As 2011 comes to a close and I sit knee-deep in preparations for the January 2012 TCA Press Tour, it occurs to me that, for almost 12 months now, I’ve been sitting on an interview that I really should’ve posted a long time ago. Not that it’s in any way, shape, or form time-sensitive, but it certainly was a lot of fun to do, and I expect that at least a handful of people will be interested in reading it.
I’m pretty sure you have to be better known than I am to be able to say that your work has a particular signature, but if you look through the interviews I’ve done over the years, there are definitely some recurring themes, and one that recurs more often than most is my tendency to bypass asking about a person’s more popular projects in favor of searching for a great but heretofore-untold anecdote about an obscurity…or several obscurities…from their list of credits. Sometimes it feels like a crapshoot, and when you find out too late that your interview subject has subpar recall, it can seriously bum you out, but as often as not, it results in a highly entertaining payout.
It says a lot about me, I fear, that, when presented with the opportunity to chat with Bruce Jenner early in 2011, the first thing that leapt to mind was not to ask him about his life as an Olympic athlete nor about his career resurgence as a reality star but, rather, his work as an actor. It’s not like anyone, least of all Jenner himself, would claim that he delivered performances that were destined to secure him an Oscar or an Emmy, but, c’mon, the guy was in Can’t Stop the Music, for God’s sake! That’s right: Jenner played Ron White, the man working behind the scenes for the hottest new group in show business – the Village People! – in the only theatrically-released film ever directed by Nancy Walker, a.k.a. Rhoda Morgenstern’s mom and Rosie the Waitress.
I had to know what that experience was like. I needed to, dammit. I mean, just based on this picture alone, you know…?
And so I arrived at the E! cocktail party during the January 2011 TCA Press Tour with a list of Jenner’s acting credits in hand, looking for whatever stories he had to tell about his handful of experiences as a thespian. Thankfully, he found the concept absolutely hilarious, and he immediately said, “C’mon, let’s go out on the patio, so we can hear each other better…and so I can think, because nobody’s asked me about this stuff in years!”
By the way, to definitely date when this conversation took place (January 5), just as we were chatting, Jenner received a phone call from one of his stepdaughters – he didn’t clarify which one – to inform him that Keeping Up with the Kardashians had just taken home the People’s Choice Award for Favorite TV Guilty Pleasure. It ain’t an Emmy. It ain’t even a Golden Globe. But, hey, it’s something…and, all things considered, he’ll probably treasure it than the Razzie nod he received for his work on Can’t Stop the Music.
Let’s hit it…
Grambling’s White Tiger (1981)—“Jim Gregory”
Bruce Jenner: Wow! I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me about that one before. You know what? That movie started when my manager at the time, a guy named George Wallach, bought the rights to the book Grambling’s White Tiger, which Jim Gregory, who was a white guy that went to Grambling and wrote about his experience. George Wallach bought the rights to it, and…I was working with NBC at the time, and we put together a deal to produce the thing and get it out there and get the script written. I mean, it was a labor of love for a few years to get it on, but it really turned out…I mean, it was one of the top-10 movies of the year on television. We had great guys in there. Georg Stanford Brown directed it. We spent something like six weeks in Grambling. They let us shoot it in the school. As far as the cast, Dennis Haysbert, he’s obviously still working now. [Laughs.] Dennis was in it, and so was LeVar Burton. Harry Belafonte, who never does movies, he wanted to play Eddie Robinson. So it was really a great experience, especially because we started from the very beginning, with buying the rights, all the way to getting it done and getting it on the air. And then it really did well. Those were the years where Brandon Tartikoff was at NBC. It was a great story of reverse integration, ‘cause, y’know, it happened in the ‘60s, when a lot of black players were making it on all-white teams, but here’s this white kid from California – a quarterback – who thought the best way to make it in the pros was…he figured, “Well, Grambling puts more guys into the pros than anyplace, so why don’t I just go there?” So, yeah, it was a great experience.
CHiPs (1981-1982)—“Officer Steve McLeish”
News Reviews Interviews: You did Grambling’s White Tiger right around the same time you were doing ChiPs for NBC, too, right?
BJ: Yeah, it was the early ‘80s. I was doing a lot of that stuff around that time.
NRI: Did you enjoy the CHiPs experience?
BJ: Yeah, I did. I was brought in because I had a deal with NBC at the time, and…Erik Estrada would sometimes have…disagreements, I guess, with the network. And when Erik would go on a rampage and not show up, they would call me up and they would say, “Hey, Bruce, you wanna do this?” [Laughs.] “Sure!” So I’d get my little motorcycle and my little police uniform and go in there.
But you know what? I did about six episodes while Erik was gone, and then finally he came back. And so I thought, “I wonder how he’s going to be with me…” Because I was kind of this little strike-breaker. The show did go on, even with him not being there. And when he came back, he was so nice to me. I was so pleasantly surprised. He never once said anything. He was just a gentleman. Nice, great to me…I had no problems. Because I was afraid when he came back…I was, like, “What’s he gonna be like? How’s he gonna treat me?” But he was nothing but nice and helpful. He was great. We’ve had a good relationship ever since. I see him every once in awhile here and there, and he’s always friendly and nice.
Can’t Stop the Music (1980)—“Ron White”
NRI: You realize, of course, that I have to ask you about Can’t Stop the Music.
BJ: [Laughs.] Sure. But, you know, you’re going back there, and I like that.
NRI: Oh, thank God. [Laughs.] Because I enjoy getting a little retro with my questions. Okay, so how did this movie land in your lap? Was it a case where they sent you the script, or…
BJ: No. It started out in the late ‘70s…1978-ish…when disco was really big. Allan Carr, the producer, who at the time was really hot, doing a lot of different stuff, like Grease, Xanadu, and all these different shows, he called up my manager and said, “I want to meet Bruce. “ At that time, he had a disco in his house in Beverly Hills. [Shrugs.] It was the ‘70s. [Laughs.] So every Friday night, he had this big disco night, so my manager said, “Why don’t you go on up there and meet Allan?” So I went up there, I met Allan and talked to him for awhile, and…he was wild. That whole scene was not really me. So he’s going, “Bruce! I love ya! I mean, I gotta do something with you!” You know, it was typical Hollywood stuff. And I’m going, “Yeah, right, okay, that’s fine…” “No, no! My next movie , you’re gonna be in it! I don’t even know what it is yet, but the next movie I’m doing, you’re in it!” I go, “Great. Call me. I’m going on with my life.” [Laughs.]
Six months go by…and Allen calls! He goes, “Bruce! Last night, I got the idea!” I said, “Really?” He says, “Yes! I was out with the Village People and meeting all of them, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is perfect!’ I can see it now: you being the manager, not wanting to be the manager, but coming in and doing it, anyway…” On and on and on. “We get a little love interest going, and…I can see this whole script idea in my head, and, my God, we’re gonna do this! I’m hiring writers, and we’re gonna put this thing together!” So that’s how Can’t Stop the Music started. I was the first one hired, because he was looking for something to do with me. He probably spent nine months writing the script and this and that, then we ran off to New York and started shooting it. And to be honest with you…I mean, Allan did very well with the show, because it did well internationally, but disco…as quick as it came in, it left. Abruptly. [Laughs.] The week before the movie opened up, when they were blowing up disco records in Comiskey Park, I said, “You know, we might be in trouble here. I think we missed our window.” But now it’s, like, a cult movie. I don’t know if it’s up there with Rocky Horror, but it definitely has its cult.
It was fun to do. I mean, I’d never done a big feature, so I had a great time doing it. In fact, I ran into…I was in Mexico a couple of months ago, and I ran into Valerie Perrine. [Starts to laugh.] You know, originally he was trying to get Olivia Newton-John to do it. And I remember I was in the room when her people said “no,” because all hell broke loose. So we ended up getting Valerie to do it, and…I knew Valerie through some friends, but when we first started shooting this thing, she was, like, tough to deal with. Months of shooting, running around, all these crazy people. But by the end of the show, I was starting to realize that Valerie was right all the time. [Laughs.] By the end of the show, we became pretty tight, and I said, “You know, you’re right. Two months ago, I was thinking, ‘She is absolutely off-base,’ but I was wrong.”
NRI: What was she complaining about? The script…?
BJ: Oh, just everything. Everything. The fact that Nancy Walker was the director, and…oh, my God, it was just on and on and on.
NRI: How was Nancy Walker as a director? Had she directed anything before at that point?
BJ: No, I don’t think so. Certainly not a film, anyway. And Valerie would come to the set and not even know her lines. I mean, that’s like…you’re supposed to at least know your lines for the day. You study ‘em, you work at it. But she’d get there and not even have a clue what was going on. But the strange thing was, when I’d see it, you’d never know. I’d go, “Oh, man, here I am studying my lines, I’ve got a coach…” Meanwhile, she’s, like, hiding her script someplace where she could see it. It was so unprofessional…and yet she came off so well! [Laughs.]
- From Murder, She Wrote and The Love Boat to America’s Favorite TV Guilty Pleasure
NRI: You did a little bit of episodic TV, too: an episode of Murder, She Wrote, an episode of The Love Boat…
BJ: Yep, did both of those.
NRI: Did you anticipate a long-term career in acting, or were you just taking the opportunity because it was available to you?
BJ: Let’s just say I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be an actor. [Laughs.] I wasn’t even in my high school plays. But here was the opportunity… [His cell phone starts to ring.] Are my kids back? Just a second…
That was my daughter. Our show won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Guilty Pleasure. [Laughs.]
NRI: So how do you feel about that? The fact that it’s viewed as a Guilty Pleasure.
BJ: I am nothing but honored to be a Guilty Pleasure. [Laughs.] Yes, nothing but honored. Nah, it’s cute.
NRI: Is the show everything you hoped it would be, or did you come into it with no expectations whatsoever?
BJ: I had no expectations. But if you look at reality television and what’s on the air…my wife [Kris Jenner] and I will be sitting there watching something, and her mind’s always working, and, you know, she’s always out there. And, really, what you need for reality television is a lot of characters. You’ve got to have a lot of storylines. You’ve got to have so many storylines to make even a few of them work. And in our family, with the dynamics of our family, there are so many different characters.
NRI: So many that you have spin-offs.
BJ: [Laughs.] Exactly right. So when we first started thinking about it, I was, like, “You know, this could work…” And so we started talking about it and this and that, and…we had a friend of ours who was good friends with Ryan Seacrest at the time, so we were, like, “Let’s make a verbal pitch to Ryan and see what he thinks.” He loved the idea, and his deal is with E!, so he’s got to take it to E! first. And E! at first was, like, “Oh, I don’t know…” Nobody really knew what was going to work and what wasn’t going to work. So they finally said, “All right, we’ll do a couple of episodes.” And that turned into six episodes, which turned into a first season of twelve episodes. And it’s done great ever since. It’s been a great property for E!, because they’ve got a big international presence. It’s done wonderful in Europe, England and Australia. We get letters from all over the world. It’s been amazing.
- Bruce Jenner vs. Tropicana
NRI: Lastly, what’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
BJ: Wow. Good question! [Long pause] But, you know, the only thing I can say on that is that, on a couple of occasions, when things were going great, there were some commercials that…well, let me tell you this story. It’s about Tropicana.
Back in the early ‘80s, they came out with a new product called Tropicana Pure Premium. This was their non-concentrated product, and they were doing their first test market in New York, then going national. They hired me to do the commercials. They had this great commercial agency, an advertising agency, all these people get behind it, and we shoot these commercials. Things are going wonderful…and then all of a sudden Tropicana gets bought out by Beatrice Foods.
New guy comes in that’s in charge of fruit juices, and he didn’t care if everything was going fabulously. He was going to bring his boys in. And you lose you on a deal like that. All of a sudden, after doing two years of great commercials, business is skyrocketing, you’re done because of corporate stuff up on top. That, to me, is really frustrating. And that’s happened on a few occasions throughout my career.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, last year, Tropicana hired me to do some more commercials. [Laughs.] My wife said they had this whole campaign that they’re doing online, a Juice Rewards Program and this and that, and she said, “They want you to do it.” I got that, and I’m, like, “I can’t believe it! I’m back!” That had been bugging me for more than twenty years! So when they finally came back and wanted to do some more stuff, I’m, like, “I’m doing it! I don’t care what it is, I’m doing it!” [Laughs.]
I know that’s not entirely answering your question, but, you know, sometimes shows you do don’t work out quite as well as you imagine, and you just go on and move to the next one. But when you’re doing a corporate thing, it’s going great, and it falls apart strictly because of politics…? That’s the stuff that really gets me.