NEW YORK — Like the character he plays, Clark Gregg has worked his way up the career ladder.
Five years ago, he played Agent Phil Coulson for the first time as a small role in the Robert Downey Jr. romp “Iron Man.”
Now, after gaining an ever-higher profile as Coulson in subsequent projects including last year’s mega-hit “The Avengers,” Gregg has broken out as the star of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the new acronymic sci-fi thriller (airing on ABC Tuesdays at 8 p.m. EDT), which finds Coulson leading a hand-picked band of agents on their extra-special missions.
Gregg’s own mission: to savor his spot as No. 1 on the “Marvel’s Agents” call sheet after years of diverse, solid and often acclaimed work that, nonetheless, fell short of making him a household name.
Gregg, 51, has earned his new prominence. As Coulson, he projects a mild demeanor (except when he doesn’t) and a boyish smile (except when he takes dead-aim with his weapon or busts a bad guy in the chops). He’s a tangy blend of milquetoast and steel.
And he looks good, though not too good, in his habitual company-man business suit.
“Coulson never takes his suit off,” said executive producer Maurissa Tancharoen, speaking from Los Angeles, “whether he’s on the beach, in the jungle ...”
“But at the risk of spoilers,” stepped in fellow exec producer Jed Whedon, “you will see him in a future episode — sans tie!”
Agent Coulson is also a master of the dry quip, courtesy of Gregg.
“No matter what the line, Clark always makes it sound so classy and cool,” said Tancharoen.
“The show doesn’t take itself too seriously,” Gregg notes gratefully during a recent chat in New York, “except in the moments when it needs to. The rest of the time it has a real sense of humor. ‘I’m going to Taser you and watch “Supernanny” while you drool into the carpet’: That’s just not the kind of line I’ve gotten playing an agent in something else,” like, for instance, “The West Wing,” where he had a recurring role as, yes, an FBI special agent.
It should come as no surprise that Gregg has a gift for comedy. From 2006 to 2010 he played the mild-mannered but flighty ex-husband of Julia Louis-Dreyfus on her CBS sitcom, “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”
Now he gets to lead a team of sexy operatives from the (wait for it) Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division who investigate the extra-normal and superhuman people infesting their futuristic world.
Like “The Avengers,” ‘’Marvel’s Agents” boasts a comic-book soul and the creative mojo of Joss (brother of Jed) Whedon. Rounding out its cast are Brett Dalton, Ming-Na Wen, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge and Chloe Bennet as Coulson’s team.
“Coulson loves his job,” says Gregg. “He’s jaded, he’s seen too much, but he can really geek out. You could imagine him doing selfies with crazy alien corpses! I’m making that up, but he’s WAY into what he does.”
So is Gregg.
“This show depicts a world that I loved as a kid,” says Gregg, whose comic-book faves were Iron Fist, a Kung Fu superhero, and Adam Warlock, an artificial human built by scientists. “This show has given me a great chance to take my 13-year-old self to work with me every day.”