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John Heard on The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, The Sopranos, Sharknado, and more

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: If John Heard hadn’t gotten his first on-camera acting gig when he did, he might well have ended up going on to a long and proud career as a taxi driver. Instead he’s forged a lengthy career that’s seen him on the New York stage, in films ranging from Cutter’s Way to Big to Sharknado, and in memorable roles on such TV series as The Sopranos and Prison Break. This weekend, Heard will turn up on the premiere episode of Lifetime’s The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, but—historical spoiler alert—you probably shouldn’t count on him sticking around for the long haul.

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015)—“William Almy”

John Heard: I did that in Canada a couple of months ago. They reached out to me in this instance. I have no clue how or why they wanted me. It was just a great gift. They just called me up and said, “Do you want to go to Canada?” It was in Halifax, of all places. I thought I’d been to Halifax, but when I got there, I didn’t remember a thing about it. It was really nice, though.

The A.V. Club: What was your familiarity with the Lizzie Borden story going into the show?

JH: Nothing, except for the song. You know, “Lizzie Borden took an ax / And gave her mother 40 whacks / And when she saw what she had done / She gave her father 41.”

AVC: So who was William Almy in the Lizzie Borden story?

JH: William Almy was—I guess he was in business with Lizzie’s dad, and when her dad dies, he comes around as a creditor, saying, “I own everything that you were hoping to inherit.” So he’s a bad guy in that respect, and he leaves Lizzie and her sister penniless. So, yeah, he’s the grim creditor.

AVC: Lizzie Borden isn’t necessarily someone you want to have on your bad side.

JH: Yeah, he clearly doesn’t know who he’s talking to. [Laughs.] Maybe he didn’t read the paper the week before. They actually know—or they all suspect—that Lizzie’s the bad girl, the murderer, but he still confronts her and says, “I’m taking everything you thought your father left to you.”

AVC: Did you do research to find out who this guy was, or did they just present you with the information?

JH: Nah, I’m too lazy for all that. [Laughs.] I just read the script, try to memorize the lines, and try to stand up straight. It was a very costumed drama, but there was a super guy there who helped me get dressed and undressed every day. I only worked a few days, but that was certainly helpful. Especially when you can’t button your own shirt.

Valley Forge (1975)—“Mr. Harvie”

AVC: IMDB indicates that your first on-screen role was also a historical drama: Valley Forge.

JH: Oh, yeah! God, I was just telling my niece about that story, because I ended up sitting next to Ed Herrmann, who just passed away. He had been at Arena Stage doing Twelfth Night, where I was just what they called a “jobber,” and he always thought that I played the lute in Twelfth Night. So when he found himself sitting next to me at the table for Valley Forge, he turned to me and said, “Well, you’re doing pretty good for a guy that just plays the lute.” [Laughs.] Because this time I had a speaking part.

And in subsequent years, we would bump into each other, and he’d always remark upon how well I was doing. “For a guy who just plays the lute, your career really took off!” This went on to the point where we were both nominated for Daytime Emmys, and I was going to fly to California just to sit next to him in theater, hoping I would win so that he would go, “Oh, my God! Now the lute player has taken my Emmy!” But unfortunately I didn’t get on the plane. I think I was afraid of flying or something at that point. But he went, and he actually won, so he triumphed in the end over the lute player. [Laughs.]

That was my first job. In fact, I was either on my way back to Washington, D.C.—I was going to drive a cab in New York when I got that job. I had given myself a year in Manhattan to find work as an actor, and I think the year was almost up, so I had gone and gotten my hack license to pay the rent. And they called me up and said, “You’re going to play a congressman on a Hallmark Hall Of Fame with Richard Basehart as George Washington, and you don’t want to give George Washington any money for his silly little revolution against England.” I don’t remember what I actually said, but I must’ve said it in an arched, Anglophile tone.

AVC: Valley Forge had a remarkable cast of up-and-comers. Not only was Herrmann in it, but so were Christopher Walken and Victor Garber.

JH: Oh, really? [Laughs.]

AVC: Maybe they weren’t at your end of the table.

JH: I guess not. I had no idea I’d been in a television production with Christopher Walken. [Laughs.] But Christopher Walken was on stage when I was an understudy. He played Achilles in a Shakespeare play called Troilus And Cressida, and I was always fascinated with his performance. I remember sitting and watching him. Because as an understudy, you go to the theater and sit and watch, and if they need you, you freak out. Fortunately, they never needed me, so I just got a chance to watch the actors act, and I was always taken with Chris Walken. And then, of course, he turned out to be Chris Walken. But he has such an interesting presence.

Heaven Help Us (1985)—“Brother Timothy”
The Trip To Bountiful (1985)—“Ludie Watts”
After Hours (1985)—“Thomas ‘Tom’ Schorr”

JH: I got in trouble on Heaven Help Us because of one afternoon when I was sitting there talking to another actor. I think it was Jay Patterson or somebody. I’m a Catholic, and I still hang around with guys I went to high school with [at Gonzaga College High School]. But I leaned over and I said, “I don’t understand: Why in the world would they get a Jew to direct a Catholic boys movie?” And the director—Michael Dinner I think was his name—was sitting right behind me. [Laughs.] And then it turned out that I’m part Jewish! My grandfather was Jewish. I mean, it may have sounded like I was being anti-Semitic, but I was really just sort of being… Catholic boys are kind of vain. They think of themselves of being unique, so why would we want to be directed by a Jewish person? But I probably didn’t work again after that for two years or something.

AVC: You must’ve been busy up until that point, then, because that was the same year The Trip To Bountiful and After Hours came out.

JH: For The Trip To Bountiful, I was worried about being too heavy, because I supposedly had just gotten out of the hospital. But I had worked with Rip Torn and Geraldine Page on their little theater group at The Public Theater, so I guess they thought of me for playing her son, which was very nice of them. The Masterson family—Peter directed it, and his wife, Carlin Glynn [acted in the movie]—they were super nice to me. And Geraldine was very funny. I had played her lover in a play by [August] Strindberg called Creditors at The Public Theater. And I was always annoying Rip. Pauline Kael said that Rip Torn could get angrier faster than any other American actor, that he could go from zero to 10 in 1.8 seconds or something like that.

AVC: I was actually just about to say that I can’t imagine it’s really that hard to annoy Rip Torn.

JH: No, he’s very annoyable. [Laughs.] But he’s also very enjoyable. But he thought I was doing it on purpose, because he’d tell me to take two steps down left and two steps down right, and I’d look at him like I didn’t understand what he meant, and he’d get angry with me and say… He had, like, lessons in everything he said, and one of them was, “I know that an actor can undermine anything a director tells him to do by making fun of it.” And he thought that that’s what I did.

He thought I was being a wise guy, and one afternoon he got pretty angry with me after telling me to do something and he thought I was pretending like I didn’t know what he meant. Geraldine actually came to my rescue. She said, “Rip, maybe John just has a good sense of humor.” At first, Rip sort of didn’t know what to do with that. And finally he just went, “Ah, never mind.” [Laughs.] I think about it now, and it was actually pretty funny. She really rushed in there to say something that was going to chill him out, and it did.

But he was very frustrated. He was very frustrated as a director in trying to get his little theater group going. It was called The Sanctuary Theater Workshop, I think, and he wanted to do these classical plays by people like Strindberg, and he was fighting hard to get his show up and be good and be professional. Joe Papp was the only show in town, and he really wanted us to come off good. As a matter of fact, when I went off and did a movie, they asked Chris Walken if he would be a part of the group. And I think Walken said “no,” so they came back to me. [Laughs.] But I was never competing with anything for Chris Walken, I don’t think. What was the other thing you said was the same year?

AVC: After Hours.

JH: Oh, yeah, After Hours. Griffin Dunne and I were both terrified that Martin Scorsese didn’t think we were very good—and if he didn’t think we were very good, that was it. That was the end of the line. If Martin Scorsese thinks you stink, you stink. [Laughs.] So every take, Griffin and I would be kind of looking around to see if we were okay. We would be, like, “Okay, he didn’t say anything. We must be okay.” Because he was very big-time then. He was very much the actor’s director.

AVC: That was a film that was shot pretty much entirely at night, right?

JH: Yeah, I guess so. We were down in Soho.

AVC: Do you have any specific memories about filming down there?

JH: Well, we were in the wee hours, I think, so it was very quiet. And the only scenes I was in, I was in a bar, so I didn’t really see much of Soho. But I remember one time I had a monologue about Rosanna Arquette, who was my girlfriend in the movie and who had disappeared. And I run to the hospital to try to find her, and I’m talking to somebody or I’m on the phone, and it was the biggest chunk of words that I had.

We were all very in awe of Martin Scorsese, but there was a little monologue where I could step out a little bit. He kept shooting me and shooting me and doing this chunk of words, and then he’d cut, and I’d be standing there off-camera. I found myself standing next to Marty after one take, and I looked at him, and I said, “I don’t know, it’s just… It just doesn’t feel right. I’m not getting it. I don’t think I’m getting it.” And he looked over at me, and he said, “No. You’re not.” [Laughs.] And that’s why it wasn’t in the movie. It was cut! He wasn’t a placating director.

My Fellow Americans (1996)—“Vice President Ted Matthews”

JH: My last line in the movie was, “It’s all been a big façade”—or “fuh-cade”—and Peter [Segal] must’ve had me say that line 40 times. One time when I was doing the line, I snuck a look over out of the corner of my eye, and I saw Peter looking at the monitor, mouthing the words. As I was going, “Well, ha-ha-ha, the joke’s on you, because nobody knows it’s all been a big fuh-cade,” I saw him go [Whispers.] “All been a big fuh-cade.” But he couldn’t figure out if he wanted me to say “façade” or “fuh-cade.” He went back and forth for, like, half a day, and I don’t know which one was better or if it even worked at all.

Lauren Bacall, James Garner, and Jack Lemmon—they’re all gone now, but I was so impressed by them. I remember one afternoon when we were out on a golf course somewhere, and the three of them were sitting there in deck chairs when I went off to do another scene. And when I came back, they had disappeared, but when I walked back onto the golf course, I found them sitting there. And I said something like, “Hey, where have you guys been?” And they said, “Oh, we were down at the clubhouse. We saw your scene!” I said, “Oh, yeah?” “Yeah, yeah, it was great. You were great! That was terrific! Way to go! That was really good. Very funny.” And I said, “Gee, I really… Thank you! That’s quite a compliment coming from you guys.” And Jack Lemmon looked at James Garner, and James Garner looked back at me, and then they both looked back at me and said in unison, “You bet your ass it is!” [Laughs.] So I’ve been up there with the greats. I’ve had my fleeting moments with theatrical genius.

Cutter’s Way (1981)—“Alex Cutter”

JH: That was a tough one. But we had Jordan Cronenweth on that, who’d been in an accident or something and was… [Hesitates.] What’s the word? Crippled, I guess. I knew nothing about cinematography and could’ve cared less. I was this arrogant New York actor, always impatient and bellyaching about the time it was taking. But here was this guy who... I had, like, one arm behind my back or half a leg and a patch over my eye to play the part, but here was this guy, who was really crippled. My producer came over and said, “You know, this guy is actually making you look good.” [Laughs.] He said, “You might want to go to dailies and take a look at what he’s doing, because he’s a genius.” And I said [Sounding chagrined.] “Oh. Sorry.” And he was making me look good. I think he later was nominated for an Academy Award [for Peggy Sue Got Married].

[Uncertain about Heard’s comments regarding Cronenweth being “crippled” and whether he may have been referring to the effects of the Parkinson’s disease that later claimed his life, we checked with Cronenweth’s son, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who confirmed that his father had been in “a dirt-biking accident that created a mild limp around the time of Cutter’s Way. I would imagine that is what John is referring to.” —ed.]

Cutter’s Way was a real test of my stupidity. Every day, it was like, who did I think I was? But people put up with me. But I considered myself an alcoholic, so I had the inside track on how an alcoholic would do this or that and so on and so forth. That became pretty annoying, I’m sure. [Laughs.] And the producer—who’s still a friend of mine—was convinced that Ivan Passer was not Ivan Passer, and that he’d actually been killed by a border guard getting out of Czechoslovakia, and the guard had taken on his identity and come to the States. So there was a lot of drama on Cutter’s Way, let’s put it that way. I also remember that they didn’t really know how to end the movie. I think they shot three different endings.

AVC: Were you happy with the end result, though?

JH: I’ll tell you, the look of the movie and the music, which was by Jack Nitzsche, is what really stands out to me. I don’t know if the movie succeeds as a political, cultural comment on the times and the war in Vietnam, and the capitalists versus the everyday guy that gets sent off to fight corporate wars. I don’t know if the movie ever succeeded in that range. But it was a wonderful part. I’m a pretty lightweight guy, and it gave me a chance to play somebody who had a little more strength, you know? A little more anger. He didn’t care.

There were a lot of things in it that were important at the time to me. It was very relevant. And I wanted Cutter to succeed as a vet, as a guy coming back from ’Nam, because there were so many guys like that. And there were so many other movies at the time, like Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, and The Deer Hunter, that it was really important that the movie be believable, that I come across a pissed-off vet who’d been there and comes home angry.

O (2001)—“Dean Brable”

AVC: There’s a report that Ivan Passer cast you in Cutter’s Way based on having seen you in a performance of Othello.

JH: Oh, yeah, maybe. I don’t know. I had a little part in that—I played Cassio—and I’ve actually read that as well, that he saw me in that and wanted me for the role of Cutter. Because I was drunk. [Laughs.] And I had a swordfight. I don’t know. It was pretty self-centered. I thought the play was about me, and that I really did have a crush on Desdemona, and that I really was a problem, and so on and so forth. When I read the speech, the “reputation, reputation, reputation” speech, it was more—it just rang true or something.

AVC: And then you returned to Othello several years later for the film adaption, O.

JH: Yeah, that was with Julia Stiles, who’s gone on to great stuff. I played her dad. But I got in trouble with the director, Tim Blake Nelson.

AVC: What happened?

JH: He was yelling at me from across the yard, and I yelled back. He had been so nice to me. I wanted to bring my son down to South Carolina where they were shooting it. But he was directing me, and he was, like, all the way across the front yard, and I guess I was just being a jerk again or something, and I yelled back at him and said something like, “Yeah, yeah, I can hear you. Come on, just shoot it!” And he got, like, “What’s the problem?” [Laughs.] You know, “Why are you yelling at me, John? I’m the director!” So I don’t know, maybe that’s why I’ve never worked for the Coen brothers. Maybe he said, “Nah, you don’t want to work with this guy. He yells at directors.”

The Great Debaters (2007)—“Sheriff Dozier”

JH: That was with Denzel Washington. He was so great, so focused and talented. That was just an honor to be cast in that, for the most part. I was fat, and I guess the casting director sold him on me. He actually said to me during the scene, “You know, I’ve always found that less is more,” which is an expression that you’ve heard a million times, but it was a nice way of telling me I was overdoing it. [Laughs.]

After the show was over—on the last day, when they wrapped—I’m standing with the cast, and he happened to be walking by, and I said “thank you” and “goodbye,” but then I said, “You know, I have a friend who has a restaurant, and I collect autographed pictures for him. Is there any chance…” And Denzel just turned on his heels and ran back to his trailer. I mean, he absolutely took off running. And I thought, “He’s just ignoring me, he’s got something else to do.” But, like, two minutes later, he came running back up to me, out of breath, and said, “Here you go!” And he gave me an autographed picture of himself. I was, like, “Oh, my God, no wonder he’s a star.” Because I’ve never done that! [Laughs.] I mean, it was so generous, I could not believe it, that he would take off like that for me. If I was him, I would’ve just said, “Well, give my buddy your best, I’ve got other things to do!”

The Sopranos (1999-2004)—“Detective Vin Makazian”
Prison Break (2005-2006)—“Governor Frank Tancredi”

JH: The Sopranos was a luck-out. I had no idea. Jimmy Gandolfini was in a gym down on Christopher Street in Manhattan, and he saw me in the gym. I don’t know if he was eyeballing me or if I was eyeballing him, but we were the only two guys in there, and it’s a little tiny gym at Bleecker and Christopher Street. But he finally said “hi” or something like that, and I said, “Hey, man, you’re terrific in…” I don’t know, I probably said True Romance or something. And he said, “Yeah, well, you’re not so bad yourself,” or whatever, and he asked, “You working on anything?” And I said, “No, I don’t work much anymore.” And he said, “I don’t believe you,” and I said, “No, it’s pretty much not happening.” He said, “Oh, well,” and I said, “So what are you doing?” “Ah, I’m doing what you always see me doing, playing the bad guy in mob stuff.” I said, “No kidding.” He said, “Yeah, they’re shooting this HBO thing, and they’re calling it The Sopranos or something, and I’m the mob boss. You know, if you want to be in it, I’ll mention your name and see if anything happens.” And I said, “Yeah!” [Laughs.] And it did. And I know that he had everything to do with it, because my agent also represented Lorraine Bracco, so I know that they had been to her to look for people. So it was definitely Gandolfini that got me that job, and when he died so suddenly last year, it was a heartbreaker. But, yeah, that’s what I remember about that. And that they killed me.

AVC: How did you feel about that?

JH: I went to David Chase, and I said, “Why me? I’m a detective! You can use me forever!” And he told me, “John, there’s a rule in television: Somebody has to die that the audience likes.” [Laughs.] I said, “They like me? How do you know they like me?” He said, “Well, they like you. So we’re gonna kill you.” My mother said, “Why do you have to die in everything?” I said, “You’re telling me? I could’ve made a fortune!” I mean, that show put HBO on the map. So there I was—and then there I wasn’t. Too bad. The same thing happened to me on Prison Break: I got the role of the governor on that, and then a handful of episodes later, I hanged myself.

AVC: So not only do you get killed off, but you have to do the dirty work yourself.

JH: Yeah. After The Sopranos, my mother said, “Couldn’t there be some raft floating under the bridge when you jumped? Or couldn’t you have a twin brother?” I said, “Yeah, if they’d wanted me that bad. But they don’t.” [Laughs.]

Cat People (1982)—“Oliver Yates”

JH: That was a tough one. Paul Schrader, he’s a… son of a gun. [Laughs.] He’s a very feisty, very straightforward guy. He’s your auteur director. He sent me to a fat farm down in Palm Springs, I think it was, and got mad because he said, “You’re just getting massages and backrubs!”

AVC: Was he right?

JH: Yeah. [Laughs.] He got the bill, he looked at the itemization, and he said, “You’re not doing anything to lose weight! I could’ve had William Hurt for this part!” And I said, “Well, you’re stuck with me, so…” He was funny, though. He’s a funny guy. And he’s one of those directors who really gives a shit. I mean, he really cares. The whole day, he’s on everything. So it’s a pleasure in the long run. But he’s tough. He knows what he wants.

AVC: How was it working with Nastassja Kinski?

JH: She’s a sweetie. She’s very quiet. But smart. I hung out with her mother more than Nastassja. I think Nastassja was more worried about Schrader and doing the part, so her mom and I kind of became friends. She gave me a book—Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations—and said in her Polish accent, “You remind me of this guy.” I didn’t know nothing about Arthur Rimbaud or why I would’ve reminded her of him. [Laughs.] But I remember her saying that.

We were in New Orleans, so we were always cavorting around. Schrader tried to wake me up one morning because he wanted to catch the light in a shot that was down the street at Tulane [University] or something, in a park, and I was out cold. He had someone pull me out of bed and throw me in the car, and he was pissed off at me because he’d just missed the light that he’d wanted to shoot, so he sent me to what they called “the penalty box,” which was the bar next to the hotel, the St. Charles. I think it was called Igor’s or something. He said, “You’re going to have to spend 30 days in the penalty box. You can sit there in the dark bar by yourself and play the jukebox all day.” I don’t know quite what it meant, but it was like having to go to jug in high school. [Laughs.]

I got Paul kicked out of Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant in New Orleans. Paul Prudhomme had this cocktail in a martini glass that had cayenne and a lot of peppers in it, but it was a gin drink. And Schrader came in—we were lucky to get in at lunch, there was always a line—and I was sitting there with somebody, and he said, “What are you drinking?” And I said, “One of these. They’re great! Get one!” And he got one. And he got another one. And I think he got another one. And Paul Prudhomme came out and got angry with him and said, “You’re ruining your meal! That drink is only to whet your appetite, not to indulge!” And he asked him to leave. [Laughs.] That was another thing that Schrader blamed me for. Prudhomme was, like, “You’re not here to enjoy my Creole cooking, you’re just getting loaded at lunchtime!”

First Love (1977)—“David”

JH: Oh, my God. That’s when you had to get on a plane and go to Hollywood to make a movie, but I was pretty ensconced in New York theater. They wanted me to play the lead, and I didn’t want to play the lead, so they came back and said, “Will you play the lead’s friend?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s more like it.” I met Beverly D’Angelo on that film. And Joan Darling was the director, and I think she was the first woman—or one of the first women, anyway—to direct a studio picture.

I knew nothing about where I was going. I don’t think I’d ever been to L.A., and this was for Paramount Pictures. It was all new to me. I think they booked me into a hotel, and Joan gave me a ride, but I had gotten drunk on the plane, and I got out of the car because of the traffic, and because I was from New York, I was looking for the subway… on the 405. [Laughs, hesitates, then laughs again.] Sorry, I was just thinking—I read a couple of these beforehand—I read my buddy Danny Stern’s piece and a little bit of Marcia Gay Harden’s—and I noticed that whenever anybody laughs, you parenthesize it.

AVC: Guilty.

JH: [Laughs.] Well, anyway, I was going to say that what happened was that I was in first class and they were giving me one drink after another, and I was, like, “Hey, this is a pretty good deal!” By the time I got off the plane, Joan Darling was propping me up and saying, “We’d better get John a ride into town.” But then we got stuck on the 405, as I remember it, and we didn’t move. If it was the 405. I don’t know, I’m just guessing. This was how many years ago? But I got out of the car and said, “To hell with this, I’m going to take the subway!” And she pulled me back in the car and dropped me off at what I called the Marquis De Sade. It was a motel that actors stayed in on Sunset Boulevard, and they wanted money up front because I was drunk, and then the next day... I don’t know, I think they threw me out of the hotel or something. But Joan said, “You can stay on my boat.” Her boat was out at Marina Del Rey—it was a little sailboat—and I stayed the night, but for whatever reason, it was so much scarier than Manhattan. I don’t know if it’s because it was still pretty close to Charles Manson time or what, but it was, like, “God, this is frightening.

And the next day, I was expected to work, and all I had was a bicycle. And I was a bike rider in Manhattan, you know, so I thought that from Marina Del Rey, I thought I could get on a bike and actually make it to Paramount in time to make a 7 a.m. call. [Laughs.] I think I was somewhere on Venice Boulevard when they came out looking for me. Did we have cell phones then? I don’t think so. I didn’t, anyway. But I was, like, hours late, and they looked at me like, “What the hell’s the matter with you?” And then Beverly jumped in and said, “You can stay with me at the Chateau Marmont.” And that’s how Beverly and I became buddies. We were never boyfriend/girlfriend, but she was always looking out for me a little bit. That’s what made that movie fun. She asked me to moon her off-camera. She wanted to be funny and lighthearted, so she’d say, “Do something. Moon me!”

We went to Portland because it was supposed to rain, and it was, like, the only time to date, I believe, that it didn’t rain in Portland at that point of the year. It didn’t rain the entire time we were there. But it was kind of fun. And there was this wonderful guy, Donfeld, who was the set decorator and costume designer, and his friend, John, who was his assistant. He was very, very gay, very flamboyant, and very funny, and he drove around Portland with John in what I want to say was a pink Cadillac with the top down. But John said, “You know, I don’t see too many of your people around Portland.” And Donfeld looked around, then he looked back at John and said, “Yeah, well, I don’t see too many of your people around, either!” And John said, “Yeah, they don’t let our people bunch up much around here.” [Laughs.] I always remember that line. Times have changed.

I also remember, although I don’t remember why, that Warren Beatty came into my life for a split second. I had done this movie with Daisy—I called her Daisy, but Susan Dey—and Warren had watched the dailies or something, and he said, “Susan Dey is a wonderful actress. You know what it is about Susan Dey that’s intriguing? It’s like she has a secret. When you see her on film, she gets your attention because she looks like she’s always got a secret.” I said, “Yeah. What do you suppose it is?” And he looked at me, and he said, “She married her agent, that’s her secret.” [Laughs.] But she was very sweet. And Bob Loggia was in that, too. But I spent most of my time mooning Beverly.

Between The Lines (1977)—“Harry Lucas”

AVC: You made a point of mentioning that you went to Hollywood for First Love. Did you do Between The Lines—which you filmed on the East Coast—before First Love or after it?

JH: That was for Joan Silver. I don’t know when I did it. I don’t remember. Maybe First Love was first? That would be my guess.

AVC: So when you made First Love, it wasn’t with an eye on staying in Hollywood.

JH: No, I hated it. I live here now, but I couldn’t stand it then, and I couldn’t wait to get back on the plane and get out of here. [Laughs.] Because of the cars. It’s a totally different lifestyle. You can’t walk the streets. There isn’t any place to congregate, really. In New York City in the ’70s, we all hung out at the same watering holes, and there wasn’t much of that out here. There was Nicky Blair’s, I think, and there was an Italian place on Sunset, but the whole lifestyle was completely different as an actor.

You know, I was a barfly, so going to work and acting and rehearsing and then going and sitting in a bar and drinking and then going home was sort of my lifestyle. And there was none of that out here in the ’70s when I was lucky enough to get movies, and nobody else that I knew was working in movies at that point. I didn’t really have a lot of movie friends. And First Love was nothing. It bombed. So when Joan Silver came along and did Between The Lines and it was on the East Coast, she was the director and a producer, and she got all the actors together, a great bunch who all became famous.

AVC: Yeah, it’s a pretty remarkable cast.

JH: But they were more ambitious, you could tell. They were more knowledgeable about the business, working hard to succeed, and caring. I went into it as sort of an extracurricular activity that got out of control. [Laughs.]

C.H.U.D. (1984)—“George Cooper”

JH: [Laughs.] Why does that always come up? Who in their right mind ever watched C.H.U.D.? I think you’d need to be on ecstasy to watch that movie.

AVC: You know, your buddy Danny Stern says it’s a genius movie.

JH: Oh, yeah, it is. Because he’s a genius. I mean, he wrote part of it, I guess. He wrote himself. And Doug [Cheek] directed it, and Christopher [Curry] was in it. But we thought it was about—or at least I did, anyway—humans. That the cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers were human. So it got my attention because it was sort of political, and that it was true. But there was radioactive waste under the streets of Manhattan and people were turning into gargoyles and monsters and eating each other, and when they got done with it, all these monsters had little latex rubber masks that were wobbling. [Laughs.] And we were running around. Danny and I would take turns saying, “Holy shit!” When we were in the sewers and I had a scene with him and we saw a monster, Danny would say, “Well, it’s your turn to say, ‘Holy shit!’” And I’d say, “No, it’s not. It’s your turn. I said ‘holy shit’ in the last scene.” I think he won.

AVC: He called it “guerrilla theater at its finest.”

JH: That’s a good way to put it. Absolutely. And how we did it, how they got the permits and got underground, was pretty fascinating. We were actually wandering around in the sewers system of Manhattan, downtown and I think in Soho. It was a pretty ambitious undertaking for the bunch of people that we were. I mean, we were just running around looking for a place to have a hamburger every other minute of the day. [Laughs.] So this was a big deal. Did Danny tell you that the first person to get it, when the sewer top goes up and they go down, is his wife Laure?

AVC: He did not.

JH: Yeah. And there’s, like, a shoe left or something? That’s Laure’s shoe. [Laughs.]

AVC: He did mention, however, that he’s had the idea of doing a C.H.U.D. musical.

JH: Oh, yeah? Oh, God. [Laughs.] I wonder how that would go. Kind of a rap musical, maybe?

AVC: He says he’s got two songs written.

JH: I’ve got to call him up. I need to hear these songs!

Big (1988)—“Paul”
Awakenings (1990)—“Dr. Kaufman”

JH: Awakenings, with Robin Williams and Bobby De Niro. And with Penny Marshall, who was hysterical. She would say [Does Penny Marshall impression.] “John, why can’t you ever do what I ask you to do?” I’d say, “I want to be funny! Everybody else in the movie gets to be funny. I want to be funny!” She said, “All right, all right, you’re funny, you’re funny.” Oh, wait, actually, that was in Big when she said that.

AVC: I was going to ask you about Big anyway. Particularly the scene where you’re playing paddleball.

JH: Oh, yeah, we played down in Soho or wherever it was. Tom Hanks… [Starts to laugh.] He made that funny, the way he just wouldn’t give me the ball. He kept moving it from hand to hand. “Give me the goddamned ball!” I don’t know how I got into those shorts. Boy, I couldn’t get into those today! That’s also funny, when you see yourself 30 years ago and think, “How did I ever pull that off?” But I just got fat.

I was down in Florida with my mother—she went into some kind of a… I don’t know what you’d call it. It wasn’t a coma, but she just… blanked. She’s 94, and she had some sort of infection, she wasn’t moving or talking, her eyes weren’t open, she wasn’t eating. We took her to the hospital, and for a couple of days she was out like that, but then the third day she came back to life. I said, “Let’s take a picture,” so I took a picture on my iPhone of me and her, but then I said, “Eh, my face is so fat in this picture.” And she said, “Yeah, that’s a problem you’ve had now for some years.” [Laughs.]

AVC: Moms: You’ve got to love them.

JH: I was, like, “Mom!” She hadn’t said anything for three days, and that’s what she said to me? You want to know what happened to my career? Just ask my mother. A problem I’ve had for some time now… [Laughs.] Once she said, “You know, if you smile, you can get away with murder.” That was her big acting note: “If you’d just smile more, you could get away with murder.”

Home Alone (1990) / Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992)—“Peter McCallister”

JH: Peter McCallister is a gynecologist. That’s as far as I got.

AVC: That’s as deep as the character goes?

JH: Yeah. [Laughs.] That’s as much as I could pull together to define him. What did he do for a living? He’s a gynecologist. And he’s got, what, 12 kids or something? On Home Alone, Catherine [O’Hara] and I, we didn’t know if we could be funny. I think we even said something to each other about it. We were the only two people in the movie who didn’t know how funny the movie was, because we were the parents that had left our child, and she had to run around hysterically, having abandoned a 7-year-old or whatever he was. So that was a little iffy to say, “Well, we can’t really be too comical about this.” But when they did the second one, we knew we could just be a couple of goofballs. We clearly weren’t very bright or something and just didn’t get it together. Apparently we didn’t know how to count.

AVC: So the second one was more fun for you, then?

JH: Yeah, it was more fun. And we got paid a whole lot more, although I screwed that up, because I said that I didn’t want to do it, and then I said I did, and they said, “Well, then we can get you for half of what we were going to pay you the first time around.” That was dumb. But it was typical of Peter McCallister.

Sharknado (2013)—“George”

AVC: So what are your thoughts on the fact that Sharknado has become such a phenomenon?

JH: I was right! [Laughs.] I was 100 percent right, and I’m going to take full credit for it. When my agent called me up and said, “Do you want to be in a movie called Sharknado?” I said, “What is it about? Is it really about sharks falling out of the sky and eating people?” And she said, “Yes.” And I said, “Definitely. That is going to be a huge hit. That is going to put to rest the Home Alone dad image. I’m going to be the Sharknado drunk instead, hopefully.” And I was right. I don’t know how I knew that, but I just knew that Sharknado was going be a huge hit. But they didn’t include me in Sharknado 2, because—once again!—I died.

AVC: There’s apparently something about being eaten by a shark that appeals to actors. When they approached Judd Hirsch about being in Sharknado 2, he said, “I’m going be eaten by a shark? I’m in!”

JH: [Laughs.] Absolutely. Maybe they’ll still bring me back. I was on a plane with Tara Reid, and she said, “I’ll get you into Sharknado 3,” So hopefully.

AVC: Surely this is the time for your mother’s suggestion about your character having a twin brother.

JH: Yeah. Or maybe the shark ate me and I lived in the belly of the beast.

AVC: That would certainly be a Sharknado-worthy twist.

JH: Yeah, Ian Ziering comes along with his chainsaw, and there I am with my barstool, just waiting. [Laughs.] And my opening line is, “What took you so long?”

Cross Of Fire (1989)—“David ‘D.C.’ Stephenson”

AVC: Has there been any project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

JH: That’s a stumper. [Long pause.] I don’t know if it didn’t get the love it deserved, but I did a TV movie about a horrible guy that was the head of the Ku Klux Klan.

AVC: What was it called?

JH: See what I mean? [Laughs.] It was called Cross Of Fire, and it was about a real guy, and he was almost nominated for the presidency. He was from Indiana, not too long after the turn of the century. The 1920s, maybe? But it was a TV movie, and I wasn’t disappointed that it didn’t get a lot of attention. It wasn’t a labor of love or anything. But it was very hard—the director was very helpful—and I wondered why it didn’t get more—notoriety, let’s put it that way. Because the character was real, it was a true story, and it revealed something about the nature of racism in this country, about this horrible guy, and how he could ever have been potentially nominated for the presidency of the United States. It was pretty terrifying. So I just wondered why it didn’t get written up a little more. Or maybe I stank in it. [Laughs.] Maybe I just wasn’t good in it. Even at that, though, you’d think you would’ve seen something like, “John Heard was terrible as this terrible guy.” So, anyway, I guess that’s the answer to your question. I don’t think there’s anything else that didn’t get love that I was particularly proud of.

Total Abandon (1983)—“Henry Hirsch”

JH: You know, actually, I take that back. I was particularly proud of a play I did on Broadway. But that’s not a movie.

AVC: It doesn’t necessarily have to be something in front of the camera, if you wanted to cite it.

JH: Well, it was about child abuse. I played a psychiatrist. It was with Jeff DeMunn. We were on Broadway for one night, with Richard Dreyfuss. It was called Total Abandon, I think. We did it off-off-Broadway, and audiences—it really knocked them out, because it was so powerful. But then when we did it on Broadway, it bombed. It came and went in one night, and they closed it.

AVC: Yeah, actually, I just Googled “Total Abandon” and “Dreyfuss,” and the first thing to come up was Frank Rich’s review from The New York Times. It’s, uh, not entirely positive.

JH: Yeah? What does it say?

AVC: [Long pause.] “Overblown portentousness” is a phrase that leaps off the page. Yeah, he definitely went all out.

JH: Oh, my God. “Overblown portentousness”?

AVC: Actually, in the first sentence he uses the phrase “preposterous new melodrama,” and then he works his way up to “overblown portentousness” before the end of the first paragraph. So he definitely wasn’t a fan.

JH: Did he hate the acting? Did he hate Richard Dreyfuss or something?

AVC: Well, there’s a lot on here about the writing and the plot, but he doesn’t actually complain about any of the actors.

JH: Wow. We did it with Jeff DeMunn off-off-Broadway, and he was fantastic. And I guess the producers—these two gals, I forget their names—they went out and got Dreyfuss, and... Well, he was Richard Dreyfuss, so there you go. But I thought the subject matter was incredibly poignant.

It’s a father with an infant child, crying, and he loses it and slams the kid up against the wall. But the way that it was paced, you didn’t really know what he did from the beginning of the play, and then I come in as a psychiatrist and ask him questions, and they’re all little one-liners. “And then what happened? And then what happened?” And then he finally blurts it out, what happened, and that’s the end of the first act. So by the end of the first act, the audience is, like, “Oh my God, ugh, get me out of here.” They’re just slapped upside the face with what it’s about. And then I think the rest of it is, like, how if he is or isn’t going to be tried, and if he is, for what, and his lawyer comes in, played by George Martin.

I remember it was one of those Broadway openings where we all went to Sardi’s and watched TV afterwards or something, and they panned it, or whatever they said. But my family came up from Washington, D.C.—that’s where I was born—and then the next day we got a phone call to come down to the theater to get our stuff, that the show was closed. It was one of those great Broadway traditional moments of absolute failure. [Laughs.] You know, kind of an actor’s nightmare. That, and a director that screams at you, “You call that acting?” Those are the recurring nightmares that actors have. So, yeah, my show closed in a night on Broadway. How do you bounce back from that?

I asked George, “What happened?” Because we had been successful—completely successful—on off-off-Broadway, in Greenwich Village somewhere. And George said, “Oh, I knew this thing was going to bomb from day one.” And I looked at George, and I said, “You did?” And he said, “Yeah, it never had a chance.” I said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” And he said, “I thought you knew.” [Laughs.] I said, “No, I didn’t have a clue!” I don’t know, I never really knew or understood why it bombed.

Radio Flyer (1992)—“Daugherty”

JH: Later on, I did a film about child abuse with the great producer-director Richard Donner. What was that called? Radio Flyer? Again, I was replacing somebody, but Lorraine Bracco was in it, and they wanted me as the cop in the thing to fall in love with Lorraine, but I said I wouldn’t. I mean, I’m a cop, and she’s ignoring that her kids are being beaten up by their stepfather. And we had an argument… well, not an argument, but a discussion about it. I said, “I just don’t feel right. It’s like you’re taking everything away from the reality of the movie. I mean, he’s the local police officer who kind of susses this thing out, that the kids are being horribly physically abused, and then I fall in love with Mom? Aren’t you kind of idealizing this a little bit?” And then the movie didn’t succeed at all, and somebody said later—and I’ll never forget it—“You know, Hollywood doesn’t do child abuse.” Maybe Mommie Dearest is the closest they’ll ever get. But they don’t really do films about what horrible, real things happen to children very often, if ever. And that was sort of the way it was explained to me: “You’re never going to succeed doing a movie about something so horrible.”

The Pelican Brief (1993)—“Gavin Vereek”
The Client (1995-1996)—“Roy Foltrigg”

AVC: You talked about Denzel Washington earlier, but you’d worked with him before during your John Grisham one-two punch in the mid-1990s: you did The Pelican Brief and then followed it with the TV adaptation of The Client.

JH: Yeah, and I just did a poor imitation of Tommy Lee Jones. [Laughs.] That was with JoBeth Williams. We did, what, 20 episodes or so? That’s the only time I’ve ever done a series, and I learned about ratings. And then it needed a new producer or something, and when it got going again, the studio decided to can it.

I remember one afternoon when JoBeth got really pissed off at me. I was at rehearsal earlier than her that day, and I’d changed her line. It was, “You’re gonna get your cojones caught in a vise,” or something like that, and I said, “She’s not gonna say that. What if I were to say, ‘You’ve got your nipples caught in a vise’? Would you think that was okay? What is this, reverse sexism?” So when JoBeth wasn’t there, the director and producer decided, “Okay, we’ll scratch that. You have a point. Maybe she shouldn’t be so graphic.” And then JoBeth came in to rehearsal later and said, “What happened to my line? I loved that line!” And everybody went, “Uh, John didn’t like it.” And she came after me, like, “What the…? Who the hell are you to change my line?” And suddenly I really did get my cojones caught in a vise. [Laughs.] Really. I won’t ever do that again.

AVC: Do you have any particular anecdote about the experience of doing The Pelican Brief?

JH: Oh, yeah. I got married and had a lot of sex. [Laughs.] What was that, 21 years ago, that movie? There was a break in my work in that movie with Alan Peculiar—Alan Pakula, the director—and I went away. And in the course of time I went away—well, actually, I guess we hadn’t gotten married yet, but first we had been friends, and then we started out going out, and we started having all kinds of sex and everything.

But Alan had hired me because he’d seen me in a play by Arthur Miller, where I had a little paunch. And if you remember, I had a belly shot in that movie. I get shot, and I’m looking at my gut in the mirror. But when I got back from my break, I had lost 15 pounds from jumping up and down on my old lady, I guess. [Laughs.] I was in love! But he looked at me, he looked me up and down, and he said to me, “You are a professional actor, are you not?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I guess. I get paid.” He said, “Well, what’s with this new look? You’re shooting a movie!” And I said, “Oh, my God.” I didn’t even think about the fact that I’d lost weight, and that I look different when I lose weight.

So when my wife came down to watch, he got even with me. I have a scene when I’m looking in the mirror or something, getting ready to go out, and my wife in the film is sitting in the bed in the other room. You don’t really see her, but he cast somebody down there [in New Orleans] in that part and shot the scene. So my wife came down and was watching and—my wife was very, very pretty. And Alan looked her up and down, and he said, “Oh, my goodness, you’re John’s wife?” or whatever. And then he said, “Oh, that’s a shame. Because there’s a scene in which his wife is sitting on the bed, and I could’ve used you.” And I was standing there, and I said, “Yeah?”And he said to her, “Yeah, except for the fact that you’re much too beautiful to be John’s wife.” [Laughs.] And then we ended up getting a divorce, so… it turned out he was right!

The Package (1989)—“Colonel Glen Whitacre”

AVC: Everyone we talk to has some sort of Gene Hackman story, so please don’t be the exception to the rule.

JH: Gene Hackman came in the first day of shooting, and one thing was that, you know, here I am with all my hair shaved off, and I look like a pip-squeak, but I’m supposed to be this badass covert ops guy. And Gene Hackman walks through the door for our first encounter, and [his character] automatically hates me because I’m a little rat, and I was dumbstruck at what he did with those lines. I just remember being, like, “No one could make those lines as interesting as he did.” And I just stood there looking at him like, “That’s impossible.” I mean, the dialogue was, like, “Who are you? Blah, blah, blah.” Just totally expositional. It didn’t have anything. But he put emotion into this dry dialogue, and I just thought, “Wow.” And I experienced it. It wasn’t like seeing him in a movie and liking him, it was actually being on the other end of it and realizing that this guy was going to kick your ass if you didn’t get on the ball. [Laughs.] I was just so impressed with that.

And then at the end of the movie, Andy [Davis], who’s the sweetest guy in the world and who directed it—it’s freezing cold in Chicago, and at the end of the movie we confront one another, and Hackman again comes up and reads me the riot act, gets in my face, and totally shrivels me up and spits me out. He did the scene a couple of times, and Andy comes over and says, “That was great! That was great! That was great!” And then he says, “Do you want to do it again?” And Hackman just looked at him. And Andy’s standing there for a second, looking at Hackman, and he says, “Well, what did you think?” And Hackman looked at him and said, “What do I think? What do I think? What do you think? You’re the director.” And I went, “Oh, geez.” [Laughs.]

But for some reason I never forgot that. It was, like, here was this guy who was so powerful and so incredibly gifted in the simplest way that any director would oblige him, would concede to him. But at the same time, he was waiting to be directed rather than to be asked what was good and what wasn’t. I don’t know if, when other actors talk about him, they talk about him in the same superlative tone, but that’s what I remember about working with him.

AVC: Most of them do tend to praise him. Although Maura Tierney did recall him telling the director of Welcome To Mooseport at one point, “Will you just shut the fuck up and go over there and say ‘action’ or whatever it is you do?”

JH: [Laughs.] Well, with Andy, he wasn’t trying to insult him. He was just trying to say, “Man, I need you to tell me. I can’t be telling you. You’re the one watching.” So that combined with what I had seen him do with absolutely nothing. A lot of times as an actor, you want a director to ask you, “What do you think? Do you want to do it again? Are you comfortable with that? Do you think you can do something else?” It’s kind of give and take. But Hackman was, like, “You’re the director!” And I always thought that was really remarkable, that he was being great but still willing to be directed.

Jeff Bridges said to me once, when we were doing Cutter’s Way, “I always figure that if they get it on two takes and they don’t ask you if you want to do another one or they just don’t do another one, they figure you’re too dumb to do it any better.” [Laughs.] I said, “Oh, okay. So that means if we only get two takes on each scene, that means we’re too stupid to do any better?” And he said, “Yeah, I guess.” But you always think you can do it better. No matter what it is.