A Real-Life Unicorn

Grady Cooper ’87, dining out with daughters Audrey, left, and Ellen, is the producer and the inspiration for 
The Unicorn, the story of a widowed father. (Courtesy of Grady Cooper ’87)

The early death of a spouse can yield up a world of painful emotions — and, once in a great while, comedy. Consider the new CBS series The Unicorn, so named because of the rarity of a youngish widower father with teenagers. The show’s real-life model is Grady Cooper ’87, who is still living the story.

The Unicorn is another product of Carolina’s Hollywood colony of alumni who have been heavily involved in film and television for decades. A longtime TV editor and director, Cooper is producer on the show. Also involved are Bill Martin ’86 (3rd Rock from the Sun, Trial & Error) as writer and Peyton Reed ’86 (the Ant-Man movies, Yes Man, The Break-Up) as executive producer.

Walton Goggins, left, portrays the character based on Cooper in the CBS series. (Monty Brinton/CBS)

In 2015, Cooper’s wife, Jane DeVries, succumbed to brain cancer; she was 49. They had been married 20 years, and he was left to try to pick up the pieces while raising their teenage daughters. As he commiserated with friends, Martin and Reed among them, they began to think that Cooper’s real-life single-father misadventures might make for compelling television.

Not that Martin or Reed had the nerve to suggest it, at least at first. “The truth is you don’t bring it up at all,” Martin said. “You go back to the office and talk to your writing partner about what a great idea it would be, but it’s too awkward to bring up. So we were wrestling with how to bring it up, and finally Grady himself asked, ‘Am I crazy, or is there a TV show in this?’ BAM. ‘No, you’re not crazy! Gee, are we glad you brought that up!’ ”

In addition to producer, Cooper weighs in on emotions and events, what does and doesn’t happen when one is grieving a partner. He also suggests ideas and plot points. Seeing a version of his life onscreen does make for a strange cocktail of feelings.

“Sometimes I’m able to remove myself from it and see it as just a funny story with some heart, and sometimes it will really choke me up,” he said. “All of this will change over time, of course, and eventually be nothing like me. Ultimately, it’s about a guy trying to raise two daughters. But I’m happy to see this because there aren’t many younger widower stories that are well-documented.”

“I’m a litte tired of irony,” Goggins said about the appeal of The Unicorn role.

In the show, set in Raleigh, the fictional version of Cooper is played by Walton Goggins, the anti-hero of the Justified TV series as well as a conniving bad guy in Reed’s 2018 movie Ant-Man and the Wasp. After a lifetime of similar roles (he also is one of director Quentin Tarantino’s regulars), Goggins was ready for something different. “I’m a little tired of irony, and I’m at a place in my life where kindness and sentimentality and being earnest are things that are very important to me,” he said.

Cooper has tentatively re-entered the dating world and “gone on a lot of first dates, ” with mixed results. The consolation is more stories for the show. Being involved with a series focused on moving forward helps him focus on doing just that. Reed calls the show “weirdly healing for Grady and all the rest of us, too.”

“It was frightening and incredibly difficult,” Cooper said of his late wife’s illness. “She was scared, but a lot of hope was involved. We did some clinical-trial treatments at Duke, and it appeared to be working, but then we realized the cancer had become aggressive again. All of a sudden it was hospice. So I was caregiver while also trying to raise our daughters. Our friends were all incredibly supportive, made a lot of meals and spent a lot of time with us. It couldn’t have been a nicer way to go through that, and it’s kind of the basis of the show. You can’t get through life without supportive friends.”

— David Menconi


Share via: