After decades as an actor in Los Angeles, John Michael Herndon's career seems to be finally taking off. On Wednesday, the Jefferson City native has a guest role in a "Criminal Minds" episode on CBS, and landed a part in next spring's "300: The Rise of an Empire," the sequel to the blockbuster 2007 film.
In the new and ninth season of "Criminal Minds," which airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on KRCG, Herndon appears as the unmedicated schizophrenic ex-husband of actor Camryn Manheim's character, who is key to the team solving the case.
"I've auditioned for the casting director on the show nearly a dozen times in the past two or three years," said Herndon, who lives in West Hollywood. "After they narrow down their choices, they'll take their top five actors to producers to decide which flavor they want."
This time the producers chose him, but the trick to acting is how to survive all those times the decision goes the other way. But Herndon knows the drill well and has found a way to stay positive.
"I have a very supportive family and I also do as much as possible to stay in front of the camera, working on independent films as well as mentoring younger actors, and that keeps me optimistic," he said.
That he is even an actor at all is a major accomplishment given how shy he was in school. Born in Linn, he was raised in Jefferson City and attended St. Joseph Cathedral School through the eighth grade.
"I was an extreme introvert and very shy," he said. "I expressed myself through visual art. I knew if I went to Helias that it would be more of the same, so I went to Jefferson City High School, where I didn't know anyone."
He ended up taking art as well as speech and debate classes despite his stage fright.
"I hated my debate classes at first," he said. "It was torturous. But by my senior year I was really involved with the drama troupe and president of the art club."
He remembers the positive influence of Father John Long, a director of The Little Theatre, where Herndon sang and acted in many productions, including the "Hello Dolly" that traveled to Cork, Ireland, for several performances.
He graduated from Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) in 1985 with bachelor degrees in business administration and acting as well as a master of arts.
When he first moved to Los Angeles, his day job as an event planner and producer for non-profits, studios and television networks was all consuming.
"I tried to pursue my acting, but producing events took all of my time and I couldn't just drop everything for an audition," he said. "Many of them were film festivals and live events or movie premieres at Graumen's Chinese Theater."
He did have small parts in television shows like "Buffy, The Vampire Slayer," but his acting career took a back seat to his other job.
In 2005, he returned to Jefferson City for Christmas break and learned his oldest sister, Kathleen Fenzee, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had only a few weeks to live.
"I stayed longer to care for her and she ended up living for 10 months," he said.
He spent time with his other three siblings and, after Frenzee's death, found himself questioning what really matters in his own life.
"I revisited my priorities, trying to figure out what I wanted out of life. Doing the events, I was often dealing with corporate execs and celebrities and seeing the ugly underbelly of LA," he said.
"I decided to go back to Los Angeles and put my acting first, to give it that laser focus."
Since then he has worked as a freelance theater technician and carpenter as well as for different production companies.
"Now if I get a text message from my agent that I have an audition the next morning I can go on the audition," he said. "I have more freedom to really put my acting first."
Since then, he feels like he's started all over again and has had many auditions.
"Sometimes it takes days to prepare for an audition and then you don't get the part," he said, "but you have to do that to remain competitive."
An example is his role in the "300" sequel, where he plays a senator who's against going to war.
"If I hadn't been able to drop what I was doing workwise and make that audition I wouldn't have got that role," he said.
Now, in the later part of his career, he has a role in his first big-budget feature film.
"We're all so proud of him," said his sister, Ronda Gross, who lives in Tipton. "We'll definitely be watching tomorrow night, even if he is playing a mentally unstable schizophrenic.
"He's played doctors and other characters and definitely looked a lot better," she said.
Two other sisters, Terry DeLong-Batye and Noel Arnold, are excited for their baby brother and will tape the show for viewing at a family gathering this weekend, where his four nephews in college plan on attending.
"When I tell people I'm an actor most want to know if I've been in anything they've seen, I really get asked that a lot," he said. "Now I am so excited to be able to tell them and my younger relatives that I've been in something they might have seen," he said.
"I have been validated in my choice," he said.