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: Although he began his career as a stand-up comedian, Kevin Pollak eased his way into acting in the late 1980s, gradually honing his chops to the point where he was given the opportunity to hold his own against the likes of Tom Cruise (A Few Good Men), Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects), and Robert DeNiro (Casino). Although he currently spends most of his free time hosting a the highly successful online talk show Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, Pollak still continues to pick up gigs as an actor on a regular basis, including the film Columbus Circle, now on DVD, which he also co-wrote.
Columbus Circle (2012)—“Klandermann”
The A.V. Club: From the music over the opening credits onward, the film has a very Hitchcockian feel to it.
Kevin Pollak: And purposely so. Nothing gets past you, eh?
AVC: No, sir.
KP: [Laughs.] It’s about as strange of a beginning to a film as I’ve ever experienced, maybe even heard of. Chris Mallick, the film’s financier / producer / benefactor, also worked with [director] George Gallo on Middle Men. We were all at the Cannes Film Festival on Chris’s dime a couple of years ago for Middle Men, and while there, Chris was telling us about this movie he was about to start back in Los Angeles, he was going to start shooting in three weeks when he returned, and that the Korean film that he was going to remake… He’d lost the rights to it. So suddenly he was three weeks away from shooting a movie that he’d spent over a million dollars on, building these two big beautiful New York high-rise apartment sets on a soundstage, and now he had no movie. This is the night before we’re gonna fly home from Cannes, and I said, “Don’t worry about it, Chris, I’ll come up with a new movie, and you can start shooting in three weeks.” And he laughed and said, “Of course you will. Thank you.” I said, “No, I’m serious. I’ll give you a story by tomorrow, maybe a couple of different ones. Believe me, it’s going to help us that we’re stuck with the movie having to shoot on these sets. Let’s see what I can come up with. We’ve got an 11-hour flight home to break the rest of it.”
It didn’t help that my co-writer and the film’s director, George Gallo, has had a lifelong terrifying fear of flying and, in fact, prior to Cannes had not flown in 35 years. So he was sedated, out on his feet, on the way to Cannes, and now, on the way home from Cannes, when we’re supposed to be breaking this film. So the night before, I came up with the whole concept and all the main characters, along with a couple of other characters, like Klandermann, the one I ended up playing. And we get on the plane, I pitch everybody on the film, and Chris is…basically, his eyes are filled with a look that says, “I may not lose a million dollars after all.” I mean, he can’t quite convince himself 100% that it’s not going to happen, that we’re going to be able to cast the film and shoot it, but, sure enough, we land, and 19 days later we started shooting.
AVC: When you were writing the script, was it always your intent to play Klandermann, or was that just the way it fell out?
KP: Yeah, there was talk early on of my possibly playing the detective, and then as soon as Giovanni [Ribisi] expressed any interest whatsoever, I bowed out instantly and said, “Oh, my God, really? That’s a much better idea. You be the detective, I’ll play the concierge.” [Laughs.] But I hadn’t really given much thought to the character of Klandermann. Once we decided early on while we were writing that I was going to play the part… You know, we just wrote him out in his scenes, but the character was more in servitude. He didn’t really have a personality or a disposition. And for the first time ever as an actor, because I had all of 19 days before we started shooting with me serving as both a writer and a producer, I just didn’t give any thought to it at all as to how I was going to play Klandermann. It wasn’t until literally, and I am not exaggerating, the very first take.
Giovanni and I rehearsed it once before we shot it, or maybe twice, which is the way you do it normally. You run it a couple of times, y’know? Lighting gets their ideas, then you come back and you run it a couple of more times. And during that, before we shot the first one, Klandermann was born. The way of speaking, the sort of cryptic, purposely clipped sentences that never quite finish. It was… fun. And Klandermann… George Gallo and I sort of laughed about it later when he saw what I was doing, ’cause, again, creatively we hadn’t really talked about it. So I started making these choices, and we were both just laughing, saying, “I love Klandermann! This guy is bizarre! Who is he? He’s hilarious! He’s ridiculous! Why can’t he finish his sentences?” And then it became a challenge: will he finish one sentence the entire film? And, y’know, I’m not sure he did. [Laughs.]
Million Dollar Mystery (1987)—“Officer Quinn”
KP: Jesus. Why do you want to hurt me? [Laughs.] I think it’s important that your first film be your worst film, that one’s life trajectory should go up. While there’s been an ebb and flow, as it turns out, that everyone has, there was certainly nowhere but up from Million Dollar Mystery.
I was a comedian. I heard that they were doing basically a rip-off of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World—as opposed to a remake, because this was definitely a rip-off—and that Dino DeLaurentis was behind the whole thing and that they were gathering comedians to be the stars of this film. And unlike It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, where they were very famous comedians, they decided to cast very, very unfamous comedians.
AVC: Yeah, with all due respect to your lesser-known co-stars, it kind of says it all that the matinee names of the film—and, amazingly, this is both then and now—are Tom Bosley, Rich Hall, and Eddie Deezen.
KP: [Laughs.] You’re welcome. But you know what? I was thrilled to death to be in a movie. I cannot tell you how exciting it was. There was never a moment when I stopped and went, “Wait a second: this is gonna be horrible!” That did not enter my mind. Mind you, I hadn’t anticipated having a film career as a dramatic actor at that point, so I didn’t have much to protect in terms of being in that movie, either.
Avalon (1990)—“Izzy Kirk”
KP: It really was like being given the keys to the castle. I think it’s Barry Levinson’s masterpiece, and I think it’s a stunning, gorgeous, beautiful saga of family. I was a stand-up comedian when I auditioned, and when the film came out, I was immediately stamped a dramatic actor, and it was the most bizarre career change imaginable. It wasn’t at all the plan. And… oh, boy, what I learned on that set and from shooting that film from these brilliant, brilliant dramatic actors. All stage actors. Armin Mueller-Stahl, the Olivier of Germany, but… just everyone. And Barry Levinson is insanely funny. I don’t know if you know this, not everyone does, but he and Craig T. Nelson were a comedy team back in the coffeehouse days of the late ’60s. And he still thinks like a comedian. So when we on the set, sitting around talking, he just had me in stitches the entire shoot. And, again, being introduced to what it’s like to be in a dramatic film, that was being given the keys to the castle, for sure.
L.A. Story (1991)—“Frank Swan”
The Big Year (2011)—“Jim Gittelson”
KP: Well! Lifelong fan of Steve Martin as a stand-up comedian, of course, and it was an amazing opportunity, quite frankly, after Avalon to get a phone call saying, “Steve Martin has written this movie called L.A. Story, and he wants you to be in it.” I mean, it’s just one of those magical phone calls. And then to meet him and work with him was silly and funny and… You know, I play his agent—he’s a weatherman in Los Angeles, and my character is his agent and his friend—and at one point his girlfriend, Marilu Henner, leaves him for me. And my favorite line, I think, is when he finds out from her, he says, “You’re sleeping with my agent? I thought he was only supposed to take ten percent!” [Laughs.] That always struck me as just ridiculous enough to be funny. So, yeah, it was a great experience. I actually got to spend more face time with him quite recently, when we did The Big Year. And, as it turns out, it proved to be a much better sort of bonding experience, mainly ’cause all of my scenes were of him and me and Joel McHale, the three of us just being goofballs. But to have L.A. Story and that whole experience, the bond between us over the years has been pretty nice.
Deterrence (1999)—“President Walter Emerson”
KP: Ah, now you’ve touched upon a point of pride! Not enough people have seen this film. I’m embarrassingly proud of the efforts of myself and Rod Lurie, who wrote and directed it. His next film, The Contender, with Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, and the great Gary Oldman, I think proved his mettle as a filmmaker far greater than our film, Deterrence, but I am still… Did I say I’m embarrassingly proud of it? Because I’m actually annoyingly proud of it. [Laughs.] That’s how proud I am.
AVC: What was it like to step into the shoes of the President of the United States?
KP: Well, you know, I knew Rod Lurie from a weekly poker game, and he had been a film critic on a local AM talk-radio station, and he kept telling me about his scripts he was writing. And I went, “Yeah? Uh-huh. The guy who cleans the pool has a script he wants me to read, too.” You know, it’s kind of common in Los Angeles. Everyone’s got a script. But he said, “I’m writing this new script, I’m about 50 pages in, and I’ve written you as the President of the United States.” And I said, “I’ll have what he’s having!” [Laughs.] I said, “What’s the matter with you? How is a Jew gonna get to the White House?” And then he said, “That’s actually a big part of the movie.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “I’ll tell you what: you read the first 50 pages, you don’t have to commit to anything, I just want your opinion.” And I read the first five pages and I was kind of blown away. Especially because he’s a bit of a putz at the poker game. [Laughs.] So I was really quite shocked! And beyond that, again, I insist that The Contender is a tremendous film—I think Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges were both nominated for an Academy Award, if I’m not mistaken—so it was a big surprise all around: that this script he’d given me was any good and that the film ended up good. Timothy Hutton is tremendous in it, and Sean Astin, Sheryl Lee Ralph… It’s a good little movie. And, by the way, I don’t say that about most of the films I’m in. [Laughs.]
That Thing You Do! (1996)—“Boss Vic Koss”
KP: Yes! Well, there again, it’s one of those phone calls, in this case Tom Hanks, who’s writing a movie, he’s directing, and he wants you to be in it. You know, these phone calls are annoying, because they kind of get you at “hello,” you know? [Laughs.] You want to play on the good teams, and Tommy’s about as good as it gets out there, so… I had worked for him on From The Earth To The Moon and had found him to be a tremendous, professional, and annoyingly friendly guy. Absurdly friendly. And generous and thoughtful and all those things. So it was kind of an easy “yes,” and then I read the script and, again, it was… You know, it’s one of those movies where people who’ve seen it get very attached to it. I would venture to say—and Tommy would also argue—that not enough people did see it in its initial run, but it has lived on in a big, big way. I mean, I base these things on when people come up to me, they get this look in their eye, and I know what’s coming. I don’t know, however, what they recognize me from, because I’ve got a bit of a body of work out there now, as it turns out. I don’t know the exact number of films I’ve done… 66. [Laughs.] “He said, for laughter.” But, you know, I never know what they’re gonna say, and if I think I know, I’m always wrong. So then I base popularity of films on how many people on average mention That Thing You Do! And the number is high. I mean, it’s up there. People who’ve seen it seem to love it. And I had a great time creating a bit of a cartoon character. Although most people that that he was a DJ, Boss Vic Koss, he was actually… the Mattress King!
AVC: He does kind of give off the vibe of a DJ, though.
KP: Yeah, and the first time you hear his voice, it’s on the radio promoting the rock ‘n’ roll show, so that’s, I think, why people thought he was a DJ. But when he comes out with too much rouge and a big comb-over and says to the crowd, “How ya sleepin’?” and they respond, that’s the first clue that he might, in fact, be the Mattress King, Boss Vic Koss. Although Tom’s character, I believe, refers to me as Boss Vikoslevich.
AVC: Obviously they go way back.
KP: [Laughs.] Yeah. Back before he had to change it to get into the business.
AVC: So you’re close enough to Mr. Hanks to call him Tommy, but are you two tight enough that you’ve managed to convince him to come on your chat show yet?
KP: He has agreed to be on the chat show! He’s locked in and canceled one date already, but he’s agreed, that son of a gun. I had his son on. I got as close to the well as I could and spent a couple of hours with Colin, which was fantastic. But, yeah, Tom agreed to do the show early on. He’s good that way. But, you know, he’s busy. I understand.
Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show (2009-present)—host
AVC: You said that becoming a dramatic actor was a bizarre career change, but did you ever imagine that you’d find yourself as a chat show host for your predominant gig?
KP: [Laughs.] It surely took over my life three years ago. In two weeks, we’ll celebrate three years. Only because I insist on booking it myself, which is a never-ending consuming job. But, y’know, I started doing it because I’m fascinated by people’s journeys. How did you get from there to here? So the only way to do that is if I’m literally and honestly and sincerely fascinated by the guest. Y’know, we’ve had people pitched to us now. We’ve made it! We’ve got publicists pitching us guests! [Laughs.] But if I’m not fascinated by them… I can’t lie. It’s not a six-minute interview on Conan. I can’t pretend I give a shit about this guy’s movie. I’ve got to care about this person and be interested in how the hell they got from there to here. So it’s been… fantastic. I can’t think of a different word.
I’ve loved the Internet space in terms of creative content control and ownership, the things I haven’t had since I started as a stand-up comedian. In fact, I’m happy to report that I just launched a new comedy podcast called Talkin Walkin. It’s My Dinner with Andre, basically, only it’s me as Christopher Walken talking with a friend about everything and nothing for an hour. We just cracked the top 10 on iTunes after having only been there for six days, which is ridiculous. By the way, it’s Walken spelled “Walkin,” so his family doesn’t sue me later. [Laughs.]
AVC: If you decide to follow it up, given your work in The Aristocrats, there’s clearly only one way to go: Books With Brooks.
KP: [Instantly jumping into an Albert Brooks impression.] All right, here’s the deal, buddy: you pick the books, we’ll get on the phone together once a week and talk about it. Only I’ve never read it. Only you have. Okay? This’ll be the gag. It’ll be fun! Come on! [Hesitates.] I’m gonna go lie down. I’m nauseous.
The Drew Carey Show (1995-1996)—“Mr. Bell”
KP: Ah! Drew I knew through stand-up comedy, and I remember running into him and he said, “I got a pilot! I get to do a pilot! I created a show called The Drew Carey Show!” I said, “Well, now it’s clear: they’re giving shows to everyone.” [Laughs.] And I guess I got a phone call from him not too long after, and…we were pretty friendly at the time, but I was still a little surprised by the call when he said, “Listen, I want you to be on my show, but no one gets to see you.” I thought that was very funny. But he said, “No, look, I’ve got a boss that yells to me on the phone, and it’s kind of a running gag on the show, and the truth is that you can call it in from anywhere in the world, because, y’know, you’re literally on the phone, and we can record it. It’s not something you even have to come into the studio for. Would you mind doing the pilot?” I said, “Well, sure, but… This kind of means if I do it for the pilot and it goes well, then I’ll do it on the show. Is that what you’re saying?” “Yeah, yeah, it’ll be great! You’ll see!”
So, anyway, thankfully, at the end of the first year, after we had a whole lot of fun, he called me again, and he said, “Listen, the network loves the boss relationship, me getting yelled at, but they need to see the boss. So we have two choices: you can be sixth lead on my sitcom, or we can fire your character and hire a new actor to play my boss.” And I said, “I love you, Drew, but I think it’s time Craig Ferguson had a career in America.”
AVC: No doubt Craig Ferguson has continued to thank you for that ever since.
KP: And I did get him to thank me. On my chat show, when he came on as a guest, I said, “I’m not saying that you have me to thank for everything, but, y’know, I agree to be sixth lead on Drew Carey, maybe you don’t work for awhile.” [Laughs.]
The Usual Suspects (1995)—“Todd Hockney”
KP: Well, what can I say? It’s lightning in a bottle that none of us saw coming. My agent at the time had to convince me to read the script because… Well, no one had heard of Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie. They hadn’t really done much. Practically nothing. They did a little film…I think they got a grant from some Japanese company for $250K, as I recall, and they shot this film called Public Access that got some attention at Sundance but never got a distribution. So, in fact, when my agent said, “You have to read this script,” and he was telling me who it was by, I asked him what else they’ve done, and he said, “It’s not even worth talking about what they’ve done. They’ve done nothing. Just read the script.” [Laughs.]
You have to understand that just prior to that, in… Well, maybe it was a couple of years before, but A Few Good Men had come out, and for me as an actor, that was a bit of crossing the goal line for me. That’s when I went from auditioning to getting offers. And when you start to get offers, it’s a fantasy come true, but… The daily phone call with the agent is him telling me what offers are to be considered, what scripts I need to read. So when he’s going down the list, he tells me there’s this thing The Usual Suspects, I’m asking who’s doing it and what have they done… It was not uncommon for my response to be, “What else is on the list?” So he says, “Just read the damned thing, wouldja? I’m telling ya, it’s ridiculous!” And, thankfully, he was right. It’s still the best script I’ve ever read, and I read it… I guess in 1994? So that would be approximately three hundred thousand scripts ago. [Laughs.] But, I mean, it went on to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, so I’m not an idiot for thinking it’s a good read. But, you know, no one really had any idea who these guys were or what they were capable of, certainly not the director, so it was quite the leap of faith.
Gabriel Byrne was probably the biggest name at the time in the cast, but he was only popular for, I think, Miller’s Crossing, for the most part. He was brilliant in that, but, y’know, no one really knew much about Kevin Spacey, no one knew anything about Benicio del Toro, and what we did know about Stephen Baldwin, we weren’t talking about. [Laughs.] And then Chazz Palminteri, of course, was great. And none of us when we were shooting had any idea what was going to come from it, I assure you. And I always tell people, if you’re looking for evidence, for actual proof that the film is lightning in a bottle, you needn’t look any further than the fact that Stephen Baldwin is really good in the film. One day he’s going to beat my ass for saying that. “Bring it on, bible boy,” that’s what I say. [Laughs.]
Ewoks: The Battle For Endor (1985)—voice characterization
AVC: Before discussing Willow, we’re going to need some clarification about this IMDb credit for “voice characterization” that you have on Ewoks: The Battle For Endor.
KP: Hey, hey, never you mind what I did for Ewoks: The Battle For Endor.
AVC: Sorry, but we do need clarification. Strictly for statistical purposes, you understand.
KP: [Laughs.] I do understand, yes. Well, I was living in my hometown of San Francisco, I’d already done brilliant voice work on Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, dubbing the voice for the actor who portrayed Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sounded more like a cartoon in actual voice. So I was brought in to do the voice of Eisenhower. [Launches into his Ike impression.] “The first man in space is not going to be a chimpanzee!” And so the voice people in San Francisco said, “Y’know, George Lucas needs some background voices for the main Ewoks, who don’t speak but just chirp,” or whatever the Ewok language is. So myself and a couple of other guys got into a sound room and did the Ewoks. [Laughs.] Listen, Warwick Davis is brilliant as an Ewok. He’s acting. I was just laughing at the microphone. Although, y’know, if you’re able to do an Ewok, it’s not too far of a stretch to Rool, the brownie in Willow. I suppose there was a connection there, from the Ewok, which was [Does an impeccable impression of Wicket W. Warwick.] to Rool, who was [Adopts high pitched voice.] “This way! No, this way!”
AVC: So what was the Willow experience like, then?
KP: My first and foremost recollection is my father coming to visit the set. Rick Overton and I, the two brownies, shot on the largest blue-screen facility—that’s how long ago this was: it was blue screen before it was green screen—up near Lucas Ranch. They’d already shot the whole movie in Wales and New Zealand, these exotic, wonderful locations, and then there’s Rick and I in this cold warehouse where they’d built this blue-screen stage in northern California for five weeks. Which was magical. But then my father visits the set, I introduce my father to George Lucas, and my father says, a la Homer, to George Lucas, “Nice to meet you, sir. I really loved E.T.” It was magical. [Laughs.] It was a perfect moment. And now, 25 years later, I have become the man who makes those kinds of mistakes.
A Few Good Men (1992)—“Lt. Sam Weinberg”
KP: Please. If I had a nickel for every time a stranger yells in the street, “Hey, Weinberg,” I would not need to make this phone call. [Laughs.] That was being brought up to the majors, that’s how I’d refer to that. I mentioned previously about crossing the goal line, so I’m gonna mix my sports metaphors. It was stepping into the big leagues, for sure. I do remember Rob Reiner saying to me early on during rehearsal, “Listen, Tom [Cruise], God bless him, is gonna be swinging for the fences to try to keep up with Jack [Nicholson], and Jack… Well, he is the fences, because he’s Jack. So for you, I think you can hit one in into the gap and bring in a few runs.” I said, “So you need a stand-up double? I got a stand-up double in me.” “Yeah, that’s all we need.” [Laughs.]
It was ridiculous, from top to bottom. I mean, it was shot on a soundstage where they shot Gone With The Wind and It’s A Wonderful Life, over in Culver Studios. Everywhere I looked, there was a ridiculously famous person. I was not. I was the cast member of the movie that the audience was, like, “Where’s Waldo?” I mean, I really… They knew everybody else. And the character is written as the conscience of the piece, and the author of this would go on to be the Aaron Sorkin. And Rob Reiner was on… Talk about your baseball analogies, but his batting average at that point may have been .900, because his first seven films… I won’t give ’em in order, because that’s impossible for me, and, frankly, who has that kind of time? But you’ve got This is Spinal Tap, Misery, The Sure Thing, When Harry Met Sally, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, and A Few Good Men. Look at that batting average! That’s insane! And by .900, I mean The Sure Thing is… Well, it’s maybe seven or eight out of ten. It’s a good solid film. It’s just not in the pantheon of, say, The Princess Bride or This Is Spinal Tap. But, still, those first seven films of Rob’s…? And A Few Good Men was one of ’em. So it was literally like going to work with, to keep it within the analogy, DiMaggio and Maris. It was crazy.
End Of Days (1999)—“Bobby Chicago”
KP: Bobby Chicago: maybe the worst name ever. [Laughs.] That was a phone call that said, “Would you like to be the third lead with Schwarzenegger under the big top of a hundred-million dollar circus?” And I found out Gabriel Byrne was the second lead, so I said, “Well, I can’t get hurt too bad if Gabriel’s already on board.” Yeah, I mean, at that point, the ex-governor was in the process of making four or five really bad—or really unsuccessful, anyway—films in a row, and we were, like, two or three in, so nobody really knew that it was just going to be that many bad ones in a row. I mean, the script was intriguing enough, but I’m not going to lie. It was third lead, and it was a hundred-million dollar budget underneath the big top of a Schwarzenegger action movie. How do you not want that in your life as an experience? You know, one of the joys of the character actor’s life is that I’m not there to sell tickets. None of the pressure’s on me, I don’t get the credit or the blame. It’s about having fun, and this seemed like—and was—a ridiculous amount of fun.
And then there was becoming a fan of Schwarzenegger as an intelligent person. Our politics are polar opposites, but, my God, he was… Well, as a businessman, he’s proven himself to be a genius, but he’s staggeringly well read and knowledgeable about all things worldwide. It just kind of blew me away. And also he’s just this ridiculous cartoon at the same time. It’s a dichotomy that’ll blow your mind. And then I thought, “You know, he’s kind of the closest thing we’ve got to an actual superhero.” It was very comic book-like in terms of career and what his onscreen persona represented. I mean, you had the comedies, which were great, with Twins and whatnot, but, holy crap, The Terminator? Really? It was kind of Bizarro World.
Grumpy Old Men (1993), “Jacob Goldman” / Grumpier Old Men (1995)—“Jacob Goldman”
KP: Well, again, it’s embarrassing, but to work with your heroes is just a rare and ridiculous opportunity. I had worked with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon as inspiration: character actors who got to be leading men, both of them. The antithesis, in the case of Walter Matthau as a leading man, was absurd. They had the most diverse movie careers of any name-above-the-title actors when I was a kid. Each of them got to do the silliest comedies and also the most intense dramas. So, then, to work with them was just absurd. I mean, it really is absurd.
The first day I met Matthau was on the set, I was just about to shoot my first scene of Grumpy Old Men, and… How do you make small talk with a hero? I did the worst possible thing and said to him, “So, Walter, the script’s pretty good, huh?” He glanced at me, barely, before muttering [In a perfect Matthau impression.] “The script sucks, kid. I owe my bookie two million.” Of course, he wasn’t kidding about the latter. And then, you know, Jack Lemmon… Just ridiculous. And then you factor in Ann-Margret and Burgess Meredith? And Daryl Hannah…? I had an onscreen kiss with Daryl Hannah! And then for the sequel, they added Sophia Loren, who had not starred in a film in 25 years, I think. She had an open-door policy for her trailer and made pasta for the whole crew one day. The whole thing was magical. Honestly.
Morton & Hayes (1991)—“Chick Morton”
KP: Oh, my. Have you actually seen this?
AVC: Some of it. There are a surprising number of clips on YouTube, albeit in bite-size chunks.
KP: Oh, wow. Well, it was an extraordinary auditioning process. This was prior to A Few Good Men, and Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest created this show that would star two actors who would be basically a combination of Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello.
Each week, Rob Reiner would start the show, playing himself and addressing the camera, saying, “Hi, I’m Rob Reiner. When I was a kid, I was always a big fan of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and my favorite comedy team for the ’30s, Chick Morton and Eddie Hayes. Basically, while construction workers were tearing down a Frosty Freeze to make room for a Dairy Queen—or vice versa—they discovered a vault filled with old two-reelers starring Morton and Hayes. We dusted them off, and each week we’ll present one to you. Tonight’s is entitled ‘Society Saps.’” And then he’d press his button on the television, and then this black and white, 20-minute two-reeler would unfold as if it had been shot in the ’30s.
There you go. Act that. [Laughs.] You know, the comedy timing and the sensibility of making ’30s comedy… I don’t know why we ended up on CBS. We were a summer series. This was… 1990, I wanna say, or ’91 maybe, so you’re talking about a time when a summer series meant there were original shows on during the summer, period. How about that? So it was a six-week run, and… [Starts to laugh.] I just remember there was a great picture of Rob with his arms around me and Bob Amaral, who played Eddie Hayes, and it was on the cover of every TV supplement of every newspaper around the country. That was the biggest thrill of all. But then, y’know, Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner? And Michael McKean was there for a lot of ’em. Peter Smoklar, the DP, has been doing It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for their whole run. Just some very creative, wonderful people. And, again, a type of comedy acting that doesn’t exist anymore. It seemed then and does to this day, some twenty years later, to be a one-of-a-kind, ridiculously rare opportunity just as a performer to be able to do 1930s comedy for real, as if you’re trying to be it. I guess it’s not too dissimilar to The Artist. I guess the big similarity would be that it’s of that period. And then the giant difference would be that The Artist was insanely successful. [Laughs.]
Casino (1995)—“Phillip Green”
KP: Well, that would be maybe the best phone call of all. In fact, I’m in the process now of writing my first book—it’ll be out this Christmas, entitled How I Slept My Way To The Middle—and I just finished a chapter on this ridiculous experience which started with my agent calling and saying, “There’s an offer from Scorsese.” And I said, “I think you can kill me now.” And he said, “You may want to shoot the movie first.” I hate it when the agent’s funnier than the client. [Laughs.]
Yeah, but, y’know, it was extraordinary, soup to nuts, but the best part of it may have been that Don Rickles was in the film. Because to watch him on the set go after DeNiro…? I’m not sure there’s anything greater in life. DeNiro, of course, walks on the set, every sphincter tightens. I’m not sure there’s more respect or regard for an actor. There certainly wasn’t when we shot the film. By the way, when I got that call, an offer for Scorsese, I was in my trailer on the set for The Usual Suspects. So that wasn’t a bad year. [Laughs.]
So you see DeNiro walk on the set, sphincters tighten, “There he is, there he is,” that kind of respect. And Rickles…? Not impressed. It’s the middle of the scene, cameras are rolling, Scorsese is watching, DeNiro is standing next to him on the casino floor, middle of the shot, DeNiro is saying his dialogue, and Rickles would rip into him. He’d turn to him and say, “Is that the way you’re gonna do it? Like that…? Oh, no, you’ve got the awards, I’m sure you know what you’re doing. G’head.” And to see DeNiro cry from laughter, y’know, it was ridiculous. It was magical. DeNiro loved it. Pesci, not so much. [Laughs.] No, Joe did not appreciate when Rickles pointed out that Joe was so short that he was gonna ride him around the set like a Shetland pony.
AVC: Well, his lack of a sense of humor had already been established in Goodfellas.
KP: As it is in film, so it is in life. [Laughs.]
Otis (2008), “Elmo Broth”
KP: A very unhappy camper. Erik Jendresen wrote that, a very brilliant man. And I’d always been a big fan of Danny Stern and Ileana Douglas, so the chance to work with them was tremendous. I became a big fan of Bostin [Christopher], who played Otis, and… I was a little surprised at how much fun it was to be killed by Danny Stern and Illeana Douglas. [Laughs.] It was shockingly good fun. I’m actually in my office looking at a photo that Illeana took on the set, which is of me sitting in a chair, covered in blood, in-between takes. I think there’s even a dart sticking out of my neck. In fact, yes, there is. I’m about 2/3 of the way through being killed by them, but they had to do a lighting change, so we went outside of the soundstage. I’m sitting in a chair in the front of my range rover, with a Starbucks coffee sitting next to me and a Variety trade open up that I’m reading. Again, I’m covered in blood. [Laughs.] It’s pretty strange, but it’s a great photo. And it was a great time. Ileana and I have made friends, and she and Danny Stern have both been guests on the chat show with great result. I love the movie. But, then, I’m a gallows-humor guy, anyway.
Juwanna Mann (2002), “Lorne Daniels”
KP: [Laughs long and hard.] I will simply say that Will Smith was attached when I said “yes.” That’s all I got.