PASADENA, Calif. - Sometimes actor Jamie Kaler wonders what possessed him. He gave up his commission in the Navy to become an actor.

Kaler sort of drifted into acting. "I was on the ship for four years, and they were getting ready to deploy again. So I stayed on the ship for another year and got out. For the next year I lived on the beach, played beach volleyball and got a job bartending at the Pacific Beach Brewhouse in San Diego."

Kaler was serving on the USS Callaghan, an odd coincidence, because he plays the red-headed Mike Callahan on the TBS comedy

My Boys

, arriving with new episodes on Thursday.

When he first read the role, the character sounded pretty much like him. "He was a single guy, a man's man who liked to have some drinks, chase some skirts - was a big stretch for me," Kaler with a laugh.

Kaler, the youngest of six in an Irish-Catholic family, claims he was spoiled rotten. "I got good grades. I was always the funny guy. I was the jack-of-all-trades. I played sports but also hung out with the band guys, so I was a chameleon even then. It kept me from getting beat up."

He never did dramatics in high school or college, and attended Boston University on a Navy ROTC scholarship. After the service, when he hit the beach in San Diego, he picked the bar where he wanted to bartend. They weren't hiring, but Kaler came back every day for 27 days until he was hired.

While he was there, he attended a commercial acting class and landed a Sea World commercial. "All I did was watch Shamu jump, and that was it. But I made a boatload of money off it, and I immediately thought, 'This is going to be the easiest profession ever.' But I didn't get another job for a year."

His best known commercial was for the Discover Card. Kaler played a poor guy who keeps experiencing horrible dinner dates. "Check, please," was the catch phrase.

While he was in San Diego, he roomed with dedicated actor John David Lenz. "I'd wake up on a Saturday morning having bartended and been out drinking, and he'd be playing

Henry V

and quoting the movie with Laurence Olivier. And he ended up dying. He got shot. He was in a play, walking to his car, a random shooting by a 15-year-old girl," he says.

"So I had to come home to the apartment and pack up his stuff, sell his car, and had to help his parents take all his stuff out of the house. And then we all went back to Kansas for the funeral. I think after that I was, 'Man, I've got to get busy living. It's all going to end.' "

Kaler, 43, worked successfully in improv, and after two more years of bartending, he packed up his Volkswagen Rabbit and headed for Los Angeles, where he managed to cop some memorable roles. He played Chandler's coworker whom they try to fix up with Jennifer Aniston on

Friends

. He was also the jerk in Will's office on

Will and Grace

. More parts started rolling in. Kaler even shot a pilot with George Clooney that was not picked up.

When the role of Callahan came along, Kaler auditioned five times. By now he was a seasoned pro. "It's a really brutal business - you have to get numb to it," he says. "I've gone to so many auditions where people were just, 'No!' If you harbored it and held on to it, it would eat you alive."