William Atherton

The actor: William Atherton is an asshole—or so his most famous parts imply. In the ’80s, he seemed to be cinema’s go-to actor for prickish pomposity, from Real Genius to Ghostbusters to the first two Die Hard films. The phenomenon continued into the ’90s (Bio-Dome) and even into the ’10s, thanks to a cameo in an episode of Lost as a sleazy principal at the school where parallel-universe Michael Emerson works. But focusing on his jackass roles means overlooking the scope of Atherton’s lengthy career, which includes notable parts in Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature, a pair of films with George C. Scott, a leading role in a big Paramount flop, and a slew of television appearances. Just after his episode of Lost, Atherton talked about his career with The A.V. Club.

Lost (2010)—“Principal Reynolds”

William Atherton: I guess J.J. Abrams wanted to resolve [Ben Linus’] backstory, and he figured since I seem to be a signature with that kind of character, it might be fun. And it was. 

The A.V. Club: What was shooting like?

WA: It’s really interesting, because they do it in Hawaii. You’re kind of in paradise and working long days. It’s very intense, and all of the actors are fabulous, but you’re kind of in this sealed world in paradise. They’re very generous, and they let you stay a while, and you kind of hang out on the beach. A big old WASP like me, I sat with a big hat under an umbrella like Death In Venice. But that’s really what it was like. Everybody was great, and everybody always says everybody was great, but they were. It was an enormously buttoned-up, enormously honed and crafted conveyor belt, and it was a lot of fun. 

AVC: Does the show have its own compound where they’re filming, because it’s notorious for being secretive?

WA: No, they were around the island. They had a studio there, sure. I think they had to play everything pretty close to the chest, because it was an enormously popular show, so you had to be careful. But they were enormously careful about being in any way exclusive, if you know what I mean. It was really a lovely experience. 

AVC: That episode was titled “Dr. Linus,” and in a strange coincidence, you played a character named Dr. Linus on Nash Bridges in 1996. How Lost-esque!

WA: [Laughs.] Jesus, I don’t remember that. That’s interesting. Oh, that was “Paleolithic Linus.” Okay.

AVC: “Paleolithic Linus”?

WA: It was 14 years ago. In our business, isn’t that the Stone Age?

The New Centurions (1972)—“Johnson”

The Hindenburg (1975)—“Boerth”

AVC: The first credit on your IMDB page is for The New Centurions in 1972. Do you remember much about that?

WA: Well, what I remember about that was, I was at the Public Theater in New York with Joe Papp. I had done the first production of a famous American play now called The House Of Blue Leaves. After that, I was in a production, the first Pavlo Hummel in a play called The Basic Training Of Pavlo Hummel that David Rabe wrote, which ran a year at the Public in New York. I was 23 years old, and George C. Scott was on the board of the Public at the time, so when they were casting The New Centurions, he asked that I play that role. So that is how that happened. George came back again—he also asked Bob Wise for The Hindenburg. That was several years later. I came out to L.A. to do my first movie, and it was amazing to me, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was on the stage all those years before, and all of the sudden there was this big machine, and you hit a mark, and you can’t scream too loud because you look ridiculous. [Laughs.] So it was kind of like instant education, which I think I passed with a C. At least I passed.

AVC: That’s pretty high praise, if George C. Scott was recommending you.

WA: Yeah, it was great. But I was very lucky, see, because at the Public, you were seen. In those days, it was so much easier for me than it is for kids now. I could go to one audition and get a part in New York and be on Broadway. You can’t do that anymore. Also, that’s when the theater was important, so if you were in a hit show, you were reviewed in Newsweek. That doesn’t happen anymore. The theater was far more culturally important than it is now, so I would be seen in a way that is very difficult for kids to be seen now. 

AVC: You must have been pretty green when you were on The New Centurions

WA: I was green to the point of imbecility. I really didn’t know anything. So [Richard] Fleischer, the director, had to walk me through it, and George a bit, too, and Stacy Keach. I played his partner, and I caught him drinking on the job and all that. So I had great mentors, and I needed them. [Laughs.] 

AVC: You mentioned The Hindenburg. That was your first big action movie, right?

WA: Yeah, I guess. When you look at it now, it’s an enormous lox of a movie. Well, it was of its time. It was great, because it was Wise and [cinematographer Robert] Surtees, it was the best of the best. I think it was just a little too heavy. You also had George and [Anne] Bancroft, and it was just a great bunch of people to be around. It was kind of heaven. You went to Universal and you shot it. It was kind of like old-line moviemaking. It was really a lot of fun.

AVC: It does seem like it was awfully heavy for a ’70s disaster flick.

WA: Yeah, I think it is. It was kind of like the thinking man’s Towering Inferno. [Laughs.] That’s what it was supposed to be like. 

AVC: IMDB mentions that a bunch of people were injured during the filming of the crash scene, when a pretty serious fire broke out. Were you around for that?

WA: I don’t remember that; I remember the frame collapsing. The frame of it collapsed on one of the largest sound stages after we were on it. We just got off, and then all of the sudden it collapsed. We kind of went, “Oh… That’s interesting.” It was that kind of thing where you go, “Oh, gee, it fell down,” and then like 40 seconds later, you have to sit down.

AVC: What kind of presence did George C. Scott have on set?

WA: George was probably one of the most professional people I ever worked with. George did excruciatingly detailed homework. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He was prepared to do anything. He worked with Robert Wise very, very closely. He had great respect for Wise; Wise had great respect for him. He was formidable in that way, but it wasn’t a formidable that kept you away. If you wanted to do what you wanted to do, he was very accepting. He was a great actor and a great presence. I’m grateful to him, because he had a great deal to do with the beginning of my career.

Real Genius (1985)—“Professor Jerry Hathaway”

WA: [Director] Martha Coolidge had the great style for that picture; that picture lasts because of her directorial style. She has great affinity for smart, young people, an organic affinity, and that was really what made that picture go. In the ’80s, and I guess in the ’90s, all the studios would have a topic, and then they would compete every summer on the topic. So in that year there was My Science Project, Weird Science, and Real Genius. That would be all that same summer. If somebody saw that somebody had adopted this subject, they would have their version of that subject. They felt, “Well, they think this is going to go, so maybe our version of it will go, too.” That’s how, I think, corporately that all happened. But artistically, that happened because of Martha.

AVC: How did it do when it came out?

WA: It didn’t do terribly well. It didn’t make a lot of money, but it became a sleeper instantly in terms of DVD and festivals. Anywhere I go in the world now, that movie is as popular most anywhere as Ghostbusters or the Die Hards. It’s amazing, and it has a constant following in college kids. It isn’t something that seems to age.

AVC: This was right around the beginning of the role that people probably most associate with you, as the jerk in Ghostbusters and Real Genius and the Die Hards.

WA: Yeah, that all happened because of Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters was just six months previous. And that all was by accident, really. I had done interesting movies in the ’70s, like Sugarland [Express] and Day Of The Locust, that got a lot of artistic play, but didn’t make any money. The movies that made any money were Ghostbusters and the Die Hards and Bio-Dome and things like that. They made money. So the muse changes as the cash clinks, you know? I think that’s really what happened with me.

AVC: Real Genius had some serious special effects, and quirky ones, like the big ending, where your house is filled with popcorn and collapses.

WA: They popped the popcorn for three months. There was a machine in the studio that did nothing all day long but pop popcorn. 

AVC: Really?

WA: Yeah. It just kept popping popcorn. Then they had to worry, because they had to be careful that the birds didn’t eat it, because the popcorn had to be treated so it wouldn’t combust. So there was fire retardant on it, so you didn’t want the birds to die or get high or something. So they were doing all this stuff, covering it, so the birds wouldn’t OD, and everything was going to be ecologically sound. Then they took it way out to canyon country and a subdivision that was just being built, and they threw it into this house that they pulled down. It was real old-fashioned stuff. Now they’d do it digitally, I guess, but in those days, you had to pop the dang popcorn and put it in a truck and schlep it out to the valley. 

The Sugarland Express (1974)—“Clovis Michael Poplin”

AVC: Sugarland was Steven Spielberg’s first big film—quite a project, in retrospect.

WA: Well, that was his first feature film. We’re just about the same age, and he had already worked in television, and he had done a picture, Duel. Duel was this terrific—it was M.O.W. It was when they first started doing the Movies Of The Week. It was sold as a feature abroad, and it was the only M.O.W. that that happened to, and it happened very early on, because it was so good, and it made Steven a brilliant signature name overseas. From that, [Richard] Zanuck and [David] Brown got together to do Sugarland. And that was, gee, I don’t know how to explain that. It was just a lovely time in Texas for three months. I was living in New York at the time, I was on the stage, and it was this great interlude.

AVC: You were living in New York and hadn’t spent any time in Texas before, so was it a bit of a culture shock?

WA: Whenever you do a movie, it’s a culture shock. [Laughs.] Who is it? Where are you? What are you doing? Who are these people? Where are you going now? You know, it’s kind of like how somebody describes private flying: It’s hours of monotony punctuated by moments of stark terror. That’s what it’s like anywhere in the world, whether you’re in Texas or Bucharest.

AVC: You starred opposite Goldie Hawn in ’74, a few years after she’d been on Laugh-In. Did she still have that ditzy image from the show?

WA: Oh no. Goldie had an Academy Award by then for Cactus Flower. Goldie had a three-picture deal with Universal. Goldie was a movie star. I think she wasn’t the movie star yet that she became, because she started doing her own material, as she was always capable of doing. She’s an enormously capable person. She moved on to do her own stuff, ultimately, but this was early. I was real surprised when I first met her, because I remember Laugh-In. At school, we never had television or anything, so I never watched it, but I would see her every once in a while, and I thought of this blonde, cute, kind of angular gal—that’s what I was expecting. The door opened, and there was this tall, lithe, blonde dancer, and it was like, “Oh, my golly. This is different. This is entirely different.” She was great, and [Spielberg] was great. We were all in Texas, and we were all 24, 25 years old, and we had a fabulous time. He was great. I’ve never had an experience as unique and consistently great as that one. I mean, I’ve had a lot of great experiences, but that was something unique—and that was because of him, because he really loved the movies. I’ve never met anyone who loved the movies more than he did. He just loved it, and that love was contagious, and every day that’s what it was.

AVC: So what he went on to do probably didn’t surprise you. 

WA: No. But it was only my second, third movie. I was having a good time, and I was grateful to be asked, but I was living in New York. I was on the stage, and that’s where my vanity mostly lay. I didn’t live in California, I lived in New York, so it was like a different culture in those days a bit. So I had a great time visiting. [Laughs.]

AVC: Were you of the mindset that theater is where you belonged?

WA: The reason was more or less that that’s what I knew first. That’s what I was most comfortable with. Also, at the time, it was important. I didn’t feel that I was better than or more creative or anything than the movies; I just felt as an actor that being on stage was great, and you’re responsible directly for somebody’s evening, you know? Creatively, there’s much more demanded of you. That’s what I liked. I was making a living at it and thought, “Well, you know, as long as I can keep this going, then fine.” It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m terribly sensitive and talented. I’m going to do theater!” or something like that. It was just the world I knew, and I loved it.

AVC: Was there any of that condescension in the theater world when it came to films?

WA: No, that was before my time. If anything, it was closer creatively, because when I was a kid, when I said it was easier for me, all of the movie studios had big offices in New York, and they all had people in these offices who do nothing but go and see plays and see younger talent and tell California, “You should look at this person, you should look at that person.” So if anything, it was more one world. That’s why it was so much easier for me.

[pagebreak]

The Day Of The Locust (1975)—“Tod Hackett”

AVC: Had you worked with Donald Sutherland or anybody else in this film before?

WA: No, I didn’t know any of them. That was a whole different world. That was my first big Hollywood movie. That was all shot in Hollywood; that was a big Hollywood picture. Sugarland was a Hollywood movie, and it was big, but it was a big movie for that kind of oeuvre, that kind of level of it. There were different levels in those days, and [Sugarland] certainly wasn’t a B-picture, though they never really knew what to do with Sugarland. Universal had no idea what to do with it. There’s always been this thing, “Well, it didn’t make any money,” which wasn’t true. It did make money. Pauline Kael’s review in The New Yorker of Sugarland put us all on the map in the movies. It was four or five pages, and it was all about how Steve was this new, young genius, and we were on the same boat with him. It was an amazing review. There was this discrepancy between the review and this idea, “Well, it wasn’t doing that well commercially,” but it wasn’t really sold very well. Nobody really knew what to do with it. That review was an enormous thing for all of us.

AVC: Did the offers start coming in more quickly after that?

WA: In some ways yes, in some ways no. It was a different time. If you were somebody like me in the ’70s—I’m kind of like a New England WASP. I’m a farm boy from Connecticut, and I adopted urban life. My ethnicity is the one ethnicity left that’s safe to mock. [Laughs.] But there wasn’t a lot for somebody who looked like me. The first time I thought, “Well, I can kind of turn this to my advantage” was in [Looking For Mr.] Goodbar, because I wanted to change the character and make him strange rather than just kind of be this bland, nice guy, because why would she be interested in him? So that’s what I tried to do, and that gave an atmosphere to me that I think carried into all the other things, but that was several years earlier. [In Looking For Mr. Goodbar, Diane Keaton plays a straitlaced teacher who begins engaging in risky anonymous sex. —ed.]

AVC: The Day Of The Locust was your first big Hollywood film in California. How did the environment compare to some of the other smaller films you had done at that point?

WA: Well, Locust was a huge movie. It was the most expensive movie that Paramount had ever done on its lot. I worked on it for almost six months, every day for six months. It was fascinating, because you saw people from the ’30s and… You know, I was thinking about this the other day. There’s as much time now between now and when I shot that movie and between when I shot that movie and the time period it was trying to show. The difference is enormous: The difference between now and ’73, yeah, it’s different, but the difference between ’73 and ’38 is unbelievable. The style, everything. The great thing about that picture was that all of the design, Conrad Hall and Richard Macdonald and people that were the designers of it, that was fascinating to watch them, because there isn’t a frame that isn’t beautiful in that picture, and there isn’t a frame that isn’t kind of real. Ann Roth’s clothes, all of the clothes were from Western Costume—they were real clothes. Nothing was designed. One secondary character had a dress that she designed; everybody else had real clothes from the period. It was just fascinating. I mean, the whole thing was fascinating, to watch them design it and put it together and everything. You got a Master’s in design just from hanging around for those six months.

AVC: There must have been a lot of pressure on that film.

WA: Yeah, there was a lot of pressure on it. [Laughs.] There was, but I just watched it from my little perch. It did not do well. It lost a lot of money. It became a kind of cult movie. Every year, somebody at some film festival wants me to say something about The Day Of The Locust, which is really interesting. Somebody somewhere is having a festival, and they’re screening Day Of The Locust. I think for lots of reasons. It’s a tough movie. It’s a beautifully done movie, and it cost a lot of money, and there were regime changes at the studio, and it was fraught, and from my perch, it was fascinating. It was the first time I went to Cannes, so that was fun. At Cannes, they all wanted to talk about Steve. Sugarland was a huge hit in France, and Jaws was at Cannes that year, too.

Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977)—“James”

WA: Looking For Mr. Goodbar was a big book, and it was based on a big story. I have criticisms of the movie, not of anybody in it, but I always felt that the movie was… you know, the bars weren’t right. All the bars in New York—Maxwell’s Plum and all the singles bars—they were beautiful places, absolutely beautiful places. Weird stuff happened when you went home, but the bars were beautiful. So that was my criticism of that. It was ’70s singles New York. That world doesn’t exist anymore. Culture’s moved on, I guess. It wasn’t shot in New York, either. They tried to make Metropolis out of it, so you didn’t have that New York feeling, and it was such a New York story, and it was such a New York ambience, that it really didn’t hold up if you were trying to make it into Everycity, USA. They shot it at New York Street at Paramount before it burned down.

AVC: Was that a long shoot?

WA: It was pretty long. It was, I don’t know, three months. About that. All the shoots in those days were much longer than they are now. It’s far more fraught, and days are far longer, and it’s far more difficult now than it was then.

AVC: Your co-star, Diane Keaton, had a big year that year, winning an Oscar and Golden Globe for Annie Hall and a Golden Globe nomination for Goodbar.

WA: She was fabulous. It was an enormous year, and she got an Academy Award for Annie Hall, but the whole world, this movie came out the same year, so everybody saw her range, all the stuff she could do. So it was an extraordinary two performances.

Centennial (1978-1979)—“Jim Lloyd”

WA: It was the first thing I’d done on television. I hadn’t done any television before that, and as a miniseries, we were all leads in it, and I spent about four or five months in Colorado. It was a lot of fun. I mean, particularly with Lynn Redgrave, who’s an old friend, and that was great. And [Timothy] Dalton. 

AVC: There was quite a cast: Raymond Burr, Richard Chamberlain, Andy Griffith. 

WA: It was the first of the big, big multi-million-dollar miniseries. That’s why they had everybody in the world in it, and we were all out in Greeley, Colorado, and it was great. Lynn and I had worked together before; we had done Misalliance with Irene Worth and Donald Moffat. We’d done that, and we’d known each other even before that.

Ghostbusters (1984)—“Walter Peck”

WA: I had finished doing a Broadway gig, and I was out here. I met with Dan [Aykroyd], and I talked a bit. Gilda Radner and I had done George Abbott’s Broadway together, so we were all kind of aware of each other. So when this happened, they asked me to do it, and I said fine, but as I’ve said many times, I said, “What do you want me to—I can’t compete with you guys being funny. That’s insane.” So Ivan [Reitman] and I talked, and I said, “I’ve got to be a male Margaret Dumont. I just don’t know why it’s funny, you know? It can’t be funny, and I don’t find them in the least bit charming. I have to be outraged.” And that’s what we did.

AVC: How much was your part written?

WA: It was all written. There would be riffs and [Bill] Murray would go off, and he’d improvise, and you would have to follow him, which was great. Like the mayor’s office—a lot of that scene is improvised. Bill was great. He’d kind of throw it all out there, and you’d kind of pick it up and throw it. That’s what you do with Murray. 

AVC: That seems like it would be a pretty grueling shoot. Was it?

WA: I didn’t have that. I had a perfectly good time. I thought part of it was grueling in New York, when they were on Central Park West and 66th Street. It was really tough for them. You’re closing it all off to shoot a movie. It’s New York; it’s not Indianapolis. You have a lot of severely ticked people when that happens. So they had a lot of it, but I didn’t.

AVC: Not even when you got all the shaving cream dumped on you?

WA: We had the eighth-grade science test. I went under the bag, and I asked, “How much shaving cream is in there?” And they said, “Not that much.” So I said, “Well, how much does it weigh?” “It’s about 75 pounds, but it’s shaving cream.” “You know the whole thing about 75 pounds of feathers and 75 pounds of lead? It’s about the same thing. [Laughs.] So can we figure out what’s going to happen with this?” So they put some poor stunt guy underneath to show the sissy actor “Okay, nothing’s going to happen.” So they unleashed it, and it flattened him. So they took out half of the shaving cream, and I went in very happily and was slimed. 

AVC: That’s such a big part, probably the one people most associate with you.

WA: That and the Die Hards. I think it’s the picture that anybody who’s in it is associated with more than anything else, including Murray and Aykroyd and everybody. If you think about one movie with any of them, it’s Ghostbusters, and I’m not different from anybody else in that movie. The movie became enormous. We knew it was going to be big, but it was a culture shift. It’s just like getting hit by the bus, there. 

AVC: What did you have to do to reprise that role for the videogame?

WA: Oh, it’s great. You get paid a lot of money to sit in a room for about two hours; all you do is go “Oh!” “Ah!” “Uh!” I can do that for you again, but it will cost you a great deal of money.

Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990)—“Richard Thornburg”

WA: Everybody in the world was kind of in it at the time. It was a big picture, and it was the beginning of a whole run of movies, but it was unique, and it’s still a fabulous movie. The first Die Hard was a fabulous movie.

AVC: You said The Day Of The Locust was your first big Hollywood picture. It seems like this was a whole other level of spectacle. 

WA: Really not. I mean, it was in terms of hovering around the building and all that, but Day Of The Locust was a different kind of spectacle in that it had two huge sound stages at MGM that were put together, and four blocks of Hollywood Boulevard were built in them. You don’t see that anymore.

AVC: This was just centered around the Fox building.

WA: So nobody had to build anything, but you had to light it, you had enormous crews, you had helicopters and all that. So yeah, in essence there was a lot of that, but it was a different kind of size. 

AVC: And all night shoots, right?

WA: Yeah. Sometimes they can be a lot of fun, because there’s a kind of good time between 12 a.m. and 3 a.m., where you can sometimes do some really fun stuff, but after that, you’re just too tired. There are times when it can work really well, but if it goes too long and it’s too late, your eyes start to cross, and it gets too tough. But there’s a window of about two hours, two and a half hours, where if it’s done right, it can work really well. 

AVC: It seems like it’d be pretty enjoyable to play all these villains.

WA: I always thought of them as comedy roles. I’ve never seen them as villain roles. That’s essentially how I’ve always approached them. If you have to be the antagonist, you often have a lot more creative powers. You have a lot more color to you. I’ve played heroes in my time. You go, “Jesus, you have?” [Laughs.] And it’s interesting. It can be a lot more fun in movies to be a little baroque. You can just kind of riff on stuff, and it’s a lot more fun. I always found it more fun. Oftentimes, the protagonist roles aren’t as interestingly written as the antagonists are. People can say, “Well, you’re playing the jerk,” and I don’t mind. It’s just that I don’t really approach it that way. I approach it as a comedy part; I approach it as somebody who has an agenda, and go on from there.

AVC: Did you study newscasters for this role?

WA: I did. I went to a little school called the Columbia School Of Broadcasting. It’s a safe profession to mock, because essentially everybody feels somehow or another that there’s a ridiculousness to it. So what I would do, I had this guy who was a really great help. There was an AP wire in the office, and he would pull off these news bulletins, like they would pull off in a radio broadcast room, and then I would read them. Then he would coach me on how to read them, and all of the reading had to have the lilt of spontaneity, because essentially you were reading it for the first time. When you’re doing it on camera and you’re playing a newscaster, it’s the first time anybody’s said this, so you can’t get too didactic. It doesn’t look good. It doesn’t look real. So I did that for a couple of weeks. That was fun.

AVC: Your role in the sequel is a bit different, because you’re confined to an airplane the whole time. What was that shoot like?

WA: Well, you’re inside Universal, and the tourists’ busses go around, mostly Japanese with cameras, and they kind of take a break for them whenever they go around, because you just hear a bullhorn in Japanese. Then there’s click, click, click, click, click, click, click, and 20 minutes later, they’re back again. 

Life (2008-2009)—“Mickey Rayborn”

WA: I played a cop who was kind of the architect of [Damian Lewis’] backstory. It was a kind of mysterious character who would appear and then disappear and then come back and then disappear, and it was always intense face-off scenes with Damian and myself. It was a lot of fun.

AVC: Do you take the approach of “work is work”? You do it when it comes up, or are you especially picky about the kinds of things you’ll do?

WA: Yeah, I’m picky about it. It depends. Everybody has to be pragmatic. I try to be as picky as I can. I try to be appropriate about it, like any actor these days does. 

Totally Baked: A Pot-U-Mentary (2007)—“Lyle Funion”

WA: Oh, yeah. That was this thing that—it was really kind of fun. It had a lot of funny people in it. I did it for like two days, and I had a fun time. Sometimes things come along, and it’s not an enormous investment in time, and it can be fun for a couple of days, and you think that the people are talented and they have a shot at something. You go for it. 

AVC: It seems like most of your work is in television these days.

WA: Well, I just finished a movie. I just finished a really terrific small action picture called The Kane Files that I did with Drew Fuller and Bill Devane and Ethan Embry. I just finished that about two months ago. I saw a rough cut of it, and it’s terrific. Ben Gourley is the director. He’s a new young director. He’s very good—really, really good. Oh, I’m still here. It’s amazing. I can’t believe it. They keep aiming, they keep missing. What can I tell you?

More Random Roles