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To close out Police Academy Week, we wanted to dig into the A.V. Club archives for our interview with evil Captain Harris himself, G.W. Bailey. We originally spoke with him in 2008 when he was appearing on TNT's The Closer.
The actor: G.W. Bailey, a familiar face to fans of quality TV and lowbrow '80s movies. Bailey first rose to prominence in a recurring role on M*A*S*H, and went on to appear in the award-winning likes of St. Elsewhere and his current series, the TNT policier The Closer. Bailey also served time in the Police Academy series, and has dozens of TV movies under his belt.
A Force Of One (1979)—"Erwin"
G.W. Bailey: Oh Lord.
The A.V. Club: That's your first movie, correct?
GB: Yeah. What I remember most clearly, of course, is Jennifer O'Neill. At that point, and maybe still, I found her to be among the most beautiful human beings I've ever seen. And I had one scene with her. I remember Chuck Norris walked through, and I think he had a line or two, but I don't remember him at all, because she was there. And she was very quiet, very shy, and just so lovely to look at. She's a gorgeous, gorgeous creature. And it was in San Diego. I remember that. But what it was about? I don't have a clue. [Laughs.] It was a Chuck Norris movie; I don't think they're about anything, are they?
AVC: Have you been following the whole cult of Chuck Norris in popular culture, where people sing songs about his prowess, and he's gotten involved in political campaigns, that kind of thing?
GB: I'm proud to say that no, I have not. I can barely stomach following Schwarzenegger, much less Chuck Norris.
M*A*S*H (1979-83)—"Sgt. Luther Rizzo"
GB: Well now you're talkin' the crème de la crème. Now you're talkin' the best thing that's ever been on television. I got involved because they had a reoccurring character named Sgt. Zale, played by Johnny Haymer, and they would call him whenever they wanted to use him. And one of the times they called him, he wasn't available. He had to go make a living. So I read for the episode, and they ended up casting me. I was going to do a one-shot, and I ended up being there for three and a half years. Always as a reoccurring character, never under contract.
At the end of the first season I did, Harry Morgan—who became a mentor and a very close friend—told me, "They really like you kid, so hold 'em up for a lot of money." And unfortunately, CBS just wouldn't come up with the money. The license fee had to be paid to 20th Century Fox, and they said, "No, we don't need another character." Gary Burghoff was leaving after eight years, and they said, "Use G.W. all you want, but no, we don't need to pay for another regular character." So they didn't. But what a great character they wrote! And you know, it was history. It was just a great experience, a great time in my life. I'm from Port Arthur, Texas! Little guy! Little character guy from one of the saddest oil-refinery towns in America. And here I was driving over to Beverly Hills, to 20th Century Fox, to be on M*A*S*H! It doesn't get much more heady than that, you know what I mean?
AVC: You went to school with Janis Joplin in Port Arthur, right?
GB: Yeah, we only had one junior high and one high school. Well, that's not true, actually. Keep in mind this was the 1950s, early '60s, so we did have two high schools—one black, one white. But only one white high school, and one white junior high. So in that sense, yeah, I went to school with Janis. You know, it's not a big town. We all knew each other. I knew her, you know, fairly well. Wouldn't pass myself off as her best friend by any stretch. But did I know her? Yes.
AVC: You were such an indelible character on M*A*S*H, but you were only in 14 episodes. Does that count sound right?
GB: I don't know, to be honest with you. I'd have to look it up. I have all my original scripts. I could just count them.
AVC: How did you balance being on call for M*A*S*H and needing to take other jobs to get by?
GB: Well, you don't. [Laughs.] You just hope that you're available when they call. Now with me, the writers who created my character became very, very close friends. One of them eventually married Leslie Easterbrook, the blond in Police Academy, and I introduced them. Dan Wilcox is his name. And the whole production team, you know, they had arcs pretty well mapped out, what the season was going to be like. Certainly, you know, two, three, four weeks in advance. So they'd let me know, "Chances are, you're going to be in episode number 12." And I was able to plan for that. On the other side of the coin, let's be honest, it wasn't like I had to hold all the other callers at bay. [Laughs.]
AVC: You never had to say, "No, I can't do it this week?"
GB: No, I'd never say no to M*A*S*H.
AVC: Didn't want to become another Sgt. Zale?
GB: [Laughs.] I guess they could have always given my lines to somebody else or whatever, but they liked the character. And every episode I did, Rizzo was very strongly featured. He was always the B-story. Not the A-story, but a very strong B-story. I never did one where I just said, "Here's your jeep, sir."
St. Elsewhere (1982-83)—"Dr. Hugh Beale"
GB: I was on it the first year. Unfortunately, as fantastic as M*A*S*H was, St. Elsewhere was not so fantastic. It was not a particularly great experience for me. It was a learning experience, goodness knows, but Mr. [executive producer and director Bruce] Paltrow and I ultimately didn't get along very well. And I wasn't the only one. If you really studied the history of that show, there were people who were fired or weren't invited back, or they just left because they couldn't stand working with him. But the show survived, and it survived with a great cast. Many of them are, again, good friends. Will Daniels is a very close friend of mine, Ed Begley's a good friend… a lot of those guys, we remain very close. And the show, I think, became terrific, particularly when some of the younger writers started writing more. It's a very good show. But when I left, it was time for me to leave. And as a matter of fact, had I still been doing it, I could not have done Police Academy, 'cause the shooting of Police Academy happened to come up at the same time. And good, bad, or indifferent—being pigeonholed and all that stuff—Police Academy was a great part of my life. A lot of fun.
Police Academy (1994, 1989, 1988, 1987, 1984)—"Capt. Thaddeus Harris"
AVC: Do you have a favorite one?
GB: Of course the first one, 'cause that's the first time we all met. And we had no idea that we would all become lifelong friends and be very important to each other's lives and careers. I think probably the most fun was number five, which was in Miami Beach. We had a great time. You know, great-looking women. [Laughs.] A fun gig. Number four, I was in, but I was drunk, so I don't remember it at all. I don't have any idea what it was about. [Laughs.] And then I enjoyed number seven, because we shot that in Moscow. It's certainly not a great film, but it was great to shoot in Russia. Which I was talking about today, as a matter of fact. I had a Russian cab driver drive me in from O'Hare, and he recognized me from Police Academy. And his favorite was when we were shooting in Moscow. He's a Russian immigrant and is going to the Chicago Police Academy now himself.
AVC: Do people recognize you more from Police Academy, M*A*S*H, or The Closer?
GB: Well, you know, it really varies. More now it's The Closer. And Police Academy. And a lot of it is just that surprised look on their face that I'm still alive. [Laughs.] They have that sort of, "Oh I've seen you in so many things." Because unless you're a big movie star, regular television work is going to bring you more exposure than anything. Everybody has a television; not everybody goes to the movies. Sometimes people remember me for the strangest things. The other day I had a whole deal about St. Elsewhere. This guy, it was his favorite show, and I only did it for a year. But he just went on and on and on. [Laughs.] God.
The Closer (2005–present)—"Detective Lt. Provenza"
GB: This is best job I've ever had. I think a lot of it has to do with this time in my life, you know. I've gotten older. I've squandered all the other money I've made. [Laughs.] So it's nice at this point in my life to have a part like this, that's so well-written. And I love the cast. It's a joyful place to work, it really is. We have our moments, 'cause we're like a family. But overall, it's a great gig to have. And I love the character. I mean, there are other things I've done that I've really liked, but I think a lot of it has to do—it always has to do—with the character. It always has to do with the writing. You want to make a lot of money, but if the writing is bad, it doesn't matter, you know?
AVC: Provenza has such a strong connection to Los Angeles. Do you feel anything similar, from having lived there so long?
GB: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I certainly qualify. Thirty-four years. [Laughs.] Especially in this business, if you can survive as long as I have, it says something about you. I don't know if it says you're stupid or you persevere. But yeah, I've been there a long time, and I know the city very, very well. And I love the city. I mean, you gripe about the traffic and stuff like that, but it's a great city. Very diverse culture, and I like it a lot.
AVC: Do you find it makes much of a difference these days whether you're doing a show on basic cable vs. a network? Do you get the same amount of prestige and attention on TNT as you would on NBC?
GB: Well, NBC, yeah! [Laughs.] And a much bigger audience, too! [Laughs.] But yeah, certainly the old days of the cable stigma are long, long gone. The real difference you feel, quite frankly, is financial. Because the networks still, because they have a larger audience, and certainly a potentially larger audience, their advertising dollar is higher, the salaries are higher, your residuals are better, et cetera, et cetera. So from a financial standpoint, the network is still much more to the actor's advantage. But in terms of just a great organization to work for, and in terms of being proud of the product, I can't imagine anything better than TNT. You know the kind of notes they bring to the set? They walk around and say, "Great job. Great job." [Laughs.] That's about it.
AVC: Why do you think that your career has tended more toward television than movies? You've done some film, but your TV résumé is much, much longer.
GB: I really don't know. In the mid-'80s to the very early '90s, my movie career really sort of took off. At one time, I had three major studio films in release all at the same time: Burglar, Mannequin, and one of the Police Academys, I don't remember which. But I had three. I'm certainly not saying these were Spielberg films, but they were major motion-picture releases by major distributors. And I was on the poster in all of them, you know. I had major parts in all of them. And I don't know… I mean, who got burnt out first? Did I get burnt out on Hollywood, or did they get burnt out on me? Did I stay with an agent too long instead of moving to a different agent? I mean, who knows? You can't. You'd drive yourself crazy. Do I enjoy features? Yeah, I really do. Would I like to do some more features before I head to the barn? Yeah, probably. But I also love television. I love doing television because it's fast, and that I like a lot. I love TV movies for example, and those kinds of things. Of course, they don't exist anymore. But I love doing TV movies. I did 15 with the same director. And you know, 20 days, you're done. [Laughs.] You've told a whole story, in a great location, got well paid, and you go home. That appeals to me a lot.
The Siege At Ruby Ridge (1996)—"Ralph Coulter"
AVC: That's a TV movie, right?
GB: Yeah and interestingly enough, my friend Roger Young who directed that is sitting in the next room. He's doing some stuff in Indiana right now, and he came up to visit while I was in Chicago. [Speaks away from the phone.] He just asked about Ruby Ridge. [Returns.] One of the strong memories of that for me, other than the subject matter and the quality of the product, was a long friendship with Randy Quaid. I worked with Randy and Roger again on another film, The Thin Blue Lie. I'm a big fan of Randy's. I thought he was terrific in Ruby Ridge. And Laura Dern too, she was splendid. The two of them were really great. It's a very powerful, impactful movie. Diane Ladd was in it too. [Laughs.] We don't want to go there.
GB: Wonderful woman. She truly is. Crazy as a shithouse rat. [Laughs.] But a wonderful woman. We had this big scene, and she's preparing because she had to cry in it. And she's crying like an elephant, she's preparing, and we're all standing there. You know, she's Method, and all that stuff. And they roll the camera, and she starts to sob. She buries her face down under my arm, and you can't even see her face! [Laughs.] We're trying to figure out why she went through all that trouble, you know? [Laughs.] But listen, she's been nominated for an Oscar. I haven't. She is a wonderful actress. I mean, there's no question about it. I love to watch her work. But she has her own way of doing things, no question about it.
Short Circuit (1986)—"Skroeder"
GB: I remember why they wanted me named Skroeder… so they could make a joke about scrotums. [Laughs.] That was the whole point. What do I remember about it? What I really remember, to be honest, is that it was one of the most beautiful locations I was ever on. It was in Portland. I had never been there. And we shot a lot of it in the Columbia River Gorge, and it was just spectacularly beautiful. And I loved the city. I loved being there. And I met a very, very close friend. Marvin McIntyre's his name. He's a character actor, and he became very close friends with my family. Those are really the really fond memories out of it. And of course Gutt [Steve Guttenberg] and I were already friends, and we still are. I recently ran into Fisher Stevens, who played the Indian. Of course Fisher's anything but Indian, but he played that in the film. And Fish and I remained friends. I hadn't seen him in God knows when, but I ran into him the other day, and it was great to see him.
I didn't think it was much of a film, but certainly people liked it. Kids liked it a lot. And the robot stuff was just brilliant. The robotic guys were from Stanford. It was a combination of their engineering and wide shots. It was all remote-controlled. And then for the close-ups, they had some of the greatest puppeteers in the world doing all that stuff. They had it all connected to their fingers, and the robots did all sorts of things. You know, for tight shots. And that was fascinating to watch.
Somebody the other day asked me about John Badham. He's a brilliant technical director. I'm not sure how good he is working with actors, but he's a stunning technical director. You know, Blue Thunder… Just a lot of great movies. I don't know what John's doing now. For whatever reason, I haven't been seeing a lot of films lately. Somebody said something about him doing commercials. I don't know what he's doing, but he's a genius with the camera, special effects, and you know, all that technical stuff. He's just a genius.
AVC: Do you prefer to work with a director who's more hands-on, or a director who doesn't know much about the acting, and lets you do your own thing?
GB: I'd much rather have a director who likes working with actors. Absolutely. If they know what they're doing. [Laughs.] If it's the other way, you want them to stay the hell out of your way. But I like to be told "more" or "less," "louder" or "softer." I like that sounding board. So yeah, I like to work with "actors' directors," absolutely.
The Jeff Foxworthy Show (1996-97)—"Big Jim Foxworthy"
GB: It was good to be back on television and have a regular gig, 'cause I hadn't worked in quite a while when that came up. And unfortunately, it didn't work. It only lasted a year. But again, out of that comes some great friendships. Jeff and I are friends. And Bill Engvall, who was on the show. Bill and I knew each other before, but became just really, really close friends, and remain so today. And one of the dearest people in my world is Ann Cusack. Native Chicagoan, from the Cusack family. She played Jeff Foxworthy's wife. And Annie is, you know, like a soulmate to me.
So great things come out of almost everything. And it was a lot of fun. It was a fun experience. Until toward the end, when the handwriting was on the wall that NBC was going to dump it—it got a little touchy. [Laughs.] Jeff, who is an eternal optimist and lots of fun, sort of lost his sense of humor. [Laughs.] 'Cause he's never touched a project that wasn't successful. Everything he's ever done, and every one of his books that he writes… You know, he's as rich as Bill Gates. Everything's turned to gold except that series. They tried it twice, two different networks, changed the cast, and they never could make it work. So it was disappointing for him. But he seems to have survived.
AVC: They say it's "show business," not "show friends," but it sounds like the one constant in your career has been the friends you've made.
GB: Well, I mean, at the end of the day, what do you got if you don't have 'em? This is a pretty lonely business if you don't have friends. And they are my friends, they really are. You know, through the years, I have made some friends that'll be my friends forever. They just will. It's show business, but it's also my life. My social life, my professional life. I don't belong to any country clubs. [Laughs.] I don't have this big circle of friends. Where I make my friends is where I work. So yeah, I mean, I wouldn't trade my friendship with Scotty Thomson, who was in the first Police Academy, or Leslie [Easterbrook], or Marion [Ramsey], or any of those Police Academy people. And that's 25 years ago now. Lance Kinsey is like my brother. He played Proctor. I mean literally, he's as close to me as my family. He is a family member. So yeah, I think it's fair to say I like to keep those people close.