Peter Gallagher

The actor: Peter Gallagher first built a name for himself as a theater actor, but 1980’s The Idolmaker started him on the path to winning the hearts of moviegoers and TV viewers. Granted, that path has been long and winding, but it has found Gallagher working with a number of legendary directors, including Robert Altman (The Player, Short Cuts), Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape, The Underneath) and the Coen brothers (The Hudsucker Proxy), and acting up against everyone from James Cagney to Chris Kattan. Currently, Gallagher is spending his time on the small screen, serving as the CIA’s director of the National Clandestine Service on the spy drama Covert Affairs. The show airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST on the USA Network.

Covert Affairs (2010-present)—“Arthur Campbell”
The A.V. Club: Is it nice to have a supporting role rather than having to be in every single scene?

Peter Gallagher: It’s kind of nice. But look, we’re human, so you’re never happy with what you have. [Laughs.] First of all, I’m thrilled to have a role at this time, with two kids in college, and working with people I really love. That’s a thing that’s different. I have a great deal of respect for Dave Bartis and Doug Liman, the executive producers, and I have a great deal of respect for the USA Network, because they do things differently. They support us. I don’t get the impression that there’s a lot of hysteria and second-guessing and so on. We’re all pretty well-aligned, facing in the same direction, trying to tell the story, so the environment is really good. The attention is on trying to do really good shows, and Dave and Doug and our writers Matt [Corman] and Chris [Ord] aren’t afraid to read the newspapers. Some people are, but they’re not, so it’s nice when you can tell stories that brush up against the world we live in.

And it’s nice to not be working 16 hours a day every day, but sometimes you want to get out of the office and kick some ass, for sure. [Laughs.] But you know what? I think all things are possible. I think it’s a good environment there, and the writing is good. It’s definitely an environment where good things can happen. That’s to me a very desirable thing, the people who you’re working with as much as what it is you’re given to do that week.

AVC: How was it for you as an actor when you started to become the boss behind the desk rather than the agent in the field?

PG: Well, when you have the perspective of someone who’s been around the block a few times, you think, “Wait a minute, I was just getting my A-game going on here, and now I’m your dad?” The first time was with The O.C., really, where I was a cool dad. Which is, of course, absurd: There’s no such actual creature anywhere on the planet. But I keep thinking that there are going to be other interesting avenues that will continue to open up, so in some ways I look at it as just another one of those transitions. When I started my film career, I played a guy in The Idolmaker who didn’t speak English very well, and first they want to know who did your singing and dancing, and then you think, “Oh, now you’re gonna have to show people that you can speak English, too!” And then they start going, “Oh he’s too nice,” so you do sex, lies, and videotape, and then it’s, like, “Oh, you bastard!” The thing that comforts me through all these transitions—I don’t think they’re necessarily very permanent—is what Robert Altman always used to say to me: “Nobody knows anything, and there’s nobody at the top.” It feels like you’re on a bus that’s mildly out of control and careening around corners. You just have to stay on the bus. Hopefully you’ll end up someplace you can thrive.

AVC: You and Kari Matchett have good chemistry on the show.

PG: I think she’s great. I really enjoy working with her. Again, it’s part of the organization that Dave and Doug assembled. I’ve said this a million times. Doug directed the pilot of The O.C. and Dave and Doug were producers on The O.C. for the first season. I love those guys. We got along great, and we wanted to do something together again. The building in New York we used to live in, Dougie’s brother was in our building, and I just really enjoy working with Doug and Dave. So we’d been in touch since The O.C. was over, trying to find something else to do. Dave called me up and said, “Listen, we got this part, you can do it without makeup. But I don’t know how long it’s going to be around.” And I said, “Well, what’s the asshole quotient?” He said, “Oh, it’s practically zero.” I said, “Oh, I’m in.” It’s not dissimilar to working on an Altman picture, in that it has less to do with the role you’re playing and more to do with the opportunity to contribute to something that might work, and where your contribution will be valued.

But yes, Kari, she’s a terrific actress. She’s got a great sense of humor. What I really love is that people respond, like you said, to the chemistry. People come up to me on the street, like [Adopts high-pitched New York accent.] “I love your show, my God. When’s it coming back on the air? That relationship you have with your wife, I love that. I love that, you’re both in the CIA.” It’s an interesting circumstance for a husband and wife to be in a stressful job. I mean, whose job is not stressful now? Unless you’re one of the five billionaires out there who don’t have to worry about anything, every aspect of everything is stressful, no matter what your job is.

AVC: Is it realistic that the CIA would allow a husband and wife to be working together in such a capacity?

PG: From what I understand, they encourage intermarriage; they encourage the operatives to marry. In fact, they do have vetted marriage counselors in the CIA, so operatives and officers that are married can… In fact, there’s a book that just came out. The Company We Keep is about a husband-and-wife CIA couple. So they actually encourage that, because you can’t really talk to anyone else about anything. I don’t know if it’d be in the same corridors of power that we have. Clearly, Arthur and Joan are pretty darn special, I would say. Or I think so, anyway.

AVC: So how prominent is Arthur in season two of Covert Affairs, and how many secrets is he still keeping up his sleeve?

PG: I’m like 10/13ths prominent. I think we’re doing 16 episodes, so I’ll be in 12 of them. So far, I’ve gotten out of the office once, so that’s encouraging. I was actually in a car! There’s still some question as to whether Arthur has legs. [Laughs.] But I really love the character, and I think Matt and Chris, who created the show, are very cool, which is also very cool. They’re kind of grownups now. They got new babies. But our writers have done a bunch of other shows, and they’ve done other things. It’s a very good atmosphere, and I think they like Arthur, so I hear rumors of various things that are coming up in the season that I might be doing. But I don’t want to put my eggs into any of those baskets, because the week before you’re supposed to go somewhere exotic and shoot that great scene they wrote for you, it’s, like, “Yes, but if we shoot that scene, we’ll have to lose the helicopter trip.” I know where I am in the universe as far as that’s concerned, but it’s a really lovely universe to be part of. There’s a great possibility for good stuff.

Skag (1980)—“John Skagska”
PG: Oh, my God, that’s crazy. Wow, that’s crazy. There’s actually two things I remember. I remember Karl Malden talking about working with Marlon Brando, and I experienced my first earthquake. It was at the old MGM studios, which is now the Sony lot. I was playing a bastard son in medical school who wasn’t going to come home to see his dad because he had a test or something like that. So I was on the phone, this very emotional scene where I’m telling my father that I’m not coming home. Karl is on the other end of the phone, and he’s actually on the set talking to me on the other end of the phone, which is unusual. A lot of times you record your side of the conversation. But the camera’s on me, it’s a little makeshift set inside a huge former Busby Berkeley soundstage, and the camera’s got the lights, everything going on, and I’m just acting up a storm. In fact, I had actually studied with one of the guys that Karl had studied with at the studio, and Brando had studied with.

So I’m acting up a storm, and all of a sudden I hear this “ratatatat.” This must be a like two-page monologue. I’m thinking, “I can’t believe they’re fixing the roof in the middle of my monologue!” But I keep going, you know, because I’m feeling the fear, so I just barrel on anyway. And all of a sudden the set starts to shake a little, and I think, “I can’t believe the fucking subway. I’m right in the middle of my monologue, and the subway…” Of course there’s no subway in Los Angeles, but I’m still busy doing my thing. And I’m looking, and the lights are in my eyes, and I’m going on, and I’m thinking, “The guy’s fixing the roof, the subway underneath… boy, this isn’t going very well.” And I look just a little bit past the bright light, pretending to be looking out the mirror of my room or whatever, and… I see that Malden is gone. He’s no longer on the phone. Then I realize the camera operator is gone. And I look around, and there’s no one on the set except me… and I’m still just acting up a storm! I mean, I’m thinking, “Holy fuck,” but I’m still going on with the scene, like, “Dad, don’t you understand? This is important to me, it’s my future,” while thinking, “Holy fuck, what’s going on? Is this how they do things out here?” ’Cause, you know, this was one of the first things I’d ever done. And then I realized, “Oh my God, it’s an earthquake! This is an earthquake!” And it’s started to rumble now. So immediately I leap up, and I go into the doorframe behind my desk where I was on the phone all this time, and I’m pressing so hard against the doorframe that the thing is bowing out a little bit. And that’s when I realize, “Oh, my God, this is a set! This is not going to protect me from anything!” There’s, like, eight miles of ceiling above me, and I’m under this balsawood doorframe.

So I’m running around trying to find the exit, and I finally get out, and of course, everyone smoked back then, so they’re all sitting in cars smoking. And someone goes, “Hey, first earthquake, huh?” [Laughs.] I’m just, like, “There’s nobody here. That can’t be good. But I’m almost done with the monologue, so I’ll finish just in case.” The show must go on, right?

AVC: What was it like having Karl Malden telling you Brando stories?

PG: It was really weird, because Brando was the gold standard. Malden taught me a really good thing about film acting: not to blink too much. I had just started wearing contact lenses. They were miraculous onstage, because prior to that, I could really only barely recognize people if they had facial hair, or if the light was bright enough. But these were old, so I stopped wearing the lenses so I wouldn’t have to blink. 

There’s something else he said he and Brando didn’t do and that I shouldn’t do. I can’t remember what it was, but I remember I noticed that whatever it was, he did it every time we did a scene together. I’m thinking, “Man, you just totally zoomed me!” [Laughs.] But I loved Malden, because he was a good guy, and he was such a big part of the whole world of acting, and in terms of what you aspire to, the world that my generation was emerging from. My acting teacher I had for 25 years that just died, he knew all those guys and studied in the studio with all those guys. So when you’re talking to Malden, you’re talking to one of the high priests, and when he’s talking about Brando… wow.

Terrible Joe Moran (1984)—“Nick”
AVC: This was James Cagney’s last role. 

PG: I actually do a one-man show sometimes, where I talk about some of these amazing guys I’ve worked with, and one of the stories is about how I got to work with Jimmy Cagney. So I show up to the Carlyle Hotel, to Jimmy Cagney’s suite, for my first day of rehearsal. They almost didn’t let me in because they thought I was like a fucking delivery boy or something. I said [Harried voice.] “No, you have to understand! If you don’t let me in, I’m going to be late to rehearsal!” So I got there, and the door swings open to Cagney’s suite, and he’s sitting there in a wheelchair. He’d just had a stroke a few months before, a little stroke, and he was actually working on an exercise ball for his hand. He’s sitting at the table, and the door swings open, and he turns and looks at me and says [Imitates Cagney.] “Black Irish, just like my father.”

So I go over and introduce myself, and I told him my mother had been to college with his sister Jean at Hunter College. He introduced me to Art Carney, and I told him my uncle used to work in a bank after school as a janitor, and he used to love the Christmas parties, because Art Carney’s dad would bring him by to tap-dance. Now, for me, an Irish American kid from New York, there was Jimmy Cagney, JFK, and the Pope. After rehearsal, he says, “Gallagher, I want you to meet my wife Billie. But first we got to find her.” I’m, like, “Where do we start?” He says, “Follow me.” So I get behind the wheelchair, and I’m taking him down. He says, “Billie! Billie, we’re going to find you! Billie! Gallagher, go in there and see if she’s in the bedroom.” So I look and go, “No, Jim, nobody in here.” “All right, go down the hall. All right, Gallagher, I want you to go into the dining room. You see the draperies, the curtains there?” I say, “Yeah.” “Check behind the curtains.” I looked at him, and I was like, “What the fuck?”

So I go in there, I pull back the curtains, and there’s his wife, Billie, in a housecoat. “Billie, I found you, Billie.” And she says, [Imitates Billie.] “Yes, you did, Jim.” There was no judgment: He was positively thrilled to have found her, she was positively delighted to have been found. I thought, “Okay, I get this.”

And here’s the kicker. A few years later, I was doing Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Jack Lemmon. We were in rehearsal in New York, and Cagney was in the hospital for the last time a couple blocks away. So over lunchtime, Lemmon went to see Cagney, because they were friends since… actually, the year I was born, since Mr. Roberts, and they stayed in touch. And I didn’t even know that. I never even talked to Lemmon about Cagney. I’d barely known Lemmon at that point in the rehearsal, because I hadn’t seen enough of his movies. But Lemmon goes and comes back, and [Imitates Lemmon.] “Hey kid, Cagney said [Imitates Lemmon doing Cagney.] ‘You tell Gallagher I said hello.’ So I did. All right?” So that was kind of cool: Cagney gave Lemmon a little message for me. He died not long after that.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1987)—“Edmund Tyrone” / The Murder Of Mary Phagan (1988)—“Leo Frank”
PG: Oh, I’m so glad [The Murder Of Mary Phagan] has been re-released on DVD. I’m so glad. That was really a wild production.

AVC: It must have gone all right between you and Jack Lemmon, since you worked together pretty much back-to-back. 

PG: Yeah, and he also did a little something in The Player and Short Cuts. He gave me my first set of golf cleats. We were very close. I just went to the Avco Cinema to see Bridesmaids, and I stepped around the back to see Jack, actually. Where he’s buried. His headstone just says, “Jack Lemmon in.” 

AVC: What was it like on Long Day’s Journey Into Night? Not only are you working with Jack Lemmon, you’re doing a Eugene O’Neill play. 

PG: It was amazing. There were two roles I’d always wanted to play. One was Edmund in Long Day’s Journey, and the other was Sky Masterson in Guys And Dolls. It had just come on the heels of the really successful, wonderful experience I’d had with Mike Nichols and this amazing cast of The Real Thing, where it was, like, my dream come true, working with the best at the top of their game. It was just an amazing time. It was a huge hit, everybody got awards and nominations and things. And then I just stayed in the show when a lot of people were doing other things, and that was a rocky time.

Basically, I started over. I left the show after about a year and I started acting classes again. I just kind of lost all my confidence. I think when you’re 29, that’s sort of like a rehearsal for a mid-life crisis. So I had the chance to audition for Long Day’s Journey because it was the same producer, Manny Azenberg, but when that came up, I chickened out. I didn’t take the audition. So Manny—this is one of these glorious, beautiful things that happens in your life, I can count them in one hand and have three fingers left over—he called me up when I didn’t go to that audition, and he says, “Peter. You know I’m Jewish. But half of me is Italian, and if you don’t come in and audition for this play, I’m going to break both your fucking legs.” It was the loveliest, most caring call I’ve ever gotten in my life. I said, “Thank you Manny.” And I just cried and cried and cried and cried at the fact that he cared enough. And I went in and got the part. What was really great about that was the language of the play was… my father used to call me lunkhead, just like Tyrone called his kids, so there was a certain familiarity with the language. And I got to know Lemmon. It was really one of the high points. Jonathan Miller, who directed it, was one of the smartest people. That’s part of the big thrill with working with Tom Stoppard and Mike Nichols in The Real Thing, and then Jonathan Miller and Eugene O’Neill, at least posthumously, and Lemmon and [Kevin] Spacey, who was a kid, we played brothers and had a great time. So that was a great experience, to live with that play for a year.

Actually, here’s a good one. We were onstage at the Old Haymarket Theater in London, in the West End. The Prime Minister—Margaret Thatcher—was there. She came down to the stage after the show and we met Donald, I think her husband’s name was, and they had the staff photographer and security and so on. I’m there with Jack and Kevin and Jodie [Lynne McClintock] and Bethel [Leslie] and everybody. So we’re standing around, and it’s a little awkward. I said, “Prime Minister, is there any part of the show that you found a little slow going?” [Imitates Thatcher.] “Oh, you know, that second act there, I thought could have moved along a bit more.” I said, “Well, she shouldn’t have taken the paper out and started reading it right in the middle of the second act. That was very distracting for us onstage.” And Lemmon turned to me, and the look on his face was, [Imitates Lemmon.] “You are a fucking asshole! An asshole!” If ray guns could come out of his eyes, they would have. Spacey’s looking at me, [Imitates Spacey.] “Oh, well, yes, you’re an idiot. You’re an idiot.” And nobody knows what to make of this, because, I mean, clearly it didn’t happen, I was just messing around.

I have my hands wide open by my side, when I said, “Well, she shouldn’t have taken the paper out…” And she looks at me, like, shocked that I had said such a thing. But all of a sudden she gets that it’s a joke and goes, “Whooo hoo hoo!” She has this huge bubbly laugh, this little explosion of a laugh. And the photographer takes a picture, but it just so happens that with my arms out and the angle of the photograph, she’s having this expression of sheer delight, and my right hand is completely behind her, so it, uh, looks like I’m doing something inappropriate. [Laughs.] So that was fun. But Long Day’s Journey was great. A great role, a great time, and I’m very grateful that I had the chance to do that.

House On Haunted Hill (1999)—“Donald W. Blackburn, M.D.”
PG: Oh, that was going to be fun. I figured Geoffrey Rush was going to run defense on that one. In fact, Geoffrey spoke about this the other day. I saw him at an event for King’s Speech, and he was speaking about his experience when he came to America, and he mentioned this moment, which I was so happy that I could share with him. We had a great time. Geoffrey Rush is the funniest man in the world. We laughed a lot with Chris Kattan. Chris Kattan would call me in the middle of the night when we were shooting that and play a Cher song. I can’t remember what it was. I wish I could. Even now, when it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, I always think, “Oh, my God, why am I thinking about Cher?” [Laughs.]

So we were shooting that out in Valencia on a sound stage, and Jack Lemmon and George Scott, who I’d also done a couple movies with, were doing Inherit The Wind in the same studio a couple of sound stages over. So I said, “Geoffrey, come on.” I knew that Jack and George were big fans of Geoffrey’s, so I said, “How’d you like to meet Jack Lemmon and George Scott?” He said, “Oh, my God, Peter, I would love to.” I said, “Well, it’s easier than you can imagine. Come on, let’s go.” So we hung out with George and Jack in their separate trailers and then watched them shoot the ultimate scene in the trial on the set. I just felt so happy that I could introduce such enormous talents. That was the other thing about Long Day’s Journey that was crazy. When I was in town doing Long Day’s Journey, I went to see Tom Stoppard at a cricket game. He’d invited me to watch cricket. I had no idea that cricket lasted for a week and a half. And I was late to dinner with Jonathan Miller, and Jonathan and Tom had never met before. So I was able to introduce those two guys, which was pretty cool. They were the two smartest people I knew at that point.

Burlesque (2010)—“Vince” 
AVC: Chris Kattan plays you Cher at 3 a.m., and a decade later, you’re playing her husband.

PG: [Laughs.] Well, it was a long courtship. Cher was my date in The Player, you know. I was thrilled just to be on that set. It was such a sweet set. I wish there was a club like that you could go to. It was great to see Cher, but I don’t think anybody was entirely sure what to do with Cher’s husband. Mr. Cher? So I suggested, “How about rather than burdening the story…” I mean, this is in no way, shape, or form a movie about Mr. Cher, so I said, “Rather than be utterly confusing and behaving in a way that would just be distracting to what’s going on, how about if I’m just like everybody else in the world who wants to get out of their loan obligations without going belly-up?” So I sort of invested every little moment I had, thinking, “Well, I’m probably not going to be in it very much,” like a moment here, a moment there. So I pretty much spent the movie running and yelling “Fire.” [High-pitched excited voice] “Oh my God!” All these little moments are in there. If I had known I was going to be the hysterical Mr. Cher, I might have gotten at least a little more comedic value out of it. But that was fun. I just wish I’d had a song… 

Rescue Me (2010)—“Father Phil”
PG: Oh, now that was awesome. Denis Leary is one of my best friends, and only a best friend from the same tribe would understand that I was built for a role like Father Phil. And I just love the fact that those guys were just allowed to run around New York City and act like firemen and make that show up. Man, I was just so proud of Denis for doing something so successfully and so much fun. It was a lot of fun filming those scenes with those knuckleheads. And it was also just fun playing a priest, ’cause I’ve always liked playing a priest. 

AVC: And a flirty priest, no less.

PG: Well, yeah. It was a little ad libbed at [the scenes at] Uncle Teddy’s. “Is my collar straight?” [Laughs.] God help me. We have priests in the family. If my father was alive… “Oh Gallagher, can’t you play some nice characters?”

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Californication (2009)—“Dean Stacy Koons”
PG: [Laughs.] Well, I gotta say, that was really a fun year to do those two shows, Californication and Rescue Me. Actually, my wife used to produce commercials and stuff and used to work with David [Duchovny]’s brother Danny. So when David was still getting his Ph.D. at Yale or something like that and he was thinking about becoming an actor, Danny said, “Listen, the only actor I know is Peter Gallagher, ’cause I work with his wife.” I didn’t remember this, but my wife did, that I guess David and I spent three hours at the Sunset Marquis back around then, talking about acting. And I imagine there was drinking involved, too, because I don’t remember it at all. [Laughs.] But I had a few early experiences with David, and it was really nice to work with him and discover that he was every bit the gentleman, as much fun and generous as he had been before he was thinking about becoming an actor. And, likewise, the organization there supports good things.

You know, Tom Kapinos is such a good writer, Gina Fattore’s such a good writer, and Lou [Fusaro], in fact, we worked on The Idolmaker. Fusaro and John [H. Radulovic], the other producer. It’s just like, you know, production by grown-ups. It’s like what Altman used to say, “You’re here because if you give me just what I expect, that’s great, but the best you can do is surprise me.” So there was that acceptance of the notion that it’s not just about top-down control, it’s about creating an environment where—you know, we have the technology to record things when they happen, so let’s allow/create an environment where things can happen. So it might actually resemble life. Or it might surprise us.

Summer Lovers (1982)—“Michael Pappas”
AVC: I will preface this one by saying that when I was 13 and first got cable, this was, for all practical purposes, the best movie in the history of the universe.

PG: [Laughs.] I love that. It was not a bad way to spend the summer, I will tell you. It’s so wild, I just ran into Daryl [Hannah] in Chicago, and she was with her friend Hillary, who was with her on the set of that movie, and it was like no time had passed. Well, maybe time had passed, but no more time had passed than I had lost visual acuity, so it looked like no time had passed. [Laughs.] The funny thing about that was my agent at the time said, “Hey! What do you think of this movie?” I said, “I can’t do this movie, this is ridiculous! I wanna be, you know, Marlon Brando, I want to be the great actor of the entire world.” And he said, “What do you mean? I already said you’d do this movie.” I said “What?” “Don’t worry, we’ll ask for so much money, they’ll never pay it.” And of course they did, and I was on a plane to Greece. And it was great. I was a little serious, initially, but now when I look back on it, I mean, to have been there…

Okay, here’s a funny story. All right, so I played Michael Pappas. And then, a couple years later, we went to Greece, to that island, Santorini, because it was so beautiful. So I get back, first time I’d been back since the movie, and all the tourists… I felt terrible in some ways, because the quaint little taverns are now polished white with new lights and tables. It’s all been kind of transformed, and I go in the tavern. [Shouts in Greek.] So we’re staying in the village where we stayed when we were making the movie, and I’m up with my friend and his wife and my wife up at the top of the hill, and it’s unbelievably beautiful. And Jonathan, my friend, says he’s gonna stay behind and take some pictures. So we’re gonna head back down to the village. So I’m walking down the path with my wife, a beautiful blonde, and her friend, a beautiful brunette. And there are two guys that clearly had just gotten off the boat from the metropolitan area, and… they had clearly seen the movie, okay? So they’re trudging up this steep hill, and I’m gliding down with these two beautiful women and all of a sudden, one of them stops and sees me. [Adopts a frantic, cartoonish New York accent.] “Tommy! Tommy, look! It’s him! It’s him! And he’s got two other women with him!” I go, “Hey, man, how you doing?” “Hey. All right, see ya.” And they just ran up this path. [Laughing.] As far as they were concerned, the Holy Grail was just another hundred yards up the path. It was like the ménage á trois store was open.

Dreamchild (1985)—“Jack Dolan”
AVC: The Jim Henson Creature Shop did some work on this film. Did you have any interaction with Henson?

PG: No, I didn’t. And, you know, it’s weird, ’cause his family had moved to the town my family had moved to, and they went to the same high school, the kids. But I did have a little bit of contact with [writer] Dennis Potter. Pretty crazy… crazily brilliant. Did you ever see that movie? It was really good. It’s just a movie I’m really proud of. Oh, and working with Coral Browne. There’s so many great Coral Browne stories. I love her. [Laughs.] I remember watching her just eviscerate an AD on the set and thinking, “Oh, she’s tough,” and then for her to turn around with this angelic, “Always good to keep them on their toes, dear boy.” And… oh, I don’t know if this is appropriate. [Long pause.] Well, this is kind of appropriate.

We went out to dinner all the time—she was probably in her 70s when I worked with her then. What year was that? ’85? The year before, I had done the American première of Another Country, which was a wonderful play. I played Guy Bennett, based on Guy Burgess, who was an Englishman who turned Russian spy and spent his life living in Moscow. I always remember the story of him when he was in Moscow, and the Old Vic… or New Vic, one of the Vics… came to Moscow to do Hamlet, and their Ophelia came in at intermission to find this sort of ratty, older man throwing up in her sink, because he was a huge alcoholic. First of all, he told her he thought her performance was great, but then he proceeded to ask her if it would be possible, when she went back to England, if she could go to his old haberdasher and have him send him a new hat and new shoes, ’cause he couldn’t get a good hat and shoes in Moscow in that era. In the 50s, I guess it was.

Anyway, Coral and I are sitting there, and she starts talking about how she was at dinner with Alan Bennett and Tony Richardson and so on, and I realize she was the actress. She was the Ophelia who had been faced with this dilemma! And she told this story to Alan Bennett, who was one of Jonathan Miller’s cohorts in Beyond The Fringe, and a year later, Alan had a script delivered to Coral called “An Englishman Abroad.” He said, “Your story was so compelling, I had to write it. This is yours. This is for you to do with what you may.” And they did this wonderful movie with Albert Finney about that episode. So there was that instantaneous “Whoa, shit!” of real life intersecting with this other life. 

Coral was very bawdy, you know. She was all stories. Like, when she was with Firth Shephard, she’d lift her skirt up at a party and say [Adopts English accent.] “Oh, look everyone, it’s Shephard’s bush!” And Radie Harris, who was a Broadway columnist of the era, Coral played her in a movie, and Radie hated the portrayal and just eviscerated her in the press. But Radie had a wooden leg, and there was a story about Coral sweeping into Le Caprice with her various social butterflies around her and seeing Radie Harris sitting there with her various social butterflies around her, and Coral says, [English accent] “Oh, look! There’s Radie Harris with all of London at her foot!” [Laughs.] 

I was in her dressing room once—she’s in her 70s—and we were talking about something, she talked about how she had breast cancer and she was sick and this and that, and she turns around and takes her shirt off. And because I was just a pathetic Irish-Catholic boy, I thought that, obviously, I had done something wrong, that somehow my dirty mind had willed her shirt to come off, and so I was [Adopts wimpy, boyish voice.] “Oh my God! Ah! I’m gonna be outside talking to somebody about something! Oh my God!” [Laughs.] And I ran out into the hall like a seven-year-old. Meanwhile, she had spectacular-looking breasts. She looked amazing! And that’s probably why I was apologizing. I was expecting, ’cause she was sick and blah blah blah, and, plus, I don’t know if I’d ever seen… [Laughs.]

My wife just stuck her head in: “Before you go any farther, your wife and your daughter are here, okay?” God, now I’m in trouble with the entire world! But I was, like, “Holy God, that’s amazing!” She looked great. So at first I pretended that didn’t happen. And then I’m thinking, “You’re such an idiot. You think that was accidental? Do you think she forgot you were there?” And so I said, “You know, Coral, listen, about the other day, I just wanna say, ‘Wow, you look great.’” [Laughs.] “Oh, thank you, dear boy! Thank you! Now what’s for lunch?” When she died, I got a call from her husband, Vincent Price, who reached out. I didn’t know she was sick toward the end there. But she was one funny dame. And tough as nails.

The O.C. (2003-2007)—“Sandy Cohen”
PG: I think I was the last person in America to realize I was doing a teen soap. [Laughs.] “No, it’s a family drama!” That was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle things. I felt really, really lucky to get that part. I felt really lucky to be a part of that story, because we were living in New York. It was that show that brought us out from New York after I did it for about a year. So we were there and in that recently post-9/11 America, I read this script and thought it was astounding. I thought it was exactly the right story to be telling at that point in time. It was about a family living in a not very embracing community, one that doesn’t necessarily share all their values. They’re in a conservative community, he’s a leftie Jewish guy from the Bronx, she’s a conservative, and they don’t lose their sense of humor or their inclination to help. They still open their arms and embrace this outsider kid. And I thought that was powerful in an era with a kind of xenophobia, a kind of looking-over-your-shoulder and getting small and angry, sort of creeping into the PATRIOT Act-fueled environment. This espoused a kind of America… It just felt right. And it had a sense of humor. 

AVC: Arguably your greatest accomplishment on The O.C. was introducing the concept of foreplay to an entire generation of teenage boys.

PG: [Laughs.] You know, I love that scene with Adam. I love Adam Brody. I love the whole cast, and I’m still in touch with them all, pretty much. But I love that scene. I couldn’t believe we didn’t have more scenes together after that. I thought it’d be fun to have a little running father/son thing going on. But clearly, I didn’t know what I was thinking.

AVC: What did you learn playing a father to teenagers that you were able to bring to your own kids when they became teenagers?

PG: Well, my son had turned 13 just when the show was starting. What was really nice about that was that Josh [Schwartz] was really open-minded about my perspective as a father, ’cause none of them were fathers. And of course, I was open-minded about my wife’s perspective. So when there were things that didn’t ring very true about what a father would do, Josh had his ear open to that. So I could behave more as a father might in those circumstances, rather than seeing Mischa [Barton] at some older guy’s house and saying, [Nonchalant tone.] “Oh, hey, what’s going on?” instead of, “What the hell is wrong with you?! Get outta here!” [Laughs.] No, if I said that, I should be arrested for the rest of my life, locked up for being such a bad father. So again, success in our business, no matter what anybody says, it’s an accident. It’s a miracle. And so that was one of those things. And I think half the reason we succeeded is ’cause we were so far under the radar. We were nobody’s favorite horse when we were coming in. Gail Berman had her eye on us. She was protective of us. But it’s like Altman says, “Nobody knows anything. There’s nobody at the top.” And if that sucker’s got a heartbeat, you just gotta feed the beast. That’s what I say.

American Beauty (1999)—“Buddy Kane”
PG: Well, the big heartbreak was, my agent first sent me the script and told me it was for the role of Lester. And so my heart just soared. I said, “Oh, my God, the moment I’ve been waiting for my whole life. A great role.” “Oh, by the way, no, it’s for Buddy Kane.” [Laughs.] But I thought, “Well, okay. All right. This is a good one. This is a great script.” That was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. Looking at that part, I was talking to Sam Mendes. We wanted to do a sort of Donald Trump lite—which is redundant, right?—and give myself a little gravitas. And my hair was so black then, in order to make it grayer, it would go sort of orange-y if we stripped it and messed it. So we used a wig and age makeup. Carol O’Connell, our hair stylist, had a relationship with this older woman who bought up all the wigs from the studios, and she knew them like people. Carol brought in, like, five wigs. And a Cary Grant wig fit perfectly. It was like made for my head. And the crazy thing is that 20 years earlier, when I was doing my first movie, The Idolmaker, we had to take dance class for the spins and the splits and stuff. And the dance teacher, invited me to a party one afternoon. It was to Edith Head’s house, the legendary costume designer. I wasn’t a big student of Hollywood, but I knew a little bit. And Cary Grant was there. She knew him and she introduced us. And we hung out. And we were talking about teen idols and about longevity and about acting. I wish I could remember what exactly he said to me, but the whole time I was like, ‘Holy shit, I’m talking to Cary Grant and he’s talking to me.’ [Laughs.] And so I smiled every time that wig was put on my head 20 years later for American Beauty, because he was still giving me… well, I guess the point is, in that motel room with Annette and me, Cary Grant was on top.

AVC: Speaking of you and Annette, I think most people can agree that the line “Fuck me, your majesty!” is an all-time classic.

PG: [Laughs.] Well, here’s the greatest thing. Right after 9/11, on 9/13, maybe, the fires were still burning. The first day of rehearsal for Noises Off was on 9/11, and two days later, the night shift had missed the president and the Yankees, and they wanted some company, so a couple of us went down and… it was amazing. It was mind-blowing. The smell, the sight of hundreds of firefighters, and then the bucket brigade and the fumes and the lights and the devastation. It was surreal. Truly surreal. And I’m walking through thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life? I’m running around doing a farce on Broadway while these guys are risking their lives and their friends have died. What the hell am I doing? This is no job for a grownup. How can I walk among these heroes?’ And all of a sudden one of the firefighters sittin’ on one of the girders goes, “Hey! It’s the king! It’s the fucking king! What da fuck are you doin’ here?” [Laughs.] And all of a sudden I’m like, “Oh, that’s what I do for a living.” All these firefighters are laughing their asses off, going, “Hey, fuck me, your majesty! I loved that fuckin’ movie.” And we’re talking, having a little brief moment, and that was sort of like, “Oh, okay, this is what I’m doing… and it’s worth doing.” 

sex, lies, and videotape (1989)—“John Mullany” / The Underneath (1995)—“Michael Chambers”
AVC: In 1989, I would’ve paid good money to have seen an actual cage match between you and James Spader.

PG: [Laughs.] That was so much fun. Tim Daly was supposed to do the part, but I guess my manager was managing Andie [MacDowell], and I guess Jimmy said something nice about me from that, but they asked me to do this movie. And I read it in the motel room, and I got up in the middle of the night and sat in the bathroom and read it again, ’cause I couldn’t believe how good it was. There is nothing more exciting than reading a great script. And this was a great script.

But then I suddenly had a little concern, because I had some questions, and I remembered from Skag, where Abby Mann, who’s a brilliant writer, I’d have questions or something, maybe about doing something a little differently, and I’d hear, “It happened to me!” “Oh, okay…” So I thought, “Oh, that could be a real creative killer,” if somebody’s trying to recreate a moment from their past or something that’s happened, and I’m ignoring what’s happening. So I remembered that and thought, “Well, maybe I’m crazy. Maybe this is, like, earnest or something, and I’m missing the boat. It sounds deep.” And I met Soderbergh the next day—he was 26—and I said, “So how do you see this?” And he said, “Well, I see this as kind of a black comedy.” And I said, “Oh. I’m in.” And he said, “You know, your role isn’t as well developed as the others.” I said, “That’s all right.” “Are you open-minded?” “Totally.”

It was one of the most beautiful, constructive, productive rehearsal periods, and because the budget was so low, there was nobody looking over our shoulders. And because Soderbergh is such an extraordinary artist, he was not blinded or crippled by the kind of insecurities or need for control or something that some people might have. He was very open. You talk about a cage match, well, before I punch Jimmy, looking at those videotapes, there was a four-page scene that Steven had written. And Jimmy and I said, “Uh, why don’t I just punch him?” He said, “Oh, okay.” And we did. Boom. “You’re right, that’s better. We’re done. Should we shoot some pool?” [Laughs.] So we would really work hard and really be organized, and just the delight… I thought, “Okay, I want to make movies for the rest of my life.” Because it’s just after having just worked with Altman for the first time, and now working with Soderbergh… They’re so similar. The great directors—Altman and Soderbergh and Nichols—it’s so different from what people imagine. It’s not about control. It’s about creating an environment where something marvelous can happen and capturing it. And Altman would tell me, “Gallagher, I want you to go in there and do something.” I said, “What?” “I don’t know.” “When?” “Next take.” [Laughs.]

AVC: Had Soderbergh’s directorial style changed at all by the time you worked with him on Underneath?

PG: You know, listen, he’s not downed by style. He’s really interested in story. I think that was a turbulent time for him in his life. I was a young father then. I think there were elements of the story that were challenging and so on and so forth. But again, it’s that thing. You just can’t hit a home run every time. But the process of working with people like that is hitting a home run. It’s not like you’re gonna go from being a great director who’s really interested in making a great scene and making a great movie to someone who’s cast all that aside and is just out to manipulate people. [Laughs.] That’s not gonna happen, really. Unless there’s a real kind of psychosis. Those guys are after bigger game than trying to make people pay for their lousy high-school experience.

[pagebreak]

The Idolmaker (1980)—“Caesare”
PG: Ooh, that was fun. That was the first movie I ever did. It holds up, right? That was great, ’cause I had just done Grease on Broadway. I was in the original Broadway company of Grease. I had done that for years, so I had been in that singing-and-dancing era, and I think that helped. And there was a huge, national talent search. Paul Land, may he rest in peace. We’re dropping like flies from that movie. And now Ryan Gosling wants to remake it! Which is great. I mean, what a talented actor. I bet he’ll be a wonderful director.

So anyway, Paul and I, the night before, they’ve flown us across the country to L.A., and only then do we realize we’re not up for the same part. He’s, like, right off the street of Hoboken, and he’s just a force of nature. You never were entirely what was 100 percent true or not, but I think he was a soldier and a model and just generally a great guy. A force of nature. We had a lot of laughs. But I’d been doing theater and I’d been studying—my religion was acting—and he is just a raw guy, and so I’m a little protective. And we start talking about what we’re gonna do, [Imitates Paul Land.] “Listen. I want you to go in there with balls the size of fuckin’ grapefruits!” [Laughs.] And I thought, “Okay. I love you. All right, we’ll be fine.” And so we spent the night doing our numbers for each other. [As Paul Land.] “All right. Let him have it! Yeah! That’s it!” And I said, “Paul, you might wanna tone that part down, I don’t know if that’s communicating exactly what you mean it to be.” [Laughing.] 

So we both got the parts. Actually, the thing about The Idolmaker, we were in Alpine, New Jersey shooting some of Ray’s house stuff, and it was the first time of my life I had a moment where I felt like I belonged. Where I was in the right place, I was doing what I should be doing, and there was a place for me. And it didn’t last long, and I haven’t had it since. [Laughs.] But I felt unbelievably lucky I was there and telling that story. And I got to do those numbers! Actually, my next version of the one-man show I’ve been doing, I haven’t sung the song in ages, but I’m gonna do “However Dark The Night.” But to sing with the James Cleveland Choir with that crazy choreography and not really be a dancer, it was just one of those things where you couldn’t help feeling lucky. And I was the last person, man. Everybody was saying I was gonna be the biggest hit in the world, and I was just holding out, thinking, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ But after we opened, the première was at Radio City Music Hall, and there were 6,000 girls there going insane. They were pulling our clothes, we were being attacked… it was unbelievable. And I thought, “I could get used to this.” [Laughs.] But our studio was also releasing Heaven’s Gate, so for whatever reason, we didn’t do the numbers at the box office, so the next thing I did was Benvolio in Romeo And Juliet at the Long Wharf Theatre, ’cause there was also an actor’s strike for four months right during that time. But I loved that movie. So proud of it.

AVC: If pressed, could you produce the words to “Baby,” even now?

PG: Yeah. [Sings.] “Baby! Baby! I just wanna take you where I’m goin.’ Oh, baby! Baby! I just wanna take you to the sky. Tell me why, why are we not close together?” [Descends into mumbling and then starts laughing.] Well, that’s how it starts, anyway. [Laughs.] Even when I’m doing a show, I can barely remember the lyrics!

The Secret Lives Of Men (1998)—“Michael”
AVC: That’s your only full-fledged sitcom, isn’t it?

PG: Oh, yeah! I know. It’s too bad, ’cause I think that would be my natural habitat. But hey, whatever. The better part about that was, I met Jimmy Burrows and became friends. And we’re still pals. And he was a brilliant director. And the very talented Susan Harris. That was just a drag, because it was, like, I just never really got anything to do. You know, it was, like, “What are we gonna do with him this week?” [Laughs.] And Burrows says, “Why are you hiring Gallagher?! He’s not funny!” And Susan said, “Yes, he is. I’ve seen him make material that’s not funny at all funny.” [As Burrows.] “I don’t think so.” But then later, “You’re right, he’s funny.” That would’ve been the best job in show business, if you get to make people laugh every week and make a living. And get to sleep in your own bed. If you actually make a show in this country, that’s unbelievable.

High Spirits (1988)—“Brother Tony”
AVC: Neil Jordan remains very dissatisfied with the version of this film that was released in theaters. 

PG: Yes, well, you know what? They took that picture away from him, I think, and re-cut it, and made it kind of silly. I saw Neil’s cut, and it was like Barry Lyndon on acid. It was amazing. It was just rich and crazy. And the Americans… I mean, I knew I was playing a very supporting role, but I think Neil saw it. I mean, we had an amazing cast —Donal McCann and [Peter] O’Toole and these unbelievable actors like Tom Hickey—and Neil saw everybody as being part of the whole. But then the producers took it and added O’Toole’s voiceover because they were afraid nobody would understand the Irish, and made it more featuring the two American leads. And that was sad. It didn’t take any away at all from my experience of making it, ’cause I got to make it in Ireland, where I still have family. And I got to meet O’Toole, who was my idol. He was the reason I wanted to become a movie actor.

Basically, I’m telling you half of my one-man show. [Laughs.] It’s about the guys who were important to me. ’Cause my father didn’t talk to me, so I ended up working with all these other guys who had a lot of time to kill on the set, and I was interested. And they were probably guys who didn’t talk to their sons, either, but you know. O’Toole would come in in the morning, and he’d see me and say, [Pitch-perfect O’Toole impression.] “Mr. Gallagher. How are you, sir?” And I’d say, “Fine. Thank you, Mr. O’Toole. How are you?” “Oh, gruesome.” [Laughs.] And we read Irish poetry together, went to a football game, and he’s always trying to get me into the film. “We need Brother Tony! Brother Tony should be in this scene!” So I could imagine why Neil felt a little beat up by that one. It was a little disappointing, but the experience of it was wet and cold, but phenomenal.

While You Were Sleeping (1995)—“Peter Callaghan”
PG: I will have you know that I was actually asleep, like, almost every time that camera was on me, showing me in a coma. I thought, “If I’m gonna be the ‘you’ in While You Were Sleeping, baby, I’m gonna bring my A-game.” Which was scary, because you don’t know what kind of sounds you’re making, or how much drooling you’re doing when you’re out like a light. That was fun, too, because it was Peter Boyle and Jack Warden and all these guys. We had fun.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)—“Vic Tenetta”
PG: Oh, yes. The raja of romance. The ministerio of moonlight. [Laughs.] Well, that was cool, because first of all, I got to sing, and Dean Martin is my hero. When I was a kid, he just made the world look great. When I was a kid and my friends were going crazy about The Beatles, I was doing my Dean Martin impression. Like, in sixth grade. So they said, “Will you sing this Dean Martin thing?” “Oh, my God, I would love to!” And I sang it live. I had the little track in my ear they had pre-recorded. But the cool thing was that Paul Newman was there, who had brought me into the Academy, AMPAS, and I’d known him since my years at Long Wharf. He lived in Connecticut. He was just one of the coolest, most supportive, humblest guys around. And he stuck around off-camera while I was singing that. So I was singing most of that song to Paul Newman, ’cause he was just laughing his ass off. [Laughing.] And they kept cutting to the ladies, but Paul Newman was off-camera and I was singing to him. And we had a lot of laughs.

In fact, when I was doing Another Country, his daughter Claire asked for an autograph, ‘cause they lived down the street from the theater, Joanne and Paul. So I didn’t even respond. ’Cause it’s, like, “Who’s fuckin’ with me? I’m trying to do this play.” Finally, the general manager came down, “Are you insane? What has to happen for you to do something?” “Well, it was a… ” “No, it’s not a joke! They’re calling me going ‘What? We didn’t give enough to the theater?’” No, they didn’t say that. [Laughs.] So, anyway, that’s how we met. “Oh my God, whatever you want. I’ll wash the cars. Whatever you want.” And that’s how we first met. And whenever I was doing a play, he and Joanne would come by, and it’s just those little moments that make you feel very lucky. So that’s why I was singing that tune. And then the Coen brothers… I dunno, I haven’t gotten a call from them since.

AVC: I’m sure it’s coming any day now.

PG: [Laughs.] I won’t hold my breath. 

The Cabinet Of Dr. Ramirez (1991)—“Matt”
PG: I tell ya, that was an amazing experience. It was sort of inspired by The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, the impressionist thing, and [writer-director] Peter Sellars, brilliant. First of all, why would you not do a silent movie in this day and age? And the conceit was pretty interesting. In other words, while I’m talking and you’re listening, the camera would be on you. But one of my favorite moments was when we were shooting on the banks of the East River, just north of one of the bridges. And we’re all rubble and shopping carts, and it’s junk city, and Joan Cusack is lying dead just off the river, and the cameras are out there, two cameras rolling up by the road bed shooting down by the river’s edge, and [Mikhail Baryshnikov] is about 10 yards camera right, and I’m about 10 yards camera left. And the only direction we’ve been given is to approach each other.

We play alter egos. I play the slick yuppie guy of the financial crisis of the ’80s, and he is the sort of homeless alter ego that inhabits the nether regions and the dark spaces of the city and so forth. And it’s all under a score by John Adams. So it’s pretty trippy and interesting, although I haven’t seen the final version of it. But the experience was… oh! The DP was [David Watkin], the DP of Charge of The Light Brigade, brilliant guy who invented the Wendy Lights, and he would fall asleep as soon as the camera would start rolling and would wake up after the take was over and light the next scene. [Laughs.] Anyway, the direction was to walk in slow motion toward the inert body of Joan Cusack lying dead on the shore, so we’re walking in slow motion, and, you know, we don’t have a problem with this. We’re, like, “All right, we’ll do that.” And now I can tell at the cut of the camera rehearsal, nobody is paying any attention to us whatsoever. We could be on fire, and it wouldn’t matter. Nobody is paying attention to us. So I start doing my really bad version of ballet. So I do these turns and leaps in slow motion, and all of a sudden, Mikhail starts dancing with me. And he’s really dancing. And we’re leaping from rocks to rocks and turning, and then we both arrive at the same point and kneel down to her inert body.

And I am thinking, ‘I. Love. My. Job.’ I can’t walk and chew gum, and I just did a pas de deux with the greatest dancer in the world. A couple of weeks later, The New York Times, I guess a reporter had been there, and maybe she was talking about this, but she wrote, “And there was Mikhail Baryshnikov teaching Peter Gallagher how to tap dance.” [Laughs.] I mean, maybe we were tap dancing at some point, maybe that’s what she saw, but I thought, “Wow, you missed the boat on that one.” But that was pretty cool. And Ron Vawter, who was also in it, was also in sex, lies and videotape. Who is no longer with us, unfortunately.

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1988)—“Lt. Cmdr. John Challee” / Short Cuts (1993)—“Stormy Weathers”/ The Player (1992)—“Larry Levy”
PG: I’d just done The Murder Of Mary Phagan, and Robert Altman was casting Caine Mutiny Court-Martial for the role of John Challee. And nobody wanted to play John Challee because he had more lines than anybody else in the show and no pay-offs, and was essentially the asshole. So he was casting Brad Davis and Jeff Daniels, and I had a meeting. They had sent some footage over from The Murder Of Mary Phagan. And it’s Scotty Bushnell in a meeting with Altman in his office on Park Avenue over there. “Well, I just saw that movie you did. Thought you did a good job. Thought you did a very good job. And I think you’d be great in this part. Would you like a beer?” I said, “Yeah!” And he went to get me a beer, and I said to Scotty, who’s sitting next to me at the table, “Did he just offer me a job?” He said, “Yes!” And I said, “Oh, my God, I would walk on broken glass for this man. He didn’t humiliate me. He didn’t have me jump through hoops. He didn’t make me feel like some kind of disadvantaged child, but looked at my work and made an assessment and said, “Yeah, you wanna work?” And I said, “Yeah, I’d be a lampshade in that.” For him. 

It was pretty miraculous, because it was also an interesting environment to be in. Since we were doing Caine Mutiny, we couldn’t change any of the dialogue, since it was a play, so we were gonna respect that. But it was around the Iran Contra hearings, and… by the way, Doug Liman, his dad is Arthur Liman, who was the prosecutor. But Bob really loved watching those hearings. In the foreground, you have people responding or examining or answering questions or whatever, but behind them, the assistants and the aides, it was like a beehive of activity, passing notes back and forth and tilting heads in and convening. That was really of great interest to Bob. So he explored that. So the camera would be dollying behind the officers at the judge’s table there, and you would figure out they were playing Hangman and figuring out where to go to lunch. We shot at a naval base out on Washington State in Port Townsend. It was the first time I experienced the kind of freedom on camera that I had onstage. And it just all made sense. I loved the family aspect of the way he worked, and requiring everybody to go… well, not requiring, but wanting everyone to watch the dailies, and to be part of that process. Not artificially segregated.

After that, we went to do Short Cuts and we were assigned a young female development head—she must have been in her early 20s or something like that—at Columbia or wherever it was. When we were about ready to shoot, she insisted that Bob make it a happy ending, so, uh, that fell apart. [Laughs.] And then, almost instantaneously, The Player materialized out of nowhere. And Bob called me and got me and Tim [Robbins] together in New York, and brought us out, and we started going to openings. In fact, I remember being on Wilshire Boulevard, stopped in traffic, and Bob and I are in the car and there’s, like, a shootout with the LAPD. [Laughs.] And Bob says, “Oh, this would be such a drag if we get killed.” Yeah, especially if Bob gets killed, ’cause the movie won’t get made!

AVC: Plus the headline would read, “Robert Altman and actor killed in shootout.”

PG: [Laughs.] That’s true. Well, he was a war hero, you know. So, anyway, we did that, and then The Player opened a couple days before Guys And Dolls opened on Broadway, and then Bob was at my opening night. He was there for me opening night, and so was Tim. [Journalist] Nancy Mills, we were talking about the show, we mentioned Altman, and she sent me a quote that Bob said to her when she was interviewing him around Short Cuts. I’ll read it for you, because… “Peter is Cary Grant. Short Cuts is hardly a comedy, but it almost is. I always try to get Peter’s own personality on the screen. He’s such a good actor, and he goes into great characterizations. Every time I start a picture, I look to see if there’s a Peter Gallagher role. I don’t wanna push him down in secondary roles. I think he’s a leading man, but will take a few years before other people think so. Peter’s always fighting those incredible looks he has. Those eyebrows are enough to make you hate him if you’re a man.” [Laughs.] And this is from a guy who loves me! Motherfucker!

AVC: How well did you know your way around a chainsaw before “Short Cuts”?

PG: Oh, you know what? They always scared me. Especially the gas-powered ones. I mean, we have a place in the woods in Connecticut, so I have to have a chainsaw. What was cool about that is what Bob had in mind, we did it in real time. And I was impressed with the torque on the electric chainsaw, actually. But Bob said, “Listen, I want you to take it. I want you to get out of the car, you got a chainsaw, and you gut it to pieces.” Who would say things like that? I remember, we were doing The Player, he said, “Listen. I want you to write a monologue. Something about Hollywood that will be true in 20 years so it can cover a tracking shot where we’re introducing all these other characters, and then we’re gonna end on you and Tim. You need anything?” “Well, maybe some trade papers or something like that.” So thinking about this [chainsaw] scene, I call up Steve Altman, who was Bob’s son and production designer. I said, “Steve, you know, this couch. What’s the deal on this couch? What can I do with this couch?” He said, “Well, we’ve taken all the metal springs out. You can do whatever you wanna do with the couch. You can really cut it up.” ’Cause that’s the scary thing with a chainsaw. If you strike metal or something that’s not gonna cut, and that chain breaks and whips around, it can be bad. I said, “Well, listen, I don’t wanna make this like a random, crazed, slash-and-burn kind of an approach. I wanna slice that fucker like a pound cake. I just wanna voom, voom, voom. I just wanna go through everything and make it much smaller and more pieces. Is that cool?” And he says, “Yeah, that’s cool.” So that’s what we did. I had all the gear in that bag. Pull the car in. Cameras rolling. And I walk into the house and we do all that in one. I put on the gloves and the goggles and the things, and I plug it in, and I say, “All right!” [Laughs.]

AVC: How many people in Hollywood accused you of screwing up a good thing by outing all of the non-alcoholics who were doing deals at AA meetings?

PG: [Laughs.] I will always love Bob for giving me that line. One thing I haven’t had a lot of in my career are punchlines. I’m usually sort of disguising a sow’s ear as a silk purse, or trying to give a little dimension to something, but I’m rarely the guy who gets the punchlines. It’s just like being on a Broadway show where you’re the leading man and you spend the whole time toting the barge and lifting the bale, only for the diva to walk away with the 11:00 number. But in that instance, he gave me the punchline, and it’s like someone handing you solid gold. A lot of that movie, we improvised. But for that, he said, “This is the line. This is what I wanna hear.” I said, “Oh, Bob. Thank you, man. Thank you!” That was one of the great gifts of my career. Manny Azenberg and that line from Bob Altman. [Laughs.]

Filed Under: TV, Rescue Me

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