Peter Scolaris Girls Performance Was Central to the Shows Triumph: An Appreciation

Peter Scolari, who died Friday at 66, had a long and decorated acting career, with starring roles in “Bosom Buddies” and “Newhart.” But a late triumph — and the performance for which, for many, he’ll be most widely remembered — was his Emmy-winning turn on HBO’s “Girls.” As Tad, Hannah Horvath’s father, Scolari brought rare sensitivity and care to a tricky character who evolved radically through the show’s run. It took a great actor to pull off some of the shifts in Tad Horvath over the seasons of “Girls,” but those shifts always felt, in Scolari’s telling, like the evolution of a person coming into contact with himself.

“Girls” depicted a funny parallel journey among the members of the Horvath family: As millennial Hannah (Lena Dunham) grew gradually disillusioned with life among the sexually liberated creative class of Brooklyn, her boomer parents (Scolari and Becky Ann Baker) began to try living on their own terms for the first time. They met less in the middle than in a sort of upside-down reality where, by the show’s end, Hannah was parenting her elders. This element of the show could, in the writing of the series, strain credulity — Hannah’s parents, both academics, seemed at first oddly cosseted. And later in the show’s run, they became libertine at times that suggested the show was seeking a source of spectacle and oddity.

But Scolari, especially, leaned hard on the shared reality of the Horvath family, no matter how far from its origins the show got. In the show’s early run, he was the more sensitive and attuned of Hannah’s two parents, gently encouraging her in small ways: He took up less space, in the psychic life of the show, than either of the two clashing Horvath women. As he came out and fell away from his wife, he grew, alternately, more assertive and more strangely broken, finding in his newly out life a set of requirements he wasn’t sure he could meet and a language he couldn’t quite speak. His journey towards himself ran through solitude and isolation, and provided a sort of object lesson to Hannah that even the authority figures in her life had nothing figured out: The problems of heartbreak, of uncertainty in who one is, of being unsure if one’s choices will be worth their consequences don’t just go away at 30, or 40, or after.

Scolari’s was a finely-wrought performance, showing at once the self-involvement that was endemic to all three Horvaths and the shimmering kindness and good intentions that made all three so human behind all the bluster. He meant to do the right thing — it just took him a great deal of effort to figure out what that right thing was. These nuances and careful decisions existed within the context of one of the great reversals in the history of the medium: Hired to play a stern but loving dad in a Midwestern nuclear family, Scolari ended up portraying a gay man on a journey of self-discovery.

The actor won an Emmy for “Girls,” making him the only performer on the series to have done so. And while other performances on the series were more attention-getting, few did more to advance the central concern of what it means to grow up. The answer Scolari’s performance suggests is that it’s a process that never concludes, but that takes a radical willingness to confront oneself and what one wants. And in his scenes with Dunham, both playing characters who demand a great deal from one another and give a great deal, too, he showed the degree to which that growing-up process relies on giving, and receiving, forgiveness for not being all the way there yet.

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