Common Law star Jack McGee on working with everyone from Vanilla Ice to Ron Howard
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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: When Jack McGee made his big-screen debut in the 1985 film Turk-182!, he was still a fireman in New York City, but it wasn’t long before he decided to throw caution to the wind and take a shot at being a full-time actor. Since then, McGee has appeared in more than 70 films, including Moneyball, The Fighter, Crash, Showgirls, Cool As Ice, and Chairman Of The Board, and 50-plus TV series, including Rescue Me and NYPD Blue. McGee can currently be found playing yet another authority figure, this time as a member of the LAPD on USA’s Common Law.
Common Law (2012-present)—“Capt. Sutton”
Jack McGee: He’s a tough guy, an ex-Marine who’s trying to help these two detectives not make the same mistakes he made with his personal life and his professional life. The hook on this one for me is that… I’ve played a lot of different types of cops, but this guy is so out of character compared to them. He becomes this Zen master guy. ’Cause down the line, you’re gonna see him… They’re gonna come looking for him in his office, and he’s gonna be behind the desk in the Happy Baby pose. Or in a Downward Dog. [Laughs.] That’s a big difference. It’s a fun role to be a part of.
The A.V. Club: Are you always on the lookout for a regular series role, or do you just take the work as it comes, whatever it happens to be?
JM: I take it as it comes. Some guys will say, “Why are you going when it’s only one day?” But, y’know, I got asked to go and work for some buddies of mine, Bobby Moresco and Paul Haggis, for one day on their movie Crash. I played the gun shop owner in that. So here I get to be a part of a movie that wins an Academy Award. But then, you know, I’ve also worked on Showgirls. [Laughs.]
AVC: Which did not win an Academy Award.
JM: That is true. But you know what? [Paul] Verhoeven says to me, “You wanna come up for three weeks to Tahoe and look at 56 breasts a day?” I said, “I think I can help you with that.” [Laughs.] So you never know what’s gonna happen.
AVC: Had you worked with anyone in this cast before?
JM: No. There are a couple of guest stars that have come in so far—for the first six episodes—that I’ve worked with before, but… I know of Michael Ealy’s work, but Warren Kole, he’s the new kid on the block. It’s his first regular deal on a series. But he’s terrific. And Sonya Walger, she’s wonderful. And not so bad on the eyes. [Laughs.]
AVC: The word from executive producer Karim Zreik is that they’re using ’80s buddy comedies as a template for the chemistry of the show.
JM: Well, y’know, USA… from what I’ve gathered, they do a lot of buddy stuff, anyway, and they’re pretty successful at it. Most of their shows stay on five, six, seven years. And we hope that’s gonna happen for us, too. [Laughs.] The ingredients are there. The chemistry between these guys is good. They’re great together. You can hardly shut the two of them up even when they’re not working. And the writing’s been pretty good. USA has a format, but they always have a little twist on the relationship between the two guys, and it seems to be working. So hopefully this thing will happen.
AVC: Even though Common Law is set in Los Angeles, you’re actually shooting the series down in New Orleans. How’s the Big Easy been treating you?
JM: You know what? I can’t wait to get back. I love my wife, I love being here [in California]—in fact, she’s gonna come down and visit me—but I’ve never been on location where I’ve enjoyed it more. The people are just unbelievable, whether you’re up in the garden district or you’re down in the Ninth Ward in a convenience store. There’s just a soul about that town that’s terrific.
AVC: It’s weird to think that they’re making New Orleans look like L.A., but it seems like they’re doing a pretty good job.
JM: Well, y’know, NYPD Blue had a lot of success for 12 years shooting in L.A. [Laughs.] But they take a second unit and they’ll go and they’ll shoot Dodger Stadium, they’ll shoot hotels, palm trees, whatever, and then they’ll show you a window outside the squad room, and there it is. But they save what I’m told is a half million dollars an episode. That’s a lot of scratch.
Turk 182! (1985)—“Patron at Hooly’s”
Five Corners (1987)—“Desk Sergeant”
JM: Turk 182! was the first movie I ever did, with Robert Urich and Timothy Hutton. I was still a fireman in New York when I got the role as Patron at Hooly’s, and it was about firemen. They had a big benefit they opened up down in Times Square. Now, you learn things in life. When I did that, I told everybody who would listen, “I got my first movie! I got my first movie!” I had four scenes in it. But I didn’t realize that… every time I went to speak, they cut it out. [Laughs.] So, of course, all the firemen broke my balls about that. So I learned a lesson: shut your mouth until it winds up in there. But it was a great first experience. Bob Clark directed that movie.
AVC: So since you were a fireman and your debut was in a film about firemen, was your introduction into acting just happenstance, or was it something you’d already been pursuing?
JM: No, you know, I started off… as a kid, I sang background harmonies for the band The Rascals for a while, and then I went to school. I went on a football scholarship out to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was an all-city ballplayer in the city two years in a row, and I had a great experience. They gave me a couple of bucks to go out to Santa Fe—nobody ever heard of this school, and nobody ever will—and the secondary put pads on, he’s a guy about the size of this hotel we’re sitting at, and he hits me so hard that I said to the coach as soon as I came to, “Where else can I go meet girls without getting killed?” [Laughs.] He said, “The theater.” And that was it.
It started there, but then I left school after six months ’cause they wanted me to go to class. I couldn’t see any reason for that. But I couldn’t get by on my alluring personality, so I came back home and worked in construction for a while. I worked on the World Trade Center, tying steel down there. And then I started doing community theater. One thing led to another, and Mike Nichols said to me—he had a summer house up in Connecticut—“You should go into the city.” So when I became a fireman in 1977, I moved down into the city, in the Bronx, and I started pursuing it, and about a year later, I started getting some commercial attention. But the first speaking part I had in a film was in Five Corners, which was John Turturro’s first leading film. Timmy Robbins was in it, too. So that started it. After 10 years of just kind of getting my feet wet with the theatrical end of it, I packed it in as a fireman, and I resigned.
The Fighter (2010)—“George Ward”
JM: You know, [the real] George Ward just passed away. They’ve lost the father and the mother now. Once again, I went in and read for something, and they called me in. First time I ever went to a director’s house. I met David O. Russell, and the next thing you know… I mean, the ingredients were there. It was scale, but I wanted to work, and I saw it was Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams and Melissa Leo. It was a no-brainer for me. And it was a great opportunity for me. I had never played a real-life character, and I got to meet this guy and experience what it was like for him, ’cause we shot it all in Lowell, Massachusetts, where they were from. And then I got to go to the dance after that. [Laughs.] You get to go to the Oscar party, you get to walk on the red carpet, and do all that stuff. It was a great opportunity.
AVC: And you got to be the designated spokesperson for the film a couple of times, too.
JM: I did. They let me accept the Critics’ Choice Award, and that was just… That’s pretty good stuff.
AVC: Most of your scenes were with Melissa Leo. How was she to work with and play against?
JM: Boy, you better come with your guns loaded. [Laughs.] She’s so good. As well as Christian. They were all just right on the money, so it was easy, y’know? I made the conscious choice to do kind of what Mark’s character did. I played his paternal father, and Mark’s character, Micky Ward, when I got to know him a little bit. He’s quieter. Dicky Eklund, the brother that Christian Bale played, was really over the top. And Melissa Leo’s character, the mother, was really over the top. So I just chose to parallel myself with Mark’s performance, because I think if I would’ve gone toe to toe with Melissa—there’s one where I blow up, when she throws the pots and pans at me—but if I would’ve gone at her right from the get-go, it would’ve gotten old after a while. So I made the choice to just lay back and be more like Mark’s character.
The Hidden (1987)—“Bartender”
Twin Peaks (1991)—“Bartender”
JM: Yeah, Twin Peaks, that was working with Kyle MacLachlan and this kid named Heather Graham. Look, I didn’t know what the hell the show was about. [Laughs.] I don’t think I ever watched it! But y’know, you want to work. You don’t care what the deal is. You want to work, maybe you need to make your insurance or whatever, and you never know what that stuff’s gonna lead into. I’ll work with guys, maybe only just a day for ’em, and all of a sudden they remember you when something meatier comes along. You suit up, you show up, and you do a good job. I like being at work. I like being around the guys and girls on the set, breaking everybody’s balls and having a few laughs and creating stuff. It’s amazing when you go onto a set and how you get to know people. It’s like a bonding thing that happens. If you’re on location somewhere and you get to know people…sometimes you never see them again, but that’s still an important ingredient.
AVC: You also worked with Kyle MacLachlan… Well, actually, maybe you didn’t work directly with him, but you were both in The Hidden.
JM: He was in The Hidden, and, of course, he was also in Showgirls. [Laughs.] With The Hidden, that’s one of those where you don’t even necessarily know who the hell else is in the movie. Was my stuff even with MacLachlan? I don’t remember. I just know it was a three-day shoot, and I was a bartender in that who has an alien coming out of his neck or some shit. I don’t know how much Stella Adler stuff you need or how much you need to channel Shelley Winters to dig down inside to find your motivation. [Laughs.] I think you just have to want a hot meal and a paycheck. The Hidden. Wow…
Space Rangers (1993-1994)—“Doc”
JM: First time I really got to sing in a series. My first series. Short-lived. It was in 1993, I think, and it was a sci-fi deal. We opened up the same week—talk about luck of the draw—as Babylon 5 and a show that I used to call Deep Dish Nine. [Laughs.] So, yeah, Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine lasted about 80,000 years, and we lasted six shows. But it was great fun.
AVC: Are you a sci-fi fan?
JM: I like it. I’m not inclined to go to it. But if they ask me, I’d work on one.
EZ Streets (1996-1997)—“Leo Canetti”
JM: Wow. I was just talking about that earlier. There were six episodes, but they only showed four.
AVC: But at least they put all six out on DVD.
JM: Really? I didn’t even know that! Yeah, that was a show that was created by Bobby Moresco and Paul Haggis, who did Crash. It was on CBS, but I believe that if HBO would’ve been as prominent then, it might still be on the air. ’Cause it was about the Westies. You know the movie State Of Grace? It was about those guys, the bad, bad Irish guys who had to make their mark with the Italian guys on the docks. It was a little too dark, a little too smart for network TV, so it didn’t last too long. But it was great. And that’s what started the relationship I made with Bobby and Paul.
Crash (2004)—“Pawn Shop Owner”
AVC: You touched on this earlier, but what was the deal with Crash? They just called you up and said, “Hey, we need you, get down here”?
JM: Paul Haggis called me, he said, “Jack, we need a favor.” I said, “All right, here it goes. Let me guess: scale?” He says, “Yeah.” [Sighs.] So I said, “All right, where at?” He said, “It’s in about two weeks, you’re playing a pawn shop owner.” I say, “All right, send me the material.” About three hours later, he calls me back, he says, “There’s been a schedule change. We’re doing it tomorrow.” I said, “Oh, really?” “Yeah!” So I went in, I did a day on it, and they had this long list of…I don’t know if you remember the scene, but they had this long list of the types of bullets she was looking for. And there were about 40 more types, but we were so close doing the scene that it got to the point that we were laughing so much doing it, ’cause they wanted to rattle ’em off real quick. We had to put Post-Its on the girl’s head to remind me of the types of bullets. [Laughs.] But it became a scene that started off the racism and the fear. ’Cause that movie’s all about the fear of what somebody’s gonna take from you, which is what life and conflict is always about, I think. So it was a good thing to be a part of.
Showgirls (1995)—“Jack, Stagehand”
AVC: We keep coming back to it, so we might as well go ahead and talk about it.
JM: I’m at the opening, and I walked into the bathroom afterwards with a bunch of the other guys. I’m standing at the urinal, and I said, “All right, anybody know how I can get my name off those credits without anybody seeing me?” [Laughs.] I spent three weeks on that. Elizabeth Berkley, she was a sweet kid, but, you know, this is a business where they bash you if you’re not Olivier. But it was still great. I’d worked on Basic Instinct with Verhoeven, so when he asked me to do it… I spent three weeks up in Tahoe looking at women’s breasts. I thought, “This isn’t such a bad gig.”
AVC: Did you sense it was going to be a trainwreck even as you were filming it?
JM: Nah. You can’t tell. You go in and work, you do your stuff… movies are made in the editing room. Ron Howard’s the guy I learned that from, hearing him talk about it. They have a concept, they have a vision, they gather as much information as they can, and then they cut it together as a movie. Now I think it’s one of these cult movies like Rocky Horror, where they show it every week somewhere, because it was so poorly written… and yet, even though it was so poorly written, everybody you talk to knows dialogue from it. They remember it. There’s even a box set! So, you know, somebody made a couple of bucks off it. [Laughs.] I still get a couple of checks. It gets me gas money.
The Paper (1994)—“Wilder”
JM: Funny thing: Backdraft was not the first thing I did with Ron Howard. I was 8 years old, singing with the black guys on the corners in the projects, and the PAL—the Police Athletic League—they gathered up all the kids, they put up a broomstick, and they said, “Anybody who can walk under here and wants to make 300 bucks a week?” So we all ran. [Laughs.] I became a finalist, singing “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” by Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers, and it turns out this is for The Music Man with Robert Preston, on Broadway. Now, I had no idea what Broadway was like—I’m 8 years old!—but I went down to the Majestic Theater and spent two days with two other kids. One of the kids was named Eddie Hodges, who eventually got the part, and he went on to sing “High Hopes” with Frank Sinatra [in A Hole In The Head] and had a couple of pop hits. And the other kid that ran around, he was four years younger than us, was a little red-headed kid named Ron Howard, who eventually got to play the role in the movie version, and… [Shrugs.] He’s done okay.
Years later, I went in and read for Splash, they were looking for a character called Fat Jack, so I said, “Okay, I’m fat, my name is Jack, let’s see what happens.” So I walk in and I see him, he says, “Nice to meet you,” and I say, “No, we’ve met each other before.” And I reminded him. He was blown away. I mean, that’s almost 30 years! And we talked for a little bit about it, and… I didn’t work on that. Apparently, I wasn’t fat enough for Fat Jack. [Laughs.] That’s something I always like to think about, ’cause I don’t get told that a lot. But then I worked for him a couple of times after that, on Backdraft and then The Paper. He’s a good guy.
Cool As Ice (1991)—“Clarke”
JM: [Groans.] Oh, man. Nah, that was a good gig. I got offered to do a day on Parenthood or two weeks—same money—on a movie called Cool As Ice. The hook on Cool As Ice, though, was that it was with Vanilla Ice. Now, I didn’t know anything about rap at that time. I’m like, “Who knows about that shit?” But I’m like, “Lemme see what this kid’s like,” ’cause I wanted to work, and it was the same dough, but there was a little bit more to the part. And… [Whispering.] It was really not a good movie at all. [Laughs.] But some guys make a living out of being in movies that aren’t that good! I had a good time. And he was a good guy, Vanilla Ice. I liked him. He was a nice kid, and he was good to the fans, the kids who were around him, and he was a white kid doing rap who came up at a time period when nobody was doing that. And he stood ’em all on their ear. He had a big black guy come along who was, like, “Fuck you, man!” He’s like… [Shrugs.] “I’m just makin’ money, man.” Oh, they hated him. And, I mean, all of his stuff was fluff, but whether he was any good at it or not, he’s still around now, doing a couple of reality shows or whatever. The guy keeps busy.
NYPD Blue (2001-2002)—“Desk Sgt. Mahoney”
JM: I did a couple of years on that. Actually, I did an episode in the first season of that, doing a guest spot with David Caruso, and then I came back later on to play a warehouse manager in the episode where Michael DeLuise, who played Dennis Franz’s son on the show, gets killed. So I did two of them, and I guess I must’ve hit it off pretty with Bill Clark and Mark Tinker and David Milch, ’cause they asked me to come back as the desk sergeant for the last few seasons. That ran for a long time, that show.
AVC: Is there a particular episode of the show that really stands out for you as a Mahoney highlight?
JM: The one where I go after Rick Schroder ’cause he’d come after me, and he pulls my covers about my having a drinking problem. What a stretch. [Laughs.] Actually, I was sober at the time. But it was a great role to play.
AVC: What was it like watching the leads shift on the show over the years?
JM: Yeah, who’d I work with on there, anyway? I did one with David Caruso, then with Jimmy Smits, with Rick Schroder, and then with Mark-Paul [Gosselaar]. And I remember Dennis [Franz]… We were doing a fight scene where there was some smoke around all the cops, and Dennis was sitting up there looking at me, and I just said, “What?” And he says, “You know, you and I, we’ve been around here longer than anybody.” I said, “Yeah, well, the contract’s a little different.” [Laughs.] But he was right, I’d been there on and off several times over the years, several different characters. It was great, though. They were all great guys, and I was really fortunate. I was blessed.
Moneyball (2011)—“John Poloni”
JM: How’d I get an Italian name? That must’ve been somebody’s brother, that they wanted to get their name in there. [Laughs.] The kick for me was that I’d always wanted to do something in a baseball movie. I went in and read for… Well, it was called Shoeless Joe Jackson at the time, but they ended up calling it Field Of Dreams. My dad had been a pro ballplayer back in the ’30s, caught Satchel Paige, Dizzy Dean, and I saw that script and knew what it was about. I see that movie, and I still cry, ’cause that was my relationship with my dad. So it was important to me. I would’ve loved to be a part of that. So when they asked me to be a part of Moneyball, it was great. And they let me put up my dad’s clippings, ’cause I still have a bunch of them. Brad [Pitt] was terrific about it. My dad’s nickname was Rocco, and I told him about it, and he calls me “Rocco” in the movie. It was a real kick.
JM: [With a cigar clenched between his teeth.] Take the money and run. [Laughs.] Take that money and run. One of the guys on the show, a guy who produced it, he’s now a big shot at USA. That came through a guy named Matt Walsh, who’s the founder of the UCB. You know, the Upright Citizens Brigade? They started in New York. It blows me away, they’re out on Franklin Street, over near Beachwood Canyon, and they have 150, 200 kids lined up every night. Every night! And they’re only a 60-seat theater! You can buy a ticket online for five bucks, but you have to wait, and they only let a certain amount in. And then the kids wait the full hour, and then the other ones come later, their last show’s at 12 o’clock at night, and they still got 150 kids out there waiting. So that came from the guys from the UCB, and it was really not good at all. [Laughs.] But I met a bunch of people, it was a lot of fun, and they paid me. And, you know, a lot of guys get their chops on shows like that, then all of a sudden… like, Matt Walsh, now he’s got a series with Julia Louis-Dreyfus [Veep]. There’s a bunch of guys that come out of the UCB. Amy Poehler, she’s another one of the founders of that. We were talking about this before, but you just never know what’s gonna happen. You go to work for somebody, all of a sudden they remember you ’cause you did a good job. There’s something about the power of that box, man. Film’s one thing, but the power of that box, being in there every week. Plus, I like going to work! What was I gonna do, take a month and a half off, or let them pay me? I said, “Let’s go to work!” [Laughs.]
Rescue Me (2004-2007)—“Chief Jerry Reilly”
JM: Yeah. That was a good one. That was close to home. A return to my roots, playing the chief, and the money was better than the money I made as a fireman. [Laughs.] And I got the opportunity to play the dad. I’d played cops, played blue-collar guys, but he was always talking about his family, and I’ve got family, and I’ve been blessed to be, like, a little bit of a mentor to my nieces and nephews. ’Cause I’m kind of the cool uncle. [Laughs.] But also, I’m a guy who’s… I’ve had my journey, and I get to try and teach them how I learned to open up and tell somebody what was going on with me, so when that role came around…
It stemmed from a storyline where I had a son that was gay, and my brother Tom died of AIDS in 1989—he was gay—and his lover was a great guy. My dad died in ’74, and my father was fucking nuts about my brother, but he came from a generation where… Y’know, it was early on, and he didn’t know how to say it. And I remember talking about this with Peter Tolan, Denis Leary’s co-creator on the show, and a week later the script started coming in. And that gave me a way to make amends from my dad to my brother and from my brother to my dad. It’s one of the most satisfying roles I’ve ever heard.
AVC: There was a big kerfuffle over your departure from the show…
JM: [Sarcastically.] Really?
AVC: Well, you know, that’s the word on the street, anyway.
JM: Oh, yeah? Where’d you read that? Was it when I shot my big fucking mouth off to TV Guide? [Laughs.]
[In the article in question, a clearly pissed-off McGee grouched about the shotgun-suicide death of his character, claiming that his relationship with Leary had inexplicably deteriorated over the course of time (“I don’t know what I did to him”) and bitching that Leary couldn’t be bothered to break the news about Reilly’s fate to McGee personally (“He handled it like a mutt”). In return, Leary was quoted as saying, “It’s hard enough to deal with the actors when I’m acting with them.” But it’s in McGee’s interview with Television Without Pity that he really goes no-holds-barred, first calling Leary “a bully,” musing that “bullies most of the time don’t have the guts to do things themselves,” then noting a lack of surprise that Leary couldn’t look him in the eye and tell him what was going to happen to Reilly because “that would take a real man to do that.” —Ed.]
AVC: Have you ever gotten the opportunity to talk it out with Denis Leary about that situation?
JM: [Long pause.] I was fucking angry. You know? And I went back to think about what it was that I could’ve done, and then I found out after doing this inventory that it wasn’t me. It was Denis. But since then… Look, Denis is responsible for me having Bobby Orr’s number in my phone. I can’t be angry with him forever. When you have something that happens in your life that you’ve gone, “I want this” about for years and years, you get it, you love it, and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it goes away. It takes a while to get back on your gratitude list, you know what I’m saying? But I had three years in a row on that show, and now guys—yourself included—for years on after remember the work. I got the opportunity to do that, whereas there’s a lot of guys in my business don’t get that. There are a lot of guys out there who are terrific actors who haven’t been as fortunate, and I don’t know why.
So, anyway, after a while… If Denis walked in here now, I could see him and say, “Hey, how are ya?” And I also wrote him a letter saying, “What I did was wrong.” Not “I’m sorry.” I said, “What I did was wrong, the way I handled that was wrong and I shouldn’t have done it, and I thank you for the opportunities you gave me,” and I was done. And once I did that, he stopped renting a room in my head for free. ’Cause I was waking up fucking angry about it for quite a while there. It was a great role.
AVC: Had the character not gone out the way he did, was there any particular direction in which you’d like to have seen him go?
JM: I think he was the only character with a moral compass in the whole show. You want my own personal opinion about how it went after that? There was no redemption for his character, and the guys that replaced me or came after me… They never even gave them any backstory. You never heard anything about the new chief. He was just in the firehouse. Whereas with my guy, they kind of showed you the second-line story was and what was going on with him, like stuff with the wife. Important stuff. I get people from the National Alzheimer’s Association that have seen it and have asked me to come and speak. The gay community… I get stopped on the street all the time by gay guys, saying, “Thanks for that, because it helped me with my parents.” That’s important shit.
The Huntress (2001)—“Wes Lonigan”
JM: Jesus! What was that, about five or six episodes? What’d I play in that, anyway? [Laughs.] I think maybe I played a union boss? But it was Annette O’Toole, Luis Ramos, and… I don’t remember a lot about that. I mean, I was sober at the time. [Laughs.] But I don’t remember a lot about what went on.
Chairman Of The Board (1998)—“Harlan Granger”
JM: Carrot Top. [Laughs.] A lot of fun. What was I, a warehouse manager? Mindless stuff, but again, you still get gas money out of it.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)—“P.I. Burns”
JM: Yeah, with the Coen brothers! I had a great scene with two Academy Award nominees—Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand—and Tony Shalhoub. Black and white, shot incredibly well. Always wanted to work with the Coen brothers. I got a story where one of ’em came up and he’s telling me about how I should try to play the scene, and then the other comes back and says, “What did he tell you?” I said, “He told me not to listen to you.” [Laughs.] That’s really the only thing I remember about that. And when I see him now, they always say, “‘He told me not to listen to you.’” I forget which one of ’em came up to me first, if it was the little one or the tall one. But when I worked with Frances McDormand… another buddy of mine, Eddie O’Neil, who I’d done a commercial with back in New York about 30 years ago, we did that with Frances McDormand. So I went back through my old tapes, dusted ’em off from the archives, and I made her a copy of it.
Drive Angry (2011)—“Fat Lou”
JM: Yeah. [Long pause.] Haven’t seen it yet. Have you seen it? Is it bad?
AVC: Uh… Let’s just say you might have another cult on your hands.
JM: [Laughs, immediately demands a high-five.] I love that! Oh, that is funny. Great guy that directed it, though—Patrick Lussier—and I met a couple of great people on it, including a kid named James Hébert, who’s now in Gangster Squad. Plus, I got to spend a couple of days down in Shreveport, Louisiana, so there’s that.
AVC: So based on this role and what you said about auditioning for Fat Jack in Splash, you obviously don’t have any problem with playing characters with “Fat” in their name.
JM: [Dismissively.] Nah, I don’t care. What’s fat? A role’s a role, you know? Now, I don’t do the thing where you wear the shirts that are busting out at the seams. They always want to wardrobe me in that, and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m not doing that anymore. Maybe let’s say the guy sprung for another couple of bucks and bought him a shirt that actually fit him, huh?”
Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)—“Carpenter”
AVC: You’ve played carpenters on a couple of occasions.
JM: Yeah. Scrooged, I had one line, and it’s still shouted out to me at celebrity golf tournaments all the time: “You can hardly see them nipples.” [Laughs.] It’s when Bill Murray, he’s got the Scroogettes and they’re a little bit too scantily clad, and he’s got the censor there with him. I’m walking by, and he says, “Hey, what about you? What do you think about this?” And I just said something that came naturally to me, which Richard Donner let me ad-lib. And that stayed in the movie.
And the other one, Lethal 2, they threw me in there with Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in the scene where Danny’s daughter is showing them her first commercial, they’re all sitting around in the den watching it, real proud, and it happened to be a condom commercial. So they look around, and Mel Gibson says to me, “What’d you think?” I said, “I thought she was great. She made me wanna go out and buy rubbers right now.” Danny Glover, in the rehearsal, spit his fucking sandwich across the room, and it wound up staying in the movie. Once again, a one-liner.
AVC: And you apparently filmed something for Lethal Weapon 3, too, but it didn’t end up making the cut. Is that right?
JM: Right. Didn’t make the cut. They didn’t need it, whatever. But it was a paycheck. I don’t get the residuals, but it was a paycheck. I don’t even remember what I said. If I don’t see it, I don’t remember it. Hell, I don’t even know what I’m sayin’ to you right now!
Night Court (1988)—“Fast Eddie Creeger”
JM: Hot damn, that was a great role. That was one of my first sitcoms, doing that with Charlie Robinson. And it was great, playing against Charlie, who’s very organized on the show, playing this guy who, y’know, he didn’t want to do nothing, his belt’s high up in the air, he’s eating a sandwich… he was a pig. It was great.
Coyote Ugly (2000)—“Pitcher”
JM: A one-day shot. The guy who directed it [David McNally] just asked me if I wanted to come in and throw softballs at a bunch of girls with no clothes on. Once again, I find myself saying, “You know, I think I can help you with that.”
AVC: So what you’re saying is that hot women are often a selling point when it comes to picking your roles.
JM: C’mon. Look at me. If you look at me, can I be that choosy? Come on. [Laughs.]
Thirteen Days (2000)—“Richard J. Daley”
JM: Another one-day role. Costner asked me, “You wanna be part of it?” And I have such love for John F. Kennedy, and it was a project all about him, so when they asked me to come in and do it, I went down to the Ambassador, got to the hotel, and they had all the rooms cordoned off where Bobby Kennedy had been killed. They shot it in the lobby. But, yeah, another one-day wonder.
AVC: You said about The Fighter that you’d never played a real-life character before. Was this not a big enough role for you to count?
JM: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t have a lot on it, ’cause it was basically just a meet-and-greet. “Hi, how are you? Come on, Senator, we’ll come this way.” So they dressed me up and they must’ve thought…I don’t know why they asked for me. But like I’ve been saying, maybe somebody I’d worked with before went, “Hey, get this guy, he’ll be all right for this part.”
The X-Files (2000)—“Bob Damfuse”
JM: Aw man, talk about a role you take that… he was a guy who was in jail, and he was insane, and they wanted him to just fucking scream through his jail cell. And I remember the director [Paul Shapiro], he wanted me to scream during rehearsal, and I was, like, “Look, you don’t understand: If I do this, I’m gonna have a headache in 30 fucking seconds.” ’Cause it was just… [Imitates the scream.] And this was for, like, a minute and a half. You always want to be part of The X-Files, ’cause it was a big show, but… [Trails off.]
AVC: So did you get a headache?
JM: You’re fucking right I did. [Laughs.] By the end of it, anyway. But you know, we rehearsed the thing five or six times before we did it, and he kept saying, “No, I really want you to do it,” and I’m like, “Look, trust me, when you roll the camera, I’ll give it to you, but I can’t do it in rehearsal, ’cause I’ll have a fucking aneurysm!”
The Doors (1991)—“Miami Cop”
JM: Another one-line wonder, by the way. I worked a week on it, I was supposed to only work two days, but I’d worked on Born On The Fourth Of July with Oliver Stone. I just saw him last night, actually. Stoney! [Laughs.] But we were at a party for Born On The Fourth Of July, he’s with a bunch of people, and he says to me, “Hey, how’d you like to be my penis cop?” “What do you mean?” “You’ll be the penis cop!” I said, “All right, I’ll do it.” So the lone line I had in the movie was, “Where’s the guy with the penis?” Once again, at these celebrity golf tournaments, kids with earrings, nose rings, tattoos, whatever, all of a sudden I hear ’em yell out, “Hey, where’s the guy with the penis?” These are the same kids who scream, “You can hardly see them nipples!” If it’s not “penis,” it’s “nipples.”
Miracle On 34th Street (1994)—“Tony Falacchi”
JM: I played a drunken Santa Claus for this guy, [director] Les Mayfield, and… I wasn’t sober at the time. I went in there sober, but… My claim to fame on that one was that I took Sir Richard Attenborough to a strip club. He played the good Santa Claus, I played the bad. He didn’t know it was a strip joint. I only made him walk in the door, and then we got out of there, ’cause I don’t like those joints, either. But that was the highlight of that. [Laughs.] It was a great role to be a part of, although I don’t think they should’ve done the remake. You can’t touch the original. It’s like trying to do Yankee Doodle Dandy again. There’s no point.
AVC: You’ve mentioned the sobriety or lack thereof a couple of times now. How long was the drinking an issue for you?
JM: Oh, I don’t know. I guess the last four or five years it really got bad. But I got clean and sober in July of 1995, and my life has been completely transformed. I slowed down to where that other guy I was then is gone, and you got the real guy taking his place again. I needed help and… Okay, I’m not trying to tie this thing back into Common Law, but a lot of guys just don’t know how to ask for help. They’re like, “Nah, fuck it, I got this.” But the truth is that I couldn’t handle it myself. I had to surrender and ask somebody, “Can you help me with this?” But a lot of guys don’t know to do that. They’d rather go on living a miserable life than say, “Hey, how did you do this?” That’s how it started for these two guys who started AA in 1935. ’Cause all the doctors, they didn’t know what the hell to do with these people. They’d put ’em in asylums or they’d end up on the street. But these two guys started talking to each other, and now there’s 30 million people in AA turning their lives around. So it’s… it’s who I am. It’s what I am. I don’t promote it, but I’m certainly open to talking about it at any time.
TRON: Legacy (2010)—“Police Photographer”
JM: Played a cop behind the camera. Voice only. Done. They paid me for it. I know Jeff Bridges is in it, but I haven’t seen it and don’t know anything about it. But they paid me! [Laughs.]
AVC: Any idea how many cops you’ve played over the years?
JM: It’s gotta be over a hundred, between movies and TV. I got that fucking cop thing down pat now. [Laughs.] As long as they keep killing people in these things, I think I got a career that’s gonna last me for a while.