Michael Emerson Still Reigns as TV’s King of Creepy

On one wall of the actor Michael Emerson’s Manhattan apartment hangs a large self portrait he drew about 40 years ago. In the intentionally distorted image, Emerson peers out menacingly from behind his circular glasses. His wife, the actor Carrie Preston, thinks it serves as a fitting summation of his career.

“You know, Carrie brought this up recently saying, ‘There’s the template for so much of what you have done as an actor,’” he said. “For me it was just a laugh. It’s still the same mix of having fun and yet being a little, what’s the word, terrifying.”

It’s true: If you want someone to be creepy on television, you call Michael Emerson. The 69-year-old actor had his breakout role in 2000 playing a serial killer in “The Practice,” a performance so memorably distressing it won him a guest actor Emmy. He went on to unsettle viewers for years as the unpredictable Ben Linus in “Lost,” and as the computer wizard Harold Finch on “Person of Interest.” This year he showed up for one episode of the Prime Video series “Fallout,” from the “Person of Interest” creator Jonathan Nolan, as a quietly menacing scientist. They aren’t all bad guys, but you’re never quite sure.

Emerson is currently inhabiting his most ghoulish role yet, in the aptly named Paramount+ show “Evil,” returning for its fourth and final season on May 23. Emerson plays Leland Townsend, a demonic emissary who constantly torments the heroes, a group of investigators played by Mike Colter, Katja Herbers and Aasif Mandvi. This trio works for the Roman Catholic Church to determine whether various strange goings-on are the result of satanic forces or more mundane phenomena. Leland’s main goal is to promote the forces of darkness by any means possible.

In Emerson’s hands, Leland is a captivating, often frightening agent of chaos who is surprisingly goofy for someone who is OK with child murder. In the new season, he is raising his biological son — he nefariously arranged the baby’s conception earlier in the series — and believes the child is the Antichrist.

“I don’t know anyone that does unsettling better than Michael Emerson,” Michelle King, who created “Evil” with her husband, Robert, said in a video interview.

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