NKOTB’s Joey McIntyre on Feeling His Late Dad & ‘Biggest Fan’ Thomas’ Spirit for ‘Waitress’ Debut (Exclusive)

Joey McIntyre
Rene Cervantes

The singer & actor opened up about losing his father, joining Broadway & preparing to re-release NKOTB's 1988 record, 'Hangin' Tough.'

It will be a bittersweet moment when New Kids on the Block singer Joey McIntyre makes his debut as Dr. Jim Pomatter in Broadway’s Waitress on Monday. While the role marks a dream comeback to Broadway following an at-times challenging cross-country family relocation, his biggest and perhaps proudest “fan” -- late dad Thomas Joseph McIntyre -- won’t be around to witness the big moment. However, McIntyre still feels his presence as he prepares to take the stage.

“He would be thrilled,” the 46-year-old musician and actor tells ET in between rehearsals. “He loved the stage. He never performed himself, but he was a great benefactor to the arts and supporting his kids and loved watching us up on stage. It’s hard to think I had a bigger fan. I really think he seems very much alive, and who knows how spirits live on, but his energy is still around and I feel like I can still share this with him, so that’s pretty cool.”

“As he would say, ‘It’s all showbiz,’" adds McIntyre, whose late mom Katherine was a theater actress. “He grew up in politics, was a union leader and growing up in Boston it really was all showbiz. Look to our president right now -- if that’s not all showbiz then I don’t know what is. But he saw the good side of that -- he probably didn’t know it would go this far!”

Thomas died almost three months ago, after spending his final days with friends and family at an assisted living facility in Massachusetts. McIntyre recalls how the father-of-nine and grandfather of 14 didn’t want his life to end.

“He was 87 and lived a very full life,” McIntyre says. “As he said, he ‘hit a home run’ and he felt extremely fulfilled with nine healthy kids and 14 grandkids. He didn’t want it to end. It was tough for him because he had his faith, but it wasn’t like, ‘OK, I’m ready to go.’ He was like, ‘OK, this sucks.’ But you gotta go sometime!”

It’s no wonder Thomas didn’t want to leave his life behind given the legacy he left not just with his family and the Boston community -- where he helped develop affordable housing initiatives and ensured the restoration of the historic theater the Jamaica Plain Footlight Club -- but in the wider “Blockhead” family, who have also deeply felt his loss.

While announcing the news on Instagram, McIntyre sweetly called for Blockheads to share their photos and stories with the hashtag #MrMacNKOTB, prompting an influx of heartwarming posts.

“It’s wonderful,” the boy bander and accomplished solo artist says, of having Thomas’ memory live on through New Kids on the Block’s fan base. “He was very unabashed about it all. Sometimes we can get cynical about stuff and especially with boy bands back in the day -- when we were taking our hits, he would remind me, ‘You guys are a force for good.’ We’ve embraced that as time goes by, but he was always that ambassador and very close to the fans.”

With his dad always one of his biggest supporters, McIntyre is now looking forward to making him proud with his return to Broadway, almost 15 years since he starred as Fiyero in Wicked. Having performed in theater productions as a kid, McIntyre’s life changed the day he auditioned for musician Maurice Starr and became the fifth member of New Kids on the Block at 12. Throughout the years since -- as the group skyrocketed to fame, went their separate ways for 14 years, then reunited a decade ago with The Block, featuring Lady Gaga -- acting has remained part of his career, having starred in Boston Public, The McCarthys and his own Pop TV sitcom, Return of the Mac, plus movies including New Year’s Eve and The Heat.

However, the theater is his greatest acting passion, and after joining productions like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in Los Angeles and Cabaret in Alaska, Broadway was firmly in his sights as he relocated his family to the Big Apple last summer.

“On the career side, definitely tops on the list for coming back [to New York] was wanting to do more theater,” McIntyre says. “Not to get too dramatic, but if I was on my deathbed, I wouldn’t say, ‘I wish I stuck it out for a few more pilot seasons in L.A.’ Career-wise, I would say, ‘I wish I did more theater.’”

“For most people here, it’s a vocation rather than a career first, so you have the most multi-talented people who are there because they love it and want to be part of this community,” he adds, about the powerful pull of Broadway productions in particular. “It’s a nice thing to be a part of and I realized that when I did my first off-Broadway show years ago and went to a Broadway Cares event. Seeing how everyone came together for a great cause -- the community, talent, wit, compassion and empathy just fills you up and makes life bigger. I grew up in community theater and my family had a lot of fun around the stage, so it’s in my blood.”

Waitress was one of the musicals McIntyre wanted to check out following his East Coast move. Based on the 2007 film of the same name, the production features music and lyrics by 39-year-old singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, who ends her run in the lead role of Jenna before Stephanie Torns takes over opposite McIntyre on Feb. 4. The musical, directed by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus, centers on Jenna, a small-town piemaker in a dying marriage, who enters a baking contest in a nearby county, where the local gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (McIntyre), offers a glimpse at new life and love.

While McIntyre was unsure who would be playing Jenna when he took on the role, he says that has been helpful given that the two characters meet for the first time in the story. Meanwhile, Dr. Pomatter -- previously portrayed by Jason Mraz -- marks a challenging new role for someone whose natural comedic flair and self-confessed sarcastic tendencies have frequently taken center stage in his acting.

“The challenge for me is playing someone who’s not sarcastic!” he laughs. “Sarcasm comes easy to me and is a tool I’ve frequently used. A lot of the stuff I’ve done has been Boston-based with attitude, wit and swagger, so a little cynicism and sarcasm is what I often bring to the table, but this guy is a nice doctor from Connecticut and a really well-meaning guy. To lead with my heart and be more vulnerable is a fun challenge.”

While relocating to New York with his wife of 15 years, Barrett, and their three young children, nurtured McIntyre’s Broadway ambitions, the move -- after 16 years in Los Angeles -- also allowed the singer to be closer to Thomas during his final months. Barrett, a former realtor, grew up in New York, so being nearer their loved ones was a strong pull, which McIntyre previously discussed in his podcast, The Move. He now believes his father’s death is a sign they made the right decision leaving Los Angeles.

“Maybe subconsciously I knew that he was not going to be around for too much longer so to be closer to him and drive up and down from New York to Boston and have some really sweet times with him was invaluable and something I cherish,” he says. “I can’t put a price on that, so it’s another reason to think I’m in the right place.”

McIntyre plans to continue chronicling his relocation by restarting his podcast, joking that it’s on an “HBO/Game of Thrones schedule with big hiatuses between seasons.” So far, family life in New York with his kids (11-year-old son, Griffin, 9-year-old son, Rhys, and 7-year-old daughter, Kira) has been an adventure, but also a challenge now that he’s on Broadway.

“My oldest is 11 and he’s taken by the whole city -- very inspired and turned on by it,” says McIntyre, who admits moving cross-country was super-stressful and full of “holy hell” moments. “My 7-year-old daughter is the same, but [Rhys] is a homebody, so he was like, ‘Why the heck are we leaving L.A.?’ He couldn’t understand it, so he’s getting used to it. It’s nice not to spend three hours a day in a car like we did in L.A., but you’re running around a lot in subways and cabs and trying to pick up three different kids, so it’s a lot.”

“And there’s nothing like walking into a Broadway house and being a part of it, but doing it with three kids is no joke,” he adds. “They have that term ‘Broadway widower’ because you just don’t see your partner a lot, then trying to see the kids and stay in their lives is also important. It really is a workout [with] the energy you’re putting into the process and rehearsals. You’re trying new things and [firing] on all cylinders.”

Having grown up in the New York art scene, Barrett understands the nature of the industry and has supported McIntyre wholeheartedly in his professional ambitions.

On top of his limited run in Waitress from Feb. 4 to April 7 at Brooks Atkinson Theatre in Manhattan, McIntyre is also juggling an exciting year for New Kids on the Block, who are continuing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Hangin’ Tough by reissuing the record with three new tracks on March 8. Along with bandmates Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood and Jonathan and Jordan Knight, McIntyre will then hit the road on their Mixtape Tour, from May 2, supported by Salt-N-Pepa, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and Naughty by Nature, who all feature on their single, "'80s Baby."

“There have been lots of classic albums on Columbia Records over the years, so for Columbia and Sony to think this is important enough to reissue it 30 years later with new tracks, mixes and pictures is really special,” says McIntyre, who teases the band will drop a video for the record’s second single soon. “They’ve done a great job with little Easter eggs and surprises. The pictures alone are so iconic. I think back and it’s like you do a goofy picture and go, ‘They’re never going to use that,’ then someone will say, ‘Oh, it’ll come out eventually -- 30 years from now!’”

And, whether it’s making his debut in Waitress or continuing his journey with New Kids on the Block, thanks to Thomas, McIntyre doesn’t take a single day of his professional life for granted.