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Steve Guttenberg on Police Academy, Party Down, and turning down Sharknado

Steve Guttenberg (center) in Lavalantula
Steve Guttenberg (center) in Lavalantula

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: Steve Guttenberg got his start in acting in the late ’70s. While his early forays into primetime fare were short-lived, the ’80s was unquestionably Guttenberg’s decade to shine on the big screen, thanks to such box-office successes as Police Academy, Diner, Cocoon, Short Circuit, and 3 Men And A Baby. The ’90s found Guttenberg in more family-friendly fare. By the start of the new millennium, he was flying relatively low on the pop-culture radar, but he began to experience a resurgence with the help of Rob Thomas, who brought him onto both Veronica Mars and Party Down. Guttenberg can currently be seen in the new Syfy “creature feature” Lavalantula, which reunites him with his former Police Academy franchise co-stars Michael Winslow, Leslie Easterbrook, and Marion Ramsey.

Lavalantula (2015)—“Colton West”

Steve Guttenberg: I actually got offered Sharknado a few years ago, and I, uh, turned it down. And, you know, it obviously didn’t go anywhere. [Laughs.] No, of course, they were right. So when they called me again and said, “Hey, we’d like to do another movie that’s going to be a similar sort of send-up of B-movies, but we want to do it about giant spiders,” I said, “Sure! Sounds good! Let’s do it!”

A.V. Club: So who is your character, Colton West?

SG: Colton West is an action star who is having a little trouble at home with his wife; his career is in a tailspin. All of a sudden Los Angeles is attacked by giant spiders, and he has the opportunity to redeem himself. It really is a story of redemption: He takes what is an illusion—he’s an actor, an action star—and puts it into a real-life scenario so that he’s able to give himself some self-respect and, at the same time, save Los Angeles, his family, and probably the world.

AVC: At what point in the process did they decide that they wanted to include other Police Academy alumni in the cast?

SG: It actually came from me! Interestingly enough, the producers were kind enough to ask, “Well, how do you want to make this movie? Would you like to help cast it?” So I said, “Let’s hire some people that I’ve worked with before that are my friends.” So I was able to bring in some of the Police Academy cast, and also Patrick Renna, who was in The Big Green, and that was just terrific. Oh, and Nia Peeples, too, who was in Tower Of Terror.

AVC: There’s been a lot of promotion about how Ian Ziering turns up in a cameo to offer a passing of the chainsaw, as it were, to Lavalantula. Having seen the Sharknado phenomenon unfold, are you happy with this film?

SG: You know, Lavalantula’s pretty good. The director’s a young guy named Mike Mendez, a talented guy, and they did a pretty good job on it. I mean, it is what it is. It’s spoofy, a bit of a parody, and it has some weight to it, but it’s a creature feature. It’s no different, really, than Ant-Man or Iron Man—well, there’s a million of ’em. Clash Of [The] Titans, Captain America, they’re all creature features in their way. It all depends on the execution.

AVC: Mendez also directed Big Ass Spider!, so it’s being executed by someone who’s got giant-spider street cred.

SG: He’s just a really smart fella. He really knows his stuff, he’s got a great point of view, he knows tone and character really well, and he’s also got a good handle on pacing. I really enjoyed working with him.

Rollercoaster (1977)—“Messenger” (uncredited)

AVC: It looks like your first non-commercial on-camera role was in Rollercoaster.

SG: It was, yeah!

AVC: How did you find your way into the film?

SG: Rollercoaster came through my godfather, a guy named Michael Bell, who’s an actor. He had a role in the film, and he was able to convince them—and they literally did require convincingto give me one line.

AVC: They filmed Rollercoaster in several parks. Where did you actually film your scene?

SG: At Magic Mountain. [Abruptly.] Oh, no, wait, I’m sorry: It was at a stage at Universal! [Laughs.]

AVC: So what led you into a career in acting in the first place?

SG: Again, it was through my godfather. He was a a classically trained and a super-talented actor, so when I was young, I admired him. And when I was about 12, I joined a teen theater company and got right into that and started doing classics, I started taking classes in the city, and before I knew it, I was hooked.

Henry IV, Pt. 1 (onstage, 2015)—“Henry Percy”

AVC: Speaking of doing classics, several readers made note of your recent outdoor Shakespeare performance in New York. You actually studied under John Houseman.

SG: I did, yeah! And I’m so glad that people knew about the show. Henry IV, Pt. 1 was one of the best professional experiences of my life. The play is done outside, al fresco, and that is such a joy to do. It’s so exciting to work under the stars. I just really loved every second of it. It was terrific. And everybody I worked with was a Shakespearean scholar. I just couldn’t have had a better time.

AVC: And what was it like to learn from John Houseman as a young student at Juilliard?

SG: Well, you know, I took the summer classes with him, and he was extraordinarily adept at knowing what you are not good at. [Laughs.] But then improving it and making it your strength!

The Bedroom Window (1987)—“Terry Lambert”

SG: Yeah! It was a fantastic experience, with the great director Curtis Hanson, and it was pre- any of his bigger hits. The experience of working with Isabelle Huppert; she’s probably one of the—or maybe the greatest—actress who’s working today in France, and maybe in the world. It was extraordinary. I had such a great time. And Elizabeth McGovern was just a magnificent lady. I don’t know if you’ve seen her recently on her television work now [on Downton Abbey], but she really has grown in leaps and bounds, and I’m so happy to be a person who has worked with her. She’s just a class act all the way.

AVC: That film was definitely an anomaly as far as what you were doing at the time on-screen. Was that a conscious effort to show people, “Look, I’m more than just the pratfalls and the comedy”?

SG: I don’t believe in having to show anybody anything. I just do my work. You know, making a living as an actor is such a rarity on earth. It’s like making a living as a painter. So I look at different opportunities in the same way as Jack Nicholson, who said once, “Keep popping up in different holes. That’s what you want to do: Just keep popping up in different holes.” That made a lot of sense to me.

P.S. Your Cat Is Dead! (2002)—“Jimmy Zoole,” director, producer, writer

SG: Well, I directed that picture, so it means a lot to me. James Kirkwood wrote a wonderful play which I was able to direct with my friend Jeff Korn, and I thought it came out terrific. He was an anxious, out-of-work actor, and I really was able to get inside his skin.

AVC: Had you been actively searching for an opportunity to direct?

SG: Yeah! Absolutely. I still am!

AVC: How hard was it for you to wear all of those hats? Because not only were you the star and the director, but you co-adapted the screenplay and you were a producer as well.

SG: You know, I think hard is working two jobs, one at night and one during the day, and having to deal with a sick relative. That’s hard. I think most of show business is just challenging to navigate the waters and get things done. So I thought that directing and acting and writing was just a great opportunity.

The Big Green (1995)—“Sheriff Tom Palmer”
It Takes Two (1995)—“Roger Callaway”

SG: Oh, I had a ball on The Big Green! It was in Austin, Texas. Holly Goldberg Sloan, who’s a terrific novelist now, wrote it and directed it, and it was so much fun. Just out-of-this-world fun.

AVC: That was the same year you did It Takes Two, right?

SG: Yeah, exactly! It Takes Two was by Andy Tennant, who’s a very talented director. And, of course, the girls—Mary-Kate and Ashley [Olsen]were very young, but they had a lot of grace and a lot of maturity for such little kids. And Kirstie Alley was a ball. Really a nice lady.

Casper: A Spirited Beginning (1997)—“Tim Carson”
Zeus And Roxanne (1997)—“Terry Barnett”
Tower Of Terror (1997)—“Buzzy Crocker”

AVC: You were doing quite a bit of family fare at the time: you did Casper: A Spirited Beginning, Zeus And Roxanne, and Tower Of Terror all within a few years. Was that a conscious effort on your part?

SG: No, no, I just sort fell into a great wave of family films. I mean, sometimes it happens. Genres come along, and they just make you sort of jump on. It’s weird.

Party Down (2010) / The Mysteries Of Laura (2015)—himself

SG: Oh, [Party Down executive producer] Rob Thomas, such an extraordinarily talented guy. Just amazing. And the cast was primo all the way. They just were so good at what they did. So I just sort of walked right into it and really had a good time.

AVC: Was it challenging to play yourself?

SG: [Laughs.] No, because you’re never really playing yourself. You’re always acting. It’s an illusion that you’re really playing yourself. The only time I’m playing myself is when I’m at home!

AVC: You also ended up playing yourself more recently, on an episode of The Mysteries Of Laura.

SG: Yeah, exactly. With the great Debra Messing. I had a good time on that.

Veronica Mars (2005-06)—“Woody Goodman”

AVC: Having brought up Party Down, it’s a must to jump back and ask you about your stint on Veronica Mars.

SG: Right! There’s, uh, nothing like playing a pedophile, I’ll tell you that. [Laughs.] Good times, man. Good times.

AVC: You hadn’t done a stint on TV in quite some time prior to that.

SG: Well, I’d never actually done a recurring role before, but it’s all pretty much the same: a director, a cast, a crew, and a camera. So I didn’t find much really different about the experience.

AVC: Regarding Woody Goodman being a pedophile, what was your reaction when you first spotted that particular character attribute?

SG: Well, Rob [Thomas] told me. He said, “I’ve got something really interesting for you.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “I want you to play a child molester.” So I said, “When do I start?” [Laughs.] I mean, you know, every character is interesting, because every person is different and interesting, but this absolutely had some qualities of character that I’d never played before. I mean, he was despised. So that was really cool, actually, to play someone who I’d despise.

Billy (1979)—“Billy Fisher”
No Soap, Radio (1982)—“Roger”

AVC: Early in your TV career, you starred in two short-lived series, one of whichNo Soap, Radiois, even now, one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen on primetime.

SG: I know. It’s strange! Mort Lachman was the producer of No Soap and wanted to just go way outside the box. Way outside the planet! [Laughs.] So I was along for the ride. But it actually was a really good time. I’d just finished Diner, and my agents at the time had no belief in Diner, or anything. They just said, “You’ve got to keep working.” So I jumped on and started doing that.

AVC: Billy was a few years before that, and it looks from the credits like it was a Walter Mitty-esque series.

SG: Yeah! That’s exactly what it was: a take on The Life Of Walter Mitty. It was really fun, and John Rich was a powerful, great director, so I had a great time with him. A really great time.

Diner (1982)—“Edward ‘Eddie’ Simmons”

AVC: How was it working with the ensemble on Diner? You were all still a bunch of up-and-comers at the time, but it’s a remarkable cast of actors.

SG: It was terrific, because you’ve got... [Hesitates.] Actors were starving to death, and it’s incredibly competitive. So I just found myself in a situation that I was reminded of when I did a Woody Allen play [Relatively Speaking] at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York: Everybody was throwing fastballs. Everybody was in great form, and it was just this side of dirty ball-playing, because everybody wanted to shine. But as I say, it was this side of it. There was no dirty ball-playing. But there was a certain amount of scene-stealing. [Laughs.] But, hey, whoever can do a dunk, they do a dunk! It was pretty fun.

AVC: One of Tim Daly’s favorite memories about making the movie was coming back to the hotel after filming and sending random food and drink orders over to complete strangers.

SG: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. That’s right, we did. We had a lot of fun. I got to know Tim very well. I really like him. Such a great guy.

AVC: Do any other off-the-set anecdotes leap to mind? It seems like there was a lot of camaraderie between you guys.

SG: Yeah, we spent every night together. And I think that’s good for film actors to do. You get to know each other better and better as the film goes on. So I really enjoyed myself. I had such a great time.

Cocoon (1985) / Cocoon: The Return (1988)—“Jack Bonner”

SG: Nectar. Nectar of the gods. [Laughs.] Top of the world, buddy. I’ve seen inside the honeycomb. Top. Of. The World. Try to beat Cocoon. Just try!

AVC: Even though you’d been around the block a few times by that point, you must’ve been at least a little in awe of some of the folks in that cast.

SG: Oh, my God, yeah. That was the top.

AVC: Did anyone in particular impress you the most?

SG: Gwen Verdon, baby. [Laughs.] Gwen Verdon, definitely.

AVC: And how was Wilford Brimley?

SG: Oh, man, he was a hoot. Terrific guy, smart, and opinionated. Great guy. I loved him.

AVC: It seems like everything you see on-screen is him in real life.

SG: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] He’s the real deal.

Short Circuit (1986)—“Newton Crosby”

SG: John Badham, John Badham, John Badham. That is all. [Laughs.] I mean, the guy directed Saturday Night Fever, you know? What else is there? Nothing!

AVC: Had you ever been in talks to do Short Circuit 2?

SG: Yeah. I was, absolutely. But, uh, no money. They didn’t pay the money.

AVC: Fair enough.

SG: Yeah. They’ve got to pay the money! [Laughs.]

Can’t Stop The Music (1980)—“Jack Morell”

SG: Well, you know, that was insanity. Just complete insanity. It made no sense at all. The movie was crazy. I really enjoyed being around Bruce Jenner and Valerie Perrine and Village People. Allan Carr was a hoot. But I have no idea what was going on. [Laughs.]

AVC: In an interview a few years ago, Jenner said that Valerie Perrine was kind of diva-esque on that film, complaining about everything under the sun, but that in retrospect Perrine was right to complain.

SG: Oh, you know, films are hard. The truth is, it’s really hard to make a good movie. And you can’t blame people, you know? Everybody’s trying to do a good job.

AVC: True. And it was Nancy Walker’s first time directing a feature film, so it was a trial by fire.

SG: Yeah. And she did okay. Everybody tried their best. Nobody intentionally tries to make a bad movie.

Police Academy (1984) / Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985) / Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986) / Police Academy 4: Citizens On Patrol (1987)—“Carey Mahoney”

AVC: How did you score the role of Mahoney in the first place?

SG: Just an audition. My agent put me up for the part. I’d just gotten done doing The Man Who Wasn’t There, which was an invisible-man movie, and I went from there right into Police Academy. I got the part from doing a screen test, and that movie was terrific because of Hugh Wilson and Paul Maslansky, the director and producer, respectively. God, they were just brilliant, brilliant, brilliant comedy guys. Just out-of-this-world brilliant.

AVC: How much of Mahoney was on the page, and how much were you able to bring to the role? Was improv allowed at all?

SG: A little bit. Hugh was pretty specific about the comedy, because he’s so good at it, so he kept us pretty much on book, but we were able to devise a couple of different lines here and there, and a lot of little moments that worked. I’d say that most films are on book. At certain times, though, directors will let you improv, which is always pretty terrific.

AVC: So was there a certain point when you just decided, “I’ve had enough Police Academy”?

SG: No, they just decided they’d had enough of paying me. [Laughs.] It was one of those deals: they just didn’t want to pay me any more.

AVC: That’s unfortunate. Certainly most people would agree that you were a predominant draw for the franchise.

SG: I think so. And I hope that they make some more and stick me in there.

AVC: So you’d be up for that?

SG: Yeah! Absolutely!

AVC: Is there a project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

SG: You know, I’d say... [Long pause.] I’d say no. I think everything legitimately got the attention it should’ve gotten. I do, think, though, that Lavalantula is coming up fast, and I would like to see that getting more attention, I’ll tell you that! [Laughs.]