Characters actors make great interviews. Maybe not always, but statistically speaking, they tend to be chock full of stories about experiences in show business that you’ve probably never heard before, mostly because these folks tend to fly under the radar as often as not, thereby finding themselves interviewed less than the high-profile Hollywood superstars. When I talked to Phil Morris for Bullz-Eye during the January 2011 TCA press tour, it was one of the loosest and most enjoyable conversations I’d had in awhile. Maybe it’s because we’re kindred spirits from a pop culture standpoint (translation: he’s a big ol’ comic book geek, too), or maybe it’s just because we’re both nice guys, but it was a pleasantly casual chat that veered through many of his most famous performances, from J’onn J’onzz on Smallville to Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld.
During that conversation, Morris had told me that Paramount had told him that the DVD release of the 1988 Mission: Impossible series – arguably his “big break,” if you will – was going to be happening, but as of that time, no date had been set. When I learned last month that they’d finally nailed down its release, I pitched a “Random Roles” interview with Morris to the AV Club, which was accepted. A few of our conversation topics didn’t make the final cut, though, so here’s that material for your continued reading enjoyment.
Legion of Super Heroes (2007-2008)—“Imperiex”
PM: That is the scourge of the universe. There’s not a lot of people who play heroes and villains in animated stuff, but I play both, and Imperiex was just so killer. Yuri Lowenthal plays this Superman-like character in the Legion of Super Heroes – Kell-El – and Yuri is also Ben 10. He’s one of the great voiceover talents, period. And he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, which is just another reason why one of the most respected voiceover talents. He plays Kell-El with such earnestness and such truth that it would just piss me off. [Laughs.] Every time he would say something, it would just rancor me. And that’s where Imperiex came from. And the voice I used for him was so hardcore that Andrea and everybody were worried that I was going to blow my voice out. I said, “Oh, no, no. I’m coming from a very evil place with this. There is no bottom. This well will not run dry.” [Laughs.] A great character to play. Absolute, unabashed evil. Brilliant.
Black Panther (2010)—“W’Kabi” / “M’Butu”
PM: The Black Panther experience was great. They used Djimon Hounsou for Black Panther, which I thought was a great choice, and I played a couple of characters in it. Working with Reginald Hudlin is always cool. I’d just go in and do my thing, and they were very appreciative of it all. I haven’t done much Marvel, but they’re great people over there, and I really would like to do more. As a kid, I was a Marvel guy. You had to pick a side. [Laughs.] Now it’s more open-ended – “Oh, well, I like Vertigo…” – but when I was a kid, you were either DC or Marvel, and if you weren’t either one, then you were nothing.
AVC: So if you were Charlton, you were out luck.
PM: [Laughs.] Yeah, if you were Harvey, it was, like, “What?” And if you were Gold Key…well, don’t get me started. But, yeah, you know, I’d like to do more Marvel stuff. I find working with them to be very different from DC.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009)—“Miles Dyson”
PM: An easy job to a degree, but the audition process was no less grueling than Smallville. I went in, I was the first guy they read for Miles Dyson, and they loved me, but they were, like, “We can’t have found our guy with the first guy, so let’s go out and scour the nation and see if we can find the guy to knock this guy off.” And there was nobody they found. So, again, months later…I even ran into them at Comic-Con when I was there repping Smallville, and they still hadn’t made a decision. When I came back to L.A., they made a decision, it was me, and they wanted me to do as many episodes as they could write. Great! And they were going to play Miles Dyson as a construct of Sarah’s imagination, or go back in time and have him be a bit of a Yoda for her to help her negotiate and maneuver through this whole minefield of Terminator stuff. But they felt it was too confusing for the audience and that it was not as energetic as they wanted it to be, I’m sure. So I only did one episode. I shot one episode that they cut me out of, and I was relegated to a picture in a newspaper clipping. So as cool as it was to get the part, I really didn’t get a chance to do the part, so that was a little disappointing. But creatively I got it. I didn’t understand how they were going to make Miles Dyson work in the modern era of Terminator, either, since he was dead. [Laughs.] But I was willing to give it a shot!
Marblehead Manor (1987-1988)—“Jerry Stockton”
AVC: You mentioned this as being the first time you worked with Michael Richards.
PM: Yes! Another great, great show. It was a bit like a British drawing-room farce. Paxton Whitehead was the lead. He had just come from Noises Off, which was a very popular stage production. And Linda Thorson, who had replaced Diana Rigg in The Avengers, was the matriarch of the household. Bob Fraser – who has since passed, unfortunately – not only was he the head of the household as an actor, but he was also one of our executive and creative producers.
I got that job…again, what’s interesting to me is how you get it and where it came from. I was struggling. I had left The Young and the Restless, there wasn’t a lot going on, I was looking for something interesting to do, and comedy seemed to be great to do. I got this call from my agent saying that they wanted to meet me over at Paramount for a show called Marblehead Manor, there was no script, but go meet with Gary Nardino. Now, I had worked with Gary Nardino on a show called Brothers at Paramount, it was a great episode and a great time, so I knew Gary and was happy to see him. So I go to his big-ass office over on the Paramount lot, I meet this guy Rodney Hudson, who I’d never met before, and we sit down with Rob Dames, Bob Fraser, and Gary Nardino, the three creative executive. And they say, “Congratulations, guys, we want you to play the brothers on this new show, Marblehead Manor. We’re doing 26 episodes.” And we were , like, “Uh, okay, great!” And he and I walked out, and we jumped into each other’s arms and jumped around and did this little happy dance, dropped to our knees and kissed the ground of the Paramount lot. I mean, we were over the moon. I called my agent, I tell him what’s happened. [Excitedly] “I went in, I sat down, and they gave me this job!” And he goes, “Nah. That’s not how it happens.” I go, “What? Look, man, you better get right with this and call them, ‘cause that is how it happened!” [Laughs.] And he calls me back and says, “You got the job.” I said, “I told you that!”
So that was how it started, and it was just a hell of a lot of fun. It was a lot of learning for me. I didn’t know comedy that well. I did improv comedy, but I didn’t know this kind of structured comedy. Entrances, exits, beats, rhythms…crazy stuff to learn on the fly as a young actor who’s just come from a soap. I think some of these experiences are just there to teach me a lesson. Not for the money, not for it to be a big hit, just for me to get the experience of working with seasoned veteran actors to learn different styles of acting. And that’s what this was. It was learning farce and learning comedy on the run, costume comedy, make-up…it was great for me. Really great.
The Secret Saturdays (2008-2010)—“Doc Saturday”
PM: I loved that guy. Just loved him. And I loved that show. I’m sorry it’s not still around. You know, that was a really unique show, in that Doc was an African-American, his wife in the show is the show is white, and the kid is mixed…and never do we comment on it. Ever. I mean, it was never an issue. It just was. I thought that was freaking brilliant. I loved Doc, because not only was he a doting father and someone he could have a heart-to-heart, Courtship of Eddie’s Father/ Brady Bunch moment with, but he was someone who would kick your freaking ass if push came to shove. [Laughs.] And, again, not easy to find someone who can play both sides of that coin, and I feel really blessed that I have enough in me that people see and support to allow me to do those things. That was one of those characters that was so full and had such great stakes involved with every show that he was a pleasure to play every single week. I just absolutely loved it. Again, working with incredible vocal talent: Diedrich Bader, Corey Burton…phenomenal, legendary vocal talents. A great show that left too soon, I think. I think somebody said that they’re busting a complete-series set soon…or maybe it’s out already, ‘cause I think somebody on Twitter said that they had it already.
[Alas, as of this writing, no formal announcement has yet been made by Warner Brothers about The Secret Saturdays: The Complete Series. —ed.]
P.I. Private Investigations (1987)—“Eddie Gordon”
PM: Nigel Dick was the director, and Clayton Rohner was the star. That was cool, because I was doing The Young and the Restless at the time, and they were very high on some soap actors to play in features. Tony Geary was in that, playing a bad guy. I don’t know if he still plays Luke on General Hospital, but he did at the time. [Laughs.] I look at those times in my career, and…that was when I was trying to be a little too cool, where I thought that was probably the way to go. I look at that, and…I was playing a soul singer, and I kind of fashioned him after Marvin Gaye, who I wanted to play. I really enjoyed that, and I really wanted to do more features after that, but it was such a small-budget thing. Talia Balsam, the daughter of Martin Balsam, played a character in the film, and she’s just a lovely actress. I really thought this was going to break my feature career, and…it didn’t. It just didn’t resonate. I don’t think it was good enough, quite frankly. But it was a great experience for me, again because I think these are the lessons we’re supposed to learn on this road.
It was late-night shooting, and it was the first independent film I did, so everything was a bit a-wing-and-a-prayer, and it got me to understand that the work is everything. It ain’t about the trailer. It ain’t about the wardrobe. It ain’t about your paycheck. It’s about making movies or TV shows and being a part of a group and a team that is going after a certain goal or objective, and if you’re real about it…it’s like being at a casino: you don’t ask what time it is, you don’t care if the sun’s coming up, you don’t care if you’re tired. It’s, like, “Man, I got a barn, let’s make a show! [Laughs.] And that’s what P.I. was for me. I’d been very fortunate up to that point. I’d done a couple of guest spots on big studio TV shows, I’m coming off the number one soap in the country, so I was always a part of big-budget shows, with a lot of time and production values accorded to the things I was doing. This was the first project I’d done that was really under-the-gun guerrilla film making…and I absolutely loved it.