After numerous false starts and far too long a wait, Arrested Development will finally return with 15 new episodes on May 26, but no one in the cast has been resting on their laurels since the show’s 2006 cancellation, least of all Jeffrey Tambor. While waiting for the opportunity to reprise the role of George Bluth, Sr. (and presumably Oscar Bluth), the actor has starred in no fewer than three short-lived sitcoms (Welcome To The Captain, Twenty Good Years, and Bent) as well as a fourth that was picked up by NBC, actually went into production, but was then dropped from the schedule before a single episode saw the light of day (Next Caller). Tambor spoke to The A.V. Club in advance of Arrested’s return, and he also spoke about being a part of Amazon’s Onion News Empire pilot, closing out the Hangover saga, and how much television has changed since he first got into the game.
The A.V. Club: In January, during the Arrested Development panel at the Television Critics Association press tour, you and the cast were pointedly tight-lipped about what viewers would see in the fourth season, to the point where the only clip you offered was an outtake.
Jeffrey Tambor: Right. Then the trailer came out yesterday, and, boy, did it hit. This is very, very odd. It’s quite a moment. I knew this was popular, I just didn’t know how popular. We just came back from London, and it’s very popular there, too. Our audience is quite fervent, and we are back because of them.
AVC: It must have been difficult to keep quiet about the secrets of the series, given how close to the vest they’ve been playing things this time around.
JT: Yeah, you know, spoiler alert! But I think they’re wise to do that. Everyone has just said, “Can’t talk about it,” and I think that ups the ante. That way, there’s a lot of surprises. I think it’s smart to do that, and I think our audience enjoys it. So you were in the audience when we played the outtake?
AVC: Oh, yes.
JT: I have not heard laughter like that [at the TCA tour] for a long time.
AVC: A room full of TV critics is pretty tough.
JT: Well, it’s not even that it’s a tough room. It’s that this is not their first rodeo, know what I mean? So it was a very ennobling to hear that.
AVC: So how was the experience of getting back in the saddle and finally getting to play George Bluth, Sr. again?
JT: I’d love to say, “Gosh, it was so hard,” but his writing, Mitch [Hurwitz] and his staff, is like a comfortable shoe. You put it on and go, “Oh, that feels good.” I honestly don’t remember any discomfort. It was quite interesting, though, when we all got together that first week and we all looked at each other. Actually, it was the second week. I filmed alone for the first week, or we just did scenes with a few other people. I think I did a scene with Jason [Bateman], and I had a scene with some other people. But the second week, all nine of us were in the living room as the Bluths. We were summoned to the set that evening, and everyone just burst into applause when Mitch started talking. It was quite a moment. For such an unsentimental group as we tend to be, it was emotional, because we were all just very, very happy. We love Mitch, we love the project. I was always sure it was going to happen. I didn’t have a moment of doubt. I knew it was going to take what it took. And then, you know, we all need a hero, and Netflix came along and was our hero.
AVC: Were there any intrinsic differences about doing the series for Netflix? Presumably the budget isn’t quite the same as it was on Fox.
JT: But it’s not like we were walking around looking for money, either. I think that has been played up a little too much. We were remunerated, and remunerated well. Could we retire on it? I have five kids, I can’t retire on anything. But the only thing that was different because of Netflix was that we made 15 episodes. And that was not even really because of Netflix, but because of our timing. To get everybody in a room together took a little bit of Mitch wizardry; he just did some Newtonian physics and wrote this elaborate plan for the shooting schedule. Sometimes I would be doing scene one, and I would go into scene nine and then episode four and then episode three. That was, oddly enough, very freeing for me. I can’t speak for everybody. For me, I love not knowing exactly where I’m going. It keeps the pointer dog off of my acting, which is not a good trait.
AVC: Presumably you’re aware that the obsessive fans are going to be trying to spot every possible callback to previous episodes, no matter how small.
JT: There’s a lot of stuff, too. I’ve seen it twice now. My wife and I were sitting around the other day, and she said, “Did you notice that?” And I said, “No, I didn’t,” and then I saw what she was referring to the second time. Somebody said something very interesting to me in London as we were walking down the aisle: I asked him if he liked it, and he said, “Oh, yes, I can’t wait to see it again.” That’s our show. The fans can’t wait to see it again. So, yeah, I’m really pleased, I’m really excited. Again, it’s bigger than I thought. When I got out of that car in London and people were screaming as if I were the fifth Beatle, I thought, “Wow, this is very interesting…”
AVC: In addition to the new Arrested Development episodes, you’re also in Amazon’s pilot for Onion News Empire.
JT: And I’m so glad you brought it up, because I was just looking at it again in anticipation of the interview. I’m so excited about it. Between these two shows, I guess I’m now the designated actor-spokesman for online series. But, yeah, it’s wonderful, I loved it. People are saying, “What exactly are you doing? What have you become, doing these things like this?” But I love it. I feel like I’m off-Broadway going to Broadway, it has that sort of cachet. I don’t quite know what this is, but I love it, this Amazon/Netflix thing. I remember when we were standing on the stage in London, and I said, “Oh, my goodness, not only is the revolution here, it’s been here for some time.” But Onion News Empire, it’s an exceptional cast, it has the same quickness as Arrested. These guys are nimble, they’re funny, and they’re topical. There’s nowhere that it can’t go. And for me to have that head of hair? My goodness.
AVC: You seem a little in awe of your character’s hair.
JT: I’m in awe of any hair. I love hair. In my career, they say, “10 minutes, hair and makeup,” and I say, “That’ll be just makeup, thank you.” And usually the person over in the hair part just says “hello” and waves, so this is quite lovely. I actually spend more time in hair than in makeup. It’s quite nice.
AVC: In the pilot, you worked with William Sadler, who isn’t necessarily thought of as a comedic actor, but he’s certainly got the chops.
JT: This is an expert cast, but Bill Sadler hits this baby right out of the park, and I told him so, on yet another device. I Twittered him. That scene between him and Laila [Robins], the slapping scene, made me laugh out loud. And I don’t laugh at anything. I’m the son of Russian and Hungarian parents, that’s not on our menu. But that made me laugh. It’s just silly. One of my gods and mentors is Mel Brooks; I was directed by him, I did a movie by him [Life Stinks], and I know silly is hard. But these guys, I’ve said it before, they’re very nimble, and they can go from silly to profound in a nanosecond, and that’s hard to do. The jokes come fast and funny, but they’re not only joke-jokes. These guys have something to say, and I like that. I love our headlines, and I like where they go. They’re very agile. I’m quite taken with them. It was a real easy decision to make [to do the pilot]. [Co-creator] Will Graham came by as I was shooting this thing down by Chelsea Pier, I was shooting SVU as a guest star that week, and he had me in the first sentence. I just liked him, we immediately got on, and I said, “This is for me.” It was a no-brainer.
AVC: What was it like delivering the Sorkin-esque dialogue?
JT: Well, I don’t have that reference, personally, and I don’t know how immediate that reference is for anyone else, but I loved playing a newscaster. By the way, the Sorkin comparison is daunting, because those guys are good, and that’s hard. I love The Newsroom. The Larry Sanders Show had that, too, sort of a backstage look. Audiences love that. It has that cachet of, “I didn’t know things went on like that,” and the walking and talking. I’m a huge Aaron Sorkin fan. I think he’s truly one of our best. If we’re aping anybody, and I’m not quite sure we are, what a wonderful thing to ape.
As we get to know these characters… You know, pilots are hard, and what I liked about this one is that they let it rip. I’ll be really honest with you, everyone looks like they were about eight to 10 episodes in, as far as the comfort level goes. And that’s really hard to do. I’m just thinking of Cheyenne Jackson, Bill, Laila, Chris Masterson… the entire cast, really. We’re very lucky to have these actors. It was fun. And I’m sort of a news junkie, too. I love to watch the news.
AVC: Speaking of the pilot process, you are obviously no stranger to making pilots.
JT: No stranger to pilots am I. I mean, that’s just the way it is. They make pilots. You have to understand… Not to sound like an old man, but it used to be that you’d make a pilot, and then you’d practically do 13 episodes just to test it. Those days are gone. Pilots are more to the point now. I will tell you that when I first auditioned for ABC way, way back at the invention of television, I remember just walking into a little cubicle and meeting Marcy Carsey at ABC, and just kind of reading something off a page, and she just went, “Yeah, fine.” It was like that. It was that simple. But it’s changed.
Of course, now the whole concept of watching television has changed. I used to sit down with my parents at eight and watch Ed Sullivan on Sunday night. Those days are over. But I think it’s great. People are watching on the subway, as they walk. You know, I did something yesterday which… I think I can talk about this: I looped a line on Arrested Development, something that was a very strategic line, and I did it on my cell phone. And then I just emailed it to them. Isn’t that beautiful? The 60-year-old actor in me goes, “Oh, my God,” but the other part of me goes, “That is so amazing!” I teach acting now and then, and I used to always think, “These poor kids, there are so few opportunities and really so few pilots,” but now the whole framework has changed. There are so many opportunities. You can make an 18-minute thing, a 43-minute thing. If we play our cards right and everybody just keeps their head about this, we’re going to have a renaissance. There’s your sound bite. [Laughs.]
It’s true, though. I didn’t really think about it until I said it just now, but we do have that possibility, because these kids are so talented today. I had a young kid who asked what I try to teach in my acting classes, and I said I’m always interested in going outside the box, and he looked at me and said, “What box?” That’s the talent base that’s speaking right now. That’s your A.V. Club readership. That’s the people you’re talking to. Me, I’m still learning. I have no idea, I didn’t know until recently that you could tweet out and say, “Hi, Jeffrey Tambor here,” and you’d get this avalanche of responses back. It’s amazing.
AVC: The last time you talked to The A.V. Club, you discussed the learning curve when you did your first sitcom, The Ropers. By the time you were headlining your own sitcom, Mr. Sunshine, did you feel like you had learned a fair amount about the process?
JT: No. [Laughs.] I remember when I did that, I didn’t know that they were going to rewrite everything, so every time they would send me a script, which was hourly, I would learn it, and I created quite a little problem for myself. Unlearning is a tough problem. I’d come from theater. When someone gives you a script, you memorize it! So I drove myself crazy with worry. I was one of those actors who used to go to the theater three hours beforehand.
AVC: Of the series that you’ve done that didn’t take off, were there any that you were particularly surprised didn’t succeed?
JT: Do you know William Goldman?
AVC: Yeah, absolutely.
JT: Do you know what he says in his book? “Nobody knows anything.” And there it is. Unfortunately, on our W-2 form, it says, “Must fall in love.” And that’s what you do every time. Otherwise you’re not worth anything, and you can’t really invest yourself. I’m a very lucky person to have three tremendous loves in my life: The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development, and now Onion News Empire. You just don’t get breaks like that. Actually four, but the fourth no one remembers: Max Headroom. You don’t remember that, do you?
AVC: Actually, I have the complete-series set.
JT: [Laughs.] Really? That was so groundbreaking that I had to read the script three or four times to even understand it. Boy, was that groundbreaking. I actually wept on that one. That was a dream job. But you know, that’s part of the W-2 form, too: Your heart gets broken. You fall in love, and sometimes your heart gets broken, and sometimes it doesn’t. But you never know which it’s gonna be. I thought that Mr. Mom was going to be a bomb. I had no idea people were going to come up to me and actually recite lines from it.
AVC: Speaking of your earlier films, The A.V. Club spoke with Jon Cryer recently, and when he discussed No Small Affair, he described you as “lovely and funny in this wonderful, weird, off-kilter way.”
JT: Oh, yeah, Jon Cryer and Demi Moore. I just saw the film’s director, the wonderful Jerry Schatzberg, at the New York première of the Phil Spector movie. Which I loved, by the way. Tremendous experience. Written and directed by David Mamet, and I played opposite Al Pacino and Helen Mirren. Hello! They were great, too, although most of my scenes were with Helen. She’s a home-run hitter.
AVC: The back-and-forths between the two of you were definitely among the highlights of the film.
JT: That’s David Mamet. That’s, like, if he played piano, he’d be up there with Bach. I’ll run to anything that he does, he’s one of our masters. We have Mamet, Pinter, and David Rabe, and then the line gets smaller from there.
AVC: You recently had the chance to reprise your role of Sid one last time in The Hangover Part III.
JT: Yes, one last time, theoretically. [Laughs.] But, you know, stranger things have happened. For instance, I believe Charlie Haid, in the pilot for Hill Street Blues, I believe he was originally supposed to die, but look what happened to his character. So stranger things have happened. Maybe I’ll resuscitate. I remember [Todd Phillips] gingerly told me in an email that my demise was coming, and I wrote him back that I was honored by my death.
AVC: Just to touch on one more pilot, Next Caller made it into production and then never actually made it on the air.
JT: That was a tough one. What can I say? That’s the ball game. You make the requisite calls, and put your head against the wall. I have five kids, and I’ve got to do what I tell them to do: You suck it up. The owwie hurts, but you put a Band-Aid on, and you go on to the next one. I come from the theater, where the closing notice is always about to come up, and still you always do your best. I know that sounds a little artsy-fartsy, but there’s no other way to do it. You kick a can or kick the wall and go, “ow,” and then you go back to do your deal. By the way, are you going to mention all my failed pilots? Because that would be a long interview, baby.
AVC: No, but it’s an interesting topic. For instance, Stephen Root talked about the experiences of being a character actor, traveling from show to show and never really having a solid home, but always enjoying the challenge. You seem to have a similar life, where you never hesitate to take a role and you just enjoy the opportunity for what it is.
JT: Well, what are you going to do, calculate it? You just go and do it. It’s like dating. You go, “I like this, my heart is here, and… oh, you don’t want to date me? Okay, fine, onto the next one.” That sounds callous, but it’s sort of apt in a way. All I ever wanted to do as an actor was to play hundreds and hundreds of characters, and I’ve been very lucky. And I work, and I enjoy it, and now I’m teaching and I’m going around the country doing my one-man show. That’s what I’m doing now: getting on a plane and going to talk to people. I gave a commencement speech last week. I’m also writing a book.
AVC: Is it a memoir?
JT: Yeah, but it’s daunting to look at that empty screen. But I’m having fun as I go around giving these talks, and it’s started to come out. Mitch actually told me, “It’s just talk!” Jim Vallely, who’s also one of our writers, said that to me, too. “It’s not writing. Just talk!” Unfortunately, you tend to realize that at four in the afternoon when you re-read what you’ve just written and go, “Who wants to read this?” [Laughs.] I had to find my voice for it, to find my way in, and that’s to forget purple prose. You just have to talk.
AVC: To bring it back to Arrested Development, there’d been talk about the possibility of a movie following these episodes. Does the enthusiasm for the movie still seem to be there now that the episodes are in the can?
JT: More than ever. I’ll just say this, and I’ll be as politic as I can: It would be an incredibly bad business decision not to make this movie, because the audience is there. I think we can go long form, especially having seen what we’re doing on these 15 episodes, and I’m sure it’s all in place. But I’m being very difficult with my negotiations. I want to keep the “and” in front of my name.