the Duffer brothers, the creators of the show, during the first season and they were fine with it.

It protects the secrets of the show, too. At science-fiction and fantasy conventions or at Louisiana State University, where he sometimes teaches a film class, people are always asking him about the show.

It’s just easier not to know.

Chrest has been acting since the early 1980s, while he was still a student at St. Albans High School.

He said he didn’t get into acting early but came to it sort of sideways during his junior year when he picked up a speech class.

“Acting was the second half of the class,” he said.

Through most of high school, Chrest had been more of an athlete, but he had an eye toward his future.

Speech class meant learning public speaking, a weak spot for him, he said. College was coming up and he thought that being more comfortable talking in front of people would help with reports and presentations.

“I found it was easier to do a speech if I pretended I was somebody else,” he said.

His speeches got better, and it turned out he had a knack for acting. He liked it and came back his senior year for my acting lessons and to try out for the school play, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

“They cast me as the lead,” he said.

Chrest continued to act and won a scholarship to Marshall University for his efforts.

“It wasn’t a very big scholarship,” he said. “But it sort of gave me hope, that what I wanted to do was possible.”

He graduated high school in 1981, studied theater at Marshall and later earned a masters degree from LSU.

During the summers, he jumped into the theater scene back home. He did musicals with the Charleston Light Opera Guild and Chrest said Nina Denton Passinetti helped him get his first professional jobs, doing summer stock theater in Prestonburg, Kentucky.

After LSU, he went to Los Angeles, where he earned a living as a stage actor before breaking into movies and television.

Chrest said he’s tended to fall into certain kinds of roles, though the type of role he’s been cast for has changed throughout his career.

“Through the 90s, I was kind of the bad guy of the week on the cop shows,” he said.

That went on for years.

Since “21 Jump Street,” when he played Jonah Hill’s father, he’s been routinely cast as the dad.

“Particularly, if it’s a quirky kind of dad,” Chrest said.

He didn’t really mind. It’s helped him keep working.

Other than his appearances on “Stranger Things,” Chrest keeps busy. He’ll appear in another Netflix show, “The Perfect Date,” at some point and lately, he’s been filming scenes for a Hulu show based on John Green’s novel, “Looking for Alaska.”

In both, he plays a father, which is easy enough. Chrest is married and has a couple of kids. He can relate to the struggles of being a father.

While Ted Wheeler isn’t a big part, Chrest said he has a few fans out there. People come up to him and utter, “What’d I do?” a line his character blurted out at least once.

“It’s kind of a calling card for dads,” he said. “If you’re not saying it, you’re feeling it.”

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5195 or follow @lostHwys on Twitter. He’s also on Instagram at instagram.com/billiscap/ and read his blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/onemonth.

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