For the past few years, I’ve entertained myself – and hopefully at least a few of you folks, too – by pulling together sort of a highlight reel of the Random Roles interviews I’ve done over the course of the year. I do it partly to remind myself of the fact that freelance writing may never make me rich, but it sure does provide me with an opportunity to talk to and occasionally even meet some really cool people. I also do it as a way of displaying my wares, as it were: my readers are able to easily check to see if they’ve accidentally missed anything that I’ve posted over the year, and I can send the link to potential new employers and say, “Here are several pieces that display my skill as an interviewer.”
This is, as the title indicates, only part one. Part two will show up as soon as I’ve had a chance to pull it together and post it. There is no part three, but with that said, you should go ahead and plan on seeing a piece that’ll spotlight my favorite work for other outlets as well as my favorite non-Random Roles pieces for the AV Club.
For now, though, enjoy what’s here, and please accept my thanks for your support over the course of 2016. It was much needed, and it remains much appreciated.
A.V. Club: Most people assume your first TV appearance was when you joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. Before that, though, you did a pilot called The Further Adventures Of Wally Brown.
Gilbert Gottfried: I had flown to L.A. to audition for something else, and that thing I didn’t get. Then I had a friend of mine out there who was a comedian that I knew from New York, and he said he was doing this pilot, and they’re casting one of the other roles. He called them and recommended me, and I went in and auditioned, and they liked me and used me. This is a lesson in how show biz works and how things get made: One of the producers or creators—whoever he was—was a big fan of the song “Charlie Brown.” You know, “He walks in the classroom, cool and slow…”
AVC: Sure, by The Coasters.
GG: Yeah. So he liked that song, so he decided to make a TV series out of it. Because there’s so much in one song to go on. So Wally Brown was this black kid, and he had a white friend, and—talk about originality—the white friend’s father was a cab driver who lived in Queens who was a bigot, and he had a dingbat wife. [Laughs.] And amazingly the show didn’t take off!
AVC: There’s two things in the credits of the pilot that stood out, the first being that Peter Scolari was one of your co-stars.
GG: Yes! Then he later went on to Newhart and—most importantly—Bosom Buddies, with Tom Hanks. I wonder if Peter Scolari throws darts at pictures of Tom Hanks. [Laughs.]
AVC: The other interesting thing was that it was directed by Lowell Ganz.
GG: Yes, Lowell Ganz of the team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who created a lot of very successful things. This was not one of them. [Laughs.] That reminds me: As far as other people I’ve worked with who seem to have the Midas touch, but I guess were wearing gloves when they worked with me, I did what was called a backdoor pilot. That’s when you disguise something as a TV show with the hope that it’ll become a series. They do that a lot on series. You’ll have a show like Married With Children, where all of a sudden Al would say, “Hey, it’s my best friend Doug!” And the audience would go, “Well, if he’s your best friend, how come in all the years of watching this series we’ve never seen him once?” But after Doug showed up, all of the characters from Married With Children would pretty much disappear for the rest of the episode. They do that for a lot of shows: They’ll introduce a character just to see if they’re popular enough to make a series. But for this one, they made what was supposed to be a special, and it was called Norman’s Corner. I was a newsstand owner, it was about me and all the wacky people I came in contact with, and it was written by Larry David. And, you know, everything else he did turned to gold, but on this one, I think he was just testing out his pen to see if it wrote. [Laughs.] So that was a pretty much forgotten-about show, except that a couple of years later Jerry Seinfeld was wanting to start his show, and they said, “Well, he’s creating it with Larry David.” And somebody at NBC said, “Larry David? Isn’t he the one that wrote that piece of shit for Gilbert Gottfried?”
AVC: Lovesick was your first film. Was that filmed in New York?
Fred Melamed: That was all in New York. I had only what little knowledge I’d gotten from my father about what it’s like to be on a movie set for a long time and what goes on. That was a Dudley Moore film, and Dudley Moore was going out with Susan Anton at the time, who was about a foot and a half taller than he was. [Laughs.] And I remember clearly one day, I guess we had wrapped shooting for the day, when they were walking hand in hand down the street, going to a restaurant. It was a funny sight. My memories of that film, though, are really just that I didn’t realize that even though I had such a small part—I only had a few lines, and I think only one or two of them made it into the movie—how long you still end up sitting on a movie set, and how often you’re called in. But I actually got to watch them shoot some stuff, and that was very interesting to me. One of the real delights for me was that Alec Guinness was on that film, so I got to meet Alec Guinness, and that was a huge deal. I was and still am a huge fan. And I got to ask him a question, and his answer has always stuck with me. I said to him, “Mr. Guinness…” No, wait, I think he was knighted by then, so… “Sir Alec, I’m so excited to appear in the same movie with you, and I’m such a great admirer of your work. Is there any advice about show business that you can give a young man just kind of getting started in it?” And he thought for a minute, and he said, “Yes, my advice in regards to show business is, don’t get any on you.” [Laughs.] That has remained in my head!
Peter Jacobson: God, you make me feel like I’m a successful actor! [Laughs.] I know I’m going to sound like an idiot, because I actually think that everybody’s the nicest guy ever, but I’m telling you: George Clooney, Roland Emmerich, Sidney Lumet—these are literally the nicest people. They’re all so good. Maybe I’m just lucky I’m not working with any assholes… yet. It was just one scene, but he created a world that was so tight and so real. Here again, it was exciting for me to go back to something that I knew growing up. My father was actually a local anchorman in Chicago, and he knew everybody at CBS and all these guys, so that was sort of his era. He’s a little bit younger, but he knew all about this, and I felt immersed in that world growing up, so it was really exciting. When I met George Clooney, I mentioned that to him, that it was really exciting, and I guess his father was also a big TV guy in Cincinnati when he was growing up. So we bonded on that, and he showed me around the set. He really was just super duper nice. Again, it was just one scene, a cool elevator scene, where the hardest part was getting the set to shift, so that it looks like you’ve moved from floor one to floor six. Because when the doors open, it can’t be the same set. Although you’re not actually moving: they’re just scrambling around, maybe turning the elevator around. So that was a bit of a difficult thing, technically. But just getting the patter of the dialogue, talking on top of each other… It was just a hyper-real feeling. I loved the period, the ’60s. I felt like I had a really cool tie on. I liked my hat. George Clooney was nice. It was just really a sweet little day of work. And I got a S.A.G. [award] nomination out of it! I was, like, “You included me on that list?” I just couldn’t believe it.
AVC: When we talked to Richard Kind, he said about the movie, “I think I should’ve played Fred Friendly, who was one of the homeliest Jews ever to walk the planet. And instead they get this great-looking Irish guy to play Fred Friendly. Yeah, it was George. He gave himself the role!”
PJ: [Laughs.] Welcome to the business, Richard! He and I can relate: that’s all it ever is. Believe me, I can play a Jewish guy, another Jewish guy, and then another Jewish guy, and then maybe a Cuban guy. Or at least a Middle Eastern guy. But for me, they’re all Jews. Which is good! If it’s a good role, I’m happy to play it.
I met [director] Michael Cimino—I think I was the second one cast in the film at that point—and I really liked him. I really liked spending time with him. And when he cast me in that role… You know, it was right after St. Elsewhere, and I really hadn’t done a movie in 10 years. I did an independent movie [Personal Foul], but after having gone from Inside Movessaying, “I will never do television,” I then wound up doing 10 years of television and almost nothing but that. So I was so happy to be able to audition for a movie and actually get a role, and then because I was cast so early, I did all the readings with all the other actors that came in after that, which was fun to do. I got to meet a lot of people and spend a lot of time with Michael Cimino. Along the way, Anthony Hopkins became involved, and Mickey Rourke—I believe he was already cast. I think he was the first one.
But we did this pre-shoot before anybody else got there, where it was just me. We did three days up in Zion National Park, where my character… There’s a sequence in there where, after we escape the house where all the things have happened, I somehow manage to run into Zion Canyon. I don’t know how I managed to do that with that character, but that’s where he wound up. [Laughs.] But this is one of the great things about filmmaking: it really can be an extraordinary adventure. And these three days really were an adventure, going way, way up, with just the DP and myself and the sound guy, plus somebody to carry the equipment. We went way up this river, up in the canyon, where the walls go straight up to 2,500 feet or something, and they were filming us running down there, and then the spectacular death that I had, out in the middle of the river, surrounded by horses. You know, Michael Cimino, he just thought big. He had just orchestrated this great scene, where I’m standing in the river, and the SWAT team is up so far on the cliffs that I can’t even see them, and I’m down there with the horses, and then the horses all disperse, and it’s me alone in the river. I had a wetsuit on with probably 200 squibs in it where I’m gonna get shot, and the wetsuit is underneath my clothes, but I’d never done anything like this before.
The stunt guy said, “Just stand up as long as you can while these things are going off. Just let your body loose, and let the squibs do all the work, and stay on your feet as long as you can.” And when I was shot, these 200 things come off and it jerked my body all over the place. I was supposed to fall down the river and float away, but it was pretty shocking when I fell down in the water and all that water went right down my back. It was like an electric jolt! And I shot out of the water, because it was so cold, and I just ruined everything. I ruined the entire shot. They were all thrilled. [Laughs.] But we spent the rest of the day with me floating down the river, getting hypothermia, while they shot up in the canyon from a half mile away. I literally wound up with hypothermia by the end of the day! But it was such an adventure. And it was a great experience with Michael.
But as soon as we got to the set in Salt Lake City and Mickey Rourke showed up, Michael transformed into a monster. Again, it was one of those things where a director is one way, and then suddenly you see this whole other thing. I think Michael has done extraordinary work, and I won’t take anything away from that, but that relationship that he had with Mickey at that time was so incredibly dysfunctional. And he couldn’t take it out on Mickey, because Mickey was the star, so he had to take it out on the rest of us—except for Anthony Hopkins. Tony.
So overall it was not a very happy experience. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
AVC: You turned up briefly in Cheech and Chong’s Things Are Tough All Over.
Dave Coulier: I did! My character was Man With Tongue! [Laughs.] I remember going in for that audition, and it was just a camera in a room and a casting director who was, like, “State your name and do something funny.” And that was it! That was my audition! So I blew some hand farts, I did some impressions, and then I stuck my tongue out. And I have a long tongue, so I do this funny thing where I act like I’m calling a woman over with my tongue. And that was what got me hired! And then I showed up there, and… I didn’t realize that the character was gay. And this is, what, 1981 when I filmed it? And I’m sitting there, and they’re putting really heavy mascara on me and makeup, and I’m, like, “Wow, I guess this is how it’s done in the movies!” So I go and I take my place with the other actors, and I realize that these guys are gay. And I’m, like, “Oh, okay!” I realize, “Oh, I’m supposed to be gay at this table, and I’m calling Cheech and Chong over with my tongue. Okay, I get it now!” [Laughs.] But that was my first role. That was what got me into the Screen Actors Guild.
AVC: At the time, did you have a master plan to transition from stand-up into on-camera acting, or were you just kind of taking the roles as they came up?
DC: Well, I knew that stand-up was only going to afford me so many opportunities, and it was a great showcase then at the Comedy Store, because it was a really exciting time. My fellow comedians onstage one night—I still have a poster—were Jimmy Brogan, me, Jeff Altman, Bob Saget, Arsenio Hall, Robin Williams, and Richard Pryor. That was the lineup. So it was a hot time at the Comedy Store, where people were coming in to see comedians, and you could just get offered something when you walked offstage. I was offered the role of one of the Bosom Buddies characters that Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari played. I was offered a pilot test option one night. [Laughs.] It was basically, “Hey, we want you to do this pilot called Bosom Buddies!” But I was like, “Well, I don’t have an agent.” And then an agent happened to see me the next night, and she said, “Hey, I really think you’re funny!” “Great! Because I got offered this Bosom Buddies thing…” She’s like, “You’re kidding!” “No!” And she goes, “Here, look at this contract!” But that’s how things happened back then. It was an exciting time.
Being a stand-up, though, I knew, “Okay, I’ve got to learn how to be an actor.” Because I was never in school plays or anything like that growing up. So I went to Gordon Hunt’s acting school—that’s Helen Hunt’s father—and he was remarkable. He was a remarkably good teacher, taking a raw comedian like myself and turning that into being an actor. He said something very smart to me: “You know, you’re a comedian, and you’re making your own words funny, but what I need you to do is try to make someone else’s words funny.” And then it clicked. As soon as he said that to me, everything made sense.
AVC: What happened with the Bosom Buddies? Since we know you didn’t actually end up on that show…
DC: You know what? It was cast almost immediately when I got the offer. They found Peter Scolari and Tom Hanks, and it was over. It was over just that fast.
AVC: So close.
DC: So close! Playing a gay Cheech and Chong character and dressing as a woman? It would’ve made my parents so proud.
AVC: When I posted on social media that you were going to be doing a Random Roles interview, one of my friends said, “Ask him about his first 24 action figure.”
Kiefer Sutherland: Ah. Yes. [Snorts.] Tell your friend I laughed. Okay, so I was sent the first action figure, and they said, “Have a look at this, and you need to approve it, so if it’s all right, let us know and we’ll make them.” And I sent a message back after I finished work that day and I had seen it, and I said, “Yeah, it’s fine.” And then I took it out, and I took it with a friend of mine, and we went to a bar, and we got a little drunk, and we took pictures of Jack Bauer—the little Jack Bauer doll—drinking and stuff like that. And finally, you know, we got a little lit… and then we decided to light him on fire. [Laughs.] So we lit him on fire ’til he melted in a puddle in the parking lot. Took pictures of that, too. And the next day, I got a call saying, “Oh, we’re so glad that you approved the doll! Just send it back to us, and we’ll get underway!” And I went, “What?” And they said, “Yeah, no, it’s a prototype. We need it back. It took them eight months to do it.” And I was, like, “Uh-oh.” And, uh, I said, “I think someone stole it.” [Laughs.] And it was another year before the doll came out.
AVC: 24 obviously ended up resulted in a career renaissance for you. Did you sense from the beginning, even if only because the unique real-time, hour-by-hour format, that it had the potential to be something big?
KS: Absolutely not. No. I didn’t think it was going to get picked up. [Laughs.] And neither did anybody else. Neither did the writers! And it had to get picked up twice: There’s the pilot, which got picked up, and I didn’t think that was going to happen. But I remember going up to Joel Surnow, the creator, when it got picked up after episode 13 and we had to do the next 11, and I said congratulations to him. And he looked at me, white as a ghost, and said, “I don’t know if we can do this!” So I don’t think anybody expected it to become what it became. Having said that, once it did get picked up, I had a deep respect for all the other people, because they all put their foot to the floor and went for it. And for me, it was the most exciting 10 years I’ve had in my 30-year career so far.
AVC: There’s a Jack-less incarnation coming up. Are you looking forward to being on the sidelines and watching 24 for a change?
KS: Yeah! I think it’s going to be really cool. I’ve said from the very beginning that I’ve always thought that the show was the real star. The idea is extraordinary, putting a time element in the context of a thriller, and I’ve read the first script, and I think it’s going to be really cool.
AVC: Out of curiosity, at any point in your life now when you say “damn it,” do you do a double take when you realize what you’ve said?
KS: No. No, I just say “fuck.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Based on most reports, it seems as though Goin’ South was your first on-camera role.
Mary Steenburgen: Oh, yeah. I studied with Sandy Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. I was in the last class to study with him before he had his larynx removed, so I actually remember the sound of his voice. He was an incredible teacher. And then I went and did comedy improv in New York with a group for about three or four years, and we ended up being the resident company of the Manhattan Theatre Club. Actually, Chris Guest’s mother, Jean Guest, saw me there in that and recommended me to a casting director. She and a woman named Mary Buck, who worked for her, were the links that led me to my most important audition of my life, which I thought was just going to be for the casting director but ended up being with Jack Nicholson as well. And that was why they flew me out to Hollywood for a screen test, along with a lot of other very experienced and well-known actors. It was a life-altering thing: one day you’re a waitress at The Magic Pan in New York, and the next minute you’re a lead in a movie with Jack Nicholson. And there was no in-between. No small parts, no commercials. I mean, I think I did a couple of test commercials that didn’t even make it on the air. That’s how little I had really done. I knew almost nothing about the camera.
In fact, I actually did know nothing about the camera. [Laughs.] Jack had me come out two months early to Los Angeles, and I lived in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont. And my job was to go every day to Paramount, where he would have some sort of tutorial lined up for me for that day, whether it was sitting in a screening room to watch two or three of the great comedies of Jean Arthur, or Sweet Smell Of Success, orPat And Mike. Just different things that he thought I needed to see to understand tone. And he’d just fill in the absolutely complete lack of knowledge of film. Because I’d never studied film. I had movies that I loved and movie stars that I looked up to, but I really had not seen a lot of the great classic films that he felt like he wanted me to see before I took on such a huge role. So that was my film training: those two months with this extraordinary actor coming in at the end of each film and saying, “Okay, let’s talk about this film. Let’s talk about what Katharine Hepburn did in this movie.” Or Jean Arthur. Or Judy Holliday. I remember just falling madly in love with Judy Holliday. So that was… [Hesitates.] Gosh, I don’t even remember what the question was you asked me anymore!
AVC: It wasn’t even a question so much as confirming that Goin’ South was indeed your first on-camera role. But having heard the back story, there’s certainly some serendipity to the fact that you were playing a virgin in the film, given that it was clearly a virginal experience for you as a film actor.
MS: Yes, well, I was a virgin. But only in some ways. [Laughs.] But definitely a virgin as far as film!
AVC: Goin’ South is also notable for another reason: it was the first time you worked with Christopher Lloyd.
MS: Yes! Christopher Lloyd was actually the first person—or certainly one of the first few—who ever spoke to me on film. The line was… Let’s see, I think he says, “I asked you out, and all I got was a flap of your umbrella!” I think that’s the first line ever spoken to me. My first line in the film is, “I’ll take him.” No, wait, I say, “Is she dead?” I was talking about this little old lady who was going to claim Jack Nicholson, because a man on the gallows could be saved if a woman wanted to marry him, because there were so few men. So this old lady was going to marry him, and I said, “Is she dead?” And they say, “Yes,” and I go, “Then I’ll take him!” And then Chris Lloyd says that line: “I asked you out 10 times, and what did I get? A flap of your umbrella!” Yeah, that whole group… That was a pretty profound experience for everybody. I mean, there was even a book written about it, to some extent. It had a chapter, anyway, about that film. And some people were going crazy and wild and whatever, but I think it was a big experience for all of us. I know it was for John Belushi.
AVC: On that note, rather than give the book in question any more publicity than it’s already gotten, when we spoke to Ed Begley Jr. about Goin’ South, he said that all you needed to know about his level of partying in the ’70s was that John Belushi intervened and told him he needed to tone down his drinking.
MS: [Laughs.] I think that’s true! Yeah, that was true. We were all staying at a place that was once a prison but was now a hotel called El Presidente, in Durango, Mexico, and I stayed there about a week and realized, “I can’t keep up with these guys and do this huge part that’s requiring all this stuff of me that I’ve never done before!” I didn’t know how to hit my marks. I didn’t know how to manage everything that was being asked of me and go crazy every night drinking my brains out, singing, and having the best time. And I’m also quite shy socially. So I struggled with that, and I knew I couldn’t handle being there, so I rented this tiny little place and moved into it and moved away from them all. And I loved them! I would’ve given anything, actually, to have been a part of all that craziness. But my own social limitations and the fact that I was getting up every morning and doing things that I’d never done in my life… I had no reference for anything!
I mean, I remember my first scene was that I had to drive a buckboard pulled by a horse up to a rock, which was the equivalent of a city block away, stop the buckboard so that the front wheels are by the rock, tie up the horse, get out, get a pen, an inkwell, a piece of paper, and a bag, get Jack to sign something, blow on the paper, roll it up, take all this stuff, and exit the frame. It was something basically like that. I haven’t seen the movie for awhile, but I think I described it pretty well. And that was my first day’s work. So I did it, and then—he calls me Chair, it’s a nickname in the movie—at the end of it, he goes, “Now, Chair, that’s the single hardest day in terms of props you’re going to have in your entire career. I just wanted you to know, it’s all downhill from there. It’s all going to be easier than that.” And he was right: I’ve had a lot of props to deal with in my career, but I’ve never had a day that’s been harder to do in terms of prop stuff than that. [Laughs.] He would do things like that. He was so kindly to me. He was such a great, incredible mentor. There was wildness, but there was also a ton of—for lack of a better word—sweetness and heart in that movie. And every single one of us who was there, we all counted it as one of the great experiences of our lives.
To begin with, that was probably the coolest thing that ever happened to me in my career, that’s for sure. Besides The Tonight Show. The Tonight Show was an important thing, but Coming To America was the coolest thing, because Eddie Murphy was on top of the world at the time.
I went to lunch at The Ivy in Hollywood. I liked the peppered shrimp, but I liked it because Brigitte Bardot and lots of movie stars were in there. I saw Farrah Fawcett in there. I saw all kinds of movie stars there. I’m a kid from Minnesota. I like seeing movie stars! So I’m there, I’ve got my shrimp, and Eddie Murphy comes in with his gang—well, not his gang, but he has an entourage—and Eddie said hello. He’s always very nice to me. He’s a very sweet human being, and he’s a great stand-up, and we knew each other as stand-ups. So I said to the waiter, as any good Midwestern boy would, “Hey, put Eddie’s check on my American Express card, but don’t tell him that I did it ’til I’m gone.” That’s the Midwestern thing to do. The waiter goes, “Okay,” so they did it and they put it on my card.
In the next day or two, I got a call from Eddie’s people—or Eddie. I can’t remember who called me. My memory is terrible. Maybe it was his manager who said, “Eddie’s doing a movie, he was very impressed that you bought him lunch.” But Eddie said, “Nobody ever picks up my check!” Because when you’re a celebrity, everybody figures you should pick up the check. Whoever has the job picks up the check, and whoever has the best job definitelypicks up the check. So he says, “I’m doing a little movie called Coming To America, and I want you to do a part in it.”
It was the first time I saw giant fame, to be honest with you. We were working on Queens Boulevard at the McDowell’s, and Eddie had a big bus there for his dressing room, and every time the door would open, there would be 5,000 people outside the chain link fence they’d put around the area to keep the fans out, and it would bow forward every time his door opened. It was almost automatic. I was, like, “Jesus! He’s famous!” [Laughs.] But he worked very hard, and he was generous, and he helped me make the scene better, and so did John Landis.
Who knew that movie was going to be that big? But still every day somebody comes up to me when I’m out and says, “Hey, I just watched Coming To America the other day!” And I say, “Thanks!” So remember: sometimes buying people lunch can really work out well for you!