The actor: John Larroquette, who so dominated the Emmys' best-supporting-actor category in the mid-'80s for his role as a sleazy, sex-obsessed lawyer on Night Court that he took his name out of contention after winning his fourth consecutive award in 1988. Larroquette went on to garner three more Emmy nominations and one more win, two for his guest turns on David Kelley's The Practice (he won in 1998) and one for his lead role in the critically acclaimed John Larroquette Show. Larroquette has remained busy in the past few years, popping up in Richard Kelly's oddball dark comedy Southland Tales and Kelley's latest hit legal drama, Boston Legal.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)—"Narrator"
John Larroquette: Summer of 1969, I was living in Colorado in a very small town up in the mountains. A friend of the fellow for whom I worked had a friend come up from Texas to spend some time. That friend turned out to be Tobe Hooper, who was the writer and director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This was long before he was going to do the movie. We spent some time in the mountains together, doing what people did in the '60s in the mountains.
The A.V. Club: Eating tofu and drinking health shakes?
JL: Absolutely. And going to Ingmar Bergman film festivals. Enjoying the beauty of the mountains. And Tobe and I really hit it off. It was a really short time we spent in the mountains together. He was really there for a vacation. I spent about a year. Anyway, fast-forward to 1974, when I moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career through the same fellow whom I had worked for in Colorado. I got a call and he said, "Listen, remember my friend Tobe, yadda-yadda, he just made this film, and he wants to talk to you." So I talked to Tobe, and he had no money. He said, "I need a favor." And I said, "Yeah, I'd be happy to." I was a DJ in the '60s, so I had already worked with my voice. A lot of people knew that I at least had decent chops when it came to speaking the English language. I went into a studio, saw the piece of paper, read it for him, recorded it, said adios, he gave me a joint, I think as payment, and that was that. And later on, the film came out and I didn't really pay attention to it. I've never seen it. It sort of became the cult hit. And then it becomes sort of a preamble to my résumé, after all the years I've been acting and everything I've done. But as all things happen in this world, you never know how nature and the universe are going to treat you. Years later, when they re-did it, when they re-imagined it again without Tobe, I was called in to do the narration again, and actually got paid really well for it. So a favor I did in the '70s for a friend for no money came full circle, and I actually made a great deal of money from it later on.
AVC: So you didn't read the script for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre before you signed on?
JL: I did not. Not at all.
AVC: You didn't see it even after it became a pop-culture phenomenon?
JL: I have never seen it.
AVC: Are you not a horror buff?
JL: I think that's partially it. I certainly didn't stay away from it for any particular reason, I just don't go to those kind of movies on a regular basis. I like Tobe, and I like Marilyn [Burns], who was one of the girls in it—I met her in Colorado as well. It just never occurred to me, I'm not sure why. I certainly wouldn't go, "Hey, let's go listen to my voice!"
AVC: Did you see the remake?
JL: No, I've never seen any of it. An inch of any of them.
Greatest Heroes Of The Bible (1978)—"Joseph's Brother"
JL: HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! Or as I like to call, Greatest Hemorrhoids Of The Bible. Well, what I do remember about that experience that was beneficial was that I hadn't worked for a little while, and I was also at that point taking out some time to pursue a serious drinking problem. And it actually gave me money to get an apartment for my family and begin the road back to recovery. I played the brother of Joseph, I guess the one that sold him into bondage, and he comes back with his Technicolor coat. He was a messenger of God. So basically, I was a bad guy with a towel over my head for a while in Arizona. It was a whole miniseries, I suppose. There were several. I forgot who did them. But it was pretty big at the time, if I recall, as far as ratings and stuff are concerned. They took several stories from the Bible, and I don't think any actually deal specifically with Jesus. Two-hour movies, I guess they were.
AVC: But with no singing and no dancing.
JL: No, just sandals and rather flimsy afghans and a lot of really hot, as I recall it, sand.
Fantasy Island (1979)—"Jeff"
JL: I don't remember that I played Jeff on Fantasy Island, though that may have been the angel's name. I played an ethereal creature that was never seen, but whose voice and shining image was projected to one of the guest stars to show them the way that they should go. I was never in front of a camera with other actors on Fantasy Island.
AVC: It's just your voice, like a radio experience.
JL: That's right. It was sort of like Cecil B. DeMille talking to Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments.
AVC: Do you remember who you were inspiring with your words of wisdom?
JL: I do not.
Three's Company (1979)—"Cop"
JL: Two things about that were fun: I got to meet John [Ritter] and we became close friends. I found out at that time that we shared a rather obsessive compulsion with The Beatles. So we traded a lot of anecdotes about the Beatles and tried to stump each other with questions, which was fun. He and I got along well. And the other, which proves what a true thespian I am—there's one scene where John is breaking a window, and the cop runs in. I grab him and we exchange lines, the gist of which is "You're living here with these two beautiful women and you're trying to break out? You're crazy!" But it occurred to me that sitcoms are all lit from above, because there are four cameras working, so there are no lights on the floor looking directly at you, like there are in movies. And walking into this apartment with a cop's hat on, nobody's ever going to see my face. So I had to figure out a way to get my hat off. And this is all completely selfish and premeditated. So inside my hat, I've written the Miranda rights. So I take my hat off and tell him, "You have the right to remain silent." So my hat is off for the remainder of the scene, which allows you to see my face and my confidence, as it were. Had I not thought of that, it would have just been this hated cop figure for 30 seconds or whatever, and no one would have really known who he was. Being the man that I am, I had to find a way to make sure my entire face was shown. If anybody complained about it, I would have said, "You know what, the cop doesn't remember the thing…" but they were like, "Oh, that's funny."
Altered States (1980)—"X-Ray Technician"
JL: Phil, I think, was actually his name. I think in the script it said Phil, but in the titles, it said "X-Ray Technician." Paddy Chayefsky was on the set for at least the beginning of the film—I think he distanced himself from it later. But I actually got to sit down on a stage with him, and I was 25, 26 years old. And I got to sit on the soundstage with Paddy Chayefsky and Ken Russell. I was able to talk about Network and, you know, Paddy Chayefsky's work as a writer. His plays, I had read in the middle of the night. And a very young Bill Hurt and Charlie Haid and Bob Balaban were the three stars in it, and I was there for, like, three days on this role. But it was quite exciting to be directed by Ken Russell.
AVC: Paddy Chayefsky is known for being a stickler about people not altering his work. Was he there in part to make sure that nobody improvised?
JL: Yes, I'm sure. I think eventually he did not win that battle, because as I recall—I don't know if this is Hollywood legend, or I'm just making this up—he did finally leave and say, "Fuck this. This isn't what I signed on for." Something, I don't know the history of that.
AVC: Ken Russell and Paddy Chayefsky are both known as strong-willed individuals.
JL: Yeah, Russell particularly, I remember one time he was doing a scene with me, and there was a close-up of my hand and the X-ray. Obviously, since I was the X-ray technician. And they shot this, it was an over-the-shoulder insert of the X-ray picture. And I heard "Cut," so I put my hand down. And he came over and yelled at me, and says, "Okay, you don't move until I come over directly and say, 'Okay, you can put your hand down.'" So he was very imposing, but not in an unpleasant way. I was very happy to be directed by people. He definitely did take charge of a set when he was on.
Stripes (1981)—"Captain Stillman"
JL: I just knew I'd be able to pay my rent. I mean, I knew it was going to be fun. I was obviously familiar with Bill Murray, I was familiar with John Candy's work. They were really the only two people that I knew in it. Everybody else was sort of new, like me, except for those two. But it was revelatory, working with John Candy and Bill Murray. I still have friends from that—John Diehl, who was in that, and I remained friends. We did theater together several years later. We're always in touch. John Candy and I became great friends.
AVC: Was there a lot of improv in Stripes
JL: No. You know what, that's not true. Yes. In a way. It's amazing the way these things kind of happen—it was in 1981, this picture was made, so 27 years later, people still come up to me and go, "I wish I was a loofah." That's one of the lines that I say. When that scene occurred, I'm just looking out a window, I'm not seeing naked women, obviously, I'm just looking out a window. This set we were on—Ivan Reitman describes the scene that I'm actually looking at, he says that I'm looking at naked women in the shower, so he just wanted me to ad lib: you know, ooohs and aaahs, making noises. And at one point, as I think about what these girls were doing, I go, "I wish I was a loofah. I wish I was a loofah." Ivan eventually goes "Cut!" and comes up to me and says, "What the fuck's a loofah?" And I explained to him what it was, and he goes, "Oh! Leave it, I think it's funny." And so it became sort of this line that's been repeated forever.
AVC: History has vindicated you.
JL: John Lennon was killed while we were filming that movie. It was the summer of 1980, and we were in Kentucky, and it was devastating to all of us, obviously. And most of us were drunk for the next two weeks, on film, off film, regardless of where we were. That's the only movie of mine that I can watch—because I got sober nine months after that—it's the only piece of work where I can look back and go, "Oh man, are you fucked-up!" There are some scenes, particularly late at night, we were out at 4 o'clock in the morning. We were outside, it was cold. The crew had been wrestling or something, and they came back, and I'm chiding them. And it's so obvious that I'm drunk. To me, anyway. Anybody who knew me when I was drunk knows that my tongue is just a little too thick for my mouth.
The Rodney Dangerfield Show: It's Not Easy Bein' Me (1982)—"Rocky The Cigarette Girl"
JL: That was actually a favor asked of me by Bill Murray, because he was a guest star on it. And he suggested that I come over and play, and I did. I was surprised with what ease I could walk in high heels. A past life rearing its ugly head. Fishnet stockings, a little cigarette girl. [Adopts girl's voice.] "Hey Charlie, you want some cigarettes?" Like from a '40s movie. That was me. At 6'7"—or 8" or 9" with the high heels.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)—"K.K.K."
JL: Another incidence of me being a selfish actor. I said "There's no way I'm going to put on a fucking hood, otherwise you're not going to see me." So I'm one of the few actors in that particular section that doesn't have a hood on his face.
AVC: Anything beyond that stand out?
JL: Well, the obvious being, I worked with Mr. [Vic] Morrow the very night before he died [in an infamous on-set helicopter crash]. And it was my plan to go to the set the next night to watch that shot being filmed. I was officially finished with my obligation for the movie, and I asked one of the directors if I could come out and watch, and he said, "Sure, come on out. If you want to, you could ride in one of the helicopters." And the next day, my car was stolen. I was unable to get there. Physically unable to get there. That's the only thing that prevented me from being witness to that horror, or even sort of a bizarre participant, because the helicopter I was going to be flying in was probably the one that fell.
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1980)—"Maltz"
JL: I was called in as an actor by Leonard Nimoy, who was directing. And again, I think he hired me specifically because of my voice. The face doesn't mean anything under all that makeup, so the idea that I have some sort of baritone appealed to him, so I was hired for it, and spent two weeks arriving on set at 4 a.m. and sitting for the next five and a half hours in a makeup chair to get ready for the day. It took that long to apply all that stuff. And it was great, because Leonard and I became friends. And now I'm working with Bill Shatner again. Christopher Lloyd played the boss Klingon in that particular movie.
Choose Me (1984)—"Billy Ace"
JL: I was very old friends with David Blocker through his brother Dirk Blocker. He and I did a television series in the '70s called Baa Baa Black Sheep, with Robert Conrad. Dirk and I became fast friends and met his family. David, his older brother, was a producer for Alan Rudolph. When Alan was writing Choose Me, David thought, "Yeah, come in to meet Alan." I talked to Mr. Rudolph for a while, and he offered me the role in Choose Me. And he gave me the opportunity for the first time to actually make out on film. I had the opportunity to make out with a gorgeous, beautiful, lovely woman, Lesley Ann Warren. She sort of broke my cinematic cherry, as it were.
AVC: Did you have opportunities to make out onscreen later on?
JL: Not a lot. I don't play those kinds of roles very often, it seems. Around the same time, right after that, I had done the pilot for Night Court, and all of a sudden, that took off. And I certainly didn't get to make out that much in Night Court. My character wanted to a lot, but it was television, after all, and that never happened. That always sort of happened off-camera. But I've never been in a movie where there was any passionate kissy-face.
Night Court (1984-1992)—"Assistant D.A. Dan Fielding"
JL: It's ubiquitous, I mean, Jesus Christ, it's on somewhere all the time. Sort of like Bonanza. Well, it was sort of the big bang for all of us. Certainly financially, popularity-wise, notoriety-wise. I mean, once again, I walked in for an audition for a pilot, I got the pilot, and I thought, "Great! This is great!" I got maybe $15,000 to do a week's work. I was newly sober, I'd been sober a year. My family was sort of knitting itself back together, and we could afford to live and even prosper for a short time, never thinking that it would go for a series and etcetera.
AVC: Was there was a point when you realized that your character was taking off?
JL: Probably at the end of the second season. And also, the character went through quite a metamorphosis. If you look at the early episodes, my character was this sort of tight-lipped, vested, pipe-smoking, conservative fellow. And of course I was putting garden hoses down my pants by the end of the series. I think what happens on a television series like that is that the creator of the show gets used to the characters and the actors playing them. They learn to write toward their strengths, which a good writer does. And [show creator] Reinhold [Weege] saw that I was this maverick, crazy—that sounds self-inflating, but I have a rather acerbic sense of humor. Reinhold starting writing toward that and creating the character that everybody knows.
AVC: You became famous for taking your name out of consideration after you won your fourth Emmy. What was the thinking behind that?
JL: People ask me this question a lot, and I try to investigate my real feelings at the time and why I did it. It was a combination of two things. Quite frankly and honestly, I didn't think that the work that I had done was as good as it was, only partially because Reinhold had left by then, and new producers had come in. And more selfishly, quite honestly, I knew that the character had made a really deep impression on the American public, and on studios and producers and directors and writers, but it was going to end someday. I wanted to fade into the background with this guy a little bit, so that there would be a possibility of eventually doing something else. And as it turns out, it was 10 years after Night Court ended before I got a role as a dad. Because he was such a bizarre character, he had made such an impression, that typecasting does happen. Every role was some sleazy lawyer or some sleazy this or some sleazy that. It was sort of selfishly motivated. I loved the show, but it was time to move on. And after four in a row, I felt the rumblings; it seemed sort of piggish to continue that, so I thought it best just to not nominate myself any more.
The John Larroquette Show (1993-1996)—"John Hemingway"
JL: When I finished Night Court, I didn't work for a year and a half, and I stayed at home, and we had our youngest son in 1987, Benjamin. And about six to eight months into that hiatus, I started thinking, because I had a deal with NBC, after leaving Night Court, to do a series. I started reading scripts, and thinking about what I would do if I did another sitcom. I decided it would be a lot different from Dan Fielding. I came across this script that Don Reo had written, called Crossroads, about an alcoholic, and I thought, since I was one, that this would be a very funny arena to investigate. And so I contacted NBC and gave them the script. Don Reo was working with the production company, which had done the show Blossom, which was a success for them. He and I got together and said, "This would be interesting to do." I really did not want The John Larroquette Show to be the title, but the network pushed for that. I said, "I would really rather not have my name on the show." I knew that if it wasn't successful, I was going to look at the Nielsen Ratings with the number 77 and my name next to it. But that turned out to be the name. And the first season was very, quite, without modesty, one of the best seasons of sitcom television for a long time. It had a diverse cast. It was the only show on television at the time that had a racially mixed cast. It had a Spanish woman, it had two African-American men, it was quite remarkable, the first season of that show. And then it sort of changed, because the network was not as fond of the dark comedy and quotes of it, so we tried to continue it with a lighter tone. It lost its soul at some point during the second season. But we did 97 episodes of it. For most practical purposes, it was a success. I loved doing it. I was one of the executive producers, and had a lot to do with it.
AVC: When it first came out, the buzz was "It's too good for television, watch it before it's cancelled." But there were 97 episodes. Are there any plans to put it on DVD?
JL: You know, I've been asked that question several times, and I don't know exactly how those things work. I can't imagine that at some point it wouldn't be. Some shows that have only lasted six episodes go to DVD. It is very possible that will occur. But I don't have any control or any input into that.
AVC: Many of the most acclaimed shows of the '80s and '90s, like Buffalo Bill and The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd, have never been put out on DVD.
JL: There's expense involved, and I guess they have to figure out what their sales might be, etcetera. I mean, it had a very good afterlife. It re-ran for many years after it ended. So who knows? Only the first season of Night Court is on DVD. You'd think that show being as successful as it was, people would want more of that. Maybe the first season of sales were anemic.
Payne (1999)—"Royal Payne"
JL: It was that. It was pain.
AVC: So it wasn't a good experience?
JL: It's not so much that. When Larroquette ended, [CBS President] Les Moonves called and said, "Whatever you do next, I want you to do it here on CBS." So I sat for almost another year looking for something. And it had been tried before as well—it had been tried twice before to Americanize Fawlty Towers.
AVC: One version had Bea Arthur.
JL: And another one with Harvey Korman, called Snavely Manor, which never went past two episodes. I was thinking maybe I was too full of myself, that I could somehow replicate that show and give America a version of it that would be acceptable and funny, but it was sort of ill-conceived and badly executed.
AVC: Those are some pretty big shoes to fill.
JL: It goes even beyond that when I try to break down what I was thinking. Unlike John Cleese and the BBC—he only ever expected to do six episodes. You can write it differently. The object in America is to have a show last as long as it can. So it was my feeling that the real acidic relationship between the husband and wife couldn't be quite as vile as it was on the British series. So we tried to lighten it up to a point where the characters were more likeable. By doing that, you take some of the vinegar out of the sauce. It just wouldn't work.
Boston Legal (2007-present)—"Carl Sack"
JL: David Kelley and I have a history, because I did four episodes of a character named Joey Heric on The Practice, who was a flamboyant homosexual who gets away with murder. When he was looking to retool the Boston Legal cast, he called and asked me if I'd be interested in joining, and I said immediately, "Would you like me to come in today?" I became a fan of that show, because of James Spader's work. And I also I loved Candice Bergen and Bill Shatner. And David Kelley's writing is a premier reason why you'd take a job like that. You know you're going to have words to say that are fundamentally interesting and exciting to learn. So I just said, "Yes, absolutely."
AVC: Yeah, it's an amazing cast. It's a murderer's row of actors with very distinguished television backgrounds.
JL: We were talking about it the day before yesterday, and in the cast alone, you've got 18 Emmys just walking around the stage. It's a real pedigree to have those kind of actors, and I don't necessarily include myself in that group, though I am part of that group. A cast like that on an hour television show is great.
Southland Tales (2006)—"Vaughn Smallhouse"
JL: I don't remember exactly the genesis of that. I think somebody called, and I don't think I'd ever met Richard Kelly, and they said, "Would you want to do this?" And I looked at the cast and I thought, "Well, this looks like it's going to be a fun place to hang around for a few weeks with this cast. Dwayne Johnson, Mandy Moore, Wallace Shawn, who's a friend of mine, Nora Dunn, who'd I worked with a couple of times in the days when I hosted Saturday Night Live. And Richard Kelly, of course, had the success of Donnie Darko. You take jobs so much of the time when you don't need to necessarily work for a living, but it becomes important who you are going to work with. That's somehow how you make decisions. It was a great experience. It was fun to film, and it was fun to work with all those people.
AVC: What did you think seeing it for the first time?
JL: I described it as wonderfully inscrutable. And they may resurrect it on the midnight circuit. I know it has its ardent fans. I think it just wasn't accessible enough for a general audience.
AVC: History will probably be kinder to Southland Tales than the present.
JL: That may have been the case with Donnie Darko as well, because I don't think Donnie Darko took off until the midnight circuit picked up on it and made it the cult hit that it is.
AVC: It became a big success on DVD.
JL: Right. In fact, one of my sons told me a couple of weeks ago that they went to the video store, and there were no copies left to rent. People had taken them all out, so there are people now seeing it that had probably never seen it. It certainly had a short life theatrically.
AVC: I saw it in the theater. There were four people there at the beginning. Two of them walked out after about half an hour. It's kind of polarizing.
JL: If 50 percent of your career is not filled with failure, you're not really successful.