Theater alumnus Tim DeKay finds success as an FBI agent on TV’s "White Collar"

Tim DeKay was well on his way to a respectable middle-class life in Upstate New York, studying business at Syracuse’s Le Moyne College in the 1980s, toying with the idea of pursuing a law degree, playing baseball.Tim DeKay

After graduation, DeKay took a job at a casket company, handling inventory and distribution for a company that, as he puts it, traded in “the Cadillac of caskets,” crafting coffins for U.S. presidents Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, as well as legendary football coach Vince Lombardi.

His supervisor’s name: Bob Graves.

But eventually, “I realized: I don’t want to be a businessman; I want to play a businessman. I don’t want to be a lawyer; I want to play a lawyer,” says DeKay, a native of Lansing, N.Y., and an alumnus of the Theater MFA program at the Mason Gross School of the Arts. DeKay just finished his second season as strait-laced FBI agent Peter Burke in the USA buddy show White Collar. The third season begins at 10 p.m. EST Tuesday, Jan. 18.

After putting in a full day at the casket company, DeKay participated in local community-theater productions.

Theater “was my life,” DeKay says. “So I wondered if I could make it my livelihood.”

On a recommendation from a friend, DeKay applied to Mason Gross. But he had reservations.

“I thought, ‘Am I too old for this?’ ” says DeKay, who at the time was a few years out of college.

But DeKay says he refused to “wake up sometime in my 40s and say, ‘What if?’ That would be worse than kicking myself for starting this too late. I thought, ‘OK, never look back.’ ”

If DeKay seems familiar, that’s because he’s been popping up all over the boob tube for the last decade and a half, building up his résumé with minor roles on Friends, Party of Five, and The New Adventures of Old Christine, among others, and doing a memorable turn as “Bizarro Jerry” in several episodes of Seinfeld. DeKay began to make the shift from guest star to series regular in 2005, when he joined the cast of HBO’s Dust Bowl drama Carnivàle.In 2007 he was cast as a regular on the cable channel’s sexually charged Tell Me You Love Me.

But with White Collar, DeKay has at long last achieved leading-man status. He turns in a nuanced performance suffused with world-weariness and dry humor, and he exudes a crackling chemistry with co-star Matt Bomer in the role of slick con-artist Neal Caffrey.

“A friend said, ‘You have a household face; you might have a household name on White Collar,’ ” DeKay says during a break from shooting in New York City.

The show has been lavished with critical love and robust ratings: When White Collar premiered in October 2009, the Los Angeles Times described it as the “snappiest, snazziest, most energetic drama to debut this fall.” DeKay says he and other TV vets such as Tiffani Thiessen (Saved By the Bell, Beverly Hills, 90210) and Willie Garson (Sex and the City) are savoring the moment.  

But ultimately, DeKay attributes much of his success to Mason Gross.

“It sounds cliché and a little sentimental, but Mason Gross [not only] taught me to be an actor, it shaped me into an artist as well,” says DeKay, who describes the program’s atmosphere as “familial.” Yes, familial: On the first day of graduate school DeKay became scene partners with Elisa, the woman who would become his wife. They have two children, a son, Jamis, 11, and a daughter, Danna, 8. They live in California.

Mason Gross “taught me…not to think. Don’t think; do what you feel. Be honest, open, truthful,” DeKay says. “Uninhibited, unbridled expression is what they wanted from us that first year.”

The former business major carries that spontaneity to the set today, as he and Bomer play a high-concept game of cat-and-mouse.DeKay family

Coming out of school, “I didn’t have any aspirations,” he says. “Success was continuing to do that I did—do plays and maybe there was a check at the end.”

By those standards, DeKay has achieved success and then some. But DeKay always returns to that primal pull, the one that led him from the “Cadillac of caskets” to the small screen.

“I love pretending to be someone else,” DeKay says. “When it comes down to it, I love being in the moment and telling stories.”