Donnie Wahlberg helps feed success of 'Blue Bloods'

Donnie Wahlberg

NEW YORK -- There are a number of theories on why "Blue Bloods" has been able to carve out such a substantial audience on Fridays, a night when viewers are hard to come by.

Some say the CBS series, now in its second season, is attracting an average of 13.6 million viewers because of its stellar cast, headed up by TV royalty Tom Selleck.

Some say it's the gritty, streets-of-New York crime stories.

The sentimental majority opinion holds that it's the show's weekly dinner scene, during which four generations of Reagans -- presided over by the patriarch (Len Cariou) -- bicker, spar and celebrate one another.

"That scene is the favorite of so many people," says "Blue Bloods" executive producer Leonard Goldberg. "Italian people, Jewish people, Greek people -- they all say the same thing: 'That's my family.' "

On this morning, as the cast runs through take after take at the long dinner table, one thing is abundantly clear: Donnie Wahlberg, who plays flinty NYPD detective Danny Reagan, can really put it away.

While the other actors are saying their lines, playing to the cameras, Wahlberg is shoveling in forkfuls of apple pie. With gusto.

There's a crew member devoted to refilling Wahlberg's plate every time the director yells "Cut!"

Afterward in his dressing room, Wahlberg notes, "In the very next scene, which we already shot last week, I eat another slice of pie. The whole show is going to be me eating pie."

When you grow up, as Wahlberg did, the eighth of nine children in a poor working-class family in Boston's hardscrabble Dorchester neighborhood, the prospect of all-you-can-eat never loses its appeal.

So how would Sunday dinner at the Wahlbergs differ from the atmosphere at the Reagans? "Wahlberg family dinner?" Donnie says with a snicker. "My old man would not be sitting at the table. He'd be sitting in the corner on a stool with a Schlitz in his hand, and if we started laughing, he'd be screaming at us to shut up.

"We'd be fighting over who got the last piece of chicken. There wouldn't be any pie. There wouldn't be any dessert at all."

It was show business that airlifted Wahlberg out of some grim prospects. At 14, when most of his friends were learning the finer points of boosting cars, Donnie became the charter member of the proto-boy band New Kids on the Block.

"I was very lucky," he says. "I was the only one who didn't go down that road. I loved to perform. I had aspirations."

Wahlberg's career has taken him from the acclaimed miniseries "Band of Brothers" to three of the "Saw" splatter films. He has acted alongside everyone from Tupac Shakur to Robert De Niro, James Franco and Mel Gibson.

No part has ever fit him as perfectly as "Blue Bloods'" intense Danny Reagan, an Iraq war vet who takes his jobs as a cop, husband and father very seriously.

"When he works on this show, he is Emmy material," says Amy Carlson, who plays his wife, Linda. "He lives this character in such a visceral way, it really resonates on the screen."

"Tom is the face of the show," says Bridget Moynihan, who plays Danny's sister, Erin, "but Donnie is the engine that keeps everything going."

Of course, you have to stoke an engine. "The whole cast, they're all really good actors, committed actors," says Selleck. "Donnie leads by example. You saw him at the dinner table. He eats a lot. He's got boundless energy."

Wahlberg is often asked whether he is envious of his younger brother, Mark, who has achieved enormous success as an actor and producer in Hollywood.

He maintains he's eternally grateful that he was able to give Mark's career a kick-start back when it seemed that the youngest of the Wahlbergs was destined to become the baddest seed in the clan.

"I always say I'd rather visit him in a 25,000-foot mansion than in a 10-foot prison cell," Wahlberg says.