Edward Herrmann on working with Warren Beatty, Woody Allen, and John Huston
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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: Edward Herrmann was born in Washington, DC, grew up in Michigan, and went to college in Pennsylvania (Bucknell University), but after returning to DC and joining the cast of the play Moonchildren, he followed the production to New York, where he soon made his Broadway debut. Since then, Herrmann has earned acclaim not only for his work in the theater, winning a Tony for Mrs. Warren’s Profession, but has become an almost ubiquitous presence on television (Eleanor And Franklin, Gilmore Girls, Oz) as well as in film (The Paper Chase, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, The Lost Boys).
The Lost Boys (1987)—“Max”
Edward Herrmann: Boy, that was a ball. Joel [Schumacher] is a very witty and charming guy, very hip, and it was a cast of young, bright, interesting kids. And I was working with Dianne Wiest, who was an old friend. We knew each other from Williamstown, where we performed onstage a number of times. And Barnard Hughes was there as well, so the old folks were seasoned. And we took it all with a grain of salt, but it was fun. We were up on that coastal town in California, and we were told, “Don’t go out after 6.” And I said, “Wait a minute, I lived in New York, don’t tell me about what’s dangerous! But the fact is, the bushes were full of burned-out ex-hippies, so it was a very dangerous town! [Laughs.] So we just kept to the movie set. But, no, it was a lot of fun, and, you know, with the special effects, it was goofy and terrific. I had a great time.
The A.V. Club: Still, it’s a little ironic to be told not to go out after 6 p.m. on a movie where you’re playing a vampire.
EH: Exactly! Yes, well, I think they did at least say, “You can hang close to the arc lights or hang close to the chuck wagon. Just stick with the guys.”
AVC: What was your familiarity with the vampire mythos before doing the film?
EH: Not much. Growing up as a kid in Detroit, way back, there was a movie station that would show old kinescope reproductions of old movies, and I remember seeing Bela Lugosi for the first time and being duly frightened out of my wits. But I was never drawn to the world of the vampire that has exploded so, turning them into romantic heroes. I just always thought of them as diabolical, and you avoided them like the plague. I like sunny stories. You know, my favorite girls in the ’50s were Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day, and Esther Williams. Looking at Esther Williams now, I can see why: She was a real dish! [Laughs.] But, no, at the risk of disappointing the vampire clan, I was not personally drawn to them. I just thought it was a hell of a lot of fun to play one, because I’d never done it. Later, when I was able to play Herman Munster, that was a real treat as well.
Here Come The Munsters (1995)—“Herman Munster”
EH: Fred Gwynne was a genius. He was a Harvard guy, a brilliant fellow who did Car 54, Where Are You? and The Munsters, but the general public sort of dismissed him as sort of grotesque, just a tall comedian. But he was really a wonderful, wonderful actor. And a very sweet guy, apparently. I never met him. I’ve just heard stories. It was wonderful working with that group, though, and just creating that character. Great fun. And the day that the old cast [came] to the set, they were arguing with each other as if their show had never stopped. About who sits where, and telling Al Lewis, “Put out that cigar!” He wouldn’t stop smoking his cigar. It was hilarious! And the makeup woman came up to Yvonne De Carlo, but she slapped it away and said, “I don’t know where that makeup’s been!” I thought, “Wait a minute, she’s still a movie queen!” [Laughs.]
AVC: Had there been talk of expanding the TV movie into a weekly series?
EH: Oh, well, they always talk. Hollywood is full of talk. If it had gone, I probably would’ve sat down with them and talked about money, and if it was right, I’d do it for a few seasons. They did, in fact, do another Munsters movie, and… the money was meager. So I said, “No, this is going to be the fee.” And it wasn’t outrageous. It was just market value. And I got calls from the other members of the cast, saying that the management had reduced their fees. And I thought, “They’re robbing Peter to pay Paul!” My salary came up, theirs went down! And I said, “Well, that’s not fair. To hell with this!” So all three of us backed out, and they got a new cast and shot it in Australia. That had been the only draw for me, really. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll go to Australia and make this.” But then I realized, “In that makeup? It’s summer down there! I’ll die!” [Laughs.] It was bad enough in the Valley with all that crap on. So we let that one pass.
Reds (1981)—“Max Eastman”
EH: That was fun. I talked to his mistress, actually, and she told me some lovely stories about the fight between Ernest Hemingway and Eastman, where Hemingway jumped on Eastman. I’ve just finished one of the volumes of Seán O’Casey’s autobiography, and, of course, he was a raging communist and very passionate. Also a great playwright. He has this energy and a kind of paean, a gorgeous prose poem to the Soviet Revolution, and how the Red Star is going to shower beneficence on all mankind. And I thought, “Well, this is a guy that Stalin would kill right away.” [Laughs.] He’d send him right off to Siberia! But for the first time, reading that as well as all the stuff about Eastman, I came to understand how positive and wonderful this Bolshevik revolution seemed to anybody who was not involved in it.
Working with Warren [Beatty] was… well, it was part nightmare and mostly glorious. [Laughs.] Well, he was famous for the number of takes. I think mine topped out at about 52. Something like that. And he would never tell you what he wanted to do! “Well, just do it again, do it again.” “Uh, okay…” Finally, I heard Maureen Stapleton on the set, she played Emma Goldman, and she said, “No.” He said, “Oh, come on, Mo…” “No! Go eff yourself! I’m not going to do this again! Tell me what you want, Warren! I’ll take my clothes off and stand on my head, I’ll do it any way you want, but you’ve gotta tell me what you want!” “Look, could you just do it again?” “No! I’m not going to do it again! Goodbye!” [Laughs.] So finally… he had a pathological aversion to destroying spontaneity. He wanted something to happen that he could grab, and he felt that if he explained it, the actor would just imitate, which is a legitimate take on things. And I thought his take on the whole Bolshevik revolution seemed simplistic to European intellectuals, but it was actually quite profound. It was, “Who’s the toughest guy on the block?” It had nothing to do with dialectical materialism. It had to do with who was stronger. It had to do with who was sexier, who was shrewder, and they used the vocabulary of the revolution to sort of laud their talk. I have to say, it’s a brilliant movie. And I was very glad to be part of it.
The Electric Grandmother (1982)—“Father”
EH: Oh yes, I worked with Maureen Stapleton there as well. She was adorable. She was great. And I loved that. It was a very sweet and clever movie. One thing I remember about Maureen was that her enthusiasm about everything was just over the top. And her hatred was also over the top. [Laughs.] But she loved me, so I was in good shape there. I had finished a film in which the young editor was a fellow named Pete McCrea, who was Joel McCrea’s youngest son, and through him I met the folks, and they were very private, but it was delightful. Once you were in the circle, they were just warm and open and so on, but they were really resistant to the outside world. So Frances Dee and Joel McCrea, two of the handsomest people I ever met in my life, were just very cordial, blah blah blah. So I’m on the set, and I casually mention to Maureen that I’d met McCrea, and I thought she was going to jump across the table. [In a hushed voice.] “You met Joel McCrea? Oh, God! Do you have his number?” She’d had a passion for him forever. And, of course, I thought, “Hmmm…” So I called Pete, and I said, “Do you know Maureen Stapleton?” And he said, “Oh, God, you didn’t give her Dad’s number, did you?” I said, “No, I’d always run it through you. He’s a private person.” “No, no, it’s just that she’s been after him for 20 years. You’ve got to keep her away.” [Laughs.] So it was all I could do for the rest of the shoot not to give it to her. I said, “You know, I’ve got a number, but it doesn’t work. They’ve changed it. They’re very private. I’m sorry, Mo.” I just couldn’t do it. But she was great. I loved her. She was just so enthusiastic and warm and bright. Just terrific.
Bucky Larson: Born To Be A Star (2011)—“Jeremiah Larson”
AVC: From the sublime to the ridiculous…
EH: [Audibly puffing up his chest.] What do you mean ‘ridiculous’? Every role I play has an intrinsic genius to it! [Laughs.] Yes, well, I’ve always wanted to do a silly movie, and I just think Nick Swardson is one of the funniest actors I’ve ever met in my life. I have never laughed so hard. I thought, “This movie is either going to be absolute trash or a cult hit.” Don Johnson is in it, and I worked with him on Born Yesterday and I’m a great admirer of his. Christina Ricci I’d never worked with. Sometimes I’m stuck in a straitjacket with suits, playing Alger Hiss and Roosevelt and so on, and I said, “These guys are really wonky, and they’re where the kids are these days, so do it! What’s the matter with you?” [Laughs.] I had a great time. I have to say, I had a great time. I’d never laughed so hard at some of his antics and some of his outtakes. I was on the floor. And as with most comedians and most funny people, he’s very serious and kind of quiet and tries to figure out what the world’s all about and why he’s funny. But he is. He has this wonderful take on things that’s really eccentric.
Lady Liberty (1971)—“Policeman” (uncredited)
AVC: Whenever an early role is listed as “uncredited,” you never know for sure if it’s going to turn out to be accurate or not…
EH: It is! It is accurate! I was doing a play called The Basic Training Of Pavlo Hummel in New York—the David Rabe play—over the summer, and I was one of the soldiers and had a couple of scenes. But I got this job, which was an under-five (less than five lines of dialogue), and I was allowed to do it. It was all night, it was with Sophia Loren and an Italian director, Mario Monicelli, and I played this cop. I had one line. I said, “Well, I don’t know what it is, but it smells like gas.” And they had this big sausage they were eating. [Laughs.] And that was it!
We were shooting out at the old TWA terminal, that fantastic aero center they were building, and it took forever. The camera… they shot everything unblimped, which meant that everything was going to have to be looped later, because of all the jets and everything. And I looked outside in the middle of the night, on one of those little arch bridgeways in the middle of the terminal, these vast windows, and I saw this parade of twinkling lights. Not just the jumbo jet, but all these little lights. Well, it was cop cars, and apparently someone had tried to hijack a plane that night! And then… this terminal is empty, but then all of a sudden I see this line of police and reporters coming through, and I’m standing there in my cop rig, and this guy comes up to me, very Efrem Zimbalist-looking, and he says… [Out of the corner of his mouth.] “Where’s the meeting?” And I said, “What?” He said, “Where’s the meeting?” I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So he flips out his gold FBI badge, and his mouth turns down, and he says, “Now where’s the goddamned meeting?” [Laughs.] And I said, “I’m sorry, sir, we’re making a movie here. I’m an actor in the movie.” He looks me up and down, and he says, “An actor, huh? Congratulations.” And I just melt in front of this FBI guy’s steely gaze. So by virtue of that one little scene, I found that brush with immortality in the midst of a hijacking.
At about 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning, we lost the light, and I was walking down one of those tunnels, and Sophia Loren came out of a room. It’s 5 in the morning, and she’s looking like she just stepped out of a bath, like Venus. And she was alone, she’s walking down the tunnel, and she nodded, so I said, “It was lovely working with you.” And she said… [In a high, breathy voice with an Italian accent.] “Thank you very much. It was nice.” And off she went. She’s still a dream to me. She was very sweet.
The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985)—“Henry”
EH: Oh, that was fun! I hung around a lot with the English actor who played the butler, John Wood. Brilliant guy. We had mutual friends in England, because I trained in England a bit and worked there and what-have-you, so we sat around a good deal. It was great having John around because his anecdotes… oh, he was a brilliant storyteller. And a dazzling actor as well.
Once again, it was a great cast, all these very clever people, and we were having a hell of a good time acting ’30s. [Laughs.] But getting to sort of suss out how Woody [Allen] worked… Gordon Willis, our genius cinematographer, I’d worked with him once before, on The Paper Chase, years earlier up in Toronto, and he’s just one of the best ever. So it was fun to have him around, but he was very dour, very quiet. Sets can get noisy, but this one was like a library. He didn’t tolerate anything. And Woody would be upstairs. He would never be part of the hurly-burly of getting things going. He wouldn’t talk; he’d be up with Mia [Farrow] and be reading The New York Times. And it’s the only film I’ve worked on in which the assistant director said, “Action.” Woody didn’t even say, “Action.” He would sort be standing behind a flat, peeking around the edge of it. He didn’t watch a monitor. He was about as separated from the event as anybody I’ve ever worked with. He was perfectly pleasant when you did talk to him. If he saw something he didn’t like, he’d come up and he’d talk to you very quietly, in such a way that… he kind of acted for you. And if you weren’t careful… you can see in Woody’s films where actors are trying to imitate Woody. You had to kind of take what Woody would give you and change it or make it the character.
Also, the other actor, the lead who stepped out of the screen… Jeff Daniels! He’s from Michigan, and so am I, so we were doing the scene where he’s talking about “the purple flowers in the Egyptian tomb,” and he had this way of saying “tomb” that was nasal and Michigander, and I would just crack up. And then he would start laughing. And that was the only time I saw Woody get really mad. [Laughs.] Because we couldn’t finish the take! It was either me or Jeff who would break up. Jeff’s great. He’s terrific.
The Good Wife (2010-present)—“Lionel Deerfield”
EH: Oh, that’s a gift. Because it’s in Brooklyn, and I live in Connecticut. But I think it’s a great show, and this guy… he’s part of the Chicago scene, yet he has to discipline people, right? But only in Chicago will he go in the night before he’s going to nail this guy and tell him that he’s going to nail him. “So get your ducks in a row.” He shouldn’t be doing this, of course. He’s not looking for a bribe. But it’s an ongoing part, because this case is not dead yet, so I look forward to it. Christine Baranski and I did also a crazy movie together [Relative Strangers]. Kathy Bates was in it. I think it ended up on the airlines. [Laughs.] But it was very funny, actually. And Christine is also a neighbor in Connecticut. She’s terrific. And Rita Wilson’s on the show now as well, Tom Hanks’ wife. Tom Hanks, who I worked with on The Man With One Red Shoe, as long as we’re throwing out credits. [Laughs.]
The Paper Chase (1973)—“Anderson”
EH: Oh, that was fun. I was in New York, I got there in ’70, and it was basically my first proper movie. Besides, of course, that immortal performance in Lady Liberty. [Laughs.] We shot it up in Kleinburg, in Ontario, and there were two big soundstages, and they built that lecture hall on one of the stages. Next to it was a film that was being directed by a director I eventually worked with, a wonderful director named Dan Petrie, who did the Roosevelt films [Eleanor And Franklin], and he was doing one with Ben Gazzara and Yvette Mimieux and Ernest Borgnine [The Neptune Factor]. It was about submarines, and they go down and there are creatures that eat them and all of this stuff. It was science fiction. And, oh, God, I’d go over there during lunchtime, and I saw all of these sets, all of these aquarium tanks where they had versions of the characters made out of fish food so that the fish would eat them. And I thought, “Boy, this is a real movie! All we’re doing is talking!” [Laughs.]
But Anderson was fun. It was a bunch of great actors. Graham Beckel and Tim Bottoms. But John Houseman came up, and it was touching, because he was nervous as hell, and he kept blowing his lines. It was a little scene in the office, one of his first scenes, and I felt the need to be cordial… me, the old veteran, who had never made a proper movie. [Laughs.]
But it was very useful, because down the street there was a Bette Davis festival going on. And they were proper 35mm prints, and I saw for the first time, classic, top-of-the-line Warner Bros. ’30s sob-sister movies, and… I began to see, “What’s all this fuss about Bette Davis? She overacts, she’s got splinters in her teeth from eating the scenery. But who’s this guy George Brent? He’s wonderful… because he doesn’t do anything!” And it helped me in The Paper Chase, because James Bridges was directing, and he was really wonderful with us youngsters. With the study table, the camera would go around and pick up all of our close-ups and stuff, and I was acting my socks off. And he said, “Great, cut, print. That was wonderful, but… they can see that in the balcony, so can you just pull it back just a little bit?” So I did. “Great, cut, print. Okay, that was in the mezzanine.” We did it again. “Now we’re in the orchestra.” I brought it back and brought it back until I thought I wasn’t doing anything. But then I went to see George Brent, and I realized, “He’s not doing anything except for being he’s the guy he says he is.” And that was a real lesson in film acting.
AVC: So were you in the classroom when John Houseman did his famous “here’s a dime” speech?
EH: Oh, sure. [Laughs.] Yes, we all were. Oh yeah, John was… I got to know John. When I was doing Plenty on Broadway, he came by, and we’d sit in the tiny dressing room. He said, “Why the hell can’t we Americans write plays as good as this?” [Laughs.]
Harry’s War (1981)—“Harry Johnson”
AVC: Harry’s War was a rare leading-man role for you.
EH: Yeah, that was after playing Roosevelt; it was an independent that was shot in Utah, with Karen Grassle. And also Geraldine Page, who apparently came along because she found out I was in it. Because she’d seen Roosevelt, after which everybody thought I was the bee’s knees for a while. [Laughs.] That was a lesson, too, because she criticized me in front of everybody. “It looks as though he’s pretending!” I thought, “Oh, boy…” She was uncompromising. She was from the studio days, and those guys… Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando and Kim Stanley and all that really left blood on the floor. They didn’t care about whether they made you feel good. But she was brilliant. She was just uncompromising. And I met Rip Torn, because he was coming up to fish, and he became a neighbor in Connecticut. But Elisha Cook… some great stories there. And I actually met my wife on that show. I was married at the time, and she was married at the time, both of us unhappily, and we were struggling. One thing led to another, and… there you are. But that was fun. I got to drive a half-track through the wall of a building. [Laughs.]
Eleanor And Franklin (1976) / Eleanor And Franklin: The White House Years (1977)—“Franklin Delano Roosevelt”
EH: It was a gift. You never get a script that good. Or a cast that good, or a director that good, or a designer that good, or a sponsor that good. And all on the same project? It was just blessed. I had finished Day Of The Dolphin, and Mike Nichols told me about this possible show about Roosevelt and said, “You should go.” So I went to David Susskind’s office and we talked, and then I met with Joe Lash, who had the imprimatur for the family, and he approved. And then I talked to some ABC guys. I didn’t realize how dangerous and special all this was. I was a rookie with the whole television thing. And then the script had to be written, and [James] Costigan was a real difficult guy to pin down and get things done. And it took a year. In the meantime, I was frantic. I didn’t want to do any more commercials, because I didn’t want to spoil my presence before the project. [Laughs.] And I was driving my agents nuts. “No! No word!” Because Jane Alexander had been set [to play Eleanor Roosevelt], she was further along. She’d done The Great White Hope. And I’d worked with her, actually, on stage, but I hadn’t done any film. And they hadn’t set the director [Petrie], and so on and so on.
The long and the short of it was that he had seen The Paper Chase the day before he was presented with the information that “the network wants this guy Ed Herrmann,” so he said, “Oh, I just saw him. He’s a good actor. That’s fine.” Boom. [Laughs.] But that was, like, a month before we started shooting. I had done some reading before, but I didn’t want to immerse myself if I wasn’t going to do it. And then I just took a room across from his house in Hyde Park, and I went every day to the archives there at the Roosevelt Library, and I saw every foot of newsreel. They had 16mm dupes of everything in the archives right there. And I talked and I looked and I studied, and I had tapes that I’d go to sleep with. I mean, it was heaven to be able to immerse yourself in a character, with the time to do that. And the result is that it was a crackerjack show. Everything worked.
We had two different Louis Howes. Eddie Flanders did the first one, and Walter McGinn did the second one. See, the first film was over two nights, and it took him up to his election as governor, and then the second one was about the White House years. And it was sponsored by IBM all the way. On the second one, there was a gap that was sort of a jump, and we needed a scene, a piece. And Costigan was resistant, and, of course, the powers that be were resistant, because this would mean another day’s shooting. And in those days, that was $180,000 or $190,000. It’d be more today, but that was still no small chunk of change. But finally Jane got behind it as well, and then Dan got behind it, and Harry Sherman, our producer, got behind it, and they went to IBM, and they said, “Yep, okay.” And they coughed up the money, and we did the scene. And it’s a wonderful scene. It’s in the bedroom, and it’s kind of tough between Anna [Blair Brown] and Eleanor and Franklin, but it was necessary to kind of rough up their relationship. But, yeah, it’s something I look on as a gift, and people still talk about it.
Annie (1982)—“Franklin Delano Roosevelt”
AVC: You also played FDR a third time, in John Huston’s film version of Annie.
EH: I sure did. Boy, you really know your stuff. [Laughs.]
AVC: You said that people thought of you as the bee’s knees for your performance in the TV movies. Do you know definitely that that’s why John Huston asked for you?
EH: Oh, yeah. John was old school, as you know, and he didn’t direct the actors. He just hired the right people and then he let them alone. And he said… [Does a John Huston impression.] “I want that kid who played Roosevelt. I want him!” And he was wonderful. You better know your lines, because he does one take, and if he likes it, that’s it. And the scene where Daddy Warbucks brings Annie to the White House, it’s a complicated shot. He brings her in, and there’s Lois de Banzie and me, she’s standing, I’m sitting, and then we sort of circle around, and we end up under the portrait of George Washington, and then we sing the song. Well, it was one shot ’til we got to the portrait, and then they cut and we did the song. And John had discovered the TV monitor—it had just been invented—and he stopped looking at the actors and he started putting a blanket around himself and looking at the monitor. And he looked at it and said, “Fine, let’s cut, print, let’s go.” And the DP—he’d replaced one DP, so this is the second guy—he said, “John, can I have a second?” “What? What is it?” “I wonder if we could have another one.” “What? What the hell for?” In that droll delivery of his. “Well, it’s a complicated shot, John, and we’ve only done it once. I think we can do it better.” “Did you get everything? “Well, yeah, but…” “Okay, but, goddammit, I don’t want to waste my time with this. Just shoot it again.” So we did it again, and he snapped, “Cut, print, we’re moving.” [Laughs.]
But what’s irreplaceable for me… when she comes in on the elephant on roller skates, the big party at the end, it’s all night long, and we’re in New Jersey at this big mansion. I’m sitting next to John Huston, and the elephant came on, they’re rehearsing, and John says, “Oh, isn’t that a fine elephant? Isn’t that a good elephant? Look at that.” And I said, “Yeah, it’s a sweetie.” And he says, “I was in India, hunting tigers with the maharaja of Jaipur, and I was in one of those little huts…” I said, “A kumbha.” “A kumbha! That’s right. That’s exactly what it is! Have you been to India?” I said, “Yeah.” “Really!” And all he wanted to do was talk about it. He wanted tales. All of a sudden, not only did I play Roosevelt, but I knew about India! [Laughs.]
God, just to be around him was wonderful. Of course, I didn’t want to go do Roosevelt again at the time, but when John Huston asks, you do it standing on your head without any clothes on just to work with him. [Laughs.] But, yeah, I saw how his idea was to cast it correctly and let ’em go. You don’t tell Bogart what to do. You don’t tell Spencer Tracy what to do. You just cast it right. I don’t know how much direction he gave Bogart, but I keep watching The Maltese Falcon, and it’s just absolute perfection. There are a couple of odd shots. Always in a John Huston film there are a couple of shots that were put in afterwards, and they don’t look right, but, God, it’s just magic. It’s just wonderful.
Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)—“Richard Gilmore”
EH: Well, Richard Gilmore was a treat. I’d never done a series, besides that Upstairs Downstairs lookalike back in New York…
AVC: Beacon Hill.
EH: Beacon Hill, there you go. [Laughs.] But I walked in to talk to Amy [Sherman-Palladino], and I said, “You know, I’ve read a lot of these things, and this is hilarious; it’s sharp, it’s witty, and whoever you cast is gonna be lucky, because it’s great. You want me to read it?” And she said, “Yeah, if you would.” So I did, and she wanted me. And they worked out a deal where I would be recurring rather than a regular, because my little boy was 4, and I didn’t want to miss any of that. So I’d fly out, I’d stay at The Standard, they’d get me a car and I’d drive over and do my thing, and I’d go home. I didn’t realize this was a very special deal. I’ve tried to get it again and… I can’t. [Laughs.] But Amy was insistent.
When I sat down next to Kelly Bishop… oddly enough, we knew everybody in New York, but we ourselves had never met. She worked with [Joseph] Papp and I’d worked with Papp, and I was on Broadway and she was on Broadway, blah blah blah. But she just turned out to be a lamb. Funny and witty and a pro.
And I fell deeply in love with Alexis [Bledel]. She had been a model, but this was her first real role, and it was for a one-camera hour show, the toughest thing you can do. And she would often have meltdowns, because she didn’t know how to handle the time, the energy, how you have to pace yourself and relax and what-have-you. And I was sort of delegated from time to time to look after her, and I was very, very fond of her. And then one summer, I thought, “She’s not going to make it. She’s going to burn out.” But then she went to Italy with a friend to learn cooking, and I thought, “She’s going to be fine. Because she’s got a brain of her own, and she’s not wrapped up in this.” I kept trying to explain to her, “Acting is not all like this. It’s a wonderful profession, and if you get a play, if you start doing some scene work, you have a gift that’s one in a million. One in 10 million. You’re like Audrey Hepburn. The camera absolutely adores you. You can’t say anything wrong, you can’t do anything wrong. It’s a gift. So if you want to pursue this as a career…” She did, and she didn’t. She did the Traveling Pants films and a few other things. I see her in New York from time to time. But she’s casual about the business, which keeps it at arm’s length. Which is a pity, in a way, because she’s brilliant. And she’s so sweet, such a kind person. She’s terrific.
The Practice (1997-2001)—“Anderson Pearson”
Wonder Woman (2011)—“Senator Warren”
Harry’s Law (2012)—“Judge Lester Babcock”
EH: The only Emmy I’ve ever received, actually, was for The Practice. I was nominated for Roosevelt, I’ve been nominated four or five times, and everyone thinks I won it for Roosevelt, but no. It was supposed to be three episodes, but it turned out to be [more], and what can I say? It was fun.
AVC: You’ve actually worked with David E. Kelley on a couple of occasions, including his pilot for Wonder Woman.
EH: Yes, I have. In fact, in regards to that, I actually have a pilot myself that I’m trying to get produced—I’ve never done anything like this—and it’s written by a prosecutor in Chicago and a cop. I have a lot of cop friends in Chicago through another guy who was in Second City and would’ve been a cop if he hadn’t been an actor. So I called David, I hadn’t seen him since The Practice, and I said, “I don’t know what to do with this. Would you talk to me?” So we sat down and had coffee, and I guess I was in his head then, because he said, “Oh, by the way, I’m doing this new pilot, Wonder Woman. Would you do something on it?” And I said, “Of course!” So I had to play the wicked senator who was in charge of the judiciary committee, and he sits Wonder Woman down, and he says, “You know, you nearly strangled this guy, you did this, you did that, and… it’s all illegal!” [Laughs.] Leave it to David to say, “Yeah, but superheroes do things that are illegal!” So I thought, “Well, this is great.” It was very witty.
Everybody was shocked when it wasn’t picked it up. And I asked David about that. I said, “What happened? She seemed nervous, the girl playing Wonder Woman [Adrianne Palicki],” and he said, “Yeah, we didn’t pay as much attention to that as we should have. Everyone was concerned about the special effects and the costume. Basically, it’s my fault.” People simply didn’t like the feature of the whole program, which was that Wonder Woman is not secret. She sells Wonder Woman gear, and that finances her crime fighting. So she’s a businesswoman. And people simply didn’t go for it. He’s such a wonderful guy. So self-effacing. He’s one of the best men I’ve ever met. So, yeah, it’s always fun working with David.
Harry’s Law came out of the blue again. I know Kathy [Bates] from New York. We used to give the Olive Branch award, for journalists who covered the disarmament and atomic-proliferation issue, and we would often be cheek by jowl, talking. So I’d known her, and I know David, and it’s lovely to have been out here working with them.
St. Elsewhere (1984-1986)—“Father Joseph McCabe”
Oz (2000-2003)—“Harrison Beecher”
EH: Oh, well, Tom Fontana is an old friend from Williamstown days, and he was this funny little guy in the basement, kind of writing plays, and he somehow connected with the Williamstown festival. And Blythe Danner and I used to do a play or two at Williamstown every summer, and Bruce Paltrow was around, and he plucked Fontana out of the basement and put him on the writing staff of St. Elsewhere. And he then became head writer, and he just blossomed and became this great writer.
So, anyway, anything that films around New York pulls from the same pool of talent that does endless Law & Order episodes, so I got into this, and I have to say that I was scared shitless going in, because I saw these guys… It was the old Nabisco building down on 11th Avenue, where Oreos were invented, and it was all stark and horrible. And I saw these guys in gray over in one corner, and I thought, “Oh, my God, they got real convicts over there! What the hell are they doing on this show?” And then one of them came over and said, “Oh, I really loved you in so-and-so,” and I thought, “Oh, you asshole, Herrmann. These are actors, you jerk!” [Laughs.] But that’s how real this show was to me. And I couldn’t… I mean, it was gritty, it was extraordinary, it was tough, but it was great being involved in it, because you get tired of doing Hallmark stuff. But [Fontana] pushed and pushed and pushed the envelope. And then there was that episode where the child’s hand was sent to the father in the jail, and it was just… even the cast was like, “Oh, God!” I said, “Tom, Jesus, what are you doing? This is unbearable!” And he just looked at me and smiled this little seraphic smile, and he said, “Well, it’s drama, Ed. It’s drama.”
I didn’t realize that Borgia was his brainchild. Typical. Perfect. He’s a deeply anti-Catholic Catholic. [Laughs.] “Let’s just show the guts and the dirty underbelly of the whole church!” That’s Thomas in his element there. But he’s a very sweet guy, very helpful and courteous. The actors [on Oz]… the racial issues and the violence, I’ve never run across a cast that was so sensitive and kind to each other. They were dealing with such volatile stuff, so it was really a lesson in how wonderful actors are.