Josh Radnor ’96 returns to the spotlight with the PBS show Mercy Street, which debuts Sunday, Jan. 17. Based on real events, the six-hour dramatic series focuses on the chaotic world of a hospital during the Civil War.
The actor plays Jedediah Foster, a civilian contract surgeon who grew up in a privileged slave-owning household in Maryland. “He’s a Union loyalist working at a Union hospital in a Confederate-occupied town,” Radnor said of his character. “But he’s not an abolitionist.”
Radnor is best known for his role as Ted Mosby in the long-running CBS comedy series How I Met Your Mother that ended in 2014. He also wrote, directed and starred in Liberal Arts, a romantic comedy loosely based on his return to his alma mater. He filmed the movie — which includes Allison Janney ’82 — at Kenyon. Most recently, Radnor starred in the critically acclaimed dramatic Broadway play Disgraced.
Radnor was drawn to the opportunity to play a different kind of character on Mercy Street. “I wanted to play a part where I could have an unironic beard, and the Civil War was a terrific moment in facial hair history,” Radnor joked. “Coming off the series I did for nine years [How I Met Your Mother], my guiding question around roles was simply, ‘Have I done this before?’ If it was a single guy looking for love in the big city, I had to pass. But I’d never played a morphine-addicted Civil War surgeon.”
Peter Rutkoff, professor of American studies, said he sees Radnor’s role in Mercy Street as another step into more weighty acting. “This is a role that is a serious acting opportunity,” said Rutkoff, who has remained close with Radnor since his days as a student. “It is truer to his acting inclinations and training.”
For his role, Radnor applied what he learned from Kenyon professors like Rutkoff. “The first class I took with Peter Rutkoff at Kenyon was ‘American History to 1864,’ so we covered the Civil War pretty extensively,” Radnor said. Conversations with his father, Alan Radnor ’67 P’96 ’00, a Civil War buff, also helped.
The Bexley, Ohio, native was a drama major at Kenyon where he starred in The Importance of Being Earnest and Sight Unseen, for which he won the Paul Newman Trophy, honoring the best acting by a male student that year. After graduation, he earned a master’s of fine arts in acting from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
Radnor said the research he conducts for each of his performances allows him to continue learning. “It’s really one of my favorite things about being an actor, this kind of continuing education you get,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Antony Platt/PBS