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Random Roles: Larry Miller

The actor: Larry Miller, a venerable stand-up comedian, improviser, and character actor who can be counted upon to improve every film or television show he appears in. Since his breakthrough role as a store clerk in 1990's Pretty Woman, he's appeared in nearly a hundred movies and TV shows, including both Nutty Professors and Christopher Guest's Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. He's also lent his voice to Dilbert, Bee Movie, and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. He can currently be seen in Get Smart, and he recently appeared in National Lampoon's Senior Skip Day, which is out on DVD. A schedule of his stand-up appearances can be found at larrymillerhumor.com.

Fame (1982)—"Emcee"

Larry Miller: I'll tell you something that's pretty neat. It's not necessarily an edgy story. My parents were staying with me—I'd just moved out about a year before to Los Angeles, and I auditioned for that role while they were staying with me in my apartment. It was a typical comic's apartment, where you live on someone's floor for eight weeks, and then that guy and your other friend help you find a one-bedroom apartment for about $400 a month. So my parents were staying with me; they were sleeping in my bed, I was sleeping on the couch. I went in for this audition, and I just knew that it was good. I liked meeting these guys, and I started talking about my parents staying, and how they couldn't believe how I was living. About how I would buy cheap plates and throw them out instead of cleaning them. Just single-guy stuff. You know, my mom started to look for something to cook in the kitchen, and she said something like "Where's your garlic press?" I looked at her and said, "Garlic press? I don't have underwear, what are you talking about?"

But we all laughed about it, and those guys laughed and enjoyed the audition. And as I was leaving the room, one of the producers said—and Hollywood is known to be a tough business, I guess every business is tough—"Hey!" And I turned around, and he said, "Tell your mother you did well." And I just smiled and said "Thanks." And they smiled and nodded, and I got the part. It was filmed at an American Legion hall I passed every day—it's very famous, a lot of things are shot there. I got a chance to work with Debbie Allen—see, I love this stuff, I really love it. People rolling around having fun; that was my first acting job. I love stand-up very much, and in fact, I'm going back on the road more now. But I've been lucky at all this stuff. I love acting and writing, and I have a book out now that's done well, and I have Senior Skip Day coming out on DVD, and I had a great time doing that! I mean, I sound like an idiot when I talk about these things, but I love this stuff.

Senior Skip Day (2008)—"Mr. Frankfurt Dickwalder"

LM: It's just funny. Again, I have to say this, and it sounds knuckleheaded, but it's true: There isn't a day on the set, even on the ones that don't turn out that well, that I haven't loved. Because there isn't a day that I really don't try—you know, you're writing something new, you say to the director, "How about this? How about that?" And people get to know what I bring to the party. It either annoys them or it doesn't. Evan Wasserstrom had written the script, and I'd met the producer, George Gallo—this guy wrote Midnight Run, which I think is one of the best movies ever made. I put really good comedies up there with Raging Bull or Sophie's Choice. To me, a great comedy and a warm comedy—a good buddy picture, if it's done well, it's as good as Casablanca.

AVC: It's an undervalued genre.

LM: In fact, come to think of it, Casablanca is a buddy movie. But at any rate, I came to this thing, and from the first day in the trailer, we had the best time on the set. Nick Weiss, who was a first-time director, really said, "Let's try and be good at this. Let's try and be fun. Let's try and find things that work." And you know what? I think it does. Now, they didn't get a distribution deal. It's not going to be at a theater near you. And that's the way it goes. It's not that it's smooth as silk, but it won't be an hour and a half wasted.

AVC: That's the conundrum of the character actor. When you're doing something like that, are you focused on making your scenes as funny as possible, or serving the film as a whole?

LM: There's sometimes a vaudevillian sense of comedy in American movies, in a good sense. Meaning, if someone says, "Well, how did the dean in the Nutty Professor movies get to be that angry at this guy?" And the answer to give to that one is, "You know what? He just is." Sometimes in comedy, like vaudeville, two guys walk out there and say, "Say, that's a funny hat you've got there," and bang, you're just in the bit. But not in this one. One of the fun things was, I kept pitching, and they agreed to do this, instead of like a Ferris Bueller's Day Off—which is a great movie, a seriously great movie and a classic—where the principal gets increasingly weak and shattered as it goes on, and is just destroyed by the end, I said, "Why don't we go in the exact opposite way, on an arc up?" This guy starts out as a knucklehead, but as he gets bashed down, he becomes darker and darker until he emerges like from some alien cocoon, as this dark criminal lord who's going to wind up running a giant crime operation in Shanghai or something. His line goes straight up, and that's why Clint Howard and I—he's playing a guy I messed up when he was in high school, and he's coming to kill me, because he's been so angry in prison for so many years. But in just a short time, I'm able to grab him by the lapels and say, "You don't even know what death is. Come with me."

We had so much fun doing that, saying, "Let's make this guy into something we haven't really seen." And we kid around—you always do—we said, "Look, we know what the sequel is, if there's ever going to be one: This guy is set up with Clint Howard as his right-hand man in the center of a giant crime world somewhere in Asia, where they're just drinking snake venom." So at any rate, in this case, I had the best time every single day. It's not a high-budget movie. But pal, I'll tell you what—like you guys there, like anything creative, every single day started, and I said, "No one has ever been this lucky!"

Pretty Woman (1990)—"Mr. Hollister"

LM: It was great. That's also probably a good instructional story for when people say, "How do I get parts? How many different ways do people get parts in things?" In this case, I was doing my job, I was onstage at the Improv, I was a comic here, and I had already been on the road a lot. I had already been in seven or eight plays, and I was also in a play at the time here in Los Angeles. I would go after that play to the Improv to do a set, so my days were full. I was writing during the day, so I felt good, 'cause I was like, "Wow, I'm squeezing in every job here!"

There was a casting woman named Dori Zuckerman. She was doing her job too, going to plays in Los Angeles, and going to The Improv, so when [director] Garry Marshall said to her, "Do you know of any interesting character actors who haven't been seen yet who could work around, dance around with me?" she said "I think I do," and she brought me in. That was her doing her job, and being good at it. So I sat down with Garry Marshall, and we just riffed on a bunch of improv things, which is what the whole part was, by the way. There was nothing written, which is why I love working with the guy. Garry Marshall is one of the funniest guys in the world. All he has to do is open his mouth, and he's funny. There's nothing ever written. He just says, "Well, okay, you come in, and then you hug her, and action." So he hired me for that part. And then on the day we shot it, he said, "All right, when they come up, you want to kiss his ass a lot. We'll have you walk into him, and you'll tap him on the shoulder and say "Who are you" and "I'm looking for the manager." It's cool, 'cause everyone on the set, even though I had very little experience or none, everyone knew you just started coming up with stuff. It's just little things, all improv, like calling out to other saleswomen: "Mary Pat, Mary Kate, Mary Francis, Tova," ya know? Little things that strike me as funny. It was good luck. And regardless of me being in the thing, I think that's going to be really entertaining, I think it's a movie that's going to be terrific for another 500 years.

AVC Did it do a lot for your career?

LM: I don't see things like that. To me, it's more of a grade up in life. I don't recall that the phone was ringing off the hook. It was just a good steady grade up. It's not like being on the first Tonight Show as a comic. It's not like something cracks open.

AVC: It's more of a steady evolution?

LM: Exactly. It's like hopefully putting a brick in the wall every day, and then a show like that is like 10 bricks on a given day. And then one day, theoretically, someone drives by and says, "Look at that wall."

Carry On Columbus (1992)—"The Chief"

LM: That's so much fun. Gerald Thomas was an English director who directed a series, very popular in England, called Carry On. There were something like 28 of them: Carry On Doctor, Carry On Nurse, Carry On this, Carry On that. As you know, the English really just have two extremes… There's no real middle ground.

AVC: It's either Monty Python or Benny Hill.

LM: Exactly. It's either something really smart and thinly sliced and ironic and witty, or it's "Holy mackerel, she doesn't have a blouse on." But that's fine, that's cool. So in this case, they wanted to tell their Columbus story too, with Jim Dale, a very big Broadway star at the time, playing Columbus. One of the jokes was that they wanted all the Indians to have American accents. It's something Abbott and Costello used to do, where they're looking for directions, and Lou sees an Indian standing there way out in the West, and he goes to this very slow way of speaking, "Excuse me, I'm looking for this road that goes here." And the chief just turns to Abbott and says, "What's wrong with him, what's he talking about?"

That's what they wanted, so that when Columbus comes to the New World, the Indians would be American comics. I was the chief there, and you know what? The coolness of that was, not only did I get a terrific job and get to go to England—and by the way, their commissary there on the lots had the worst food in the world, but it was always connected to a really nice pub, and everyone there on the crew used to go and have two or three pints for lunch. But the thing about the lots was, it was at Pinewood Studios. Pinewood Studios is like Ealing for all the great English comedies of the '50s. This studio was completely in disrepair, and it was very sad to me. And there was nothing working on it, nothing. There were studios, giant concrete buildings that had weeds growing through them, and the fountains at all these places were overgrown. It was like we had gone 500 years into some Mad Max future where everything had just gone to seed.

It was a little sad, but it was neat to think, "I'm at Pinewood Studios. I'm working at Pinewood Studios, I get picked up every day, and I'm taken to Pinewood Studios."

AVC: Carry On Columbus was an attempt to revive the Carry On franchise, but it didn't go according to plan.

LM: A lot of things don't in life, whether it's show business or not. But you know what? It's a nice effort. So many efforts that people put their hearts into are not for the right reasons. So many times, when people get together in rooms, what they're really saying is, "All right, if we kidnap everyone, we can slice their heads off." So here is a case where people got together and said, "You know what? Maybe we can make a lot of these comedies again." Well it didn't work, but they tried, and I was awfully glad to be a part of it.

AVC: Both of the Columbus movies flopped, so the market for a Columbus parody may not have been as strong as they might have imagined a year earlier.

LM: That's very funny and true. And by the way, I've seen both of the others; one had [Marlon] Brando. God bless him and all, but he wasn't very good in that.

AVC: That might have been at the point where he had a hearing aid installed that would feed his lines to him.

LM: I'm sorry to hear that, because I'm one of those people—I know the old saying, but when it comes to art I want to say, almost shout at the sky, "Why did you do that for all those years? Why didn't you do what we all wanted you to do, which is make another hundred movies and just knock them off and be an actor, and love being an actor," do you know what I mean? We didn't want you to sit around in a robe on an island eating bread.

AVC: At a certain point, he just seems to have stopped caring.

LM: I only know this from reading biographies and such, but he felt that way when he was doing Streetcar on Broadway, 1949 or something. He'd say, "Oh, I hate going in, it's just the same stupid business, let the understudy do it," he'd come in late and be drunk. But don't you understand you thrill people, and that's really good?


Radioland Murders (1994)—"Herman Katzenback"

LM: It was another thing that didn't work out the way they wanted, but I had a great part. It was a George Lucas-produced movie. He said there were three movies he wanted to make when he first came to town: Star Wars, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and Radioland Murders. Mel Smith, who was a terrific, funny English actor, directed this, and it shows you again that storytelling is sometimes—the first image that came to my mind was pitching. When a pitcher just can't hit the strike zone for six, seven, eight pitches in a row, it seems like he'll never throw a strike in his life. You just say "How is it even possible to throw a strike? It's too small." But then you start grooving it, and you say, "Oh, this is how." And in this case, boy we had a terrific time, we did our best there, I had the chance to be—speaking of film history, I said to Mel on the first day of shooting, "It may not fit, but I was thinking of playing him"—the manager of the radio station in 1936 or something, where everyone's very official, I said, "Suppose he's a German, suppose he's very officious and imperious and annoying, just yelling at everybody?" [Affects German accent.] And I start doing this accent, and he said, "That's a good accent, you want to do it?" And I said, "Well, that's Sig Ruman from the Marx brothers' Night At The Opera." He said, "Sounds great," because he knew the movie too. So whatever it's worth, I had a great time doing Sig Ruman for three weeks in Wilmington, North Carolina.

AVC: Was Lucas a hands-on producer? Was he on the set a lot?

LM: Not all the time, but when he was, it was—deservedly so, all the actors, crew, and ADs were like 9-year-olds when word came around, "George is on the set today." He came around and directed some second-unit stuff that I was in, and it was pretty neat. I've never been able to resist, with great actors I admire—you're going to try to be cool, but I've never been able to resist finding a chance to go over and say, "Oh, Mr. Lucas, oh, I think you're great. I know you hear this a lot, but I have to shake your hand and say, boy, you've done some great stuff." He's gracious, but I've never been able to resist that with a great actor I admire—not on the first day, necessarily, but finding a place or time to say, "Hey, let me ask you something, your accent is great, where did you find that?"

Seinfeld (1995)—George Costanza finalist

AVC: According to the IMDB, you came very close to getting the role of George Costanza on Seinfeld. What was that process like?

LM: This isn't going to sound very interesting, but all things come down the same way. Everything's nerve-racking—you really shouldn't be in show business if you can't stand situations that are nerve-wracking, and you just have to learn to push that aside or rip it off and graft it onto your positive, creative energy. I mean, c'mon, I've been in 40, 50 movies and a bunch of TV shows. Someone asked a few months ago how many auditions I took, and I said, "Boy, you got me. A lot, I guess. 700? 2,700? I don't know." And then I started thinking and realized, "Boy, I guess that's a lot." You know what, either get some hard bark on you, or find another line. With Seinfeld, it happened more or less like anything. It came down to me and Jason [Alexander], and would I have rather gotten the part? Sure, every actor would always rather get any part, but also, Jerry and I are friends, we knew each other from the early days. You know what I've always had a lot of faith in? Number one, my friends are good at what they do, and they do their best. And they have 50 people, and everyone makes a decision, and you know what, that's the right thing to happen. Would I be happier today or a better man if I had a jillion dollars?

AVC: My father would say yes.

LM: That's a funny father thing to say, but I bet you he knows a deeper truth to that, and I bet you do too. No, you wouldn't. You wouldn't sleep better. It wouldn't help people like you more, or help you like them more. It wouldn't help me write better, it wouldn't make me perform better tonight at the club I'm going to. It wouldn't make me be a better actor two days ago on the job I just finished, or on one I'm starting in a couple weeks. Obviously, Seinfeld is a giant show, one of the greatest shows ever made. The writing, the acting, the combination, could they have cast that any better? Of course not. Could they have gotten four people who were more iconically perfect for those parts at that chunk of life? I know I've always made the best decisions I could, and hit the ball as far as I could. And you know what? When it drops, it's okay with me.

Waiting For Guffman (1996)—"Glenn Welsch, Mayor"

LM: I sure have a lot of respect for those guys. Guffman is a very good movie, it's awfully good, and again, it has nothing to do with me. I just got a call one day at home here writing, and it was Christopher Guest, and that's a pretty neat call to get. He was talking to some of the folks over there, and they were already in production, and someone said I might be good in this, would I like to come down and play with them. I said of course. They put a really good group of knuckleheads together, and it was just great to be funny that way, but also to get to know this group of folks. When one of these things is made every two or three years, it's just a cool show-business call to get when you say "Hello?" and you hear [Imitates Guest's voice.] "Hello, Larry, it's Christopher." So that's cool, and I know all the other actors are the same on this, this is one deal where everyone just tells their agents and managers, "Whatever they send, we're just going to do it," no one's going to talk about it or make offers or counter-offers. They've been very generous. They just send money, and if the movie's done well—no one's ever done this in show business. After five or seven months, you get a check, and everyone gets a little hunk of this. And it's not little, either, it's some good dough, it's money you live on. And if there's more naturally funny people on the earth than Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, I'd like to know who they are.

Blonde Ambition (2007)—"Ronald Connelly"

LM: I like that, I really mean it. Scott Marshall directed that, Garry Marshall's son, and I really dig the guy. We got a cool time on the set. He knows me, he knows my work. Ad-lib, rewrite, do everything fast, and I love working with Jessica Simpson. You know why? She's a young woman, she's obviously holding seven tigers by the reins here, who knows what life is like when you're in that world? And she was very nice, very gracious, very cool, and she knew how to dance, so to speak. If Scotty and I could come over and say "Let's do this, let's try this four different ways, you'll come over and he'll say this," whatever she did was fine, because she was going to go along with the stuff we could do. I think it's probably a good story and well told, and I had a good time with Luke Wilson. You know, it's a movie. And I'm a huge fan and friend of Penelope Ann Miller, and also Penny Marshall who was there. C'mon, it was great. You spend a week strolling around with these folks having a coffee here or there.

AVC: It takes two people to improvise.

LM: You know what, though? I'll be honest with you, it's not that. When you have someone who's a good pro and willing to go along with the program, that's the best actor in the world. In fact, when Brando died, someone in my acting class said "Here's hoping we'll be as good as Brando," and I said, "No, that's wrong. Here's hoping we'll be as good as we can be." So on that set, when you meet someone who's going to go along with you and just trusts you and what you do, that's actually the best actor in the world.