Veteran character actor Robert Picardo on his work in and out of the makeup chair
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The actor: Robert Picardo might be best known for his roles on the long-running science fiction franchises Star Trek and Stargate, but, since participating in one of cinema’s signature werewolf-transformation scenes in The Howling, he is most beloved for being a part of the Joe Dante stable of actors alongside veteran character performers such as Dick Miller and Kevin McCarthy. Picardo’s extensive television work runs the gamut from Kojak to The Wonder Years; and he has exercised his well-honed talent for simulating unctuousness on 21 Jump Street, The West Wing, The O.C., and many others. For this Random Roles, we mostly focused on his work with Dante and effects artist Rob Bottin.
The Howling (1981)—“Eddie Quist”
Robert Picardo: Joe Dante had actually seen me in the play with Jack Lemmon [Tribute], and although I would not have drawn a connection necessarily between my unhappy juvenile character in that and an unhappy juvenile werewolf, he did. I read for the part. I scared the casting director as I recall, which helped me get the role, and then I did the part for Joe, and he’s remained a loyal friend and supporter of me ever since. I’ve worked for him many times in many different roles. My joke is that Joe Dante casts me whenever he can’t figure out what to do with a part. He gives it to me.
The A.V. Club: That was your first time with goop all over your face for a movie. Did you realize then that it would become a regular thing?
RP: No, I didn’t, except that Rob Bottin, who did the makeup for The Howling when he was quite young, took a shine to me as an actor because once the long makeup application process was done, and other actors might be tired or cranky, he knew that I would deliver after seven to 10 hours in the makeup chair. It was really because of him that I did other makeup roles. Now I’m happy to say that I’m too claustrophobic to do a makeup role anymore.
AVC: Did Rob Bottin having a head cast of you handy help with getting some of those roles?
RP: I wouldn’t say that. Obviously he had to re-cast me for the different… there was always a reason to do new design work. I would say it’s more the fact that Rob likes working with me, or as Rob once said, “You know, he’s a really good actor—and he’ll let you do anything to him!” Which I suppose is a pretty backhanded compliment.
Rob and I are still very good friends. I still see him quite a lot, and he’s over for holiday dinners all the time.
Explorers (1985)—“Starkiller / Wak / Wak and Neek’s Father”
RP: Excruciating. Explorers was excruciating to do. The young actors were charming. The late River Phoenix, and Ethan Hawke, it was his first film, and Jason Presson. Three very talented young men who never saw my face, because by the time they got to work I had already been in makeup for about four hours. Again, it was excruciating, especially the father character. It was very hard to do and very grueling. But it’s a pleasure to work with Joe Dante and Rob Bottin, so there were fun moments. But now, I simply couldn’t handle the… I mean, I’m surprised I don’t wake up screaming with Explorers flashbacks in the middle of the night, now, some 25 years later.
Legend (1985)—“Meg Mucklebones”
AVC: Was there much of a break between Explorers and Legend?
RP: Again, it’s Rob Bottin; they’re all Rob Bottin creations. For that brief period of time I was his go-to actor. Legend was an opportunity to work with Ridley Scott, who’s obviously a genius. Tom Cruise was very young then, so he didn’t have very many credits to his name. I don’t think anyone knew he was going to go on to be a major star and Hollywood force for the next 27 years after that film, and still going strong.
But it was a chance to go to England and work with a brilliant director in what had every hope of being a classic fantasy movie of the Wizard Of Oz category. I still think Legend is very underappreciated. I think it’s the most amazing makeup of any of the ones I was in, and it was cool to do. So I’m happy that I did it. That was also a little grueling to do, it was a little dangerous to do, in the water and being on the little hydraulic trap door and all that. There were some safety considerations; when I pointed some of them out during rehearsal, they elected not to have me submerge my head under water, which I think was a very wise choice. I’m not sure, if I were willing to try, whether they would have let me or not. But ultimately I survived it, and I think the movie is pretty cool. It’s a very brief scene I’m in. Longer in the European version, which is considerably longer than the 88-minute American version.
Total Recall (1990)—“Voice of Johnnycab”
RP: Johnnycab, a totally phoned-in performance. It was my swan song with Rob Bottin. He asked if he could model my head. I said, “If you just make a model of my head and use it in the movie, I understand it’s an homage, but it’s not necessarily a paying job for me.” He said, “Well, I’ll encourage Paul [Verhoeven, director] to use you for the voice.” Which he did. And I went in, and I don’t know if I did an audition so much as a recording, and Verhoeven liked me enough that he used my voice.
I tried to convince him to do a Schwarzenegger joke, to play a joke on Arnold on the set. Because they built Johnnycab up in Rob’s shop in California, I pre-recorded the lines with Paul Verhoeven up in California, and then they shot the movie in Mexico City. So I thought it would be funny when they went to shoot the scene if the cab driver had a couple of ad-lib lines that maybe tweaked Arnold a little bit. You know how cabbies often have a pattern when someone gets in. I said to Paul, what if Arnold gets in and says, “Drive! Chust drive!” And I say, “You talk kind of funny! You from out of town?” And Paul Verhoeven said, “No, we don’t do that with Arnold.” I said, “Well, just as a…” He said, “No. We don’t do that with Arnold.” Well, so much for my insulting the future governor of California from a safe distance.
Amazon Women On The Moon (1987)—“Rick Raddnitz”
RP: I got to work with all those great older comedians. Slappy White, Henny Youngman, Jackie Vernon, Steve Allen, and Rip Taylor, who was also very funny. “I don’t dance—this is the act!” Continued my tradition of ad-libbing on Joe Dante movies, because I did have a few ad-libs that Joe thought were funny. I’m running a funeral parlor, so when I say “And the buffet? To die!,” he liked that.
Back To School (1986)—“Giorgio”
RP: Another small part. Cushy job: I got to feel up Adrienne Barbeau in five different scenes, of which they only left one or two in, but it was still fun to shoot the other four.
AVC: I notice you’ve never worked for her ex-husband, John Carpenter.
RP: Ha! No, they had already divorced at that point, I think. But that was fun. Getting a line reading from Rodney Dangerfield is a life experience every actor should have. I know he’s gone now, but literally, my one line, he actually grabbed his imaginary necktie while he was giving me the line reading. So that was pretty cool.
My favorite line, one of the extras, an actor I actually know, walks up to Rodney Dangerfield at a party, and his wife’s a real… Adrienne Barbeau’s character is a real sort of, what’s the word, a showing-the-money type of a rich-bitch wife. She’s collecting artwork, anything that makes her look more socially acceptable to the public. And one character walks up to Rodney and says, “Your wife was just showing me her Klimt. She’s very proud of it.” And Rodney says, “Well I’m proud of mine too, but it doesn’t mean I go showing it to everybody at a party.” Which I thought was a pretty clever line.
Star 80 (1983)—“Interviewer”
RP: I have a small part in it. One scene: I interview Dorothy Stratten after she becomes Playmate Of The Year. Bob Fosse directed it, and it was very cool, however briefly, to… I mean, my main recollection of the movie is not shooting the part, but auditioning for Bob Fosse. I felt absolutely scrutinized as we read the scene over and over and over again, and with each repetition I basically started doing, more and more, him. Then he hired me. [Laughs.]
Get Crazy (1983)—“O’Connell”
RP: Get Crazy is a movie that, if I went over my whole career, I don’t think I’d remember that I was in. [Laughs.] Allan Arkush was the director. Fun to work with; I’ve worked with him since then. It was an oddball movie. I did meet Lou Reed. I don’t remember if we were actually in a scene together. Malcolm McDowell was very funny in the movie, playing a Mick Jagger-like rock star who talks to his penis. Since then there’ve been other penis-talking movies, I understand, but this was a groundbreaking penis-talking movie. It was fun to work on. I remember more that I’d met and was dating my wife at that time, so that was the most exciting aspect of my Get Crazy period.
Munchies (1987)—“Bob Marvalle”
RP: Munchies is a Gremlins knock-off. According to The New York Times, the creatures looked more like fabric remnants rather than creatures, which I agree with—they look like fabric remnants. The reason I did it was it was directed by Tina Hirsch, who was the editor of Gremlins, and it was her first effort as a director. I did it to work with her. And she asked me.
Wendy Schaal played my wife, and Wendy Schaal was a delight to work with. It’s not a very good movie, although Harvey Korman is very funny in it. I think Harvey Korman couldn’t not be funny. I remember I had a hat that looked like an upside-down melted ice-cream cone, because Wendy and I owned an ice cream parlor. So we wore very silly hats. Everything you’ve mentioned I haven’t given a thought to in many years.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)—“Forster”
AVC: You got raped by a Gremlin.
RP: “Raped” is a word we don’t use. I like to say “dated.” She did seem to fall in love with me. All we know is that she tore my pant leg off. We know nothing beyond that, specifically. No sequel, no record of any offspring, so I prefer to think that it just didn’t work out, and I gave her one quick kiss.
Matinee (1993)—“Howard, the Theater Manager”
RP: Yeah, that was a fun movie, and a really sweet and underappreciated movie. John Goodman is a hoot. Cathy Moriarty is a hoot. One of my best friends, David Clennon, was in it. That was a total delight to work on. My character is the lonely, unpleasant manager of the theater, but I had a couple of little ideas to sort of humanize him, and Joe, as always, listened to my suggestions, and if he likes them, says yes immediately. I wanted to have a goldfish that I was going to take to eternity with me in the bomb shelter, and then when I had to come up with a reason to leave the bomb shelter and come back, I decided it could be about the fish food. I believe that was my idea, unless Joe platformed that idea on top of my goldfish idea. I can’t remember. But I did pitch to him the idea of shooting through the goldfish bowl when the two kids were trapped in there, and having a skeleton pirate at the bottom, asleep against the sunken treasure, and to shoot over that little plastic scene of mortality, to shoot the kids through the fish bowl. Which he did. I thought that was a sweet moment symbolizing their predicament.
I’ve pitched Joe prop ideas. In Gremlins 2, to return to that for a second, I thought it would be funny, and totally dehumanizing, of my character, Mr. Forster, to not learn the names of any of the people who worked for him, but to simply give them barcode badges, scan the badges, and then the computer would tell me their name. So, of course, props made about 200 or 250 of the bar code badges for all the extras, but more expensively they made me a computer with a bar code scanner that opened like a switchblade, at my request. Spent probably somewhere between six and 10 thousand dollars to make that prop. Just because Joe went [high, breathless voice] “Okay!”
Motorama (1991)—“Jerry the Policeman”
RP: Odd thing. Why am I in it? Barry Shils, the director, was a classmate of mine at Yale, and had directed me in a play at Yale, and asked me to be in it. It was fun. I mean, Drew Barrymore and Meatloaf and all these interesting people were in it. People that have been in People magazine far more than I have been or will ever be. It was in a very strange part of Arizona, as I recall, kind of cold and remote, and I do remember it was right at the beginning of the first Gulf War, which made it very odd to be away from my family. But it was an interesting movie. A weird movie.
976-EVIL (1988)—“Mark Dark”
AVC: Being directed by Freddy Krueger must have been interesting for you, a fellow makeup sufferer.
RP: Yes. Robert [Englund] asked me to do that. I remember getting off an elevator, going to an audition to do L.A. Law, and Robert Englund—who I’d worked with on an episode of Alice years before that, where he was an evil trainer of a miniature horse, and he was abusing the miniature horse, and I was the local policeman—he was kind of a fan of The Howling, which I’d already done, and he got off the elevator and said, “I just did a horror movie. I kind of have your part from The Howling.” “What’s it called?” “Oh, A Nightmare On Elm Street. Hope it’ll be good.” Cut to: billions of dollars later. But I do remember that moment, him wondering if A Nightmare On Elm Street would make a splash.
He was fun to work with. He kind of let me do whatever I wanted, and I thought it would be funny if the guy who turned out to be Satan had a cold, and seemed really sick and weak and unhealthy. He said, “Sure, go ahead, do that.” So I did that, and that’s pretty much all I remember.
Wagons East (1994)—“Ben Wheeler”
RP: Obviously because of the fact that the wonderful, talented, warm, and genuine John Candy passed away on that movie, that is the first thing that comes to mind when I recall Wagons East, is that tragedy. He was lovely to work with, very kind to the little people on the movie—and I certainly include myself among the little people on the movie. I remember Richard Lewis made me laugh hysterically. It was a lot of fun to work with him.
The memory I have the strongest is that, the whole shoot, which lasted some time, 10 weeks or something, the scene that establishes John Candy’s character, and sets up the whole plot of the movie and sets everything in motion, was called the cover scene, meaning it was indoors and they saved it for a rainy day. And it never rained. So we shot the whole rest of the movie and never did the set-up scene, without which the movie wouldn’t make any sense. And then we shot that scene, and that was the night John died.
So there was almost this weird kind of feeling that maybe the movie was meant to be completed, because had he died 24 hours earlier, the rest of the nine weeks of work was useless. Couldn’t be salvaged. But once they did that scene, it was possible to assemble the movie and finish, because it was literally two or three days before we were supposed to wrap.
So I remember the kind of spooky feeling, and I also spoke to him on the phone. He gave me a call and said, “I had such a nice time with you and Richard. It was a fun day. I only wish we had done it earlier.” And he hung up, and according to what I heard secondhand from the coroner’s report, he was dead about six, six and a half hours later.
Very nice man. As I said, very kind to everyone in the crew—the shyest or the quietest, he just had a way of making contact with the people on a film crew that might normally get completely ignored by the actors.
Masters Of Horror, “Homecoming” (2005)—“Kurt Rand”
AVC: You essentially played Karl Rove in Joe Dante’s Masters Of Horror episode.
RP: People were afraid to touch that script, because at the time Joe was first casting it, Bush’s popularity was in the mid- to high 60s, I think. Maybe even higher. Everyone was afraid to take the role, because it was obviously casting a critical eye on the reasons we went to war in Iraq and the way the information was being shaped and controlled by the administration. And also because it’s basically a zombie movie that’s a political satire. So it seemed like a risky thing to do, and I admire Joe’s fearlessness in wanting to do it.
The two major ironies in working on that were that the Cindy Sheehan story, about the gold star mother whose son died, who actually posed the question, “Why did my son die?”—that whole story was kind of prefigured by the script. It was in the script before it ever happened. That was kind of spooky. And the story broke while we were shooting it. So it wasn’t added; it was already there.
And the second odd thing was that, in between shooting and the post-production and when it was finally aired, Bush’s popularity dropped about 25 points or so, and instead of risking our careers, we had been prescient somehow, and were suddenly heroically ahead of the curve. So it was odd the way it all played out. I thought Jon Tenney was just great in it, and I’m proud that Joe asked me to do it.
Mega Shark Vs. Crocosaurus (2010)—“Admiral Calvin”
RP: An Asylum picture! Maybe the silliest-titled movie I’ve ever been in, although it’s a tough competition. You know, I was angling to get a movie with a lead, to get a leading role with those guys. So my agent said, “Well, do this one as a favor, and they’ll get to know you and they’ll give you another movie.” So if they’re reading this now, they know that it’s time to say, “You know, Bob was great. Why don’t we have him back, give him a bigger part?” In a movie perhaps with a sillier title. Think about it.