How a Raleigh native’s family tragedy led to the sweet, funny new comedy ‘The Unicorn’

Viewers across the nation watching the new CBS sitcom “The Unicorn” may never even know that it’s set right here in Raleigh, N.C.

But we know.

We know that in the hearts and minds of the creators, producers and writers, all of that widowed-dad-entering-the-dating-world-while-raising-two-young-daughters comedy is happening in the Oak City.

We know because the show, which stars Walton Goggins (perhaps best known for menacing roles on “Justified” and “The Shield”), is based on the life of Raleigh native Grady Cooper, who is a producer on the show.

Let’s set the scene.

Cooper was born and raised in Raleigh, graduated from Broughton High and UNC-Chapel Hill, then moved out to Los Angeles to work as a TV and film editor. He met Jane DeVries and fell for her. They were married nearly 20 years and had two beautiful daughters, Audrey and Ellen. Then in 2015, when Jane was 49 years old, she died from brain cancer.

“We had a great life until she got sick, and it was just one of those things,” Cooper said in an interview with The News & Observer. “It was super hard on everybody because this very vibrant person became so diminished.”

That’s when Cooper became an only parent (he prefers that term to “single parent,” because he says it more accurately describes his situation) and eventually, he was faced with the prospect of dating again — suddenly in the world of online dating after 20 years off the market.

Audrey, Ellen and Grady Cooper at Sanitary Fish Market in Morehead City, NC. Grady Cooper

Cooper shared his funny stories about dating and raising his daughters with Bill Martin, a friend since college who has been a television writer for shows like “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “Trial & Error,” and with Martin’s writing partner Mike Schiff.

“They were great listeners,” Cooper said.

Cooper thought more about it, outlined a few ideas and then ran it past his friend Peyton Reed, another Raleigh native.

He and Reed, a producer and director best known for his “Ant-Man” blockbuster films, had known each other since preschool and have been close friends since high school and college.

Cooper asked his friends: “Do you think this could be a comedy?”

Apart from the sad genesis of Cooper’s predicament, they all recognized the comedic possibilities.

“They said, ‘We really kinda hoped you would say this, but we didn’t want to suggest it’ — because, you know, they are such polite and nice guys,” Cooper said. “So we started collaborating on the idea.”

Making ‘The Unicorn’

In “The Unicorn,” Goggins play Wade Felton, a widower with two daughters (and two dogs), living off of frozen casseroles delivered by neighbors when his wife died.

His friends convince him it’s time to start dating again, telling him that because he’s such a genuinely good guy (not out buying a Porsche and trying to date women half his age), that he’ll be something of a “unicorn” in the dating world, and that women will love him. The friends encourage him, boost him up, help him write his dating profile, give him style advice for his first date.

(L-R): Michaela Watkins as Delia, Rob Corddry as Forrest, Walton Goggins as Wade, Omar Benson Miller as Ben, Maya Lynne Robinson as Michelle in “The Unicorn” on CBS. Darren Michaels CBS

“In my neighborhood, we have a really wonderful network of friends who were super supportive, and that’s kind of the premise of the show,” Cooper said. “Our friends were there while Jane was sick and also after. Sometimes the advice from the friends is unsolicited and not what you want to hear, but that’s also where the comedy comes in, too.”

Reed told us that it was important to all of them that the show have the right tone and that it would be relatable.

“This should be a show that Jane would want to watch too,” Reed said. “At the core it’s about the relationship of Wade and his daughters and Wade and the group of friends, and kind of reassessing your life. ... We knew we had a chance to do a show that’s really relatable, about how life always throws these tragedies at you, and how you and the people around you survive them.”

The casting of Goggins felt very natural, Reed said.

Reed had just worked with him on “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and he showed him the script and he liked it.

“He really responded to it,” Reed said. “It was a different kind of role for him, it kind of felt more like him as he is in real life. He has a son, and he’s a dedicated parent. ... He just related to the role.”

There’s another detail of the story that makes the casting of Goggins seem fated.

The ‘Andy Griffith Show’ aspect

Reed said when Goggins read the script he told him he had just been watching “The Andy Griffith Show” with his son on Netflix.

“It kind of struck me, it does kind of have a modern-day aspect of ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’” Reed said. “Andy Griffith was a widower raising a kid, it was like, OK that makes sense.”

Martin, co-creator and writer, told us that the spirit of “The Andy Griffith Show” is definitely present.

“This show is basically an ‘Andy Griffith Show’ fan club,” Martin said. “Peyton and Walton both have a sick fascination with it and you know, somebody’s got to take the mantle — it’s been 55 years.”

Cooper said his daughters, Audrey, 18, and Ellen, 22, were OK with him dating again, and OK with the idea of a TV show based on their situation.

“When I told them it was going to be a show, one of them said, ‘what’s it gonna be about?’ I knew we had reached a point of normalcy again, when they felt like their life was back to normal.”

(L-R) Makenzie Moss as Natalie, Ruby Jay as Grace, Walton Goggins as Wade in “The Unicorn” on CBS. Monty Brinton CBS

As for the Raleigh setting, Martin says the sense of place is very important to the show.

“This show more than any other show we’ve worked on, we want it to feel real,” Martin said. “We want the people to feel real. And there’s nothing like putting characters in a generic TV universe to remind you that you’re just watching a show. And the fact that you have a guy, Walton, who is so clearly a product of the South, that we want to be as specific with the place as he is with the character. And every time we can place it in a real world that has the texture and feel and smell of a real place, I think it just helps the show feel more legit.”

There’s essentially no hint of Raleigh — or any specific place — in the pilot, which airs at 8:30 p.m. next Thursday, Sept. 26, on CBS. But Cooper and Reed have both said that “an early episode” of the show will mention the longtime downtown Raleigh restaurant Humble Pie, which is owned by their friend Joe Farmer. Reed tells us that they’ve talked inside the writer’s room about mentioning The Player’s Retreat.

And if the show is successful, Reed says, and they get additional episodes or a second season, they want to bring a film crew to Raleigh to get establishing shots to edit into the show.

Martin said that a dream would be to have the budget to shoot an episode in Raleigh, but even better would be to have the three families in the show involved in a “basketball season rivalry explosion episode with a lot of ill feelings and anger — that would be a dream.”

Cooper, who directed videos for local bands Squirrel Nut Zippers and Archers of Loaf back in the 1990s, has another cool idea for incorporating his hometown.

He said his wife, Jane, used to wear his old band T-shirts around the house, so he’d love to get clearance from some of those local bands — like The Connells and Superchunk — and have the daughters wear those in the show.

That would put a Raleigh stamp on “The Unicorn” for sure.

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Brooke Cain is a North Carolina native who has worked at The News & Observer for more than 20 years. She writes about TV and local media for the Happiness is a Warm TV blog, and answers CuriousNC questions for readers.