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: Jon Cryer spent the mid-’80s as a teen heartthrob for the awkward set, with his role as Duckie in Pretty In Pink catapulting him into a variety of different projects, including solo vehicles (Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home), ensemble films (Dudes), and even a high-profile superhero franchise (Superman IV: The Quest For Peace). When the ’90s arrived, Cryer attempted to gain a foothold on the small screen as well, but it wasn’t until 2003 that he became a full-fledged TV star, thanks to the runaway success of CBS’s Two And A Half Men, now concluding its 10th season.
No Small Affair (1984)—“Charles Cummings”
Jon Cryer: Wow. Charles Cummings. That was my first… well, actually, it was not my first film. My very first feature was O.C. And Stiggs, directed by Robert Altman.
The A.V. Club: Really? No Small Affair is listed as being released before O.C And Stiggs.
JC: That’s because O.C. And Stiggs was almost never released at all. And with good reason! [Laughs.] I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s difficult to understand why anyone was involved in that project. At any rate, No Small Affair was my first lead role in a movie, and I was cast opposite Demi Moore. There was, I think, a three- or four-year age difference between the two of us, but the whole point of the script was that it was sort of this May/December thing. Yet they cast Demi, who’s young and gorgeous. That just seemed like odd casting to me at the time.
Also, it was an already-troubled script. It was a script that had gotten into production with Sally Field and Matthew Broderick. Now there’s an age difference! [Laughs.] But they had shut down, because Marty Brest, the director at the time, had become ill. This was their second swing at it, but by that point, the cast members had moved on to other things. So they recast it, and we went into production. It was very much a learning experience for me. I became ill during it. I got a case of mono that was pretty horrendous.
AVC: There’s a kissing-disease joke there somewhere.
JC: Yes, there is a kissing-disease joke to be made, and I understand that you have to make it. Please feel free to make it in the space provided here. [Laughs.] But, yeah, it was a huge learning experience. It was the first time I had a costume lady, the lady who delivered my costumes every day, and she took me inside and said, “Okay. There are rules to this thing.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Don’t just leave your clothes all over the dressing room. You’ve got to hang ’em up!” It was my first lead role, so somebody had to tell me that it’s really impolite to leave your stuff all over the floor, because someone’s got to pick it up! I just assumed it was all going to the dry cleaner anyway, so who cares, you know? But you need somebody to take you aside and show you the ropes, and a lot of people on that film did.
Jeffrey Tambor was on that shoot, who was so lovely and funny in this wonderful, weird, off-kilter way. Ann Wedgeworth was in that movie as well, and obviously Demi, who’d been doing soaps—General Hospital—for several years at that point. She was amazing, in that she would come in with all the lines memorized, no problem, because she was used to doing this enormous amount of soap-opera heavy lifting. I was in awe of everybody to some degree, but I was also young enough to be a wiseass. And, uh, kind of an idiot. [Laughs.] So I had a lot to learn.
That’s a movie that I haven’t seen in so long, and I really… [Hesitates.] There’s so many of the movies that I’ve done that I haven’t seen in so long, because you kind of cringe. It’s like if you’ve ever heard your voice on a recording or a voicemail or something, and you go, “Oh! That’s me?” [Laughs.] It’s like that. I have a very hard time watching anything I’ve done.
O.C. And Stiggs (1985)—“Randall Schwab Jr.”
AVC: Let’s jump back to your actual first film. Even though it’s decidedly one of Robert Altman’s lesser works, how did you manage to start your career with an Altman picture?
JC: Well, I just auditioned for Bob in New York. I had just started auditioning for stuff. I had done an understudy role on Broadway… actually, I was understudying Matthew Broderick in Brighton Beach Memoirs. And I managed to get fired from being Matthew Broderick’s understudy. Certainly not for not looking like him enough, because I had that nailed. No, mostly it was because it was a huge role and it was my very first job, and I don’t know that I seemed confident enough in it. That, and also the wiseass issue kind of arose again.
So, anyway, I had a little free time after that. [Laughs.] And I found myself auditioning for Robert Altman. At his house. This was the guy who had done M*A*S*H, Nashville, and so many other amazing pieces of work, and I was totally in awe. I found out that he would cast people that he liked, and then he let them make it up as they went along. That makes the movies like M*A*S*H and Nashville all the more amazing, the fact that they’re accidents in many respects, but shaped by a guy who happens to have been a genius. However my particular accident, O.C. And Stiggs, remained an accident all the way through.
I remember my very first day of shooting. We were shooting a wedding scene; my sister was getting married in the movie, and the idea was that we came out of the chapel, and we were supposed to get pooped on by a bunch of the doves that are released. The idea was that we were reveling in the grandiosity of the event, only to be shat upon. That was the humor that Bob was going for. But the special-effects guys that made the fake bird poop were trying to fling it in from the side, and Bob did not feel that that was realistic enough. So… well, let’s say the portly Bob Altman ascended this rickety aluminum ladder—like, a 10-footer—and sat there with this bowl of fake bird shit that was basically, by the way, sour cream with little cut-up bits of black rubber band. Just in case you ever feel the need to simulate bird poop. At any rate, he sat there with this big bowl of fake bird poop, and he flung it on the crowd as the camera rolled. Because, you know, obviously that was where his artistry was best used. [Laughs.]
What I loved was the reaction of the actors, because as we came out… there were actors of great renown—Paul Dooley, Jane Curtin—people I respected enormously. Paul Dooley got nominated for an Oscar, for crying out loud! And we were all jockeying for position to get shat on by Bob Altman. I said, “If this isn’t a metaphor for show business, I don’t know what is.” I should add that this is a movie that I’ve never seen a final cut of. I saw a rough cut that Bob was screening that I believe never made it out. I believe the studio re-cut the movie. Because it supposed to just be a fun, teenage… It was supposed to be a teenage M*A*S*H. That’s what they were going for. At least I think that’s what the studio thought they were gonna get. But Bob has a very particular sense of humor, and it never quite gelled.
Shorts (2009)—“Dad Thompson”
Hannah Montana (2010, 2011)—“Ken Truscott”
JC: Oh, yeah! Shorts was… I was really looking for an excuse to work with Robert Rodriguez. He amazes me. The man does not sleep. He’s just a movie machine. He just has to live, and movies come out of him. He does it all, for better or worse. I think when his movies are troubled, it’s because he’s so in his own head. But when his movies really work, it’s because of the same thing! So it’s really hard to gauge what’s going to come out the other side. At any rate, I really loved that he was doing the Pulp Fiction structure in a kids’ movie, which I thought was super fun.
He has such a good time doing what he’s doing, and he invites you along with the process. If he’s editing anything, he says, “Oh, you wanna see it? You wanna see it?” And he brings you into the editing room. If he’s written a new part of the score, he’ll say, “Oh, listen to this!” And he’ll play it for you. And who cares what I think? But apparently he does. [Laughs.] He’s really dedicated to what he’s doing, and that sense of fun is infectious. You can’t help but be dragged along and have a great time. I’d work with him again in a minute.
I’m trying to think what else to tell you about that. Oh, I played Kat Dennings’ dad! She had so much charisma already that it’s one of those things where you go, “Okay, she’s gonna be huge.” Every now and then, you meet people like that, and you just go, “Well, whatever ‘it’ is, she’s got it!” So it was fun to play her dad.
AVC: So does she call you “Dad” when she sees you at the CBS Christmas party?
JC: No, she does not. [Laughs.] But, actually, 2 Broke Girls shoots right next door to us, so it is wonderful to see her flourishing the way that she is. I’d love to take a sort of paternal interest in her, but I have no real right to do that, really. I did one movie with her where I played her dad, not really a long-term thing.
Not that that necessarily matters. Emily Osment was on [Two And A Half Men] this week, and I played her dad on Hannah Montana, and now she’s all growed up. Even though I only played her dad for, like, two weeks on Hannah Montana, now I see her as this grown woman, and a little tear still comes to your eye, because you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, she grew up!” [Laughs.] And she’s not really even that different. I mean, it’s not like I saw her as a baby. She was already like 15 or 16 when I did the show!
Pretty In Pink (1986)—“Duckie”
AVC: How long was the audition process for Pretty In Pink?
JC: Well, it was a more in-depth audition process than I was used to, but not really a lengthy one, because with TV shows, you audition like five or six times for each one. That’s lengthy. But the fascinating thing about auditioning for Pretty In Pink was that I was slated to come in and read two scenes. I read two scenes, and then [director] Howie Deutch asked me to read another scene. So I go out in the hallway, look at the scene, and then I came back in and read that. Then Howie asked me to read another scene… and another scene… and another scene. [Laughs.] Until we had spent 45 minutes on this particular audition, and I had read through pretty much every scene in the script with Howie. I was so grateful for the opportunity to do that. That is so unusual in an audition situation that I knew something special was going on. I came out of the audition thinking, “Okay, I’ve felt this way before, but I really think this time I’ve got a shot at this.”
So they asked me to come in and meet and read with Molly [Ringwald] and meet John Hughes, who I was a huge fan of already. This is before The Breakfast Club came out, but I was a fan of his from National Lampoon. He wrote a lot of very funny articles for National Lampoon, which was the magazine for 14-year-olds who want to see breasts and occasionally read very funny articles. [Laughs.] So I was in a certain amount of awe, also because Molly had just had Sixteen Candles come out and was clearly becoming a phenomenon at that moment. I thought, “I’ve got one shot at this.” So I went in and read with Molly, and, again, I came out of it thinking, “I’ve really got a shot at this!” And apparently Molly felt, uh, less so. She wanted Robert Downey Jr., which is understandable. But I think they felt like they wanted somebody more vulnerable than Robert was comfortable doing at that point. So somehow, I got the gig.
AVC: One of Duckie’s big spotlight scenes in the film is when he lip-synchs to Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness.” Did you have any familiarity with the song going into the film, and how much actual choreography was involved?
JC: “And what was your lip-synching background?” [Laughs.] Okay, first of all, I had become fairly well known in my group of friends for doing a somewhat uncanny Mick Jagger impression, so that was my background in lip-synching. We had talked about me doing that, but Howie wanted to do something a little more devotional, something that was a little more about being into someone, because the Rolling Stones’ stuff is often a lot more ironic and detached than that. So Howie’s dad was in the music business for many years and had a lot of connections, and Howie said, “What do you think about doing an Otis Redding song?” And I said, “Which one?” I knew “Dock Of The Bay,” but I didn’t know a lot of his songs. And he said, “Well, there’s a song called ‘Try A Little Tenderness.’ I’ll play it for you.” My first reaction was, “This is really long!” [Laughs.] It has this whole long opening that they ended up cutting. But I thought, “Okay, this is a different way to go.” I love the song. I mean, you just can’t listen to that and not be amazed by the song.
So Howie suggested that I get together with a choreographer, Kenny Ortega, who has gone on to be wildly successful. Actually, he did a lot of iconic dance work in the ’80s; he did Dirty Dancing. So he and I got together one night and came up with some fun stuff to do, but we kept it very loose. And we showed it to Howie the next day, in the actual location, and Howie’s face just fell. And so did Lauren Schuler Donner’s, who was the producer. I’d finished it, and I was huffing and puffing like at the end of Riverdance, my arms outstretched. But they just seemed crestfallen. So I said, “What’s the matter?” And Howie said, “Oh, no, it’s great,” but in this very offhand manner. Then he said, “The problem is, I have to shoot it.” I said, “That’s a problem?” He said, “Yeah, because we only slated half a day, and that’s gonna take a couple of days.” So he and Lauren huddled, and I heard much muttering between the two of ’em, and they agreed to change the schedule. This was in the first week of Howie’s first major gig as a director. So he basically agreed to put himself behind schedule the very first week, thus making him behind the eight ball for the whole rest of the shoot, in order to get that scene. At the time, I didn’t realize that was a really gutsy thing to do. But I think it paid off for the movie.
Mr. Show With Bob And David (1998)—“Duckie”
AVC: We debuted a feature called SketcHistory with a look back at the “Dalia Lama” and “Monk Academy” sketches from Mr. Show. Scott Aukerman said that he still has the photo with you and him. He also implied that you probably wouldn’t have reprised the Duckie character if it had been anyone other than the guys from Mr. Show asking you.
JC: He is absolutely right. That is 100 percent true. I feel like if you’ve been lucky enough to play something that ends up acquiring some sort of iconic status, which Duckie seems to have, you don’t fuck with that. But I think the Mr. Show guys are just brilliant, Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross]. I used to watch the show as a studio audience member, and I just loved it. That’s actually where I discovered Paul F. Tompkins, because he used to do warm-up for those guys. So when they asked me to do a day, I was secretly thrilled. I mean, you’re supposed to adopt the attitude of, “Okay, I’ll do you guys a favor,” but inside, my heart leapt. Because I think those guys are so amazing. But I didn’t really realize they were gonna go full Duckie ’til I got there and saw the costume. They had had me as just sort of ’80s Teen Guy [in the sketch], but then I realized that they wanted me to be a very specific ’80s Teen Guy. [Laughs.] And I thought, “Oh, you know what? That totally makes sense.”
Really great sketch comedy is rare, and I have such admiration for it. When I met Carol Burnett, I was just gobsmacked for about an hour and a half. I think The Kids In The Hall did amazing things. And I think Mr. Show did amazing things with the form as well. I thought that sketch… I don’t know the last time you’ve seen it, but when they slit the kid’s throat? That was what got me. I was like, “Wow, okay, we’re in a different place here.” [Laughs.] But I thought it was important enough—or at least good enough—for Duckie to make a return.
AVC: How was it working with Dr. Bologna, the chimpanzee?
JC: I didn’t really work with Dr. Bologna very much. We were just in the car momentarily, and they really try to keep your interaction with chimps to a minimum because—just so you know—chimps can rip your face off. People want to fool around with them. “Oh, here’s a banana! Now I’m gonna pour a soft drink on your head!” But, uh, don’t. Don’t do that with your chimp. That would be bad.
American Dad! (2006)—“Quackie”
AVC: Since Mr. Show, the only time you’ve ever really come close to reprising the role of Duckie was when you voiced a character on American Dad! called Quackie, which seems to have been a gift to everyone who’s ever theorized that Duckie “came out” after high school.
JC: Yeah, I’ve always had mixed feelings about that. I mean, I can see how people could see that in the movie—by the way, that’s how Molly Ringwald felt—but I beg to disagree. And I feel I need to stand up for slightly effeminate heterosexual dorks everywhere. [Laughs.] I mean, yeah, that’s the vibe, but that isn’t necessarily the road we’re going down. But I think American Dad! and Family Guy are hoot-worthy, so, again, when they ask you, and it’s a show that you love, it’s hard to say no.
The Famous Teddy Z (1989-1990)—“Teddy Zakalokis”
JC: That was a bittersweet experience for me. I was working with Hugh Wilson, who had done WKRP, which was one of my favorite shows growing up, and I had approached him about doing a show because I’d had a deal with CBS. I said, “I loved WKRP. I want to do a show. Just don’t make me Gary Sandy.” [Laughs.] Because Gary Sandy was actually a very funny character actor, but in WKRP, he was just the nice guy that all the wacky radio-station characters revolved around. I said, “I would love to do something that skewered show business in a similar way.” So he wrote this really fun script that everybody loved and everybody wanted to do… except that I was Gary Sandy.
I hemmed and hawed about it, and I even pulled out of the project at one point, but then I came back, because it was still the funniest script of that particular pilot season. We shot it, but I was never able to overcome feeling like this was not the way I wanted this character to be. You know, Hugh is an incredibly gifted guy, and we tried eight different permutations on that show, but it just never caught fire. But it was fun to do while it lasted. And I got to work with Alex Rocco, who is a riot. He plays these very sort of hard-edged guys, but he’s the sweetest teddy bear of a guy in the world. Anyway, Teddy Z was my first network show, and through that I was introduced to how incredibly cutthroat the business is. But once you just take that as a given, it’s fine.
The Pompatus Of Love (1995)—“Mark,” co-writer
Went To Coney Island On A Mission From God… Be Back By Five (1998)—“Daniel,” co-writer
JC: Pompatus came just out of sitting around with friends and, literally, we had the conversation about what on Earth “the pompatus of love” actually meant, and was that, in fact, the word in the song [Steve Miller’s “Joker”]? We were all kind of wayward guys, we all wanted to be in the movie business, and had been friends for years, so we had that sort of shorthand with each other. So it dawned on us: “If we want to be in the movie business, then let’s be in the movie business and make a movie!” Then it was like, “Well, I’ve got a barn!” “My dad writes music!” We found whatever resources we could put together, and we made a movie about how useless communication is, basically. And we ended up making the talkiest movie about how useless communication is that has ever been made. [Laughs.] But I think that reinforces the theme, in a way. And making something like that is really satisfying, because whatever flaws it ends up with, they are your flaws, and you got to make the movie that you wanted to make. There are no excuses. You can’t say, “Oh, the studio made us change the ending,” or whatever. Whatever it is, it’s because you made it that way. And that’s very satisfying.
It was the same way with Went To Coney Island. It was a true story that happened to me that I had been wrestling with for years, and I felt like I needed to do something that dealt with it. Basically, the story that happened in the film was about two friends who go looking for a friend of theirs who they’ve heard has gone insane, and it came from a friend of mine and I doing the same thing. And in both cases, the friend was found, and in both cases, it was a very disturbing experience for two young men. But the great thing that has come out of Went To Coney Island was that we ended up documenting Coney Island at a time that was very specific and which will no longer exist because of the redevelopment efforts and all that stuff. So I feel like if we did anything valuable in that movie, it’s that we really documented in a beautiful and photographic way how Coney Island was at that time. It’s an incredibly obscure movie. It got almost no release. That’s a tough one to find.
Rap Master Ronnie: A Report Card (1988)—actor
JC: Aaauuugh! And that one’s even tougher to find! In fact, I don’t think that was even released, not even on VHS. The Museum of Broadcasting might have it… [Laughs.] Yeah, that was…I was such a huge Garry Trudeau fan. I really have always loved the subtlety of Doonesbury. It’s got an incredible character subtlety, especially for a comic strip. Comic strips are thought of as broad caricatures of human beings, but I find some of the characters of Doonesbury are more subtly drawn than some actual human beings. So when they told me, “Well, there was a musical, it was off-Broadway, and you get to be a singing fighter pilot,” I said, “Oh, okay, sure.” But mostly I got to hang out in my dressing room with Garry Trudeau for an hour and a half, which was more fun than I had any right to have at the time.
Hot Shots! (1991)—“Jim ‘Wash Out’ Pfaffenbach”
JC: The guys who made Hot Shots! were [Jim] Abrahams and Pat Proft. You know, you forget there’s real artistry in films like Airplane! First of all, they invented a different kind of satire. There had been the Mel Brooks movies, which had really laid groundwork for Airplane! But Airplane! stayed inside its own world and… [Hesitates.] I guess you’d say its irony was interior. And I thought, “Brilliant!” When I read Hot Shots!, I just hooted with laughter. It was high time to parody those type of war movies, and that they had gotten Charlie [Sheen], who’d actually been in those kinds of war movies, just seemed like a stroke of brilliance to me. So I wanted to be in that from day one.
The weirdest part of it was that, right near the end of filming, the original Gulf War was starting to break out, and we were sort of looking around at these fighter jets and all that stuff that we were shooting on and going, “Wow, this isn’t gonna be funny if this [conflict] doesn’t go well.” So that sort of brought it home for us. But doing that film well, seeing the barrage of movies of that type that have come out since then, which were done not nearly as well, really reinforces how artful those original movies were.
AVC: How were Wash Out’s glasses to wear?
JC: The irony is that when I was wearing the glasses, I was supposed to be able to finally see. But the problem was that the glasses were so ridiculous that I was effectively blind. That was both the fish glasses and the bubble glasses. At one point, they told me, “Okay, we need you to come down here and run down these stairs.” I said, “You do understand that I’m blind? I can’t run down anything!” That was a big adjustment for me. But what was so wonderful was taking all of that material super-seriously and trying to play it like this was Top Gun. It was such a fun shoot.
Watching Jim Abrahams set something up… It had to be incredibly exact. I remember one day we had to do a scene where I fell out of frame, and figuring out how to get me to fall out of frame at exactly the right angle… I had to say the line, “Thank you, Andre, I’ll have the veal piccata,” then fall out of frame. But for some reason, when I looked at the characters and then fell out of frame, it wasn’t funny. Figuring out technically how to do that, so that it’s actually funny, surprised me, because we had different theories, and we go and watch the video playback and go, “Okay, how come that’s not working?” [Laughs.] I thought, “Wow, this is our profession!” It was very much a learning experience, in terms of really learning that even the slightest issues can change something from functional to nonfunctional immediately.
Two And A Half Men (2003-present)—“Alan Harper”
AVC: Was there a “we meet again!” moment when you and Charlie found yourself teamed up for Two And A Half Men, or had you kept in touch over the years?
JC: Well, we had our “we meet again!” moment when I had done a show for ABC [The Trouble With Normal] that was at the upfronts, and he was about to do Spin City. That was the first time I had seen him in a long time, and he looked great. He had become sober and had really tried to change his life. And at one point, somebody asked me, in terms of him taking over [for Michael J. Fox] on Spin City, whether that was a good idea. I don’t know why they were asking me, but… [Laughs.] But, anyway, they asked me, “So what do you think of Charlie?” And I said, “He’s a guy who’s famous for partying, but he’s a guy who can show up 45 minutes late with a hooker in the back seat of his convertible and still hit all his marks and just nail it.” And it’s true! And that, apparently, was enough of a ringing endorsement to get him the Spin City gig. So he was very grateful, and we had a nice conversation at the upfronts.
When I auditioned for Two And A Half Men, it was a great thing, because I was auditioning for Chuck Lorre, Charlie, and Jim Burrows, all of whom I had worked with in the past. So I felt there was a comfort level that made it very easy for Charlie and I to click into this brother relationship, and it was apparent from the very first time we read. So it did help that we had known each other.
AVC: When you started the series, was there a sensation of “here we go again”? Because, to be fair, your track record for TV series was not exactly one of long-lived programming.
JC: No, it was not. By that point, though, I had given up, in terms of having any expectation of how it would go. And that’s a very freeing thing as an actor, because all you can do is show up, do the best work you can, and hope. And this one felt really good. It felt… shockingly easy. From day one. Charlie and I had a great rapport, and the writers had a great facility with using that, so we felt like, “Well, it’s gonna be a fun show to do if we get a chance to do it.” And CBS were very big fans of Charlie… at that time. [Laughs.] So we thought we had a very good chance of getting on. Once they gave us the Monday slot after [Everybody Loves] Raymond, though, I allowed myself to think, “Okay, we’ve got a very good shot at this.” And it just kept going.
AVC: Then, seven or eight years later, the words you’d offered up about Charlie in advance of Spin City came back to haunt you.
JC: Well… [Laughs.] There was a moment before the craziness occurred, when it had become clear that Charlie was having issues again, and I took him aside and said, “Okay, I’ve always been a guy who’s supported you when you got the job done. You had your own life outside of this, but you still got the job done. I want to let you know: You’re not getting the job done anymore.” I really thought he took it to heart. But it turns out he didn’t.
AVC: How do you feel about people who write off the series for being too lowbrow? I’m sure you could argue that success breeds contempt to some extent, but—
JC: The show has almost never been the cool show to watch. Ever. And that’s fine. We’ve been comfortable with that from the very beginning. We do what we enjoy. We are playfully filthy. I was a little annoyed that everybody made such a big deal that Angus T. Jones called the show “filth” when I’ve been calling it “filth” for years… and that is documented! [Laughs.] Of course, I was saying it as a compliment, so I guess they considered it different. But look, I loved 30 Rock, I thought it was a brilliant show, and there’s so much comedy on television that is great today. But I love what I’m doing as well. I have loved this job, it’s been great to me, and I love the character. It seems to have an awful lot of life left in it. So we’ll just keep at it until they don’t let us anymore.
AVC: Do you still stare blankly at your Emmy, much as you did when you received it?
JC: I’m doing that right now. [Laughs.] To me, the closest analogy I can make to somebody who has not experienced that was that it was living that dream where you show up at school and there’s a test, and, oh, by the way, you’re naked. I had no expectation whatsoever of winning an Emmy. I didn’t have an expectation of being nominated for an Emmy, because I had to change categories, so I thought, “Well, that’s that.” So I had zero preparation.
And I had taken my emergency Vicodin, because I had had a bike accident a week before. I had also managed to sneak a flask into the Emmys, which I had to show them as I went through the metal detector, and the security guy said, “Wait, are you kidding me? Really?” I said, “Come on! I had a bike accident!” [Laughs.] And he let me through! Which is just amazing. So to say that I was completely unprepared for that is an understatement. But it does sort of… it’s nice to feel like there are times when it’s like, “This can happen to you!” That crazy bit of luck? Oh, it just happened to happen to me today! And, oh, what a lovely thing to happen…
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)—“Lenny Luthor”
JC: That was an absolutely heartbreaking experience for me, because I had loved the Richard Donner Superman like nobody’s business. I was a Comic Con-fanboy-crazy guy about that movie. I just loved it so much. So I’d always thought that if I got the opportunity to be in a Superman movie, I’d jump at it. Superman II was terrific, but then Superman III was kind of a mess, and the idea of Superman IV was to resurrect the franchise. They had new producers, and Golan-Globus had been doing all these cheesy genre movies. They had made a great deal of money with their Cannon films, and this was their bid for respectability. They were gonna reboot the franchise, and resurrect it for everybody after the debacle that was Superman III. Little did we know that we were actually going to be working on the debacle to end all debacles.
But it started very promisingly. My very first day, we were doing a huge practical effect, a flying effect. It was going to be me and Gene Hackman. Okay, first of all, that’s incredibly cool. But we were in a ’30s-style open-top roadster and, basically, Superman—played by Christopher Reeve, also amazingly cool—flies underneath the car, and he would fly away with it. Nowadays they would do that with green screen. You’d be lucky if you ever actually even got in the car. But at the time, they did it practical. So they literally got one of those huge construction cranes that are usually on the top of buildings, and lifted this convertible 40, 50 feet in the air, with Christopher Reeve wired underneath it in full Superman outfit. Did I say “outfit”? I’m apparently from the 1950s. [Laughs.] In full Superman costume. And they literally flew us away. The idea was that, at the end of the movie, he catches us and flies away with us. I just was in heaven. I mean, I’m working with Gene Hackman, I’ve gotten to meet Christopher Reeve, and here’s Superman flying me away in this car!
But what I came to realize as we kept shooting was that things kept getting… They were running out of money, but I didn’t know that. I just noticed little things, like the craft-service table got more and more meager. And they took less and less time every day. We would get props that were especially, uh, crappy. But I was still having a blast, and working with Gene Hackman was so much fun. Although it drove me crazy, too, because Lex Luthor was creating a villain called Nuclear Man, and yet Gene Hackman kept pronouncing it “nu-cue-lar.” So during one of the scenes I corrected him. In character. And to his credit, he did not go Popeye Doyle on my ass. [Laughs.] I think it made it into the movie, actually, although I haven’t seen the movie in ages.
Toward the end of the thing, they started dropping whole sequences that they were going to shoot, and I thought, “That doesn’t bode well.” But I finished my shooting and went back to the United States—we shot in England. A few months later I ran into Chris Reeve on the street, and I said, “Hey, let’s have lunch!” And he said, “Okay, sure!” We went out for lunch, and I said, “I’m so excited about the movie! When’s it coming out?” And he said [Takes a deep breath.] “You need to know: It’s an absolute mess. We had six months of flying work that we were supposed to shoot; they cut five months of it. They’ve thrown together an edit that barely makes sense.” And I was absolutely devastated, because I really wanted to be a part of bringing Superman back, you know?
The movie does not do justice to the script at all. The script was actually pretty clever. The script was basically that a kid asks Superman to get rid of all the nuclear weapons in the world, saying, “You’re Superman! Why can’t you do it?” That was a much bigger part of it than a lot of the really dumb Nuclear Man stuff that ended up being used. It ended up with Superman basically deciding that’s something Earthlings are going to have to do for themselves, which I thought was an important message at the time. When I finally did see the movie, every frame of it hurt me physically. [Laughs.] I’d had such high hopes for it that… To feel like you’re a part of the downfall of something that you had hoped to resurrect, that’s a tough thing to take.
But that it has acquired a so-bad-it’s-good sort of thing after all these years is kind of fun. And I’ve said publicly that if they ask me to be on a Superman IV panel at Comic-Con, I’ll do it! But… [Sighs.] You do get into this business because you love these stories, and if you care about them, seeing them go in a direction that you hoped they wouldn’t, it does hurt. The fullness of time has given me some perspective on it.
Hiding Out (1987) —“Andrew Morenski” / “Max Hauser”
Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home (1987)—“Morgan Stewart”
AVC: 1987 was pretty crazy for you: Not only did you have Superman IV, but you also had Dudes, Hiding Out, and Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home hitting theaters the same year.
JC: Oh, my gosh, yes.
AVC: You said you really don’t tend to revisit your work, but of that particular trio, do any of them stand out as a favorite?
JC: Well, I’ll tell you a story of two of those, actually, but Dudes is definitely the favorite. Dudes is just hallucinogenic. What I love is that was a time when people could say, “Sure, it’s Jon Cryer in a cowboy punk movie!” When that made sense to people. That tells you something about that era. [Laughs.] What happened with Dudes was, I was a big fan of Penelope Spheeris’ Decline Of Western Civilization documentary, and her narrative stuff was really fun and B-movie and had this great kind of edge to it. As you can see from my career path, it becomes clear that I am drawn to eclectic things, and that a lot of what I do is just about the experience of doing it.
So that was a chance to work with Penelope, who, besides having this wonderful sort of dark weirdness to her, is also a goofball. That’s how the same person who does The Decline Of Western Civilization does Wayne’s World. I loved working with Penelope. I learned a lot playing a character who had action scenes; I, uh, learned what not to do. [Laughs.] So I have a lot of affection for Dudes. Actually, I found a Japanese Dudes poster online, and that is the one poster I’ve got on my wall. It’s me as this very serious cowboy, and it’s just like, “Oh, boy, how wrong is that?”
Morgan Stewart was a very interesting learning experience for me as well, because it was a movie that was a funny, dark comedy that had this very sentimental coda, and I thought, “Well, you know what? They’ll make this dark movie, and they’ll realize that this sentimental coda doesn’t really make sense, and then they’ll throw it out.” But instead we shot for a week, they fired the original director [Terry Winsor], brought in a new guy [Paul Aaron]. As you know, directors are loath to take over other people’s work, so very often when they bring in a new director, it’s somebody who had a lot of free time for a reason. And that was the case with this movie.
He ended up basically rewriting the whole script to fit the sentimental coda, which, in my mind, made it impossible to play and made it a very difficult to shoot. Also, we had the problem that we had done all our costumes, and the shooting that we had done in the first week, they weren’t just throwing it out. They had to match it. That first week we shot in late summer, when it was blisteringly hot, and when we came back into production, it was December, and we were freezing cold, so all these scenes… We had to shoot something at the Lincoln Memorial on one of the coldest Washington winters, wearing very little clothing. And poor Viveka Davis, the girl playing opposite me, had to wear these leggings and a little dress. And I thought, “This is abuse, actually!” [Laughs.] Anyway, it was a learning experience. I met a lot of great people, but it definitely took a course that I really hoped it wouldn’t.
Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)—“Third Frat Boy”
JC: Arthur Penn directed that fucking movie! Of Bonnie And fucking Clyde! [Laughs.] That’s what I call that movie: Bonnie And fucking Clyde. So Penn and Teller, who I was also big fans of at the time, said they were shooting a movie with Arthur Penn and asked, “Do you want to do it?” I said, “Sure, what does he want me to do?” That was literally just as a favor. It’s interesting, though… You don’t get to touch the genius, you know? Sitting there for that one day while you play Third Frat Boy, you don’t get the insight into the genius that you might’ve hoped. So I’m saddened that I did not pick up anything from that experience. It was pretty much just, “Action! Cut! Thanks, guys!”