Timothy Olyphant’s success is justified

In the premiere of the new season of “Justified,” beginning Jan. 17, a dashing psychopath makes a casual reference to this Kentucky crime drama’s signature prop, the Stetson worn by the protagonist, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens.

“Not much call for cowboys these days,” the thug says in a syrupy, menacing drawl.

The lawman responds, “You would be surprised.”

The line is an in-joke, a reference to the baroque backwoods adventures that Raylan, a sort of 21st-century Gary Cooper with a dry wit, has endured during two acclaimed seasons of this FX drama. But the exchange also functions as a career appraisal for the man who plays him.

Timothy Olyphant, 43, has worked steadily since the 1990s, but in this easygoing, volatile marshal he has found his defining role. Not that he’s willing to admit it.

“The bottom line is, someone gave me a television show and I figured I’d make the most of it,” he said. “The words do all the work for you.”

Based on stories by Elmore Leonard, “Justified” captures his darkly funny, morally murky tone and spikes the traditional crime procedural with hooch and Oxycontin, tracking its hero’s attempts to thwart colorful drug dealers and gunrunners and negotiate his own fractured relationships.

The series unspools in an oddly captivating alternate South peopled by whimsically twisted archetypes and marked by sudden shifts between folksy black comedy and graphic violence. (The thug in the premiere is known as the Ice Pick.)

Last year the series won a Peabody Award, and its second season was among the most lauded of 2011, netting four Emmy nominations, including a first for Olyphant and a supporting actress win for Margo Martindale, who played a crime matriarch.

Ratings for Season 2 increased 15 percent in total viewers, and an average of just under 2.2 million watch each new episode on Tuesday nights. The audience grows to nearly 4 million each week when it includes DVR viewers, though they still lag behind those of FX dramas like “Sons of Anarchy” and “American Horror Story.” The challenge for the show’s producers is to build on the series’ momentum from last season and transform from critical favorite into critically acclaimed hit.

“It’s coming off one of the best seasons any series put forth last year, and that’s a really tough act to follow,” said John Landgraf, the president of FX. “But when you have a virtually ideal central character and central performance, audiences are going to find it.”

As the face of the series, Olyphant has perhaps the most impact on whether the show will continue to succeed. By all accounts it’s a job he takes most seriously, playing an active role behind the scenes as well. Leonard himself calls the actor’s performance the best screen adaptation ever of a Leonard hero, a category that includes names like George Clooney and John Travolta.

“He played Raylan exactly like I heard him when I was writing him,” said Leonard. (“Raylan,” a new novel by Leonard about the character, comes out on Tuesday as well.)

An actor of rangy grace and wolfish good looks — his easy grin seems designed to induce swoons and suspicion in equal measure — Olyphant has carved out the career of a man Hollywood isn’t quite sure how to use.

He has seesawed between charismatic criminals in films like “Go” and “Live Free or Die Hard,” and checkered heroes in projects such as the FX legal thriller “Damages” and HBO’s Shakespearean Western “Deadwood.” (Another hat role, it was Olyphant’s most notable performance before “Justified.”)

“People just like him, and yet there is something a little dangerous there,” said Graham Yost, the creator of “Justified.” “So he gets the combination of the good-guy, bad-guy thing.”

Walton Goggins, who plays Boyd Crowder, Raylan’s longtime friend and nemesis, added, “Tim’s hat is never entirely white.”

Such shades of gray are right at home in the Kentucky of “Justified.” The same sharp-edged nonchalance that makes Olyphant something of a square peg in a conventional blockbuster is well suited for a place where smooth-talking cops and robbers trade both barbs and gunfire with something like affection.

“In the world of Elmore Leonard, people are defined not by good and bad but by whether you’re a jerk or not,” Olyphant said.

A laconic presence on “Justified,” Olyphant is affable in person and projects less a lawman swagger than the ease of a former athlete; he swam competitively at the University of Southern California. His face is striking, if unconventional.

“The camera does not hate the dude,” said Natalie Zea, who plays his ex-wife and current love interest on “Justified.”

Olyphant professed a delighted but measured attitude about the recognition that has come from “Justified.”

“You see a bus drive by with your picture on it, and you think, ‘That’s cool, that’s new,’ ” he said. “I try to embrace all that comes with it and at the same time know that most of that stuff has nothing to do with me. It’s just part of the job.”

But ask nearly anyone involved in “Justified” about Olyphant, and before long it comes out: The reason Olyphant works as Raylan is because in various ways he is Raylan. His colleagues point to his sharp sense of humor and casual verbosity, a gift of gab common to Leonard characters. (He also has a Leonardian flair for profanity.)

Olyphant began acting in New York in the mid-1990s with roles in short-lived television projects and brief appearances in movies like “The First Wives Club.” Larger roles followed. He was a killer in “Scream 2,” a boy-toy in an episode of “Sex and the City.” As a sardonic drug dealer in “Go,” from 1999, a frenetic cult comedy about young night crawlers in Los Angeles, he showed off his comic chops with a caustic riff on “The Family Circus.”

“There have been roles that, had the movies been bigger, would have probably changed my life,” Olyphant said. “If ‘Go’ had been a huge box office success, I would have had tons of opportunities, I imagine.”

Instead, it was followed by mostly forgettable films until Olyphant joined “Deadwood” in 2004 as the conflicted sheriff Seth Bullock, the simmering straight man to Ian McShane’s silver-tongued rogue. The role revealed in Olyphant a capacity for explosive, nuanced performance barely suggested by earlier roles.

“He seemed to understand the contradictions in the character as well as his most fundamental purposes, and that’s a terrific mix,” Milch said.

Olyphant can be evangelical about Leonard’s stories, praising the specificity that breathes believability into gonzo characters and situations. But he predictably plays down his behind-the-scenes contributions to “Justified,” even as he allows that his own deep involvement has helped to reinvigorate a career that felt as if it had gone awry.

In that respect the show has gotten Olyphant back on track toward the deceptively simple goal he set when he began acting nearly 20 years ago.

“What I hoped is that it would be something I could do for a long time and would want to do for a long time,” he said. “So — so far, so good.”