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Hangin’ tough

From boy band to leading man, Donnie Wahlberg joins the force of ‘Blue Bloods’

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By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / September 24, 2010

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BEVERLY HILLS — When it comes to summer vacation reports, Donnie Wahlberg has got a pretty good one, though his summer wasn’t much of a vacation. In June he was finishing up the most recent leg of the New Kids on the Block reunion tour, performing duets with the Backstreet Boys. By the end of July he was stuffing bad guys’ heads in toilets and hanging with “Magnum, P.I.’’

The singer-actor concedes that it’s a good time to be Donnie Wahlberg, as he joins the pedigreed cast and crew of the new CBS family-of-cops drama, “Blue Bloods.’’ Created by veteran TV producer Leonard Goldberg (“Charlie’s Angels,’’ “Family’’) and executive produced by Emmy-winning “Sopranos’’ scribes Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess, the series premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 4.

“Blue Bloods’’ chronicles the intertwined lives of the Reagan clan. The family is anchored by New York police commissioner Frank (Tom Selleck) and includes his detective son Danny (Wahlberg), Harvard Law-educated younger son Jamie (Will Estes), and assistant district attorney daughter Erin (Bridget Moynahan). Various extended family members, including retired police chief grandfather (Len Cariou), round out the cast.

“When Tom Selleck says ‘I’m excited to work with you,’ it’s kind of like, Wow, dude you’re Magnum. I get to play your son? Are you crazy? I’d have done it for free,’’ says Wahlberg, hanging in the lobby of a Beverly Hills hotel. He adds with a chuckle, “I told them that after.’’

Luckily, Green and Burgess are happy to be paying him.

“We looked and looked to fill this part,’’ says Green of a character so dedicated to justice that he occasionally crosses the line into Jack Bauer territory. (See: bad guys’ heads in toilets.) “I couldn’t even think of who we wanted, and we saw his reel and that was it. It was magic.’’

“I was a big fan of ‘Band of Brothers,’ ’’ says Selleck of Wahlberg’s work in the Emmy-winning HBO military series. After the producers offered him a peek at that same demo reel and he saw Wahlberg’s varied roles in everything from “The Sixth Sense’’ to the “Saw’’ franchise, Selleck says “his range just blew me away.’’

This isn’t the Dorchester native’s first or even fifth time wearing the badge onscreen, having memorably played cops in both the acclaimed 2002 series “Boomtown’’ and more recently in guest spots on TNT’s Boston-set series “Rizzoli & Isles.’’

“I told myself a year ago I wouldn’t play any more cops for awhile,’’ says Wahlberg. “But the reality is this is just too good of a situation to not take a shot at it.’’

Plus, it gave him an opportunity to reunite with Moynahan, with whom he had clicked when they shot a Boston-set pilot called “Bunker Hill’’ that never made it to air. “I went into instant ‘Recruit Bridget Moynahan!’ mode when I signed on,’’ says Wahlberg.

“I was flirting with the show and he just called me up and did a full-court press,’’ says Moynahan with a laugh. Given the presence of Selleck, Green, and Burgess, and the promise of the dramatic family elements, she adds, “It’s not like he really had to twist my arm too hard.’’

(Moynahan, a native Bay Stater, can’t promise her character won’t be seen in New York sports team gear, but says, “I can guarantee you Donnie will never have a Yankees hat on his head. I think he’s actually taken a smaller trailer just to make sure he had that in his contract.’’)

While “Blue Bloods’’ will devote most of its screen time to the given case of the week, Green says no one involved wants the show to be pigeonholed as a procedural. “We promised the network to have a case that you solve every week [and] to have a family drama that hopefully has something to do with this case.’’

It’s the repercussions of what happens when the personal, professional, and political collide at that dining room table — where four generations of Reagans gather weekly for Sunday dinner — that are most interesting to Wahlberg, who knows from growing up in a big Catholic family that shared similar interests and drive.

“With a lot of the characters I’ve played, I want to know a lot about them and I want to know what the writer thinks: Is he guy A, B, or C?’’ Wahlberg says. “With this character, I didn’t really want to lock in on that. I’m playing a guy whose dad is the police commissioner for the city and he’s a cop. Is he resentful of that? Is he proud? Is he embarrassed? The truth is he’s probably all of them, depending on the day, depending on the circumstances, depending on his mood.’’

For Wahlberg, “Blue Bloods’’ also signals a transition in his own professional trajectory.

“I wanted to shift the balance back in my life a little bit,’’ he says of the time spent dedicated to the 2008 resurrection of Boston’s biggest boy band. “I put New Kids at the forefront of my life for three years and I put acting second. I think for the long-term preservation of New Kids, it’s best for acting to dominate my time and let New Kids fit in the gaps.’’

Not that there are many gaps to fill. If “Blue Bloods’’ is a hit, Wahlberg will shoot the show in New York for the next eight months and then head straight back out on a New Kids tour next summer, all while promoting “The Zookeeper,’’ an all-star live action-animation hybrid — featuring the voice talents of Adam Sandler and Sylvester Stallone — in which he plays the title role.

“Some people live to play and some people work to play, and I live to work,’’ Wahlberg says. “Just give me a few weekends in Boston and let me catch a few Celtics games and I’m happy.’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.