John Schuck

The actor: “All right, bub, your fuckin’ head is coming right off.” With those words in 1970’s M*A*S*H, the first use of “fuck” in a mainstream movie, Hollywood entered a new and profane era of linguistic freedom, and debuting actor John Schuck earned his own small entry in its history books. Since then, and after further adventures with M*A*S*H director Robert Altman, Schuck became a familiar face in movies and especially on television, where he guest-starred in seemingly every show through the 1980s. He’s known to Trekkies as the Klingon ambassador from the fourth and sixth installments of the Star Trek motion-picture series, and as a host of other alien characters on various Trek-universe programs. Now preferring to concentrate on stage work, Schuck is currently playing Max Goldman (the Walter Matthau role) in the musical stage version of Grumpy Old Men, on its world-première run in Winnipeg, Canada. 

M*A*S*H (1970)—“Captain ‘Painless’ Waldowski”
The A.V. Club: How did you come to Robert Altman’s attention as he was casting M*A*S*H?

John Schuck: I was working at a theater in San Francisco called ACT, or American Conservatory Theatre. I was doing Little Murders, the Jules Feiffer play. An actress by the name of… [blanks out] Oh my goodness. She went on to play Ma Walton on The Waltons. [The actress is Michael Learned.] Anyhow. They were coming up to see her for the part of what turned out to be Lieutenant Dish, and so the director, Robert Altman, saw me in the play that night, in that show. And then about three days later, I received a call from him, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in doing the part of Duke.

And I said sure, so I read this piece, and frankly, I didn’t think it… It was the first movie script I ever read, and I didn’t think it was very interesting. Theatrical snob, you see. [Laughs.] Anyhow, I phoned him and said, “I’d love to do it, I think it’s a fabulous idea for a movie.” He called me the next day and said, “Well, you can’t play Duke, because there’s a contract player by the name of Burt Reynolds that Fox owes a part to, and so they want to use him.” Well, of course that didn’t work out, and Tom Skerritt got the role.

But he then called me about a week later and said, “How would you feel about playing Painless?” And I said, “Who’s he?” He said, “He’s the dentist who commits suicide.” “Oh, yes.” And I read it again, and as you read the part, you realize it’s just basically a sexual joke. But I thought I could do something with it, and so I said yes. I mean, how many times do you get a chance to be in the films? I was released from my contract by William Ball at ACT, so I went and made it.

Now, the funny thing about M*A*S*H is that it previewed up in San Francisco. I flew back for that, and we went to the theater down on Market Street, and the movie playing just before us was [Robert] Redford and [Paul] Newman, Butch Cassidy. Which was a heck of a wonderful picture. I mean, my God. In fact, the audience clapped after it was over, and we thought, “Okay, kind of a tough act to follow.” And indeed, for the first 10 minutes of the screening, there wasn’t a sound. And all of a sudden, I forget what the exact moment was, but there was an energy that began to come into the room, and it grew and it grew, and then when the first operation scene came, and the blood squirts out of the vein, I thought the woman in front of me was going to throw up. [Laughs.] But she quickly got used to it, and the comedy started playing, and by the end of the film, they stood up and cheered for about five minutes. And all the suits were standing around going, “Hrumph, I think we might have something on our hands!”

Well, it opened to so-so reviews. New York Times I believe was good. There were some good ones. But what really put us over the top was the fact that the military censored us, as did the Catholic League. And so everybody wanted to see the picture, and it’s gone on to have the wonderful history that it’s had.

AVC: You were reportedly the first person ever to say “fuck” in a major motion picture.

JS: Yes. Schuck and fuck, I guess it’s inevitable, right? [Laughs.] Bob had gone home, and we were in a park shooting the football sequence. And there was a second-unit director by the name of Andy Sidaris, who’d done tons of work for ABC Sports and stuff. So he was doing all this stuff, and he said, “Okay, I want to do this shot where it’s just you and Ben Davidson.” My God, what a giant! And I’d never been a football player; I was a soccer player in high school. So anyhow, [Sidaris] said, “Just say something that’ll annoy him.” So that line, “All right, bub, this time your fuckin’ head’s coming right off” was what I came up with, and that’s the last thing I remember. [Laughs.] These big arms went “Bam!” and threw me back, and I was kind of woozy for an hour or so. I’d never been hit that hard. But it was grand fun, and that’s how that line got in the movie.

AVC: Was there a sense at the time that you were pushing an envelope?

JS: No. I mean, we didn’t know anything. When you watch that film, it’s all “Introducing, introducing, introducing.” Elliott [Gould] had done maybe one film; [Donald] Sutherland was coming off Kelly’s Heroes. It was all new people, and most of us had never been in front of a camera outside of our parents’ Kodak. And we came from disparate backgrounds, a lot of improv groups in New York and San Francisco, and the rest of us were legitimate stage actors. Repertory, classically trained types. Me, G. Wood, René Auberjonois, we were all from that San Francisco company, and we had no idea. We were just having a hell of a good time. But that night, after that preview, we thought, “Well, obviously there’s a chord that’s been struck here.”

The Moonshine War (1970)—“E.J. Royce”
JS: The Moonshine War was about six months after M*A*S*H opened. It was not a good picture, though it had Alan Alda, Richard Widmark, Patrick McGoohan, Lee Hazlewood, Will Geer. So it was about moonshiners, as the title implies, and it was shot up in Stockton, California. It was directed by Richard Quine, who’d had quite a distinguished career; but sadly, he committed suicide a couple of years later. I hope it wasn’t as a result of this movie. But it was not a good movie.

But it was great fun to be working with Tommy Skerritt again, who was also in it. Tom made me realize that you could have a lead in a movie one minute and then be playing a very minor part in your next project. That was similar to the theater, where you got big parts and small parts, but it was the work that was important, and to accumulate a body of it. That was a very good lesson to learn.

But it was fun. The one thing I do remember is that we were all looking forward to getting killed. [Laughs.] By that I mean, most of us revenuers had our demise in the picture, and everybody was getting wired up, you know, with these pellets under their clothing, and they’d go, “One, two, three,” and hit the screwdriver across these contact points, and these things would go off in your clothes, and you’d writhe around and fall, bloody as all get out. Like kids is how we were about it. So I was sitting in this Model-T Ford that I was driving, and the special-effects guy comes up to me, and I think, “This is my time!” I roll down the window, he says, “Hold out your hand.” So I did, and he poured some blood into my hand, and he said, “Okay, now when the director shouts ‘John!,’ just slap yourself in the face.” Which is what I did. [Slaps face, cries ‘Bleaugh!’] So I was low-tech.

Brewster McCloud (1970)—“Officer Johnson”
AVC: Robert Altman must have enjoyed working with you, because you were in his next picture after M*A*S*H.

JS: I did four pictures in a row with him. Well, three in a row, definitely. Brewster was the second one, and in many ways, it’s my favorite movie of his. He used Bud Cort to star in it, and he discovered Shelley Duvall in Texas, in Houston, which was where we were shooting it. And it’s this bizarre little movie that’s much better than the reviews it got. It has become a bit of a cult film. And he also stuck with the rep company of René and G. Wood and Corey Fischer and that whole group of actors. Sally Kellerman. And he brought in Stacey Keach to play an old man in a wheelchair. He was satirizing [Ingmar] Bergman. Every so often in the movie, you hear a “Caw!” and you look up, and this bird splats on a windshield or a person. Very funny. [Swedish Chef accent.] “De döve!” We would walk around saying “De döve!”

But it was again grand fun, and one of the reasons is that we got to play with cars. We were set loose in the parking lot of the Astrodome, and taught how to do spins and all that kind of stuff, U-ies and the whole thing. So it was fun, and it was my first time in the Southwest, which was, I found, a bit of a culture shock, in terms of temperature and accents and cooking styles and all the wonderful things that are in different parts of the country.

But I like the movie. I actually got into my first argument with Altman. Wasn’t any of my place, but I opined to him one day that I didn’t think that the cops should shoot Brewster down once he’s flying around in the Astrodome, but that he fails because of his own fallibility. And we argued about that for years. And the last time I saw Bob he said, “You know, I think you’re right.” [Laughs.]

McCabe And Mrs. Miller (1971)—“Smalley”
McMillan & Wife (1971-77)—“Sgt. Charles Enright”
AVC: Was Brewster McCloud your first cop role? You’ve played several.

JS: I don’t know if it was my first cop role, but it was my first one as an incompetent. Which was interesting, because when McMillan & Wife came along, and they offered me the part of [Rock Hudson’s assistant] Enright, which happened right after the third movie I did with Altman, which was McCabe And Mrs. Miller, they wanted to make Enright an incompetent. And I said, “Well, you know, incompetency is maybe good for a few minutes, but it’s nothing to hang a series on.” So I suggested that he be an overachiever. Someone who tries too hard, who wants to please too much, that type of thing. I thought we could build conflict and something much more substantial, with some bones on it. So that’s how we went after that part.

But McCabe was the third picture, and that was shot in Canada. In West Vancouver, up on top of British Properties. Seems strange, because here we had this glorious 1800s village that was built by hand, and 25 yards away was a split-level ranch-style house. It’s sad, I went back a few years ago, and it’s all gone now. But [then] there was still forest, and it was quite magnificent. And the weather blessed us with real snow, so we were able to get two seasons.

I love that film for its texture, and the grittiness. A lot of people have complained that you can’t hear the lines and what people are saying. There might be some truth to that, but certainly you get all the important information. Acting-wise, it was really the beginning of that everybody-talking-at-once type of style. But it’s true that if you wanted to hear the oboe in the orchestra, you couldn’t really. And that’s why, a couple pictures later, Bob had the sound people use a mixer and record individual tracks. That was the start of that. The Long Goodbye, I believe, was the first one he used that on.

The lighting was so naturalistic. [Laughs.] And he didn’t tell Vilmos Zsigmond, the photographer, this, but he was flashing the negatives, which is very risky. I mean, if it goes wrong, you don’t have that day’s work, you know?

[Flashing is exposing the negative to additional light to lower the contrast of the final image. —ed.]

AVC: He did that and didn’t tell the cinematographer?

JS: No, he didn’t at first. Until Vilmos saw the rushes and he said [Hungarian accent.] “Robert! How you getting this quality?” “I’m flashing the…” “VHAT???” [Laughs.] A whole battle ensued.

AVC: Wasn’t that Zsigmond’s first big picture as a cinematographer?

JS: Well, Bob knew the camera very well, and was arrogant enough to think he could handle anything. But he respected Vilmos immensely, and liked him. Not that they didn’t have their moments. I guess every director does with his cinematographer.

But we loved Vancouver, and I was lucky enough to have a house right on the bay, a little apartment, and it had a boat that came with it, and you could put out crab pots and that sort of thing. It was glorious living, and a wonderful three and a half months. I really was sad when it was over.

Thieves Like Us (1974)—“Chicamaw”
JS: Thieves Like Us must have been about ’74, ’75, I guess, and that was shot in Mississippi, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall—who had become quite a star by that point—Bert Remsen, myself, and Louise Fletcher. Almost everybody else were local hires. It was done on a shoestring budget, using an extraordinary photographer by the name of Jean Boffety, an alcoholic Frenchman who is sadly gone. He lit scenes in a fashion I had never seen. No big studio type of equipment, though there was some for lighting large areas, but basically he used PARs, little floodlights, and stuck theatrical gels over them, and stuff like that. And he would use two, three lights and paint a picture. Phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal.

It’s beautiful. It’s very slow-moving, and a lot of people haven’t seen it, but again, it’s become a bit of a cult film. Pauline Kael raved about it in The New Yorker, but it was not a popular picture at all. Partly because the studio that released it—same thing happened with Brewster—had no idea how to promote the picture. I have a poster at home, and it treats it as though it was a gangster picture. And while they were bank robbers, it was more about a family. And it’s highly poetic in its nature, it takes its time, and you know it’s going to do it from the opening shot. Which is this extraordinary 180 degrees, or even more, probably, of a railroad handcar coming down, and then you see us out in the lake rowing across, and coming up through the kudzu. It was about a five-minute shot, and it sort of augured the Altman thing of “I’m going to outdo Orson Welles with my tracking shots.” Quite fabulous.

AVC: And that was your largest Altman role, practically a lead.

JS: It was a large role. He was a half-breed Indian by the name of Chicamaw Mobely. And it was based on a book. [Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us.] There’d been another movie called They Live By Night, which was loosely based on it. It was one of those books, when you read it, you could smell the earth. It just evoked, with his use of language, all your other senses. And I thought Bob captured that in a very good way.

It was interesting, too, because this was Mississippi in 1974, so segregation and all that still wasn’t that far behind us. One day we were shooting on a location and there was gunfire going off. It turned out there was a Ku Klux Klan shooting range about a quarter of a mile away. So we went to the head cop and asked, “Is there any way we can get those boys to stop that until we’re out of here?” So they sent the black cop over to get them to stop. [Laughs.] That was their idea of a good joke.

AVC: Did you keep in touch with Altman after Thieves Like Us?

JS: I did keep in touch with him. Very, very definitely. And he even called for me to do… there were quite a few of his pictures where everybody would do a little cameo. And he called me twice for that, but I couldn’t do that. And I was also supposed to be in Nashville, but he kept pushing the date back, and I had to go do McMillan, so… 

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Hammersmith Is Out (1972)—“Henry Joe”
JS: [Laughs.] Talking to you, I realize how many bad movies I’ve been in. Or unsuccessful ones. Well, Hammersmith Is Out starred Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Beau Bridges, me playing a Texas oil millionaire by the name of Henry Joe Fitch. Peter Ustinov was in it, and directed it as well. He was this very easy-to-talk-to type of fella; I went to my audition and he looked at me and said, “Oh, that’s very good. I’ll see you in Mexico.” So he let me know right there that I had it. 

So I arrived in Mexico, and my first scene was this love scene with Elizabeth Taylor. It was on a heart-shaped bed with these red satin sheets. We both had on robes; she had jewelry and I had white socks, so I guess we were even there. I showed up at the set and Peter said, “Have you met Elizabeth?” I said, “No,” so he takes me over to her dressing room, and it’s about 8 o’clock in the morning. Knock, knock, knock. “Come in!” And there she is, dressed for the scene, gorgeous. And the first words out of her mouth were, “John, how nice to meet you. Would you like a mimosa?” [Laughs.] And of course I said, “Yes, if you’re having, I will have.” So we had two mimosas, and then we went to work. And at a certain point in the scene, I kiss her. And I kept getting that part wrong. I had to do it over and over and over again. [Laughs.] But the weird thing was that Burton, whom I hadn’t met, kept peeking around the corner to see what was going on with this scene.

We had a very good time, and it was a very, very interesting set. It was my first time working with huge, huge stars, and the paparazzi were unbelievably difficult. In fact, they even caught a fella who had dressed up as a sailor to get by the security, and he’d made it into a grotto that we were shooting at. Like a swimming pool with a grotto behind it, sort of like a Playboy Club type of thing. And they found him and beat the crap out of him. It was not pretty. That was ugly.

But Elizabeth by herself was phenomenal. The two of us went off to Taxco, the town where they sell silver. We got out of that town by running and jumping into this limo and speeding on down the road once she was recognized. But you had the feeling that if it all ended, she would have shrugged and said, “That was fun,” and started over again. I loved her, she was great.

Holmes And Yo-Yo (1976-77)—“Gregory ‘Yoyo’ Yoyonovich”
AVC: You were kind of a precursor to Robocop for a while there in the mid-’70s.

JS: Holmes And Yo-Yo was an attempt, not a very successful one, but an attempt at two-man comedy á la Abbott and Costello. I played a robotic policeman, and here’s another case where I had an argument with the creators. I said that my partner shouldn’t know that I was a robot, but they decided that at the end of the pilot, he finds out. I thought we lost lots of chances for conflict and comedy.

The other thing we had a real hard time with was, during those days of farces in the ’30s and ’40s, and all the little shorts they did with the Three Stooges, the props people, if they needed a funny radio, they built a funny radio. There wasn’t any of that for us. It was very difficult to get things to work so that they were humorous. So we suffered a lot there, but the main problem with it was that the writing just wasn’t up to snuff. It met a fairly quick demise; I guess it closed down after about 10, 11 episodes, something like that.

But again, it was fun to make. I got to jump around, do stunts. John Astin was the director for most of the episodes, whom I loved working with. Richard B. Shull, who played my partner, was a very funny actor and a unique man. He sadly is no longer with us either. He lived in the ’40s. He bought ’40s clothing, he only used pen and ink, he had his own railroad car which he would attach to trains and travel around the country. He had a 1949 Chevrolet car. I mean, he truly lived in the past. Quite remarkable.

Butch And Sundance: The Early Days (1979)—“Kid Curry/Harvey Logan” 
JS: That was a prequel. This was directed by Richard Lester, who had done the Beatles movies and one or two of the Supermans, and I think he’d finished those when I was working with him. Absolutely delightful: an American expatriate who lives in England. Originally from Philadelphia. Very easygoing, and it was the first time since Altman that I’ve worked with a director who always shot with two cameras in every scene. So the days went by very, very quickly.

We had a fun cast. Christopher Lloyd was in it, and just some lovely people. Again, a weak script. The most fun we had was when a group of us hid out in a railroad water tower. Spent seven hours in this thing. They kept pouring in warm water. I don’t think it was very sanitary by the time we got out of there.

AVC: Christopher Lloyd may have actually peed in there for all you know, like his character does.

JS: [Laughs.] He probably did! Well, I did. Anyhow, it was great. It was done in a place called Alamosa, Colorado, best known for its T-shirt, which says, “Where the hell is Alamosa?”

The New Odd Couple (1982-83)—“Murray”
JS: The idea was to take the Odd Couple premise and have two black guys do it, Demond Wilson and Ron Glass. But they hired all the same writers, so they were writing Jewish jokes for black guys! A friend of mine once said, “They would have been better off just showing the negatives of the original.” [Laughs.] But I had fun. I was playing Murray the cop. Most of the rehearsal was sitting around rewriting this stuff, which actors have no business doing, but… Joel Zwick was very lenient with us, and Garry Marshall was the producer, but he was fairly laissez-faire with us. We did what we wanted.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) / Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)—“Klingon ambassador”

AVC: It’s something for an actor to step into such a well-established mythology.

JS: It was terrific. Just having the small part of the ambassador in IV, and then he reappears in VI, yeah, you’re part of a cultural phenomenon, and to be a part of that is terrific. As an actor, they’re fun parts too, because it’s a chance to be very theatrical. Vocally, the way you look, it’s almost operatic. And these elaborate makeups that begin at 3 o’ clock in the morning for a 9 o’ clock call. Originally it took two to three hours to remove, but over the years, they improved on all that.

It was fun, and I’ve been honored enough to play several other creatures for Star Trek and a couple of other sci-fi series. The last one I did, I played a Klingon scientist, and it was a story about how the Klingons got their ridges. Not only do Ruffles have ridges, Klingons have them too.

Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)—“Sheriff Tupper”
AVC: Getting punched right through the head by Billy Zane must have been some sort of career highlight.

JS: Well, I went over to watch them do it. And they’d taken a mask, you know, gone through that whole procedure, and they mounted it, very realistic-looking, and they filled it with Franco-American spaghetti and other assorted vegetables. They mounted it so that this pneumatic fist, Billy Zane’s fist, pulls back and then bam! Into the thing. And it happened so fast, but even just standing there, I looked away. All this crap comes out the back of my head. It was a bit bizarre. I’m not sure it was the best idea to go and see it, outside of the curiosity of “How did they do it?”

That was one of those little low-budget pictures that, again, was just fun, you know? It was shot in an airplane hangar in Van Nuys, California. It was interesting, because we would turn the lights on in this hangar and there were tons of birds living in the hangar that we didn’t know about, and so as soon as the lights came on, they were all singing away, tweet tweet tweet! We had to loop half the stuff.

The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion (2001)—“Mize”
AVC: So many of the pictures you’ve done look, from an audience perspective, like nice groups of people just having fun. The Woody Allen movie you did looks like another one of those.

JS: Yes. Not one of his stronger movies. He probably shouldn’t have played the lead. He’s a strange director. I enjoyed working with him, but it was a little frustrating in the sense that he only lets you see your scenes, and not necessarily all of it. So no one, including Helen Hunt, had read the script. They’d just read their little parts. Dan Aykroyd. Didn’t matter who you were. And he didn’t like to be asked questions. Just kinda “Say the words.”

So this one day I have a telephone conversation, and the camera’s here and there’s an opening leading into another part of the office, and there’s a glass partition, so you can see my shadow moving back and forth. And I come into view sometimes. So he said, “John, we’re running a little short of time, are you ready to shoot this?” I said, “Sure.” And so I say my speech that I had, and then I hear the script gal reading, and I figure, “Oh, that must be what’s after,” because all I had was my speech. And then there’s a pause, and I hear Woody say, “Well, go on, do the rest of it.” I said, “That’s all I have.” “Oh, cut, cut, cut! Give him the page!” [Laughs.] It was another big fat thing there, you know? The upshot of it is, I shot it, but basically, I was reading it when I walked off [behind the partition]. That did not make me happy. I thought that was unprofessional on his part. But other than that, he was great.

AVC: And a great supporting cast, Wallace Shawn, David Ogden Stiers…

JS: David Ogden. David Ogden’s a big wine connoisseur; in fact, he has his own vineyard.

AVC: You made appearances on seemingly every TV show of note in the ’70s and ’80s, but you never showed up on M*A*S*H.

JS: Well, I was asked to be on M*A*S*H, and I turned them down. I felt that Painless was basically just a sexual joke, and we’d done the joke. And you couldn’t do that on a series. So I said, “Thank you, but no.” And I had McMillan going at that time, too. They did hire an actor to play that part. I think it lasted two episodes or something. And then they wanted a sexual component, and that’s when they came up with Jamie Farr’s part of the cross-dresser. Which was fabulous, because it was visual and could be applied to every type of situation. So it was great, and that’s how that all happened.

Second Sight (1989)—“Manoogian”
AVC: In the movie Second Sight, which was set in Boston, you were the only actor to put on a Boston accent.

JS: Well, I was born in Boston! I had so much time there, I didn’t have anything else to do. [Laughs.] But it was great, staying at a first-class hotel right there by the Commons, enjoying the food of Boston, and the sights. But it was John Larroquette, Stuart Pankin, wonderful people like that. Again, I’ve been very blessed, you’re right, with great casts. I can’t think of one offhand that was a bad experience that way, you know, with a prima donna that ruined the whole mood. That has not happened. Also true here. Joel Zwick, who directed the television show that we talked about, The [New] Odd Couple, was the director of this, and it’s the only time in my career that I’ve worked for the same director twice. Outside of Altman. I don’t know what that says about me, or about the business, but that was the way it was.

AVC: There’s another director you’ve worked with more than once: Leonard Nimoy.

JS: Yes, that’s true. Leonard directed Star Trek IV and then Holy Matrimony, in which I played a cop. 

AVC: So he remembered you from Star Trek, and that’s how you were cast in Holy Matrimony?

JS: Well, I’ll give you a piece of television trivia. My first wife is a woman by the name of Susan Bay. And when we divorced, we had one son. She remarried some time after to Leonard, so Leonard’s my son’s stepdad. That might have had something to do with [my casting]. Like Jack Warner said, though, “I have a theory of relatives too. Don’t hire ’em!”

The Munsters Today (1988-91)—“Herman Munster”
AVC: Did you get any pointers from Fred Gwynne on playing Herman Munster?

JS: Well, I knew Fred, but The Munsters Today is the only job I’ve taken for money, because of the money. And I’ll never do that again. Because I was fairly miserable. The writing was not up to snuff, the costume was very uncomfortable, the idea of doing it in front of a live audience as a sitcom really didn’t work. And it was one of those things where, really, why do it? It was done brilliantly the first time, and came out at a time in our cultural history when it belonged. Having said that, I think we did like 102 episodes. [Laughs.] And it got me a house. So it wasn’t a total loss.

Grumpy Old Men: The Musical (2011)—“Max Goldman”
JS: My main love. I’ve always used television and film to foster my theatrical career, and so being here at the moment doing Grumpy Old Men… I’d never done a new musical before, and it’s wonderful. And of course it will be different than Matthau and [Jack] Lemmon. We’ve taken the story, we’ve expanded it a little bit, but the essence of the characters is there. The type of humor is still very much there. We’re having a grand time here at the theater, and looking forward to getting in front of an audience.