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The actor: William Sanderson, a veteran character actor best known for his small frame, deadpan expression, and monotone Southern drawl, which he’s put to good use in cult films like Blade Runner and Fletch, and popular TV series like Deadwood and Newhart. Currently, Sanderson can be seen in the HBO series True Blood, which returns for its second season on June 14. Season one just hit DVD.
Fight For Your Life (1977)—“Jessie Lee Kane”
William Sanderson: It was banned in England. Looking back now, I feel a little like an actress who took her clothes off early in her career. But it was a lead role in an exploitation film for Mishkin Motion Pictures in New York, and I thought it was a great chance to get some footage of myself to show around. The plot was probably stolen from that movie Desperate Hours with Humphrey Bogart. They made Humphrey Bogart into an escaped convict named Jessie Lee Kane, who’d been in Sing Sing prison. But I had a lot of fun, and managed to take out some of the scenes and put them on a cassette, and then get into some major films.
The A.V. Club: Even though you were playing a sort of unrepentant racist character, it didn’t really work against you in your career, obviously.
WS: Well, maybe it still could, ultimately, if you take some scenes out of context. Over the years, I’ve gotten calls that said, “We’re going to take out the dirty language and sell it to late-night,” and my agent said, “Well, that’s all of it.” You know, that movie was early in my career, when it was hard to get films, and people said, “You got to take what you get.” I got three or four in a row, luckily, in the mid-to-late ’70s. I’m not proud of that particular exploitation film, but Quentin Tarantino goes around and shows it at film festivals, saying it was a good example of that era of exploitation films. I did another one years later called Stanley’s Gig—it’s on Netflix—where I played totally the opposite character. That’s my job, to play as many different characters as I can.
To Tell The Truth (early ’70s)—“contestant”
WS: Oh my goodness. Yeah, after law school, I moved straight to New York from Memphis without taking the bar, and the T.G.I. Friday’s organization hired me. And the owner was a friend of Goodson-Todman, so they let me go on there as an imposter. I think you got a few dollars. I had a speech teacher who told me it aired after I’d been studying a year or something. She said, “You were better before you went to class.” Gosh, I’ve never has an interviewer go back as far as you…
AVC: I saw your episode on Game Show Network about five years ago.
WS: My goodness. I wish I could see it. Not out of vanity, just… How awkward was I?
AVC: You were fine. At the time, were you planning on being an actor when you were in New York? Was that why you were there?
WS: Oh yeah. Once I was in my last year of law school, I started doing plays, as I said, without taking the bar. And I got hooked. I did a play called Marat/Sade, and I never had so much fun in my life. So stupidly, or naïvely, I moved to New York thinking that with this Juris Doctorate, I was very special. Then I learned very quickly, they don’t care in New York. They come from all over the world there in New York, and they don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. But it was a great apprenticeship to be in New York, studying acting, doing plays.
AVC: You never had any plans to practice law?
WS: Not halfway through school, no. As a youngster, I had friends who became lawyers and doctors, and I was as idealistic as anybody. When I was in the Army, I read a book by Adlai Stevenson. He said law was as noble as saving a person’s life. So at one point, I felt that way too. But after a while, I said, “Let me just finish the degree. I’m getting the G.I. Bill.” But I never can explain why I became an actor. I try, but my reasons are different every time I tell it.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)—“Lee Dollarhide”
WS: That was a fun memory, notwithstanding my five or 10 minutes onscreen. What a thrill to work with Sissy Spacek and all these great people from Universal Studios. I got to go down South on location, and Sissy took me up in the dressing room and played some songs before we started shooting. I thought I was hearing Loretta Lynn. She said, “No, it’s me. We recorded it in Nashville.” I just played her uncle, who was a real colorful character in real life.
AVC: Were you a country-music fan growing up?
WS: Yeah. Probably more rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s, but I gravitated toward country as I got older. Most of my friends didn’t, but certainly in the ’60s and ’70s—especially in New York—I loved it. I love it because I can understand the lyrics. But I also loved being around Elvis Presley and seeing the Sun artists and the Stax artists in Memphis. And I could go to the concerts. There wasn’t any trouble back then.
AVC: You grew up in Memphis, right? That’s more of a rock ’n’ roll town.
WS: Yeah, yeah. Jerry Lee Lewis of course came out of there, and went through a lot of different phases. One night I saw Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis for a dollar, if you believe that, in an open-air concert. Presley, I got to meet and go into his house and so forth. My wife says I should quit tellin’ that story, ’cause they’ll know how old I am.
Raggedy Man (1981)—“Calvin”
WS: Another good memory. Eric Roberts and Sissy, and Sam Shepard. Some people liked it, some people didn’t, but it was a little momentum for me in the major films. Sissy was my hero back then.
AVC: When you’re working with the same people repeatedly, like you did with Sissy Spacek, do you develop a rapport, like you would with an ensemble on a TV show?
WS: I think you get a little confidence. Whenever I’m able to work again with the same person, it helps the confidence. But her husband directed that, and of course Tracey Walter and I tried to rape her in the film, so I don’t how much rapport we had. I just thought she was such a class act. When she won the Academy Award for Coal Miner, she said, “Well, a lot of people could have played this role, but I was lucky to get it.” I don’t think that’s true.
AVC: Do you and Tracey Walter ever get mistaken for each other in Hollywood?
WS: Oh, yeah. People come up to him to tell him they like him on the Newhart show, and they’ve said to me, “I like you in Batman.” Tracy said, “When I have time, I tell them it’s not me.” Tracey, I’ve known for many years. Very proud of what he’s done, raising his beautiful children. And he does very well. You know, they wrote that part on Newhart for him.
WS: I just thought it was a guest-star role. I went in with several layers of clothes, like the town crazy I’d played back on the East Coast, and I got lucky. The young writer whose name escapes me wrote it for Tracey, and Tracey didn’t tell me that for a couple of years. Tracey said, “I had to audition.” I said, “Did you get crazy on them?” He said, “No, I didn’t do anything I usually don’t. I just crawled under a few desks.” See, you have take chances at an audition. I put a quarter in my ear. I patterned my guy off a bum picking lint off his head in New York, and off the town crazy in another movie I did. Both Tracey and I have survived, and that’s what’s a miracle, because neither one of us would win a beauty contest.
AVC: Did you actually have a quarter in your ear when you went in to audition?
WS: I did, yeah. But see, I was just repeating something I did in Coal Miner’s Daughter. I’d seen some old African-Americans in photos of the ’40s, and I knew that sometimes they wore a coin in their ear. I said to the director on Coal Miner’s Daughter, “Can I?” He said “Sure.” It’s not very inventive to repeat yourself, but it’s almost like a superstition. So I wore it for parts of eight seasons. And I think people thought it was a hearing aid, or ignored it. To this day, I’m counting on rabbit’s feet, four-leaf clovers, horseshoes…
AVC: You appear a few times in the first season of Newhart, and then you became a permanent part of the cast. Every time you were called in during that first season, were you thinking, “If I do really great, I can be a regular?”
WS: I never looked that far. I sure am glad that Bob insisted on a live audience, because they generally applauded. You don’t get that unless you have the live audience. But I took it one show at a time. I’m probably the most pessimistic actor I know. I’m always sure I’ll never work again. I’ve got it written on this paper here, “What do I do after True Blood?” Tommy Lee Jones—with whom I’ve survived six projects—once said to me that if we die tomorrow, we’ll be okay.
Blade Runner (1982)—“J.F. Sebastian”
WS: Thank you, it’s nice to be in a cult film.
AVC: Did you anticipate when you were doing Blade Runner that it was going to become such a big cult film?
WS: Well, they all said that everyone in the movie would be a star, because Harrison Ford was really becoming a big star. I just thought, never believing what anyone said, that the film would make money, instead of becoming a fascinating failure. But the vision of Blade Runner has come true over the years. They teach it in architecture classes. I just received a book about it from somebody in England, a Stanford professor. I can’t believe it’s still around, but I’m certainly grateful. I played a sympathetic character, I think. After two hours of latex makeup.
AVC: It was kind of an unusual role for you, because you’d been doing more hick/redneck type characters.
WS: You’re probably right about those stereotypes. I’ve said maybe too many times that I’d rather be typecast than not cast at all. The best bit about that I heard came from Vincent Price. I came so close to playing his son before he got sick, and later, Jack Elam took the role. But they asked Price once if he minded being typecast after The Raven, and he said, “Nevermore.” I loved that.
Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)—“Snow”
WS: My goodness, I like Chuck Norris. I think he’s a great gentleman. People knock his movies, but he was very good to me. And it broke my heart that I couldn’t be in the highest-grossing independent film of the year with him, because something else came along, and I listened to the agents. But he and his brother Aaron have been great to me. Those Chuck Norris shows, like Walker, Texas Ranger, I think they come from Lone Wolf McQuade. In that role, even though it may not go in the archives, I got to play something different. Tracey probably turned it down.
AVC: What was the movie you weren’t in?
WS: The one good one that made a lot of money was Missing In Action. They gave my part to M. Emmet Walsh. Still, I’ve never gotten to thank Chuck enough for putting me in projects, helping me survive.
AVC: Lone Wolf McQuade kind of came a little bit after or toward the end of that whole cycle of country-fried action movies. How can we get that cycle started up again?
WS: I wish we could. One time, somebody said, “If they bring back Westerns, you’ll work forever.” I think they meant it as a compliment.
Deadwood (2004-06)—“E.B. Farnum”
WS: Ah, now there was a lucky break. And a great writer, David Milch… Just like working with Alan Ball now, it all starts with the writing. David put me in every episode. My character was a real-life character, but I believe David tweaked him a lot to draw on my anxieties. If I’m not flattering myself too much.
AVC: Farnum goes through some real changes over the course of the series. He becomes a man of power, then he has all these different forces working on him along the way. Were you in collaboration with the writers at all during those developments?
WS: I had one named Jody Worth who looked out for me, but we didn’t really discuss it. What would happen was that David Milch would pull you aside and pretend to just be talking to you, and all of a sudden, some of the insecurities that came out in the conversation would end up in the script. “I don’t know why they made Farnum so greedy; how did David Milch know I was so greedy?” But I’m very grateful to HBO, which hires good writers and tries to get out of their way, for keeping me somewhat employed since 2002. I don’t know how I segued away, but I don’t want to forget to thank the hand that feeds me.
AVC: Any word on Deadwood coming back for a final movie?
WS: I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen. But you never know. You know the show Rome? I met the producer, and I ask everybody for a job, so I said, “Let me be in your next movie.” I said, “If they make a movie of Rome, can I play a slave?” He said, “If we make a movie of Rome, you can play a senator.” So you never know. I met great actors on Deadwood, and your work’s half-done when you’re reacting to Ian McShane or Jeffrey Jones or any of those wonderful actors. Plus the crew was great.
Fletch (1985)—“Jim Swarthout”
WS: Not a good memory. I’m rather proud that I survived it. Years before, in New York, when the project originated, I was going in to play a better part, but I’d gotten older by the time I got to L.A. I enjoyed meeting Chevy Chase, and Michael Ritchie, the late director, was wonderful. But I was disappointed that my role ended up being, like, one scene. That doesn’t help you when you’re trying to gain momentum in major films. According to casting directors, that doesn’t look good. I was on the Newhart show, and my agent said I could do Fletch if I wanted to, and I was afraid I’d never get another movie.
You know, my wife one time… I was carrying on with my buddy who’s a very famous international spinal surgeon. He was my high-school/college roommate. And I was picking at him about his business, and my wife whispered to him, “Ask him about Fletch.” Meaning that he could turn it around and shut me up from prying into his multi-million-dollar empire. But Chevy Chase is well-known, and nobody knows my name. I did get to do a documentary recently about that, though—a documentary about character actors, called The Face Is Familiar. So it all works out. You just try to survive and stay healthy. I don’t want to forget my neighbors are out of work. I know we’re digressing from what you’re talking about, but it’s very rough around the world. So I feel lucky to have a job at all.
Last Man Standing (1987)—“Casper”
Last Man Standing (1996)—“Joe Monday”
WS: I thought at one time I did three movies with that name. I know there are three. But yeah, I mentioned to Walter Hill that I’d made another movie called Last Man Standing, and he turned to me and said, “Was that non-union?” And it may have been. I would’ve preferred the name Jericho or Gunned Down, but Last Man Standing was still a thrill. To work with Bruce Willis. I like to see how people work that make $20 million a film. And he treated me fine. But Last Man Standing… I think there are at least three movies by the name, if you look it up in Leonard Maltin.
AVC: If they do a new one, are you required to appear in it?
WS: I wish! I would say at least two out of three don’t even have my name in there. But I am really, really grateful to Walter Hill. Walter directed the pilot of Deadwood, and I think he knows more about Westerns than anyone working today. Whatever our film made money-wise, he really has turned out some good films, and written some great films. I think he wrote The Getaway, with Steve McQueen.
AVC: He may be one of the best directors who isn’t a household name among people who love movies.
WS: Yeah, and he’s got a new film coming out. He’s getting ready to do one with Mickey Rourke. Hopefully he’ll let me work with him again someday. Probably not that movie, though.
The Rocketeer (1991)—“Skeets”
WS: Oh boy. Well, I didn’t do much, again, but I got to meet Alan Arkin, who I think is a terrific actor and a gentleman. Bill Campbell is also a gentleman, an artist. It was fun to look at the actress, Jennifer Connelly. My goodness, she’s beautiful. It was fun. I think I hadn’t been off Newhart too long, and I thought, “Well, I’m gonna keep making films.” A stuntman friend got hurt on the movie. So lots of memories, even though I didn’t do too much.
AVC: That was another one like Blade Runner that seemed like it was going to be a big deal, and then it ended up being relatively minor, though over time it’s developed more of a reputation.
WS: You are certainly more knowledgeable than I. I can’t tell. I’m a journeyman actor, and I don’t ever want to forget that. With romantic-lead dreams.
Wagons East (1994)—“Zeke”
WS: We shot it in Durango, Mexico, and it was great fun. I’d always wanted to meet John Candy. He was kind, sweet. Third movie in a row for him, though, and up high in that altitude, he indulged himself and he passed away. My agent at the time said, “I don’t want you to go to Mexico. It’s not a lot of money, and it’s pilot season.” And I said, “I want to go where John Wayne made all those Westerns.” Sure enough, the worst thing was John’s death, and the second worst was, I had to sell my house when I got back. But my wife was with me during my 11 weeks there. Some things transcend money, like the chance to meet one of your heroes and find out he’s a nice person. Make some new friends.
AVC: Did you have some sense that John Candy might not be well?
WS: No, I didn’t. I went to a party one night, and I took my wife, because there’s so much temptation down there. The reason John Wayne went down to Mexico all the time is because the wives didn’t want to go. So I took her to keep me from indulging so much. John was at a party, and he said, “Why don’t you come back, hang out?” I said, “Sure, you gonna be here?” He said, “Where am I going?” It was about 2 in the morning then. Sharon and I walked home, and I wasn’t about to go back. When a star asks you to do something, sometimes you try, but I had to get up at 7:00 at least, depending on the call. He hung out with a young friend of his, an actor from Canada, someone I just knew from the set. One of my treasures is a picture of him and me, somewhere around here. He was great at what he did.
True Blood (2008-present)—“Sheriff Bud Dearborne”
WS: Well, I am surviving, and trying to claw my way to the middle, to use a cliché. But again, here we have a great writer, Alan Ball, who adapted the books, using them as a loose blueprint, maybe. My character doesn’t do much in the books. And I’m learning all the time. The first season, Alan whispered in my ear, “You taught this character,” meaning the character Jason, played by Ryan Kwanten, who’s from Australia. He’s great. Alan whispered, “You taught him at Sunday school.” So those are the little ideas you get. I believe my character’s a normal guy, but who knows how he’ll turn out. In the books, he’s referred to as a dumb old man who doesn’t want to learn. I can relate.
AVC: Do any of the younger actors come to you for advice or pointers since you’ve been around so long?
WS: Oh Lord no, thank goodness. I wouldn’t know what to say. But it’s a great challenge to try to keep up with Anna Paquin, whose energy is enormous. And Stephen Moyer, from England, who’s in that movie about Marat/Sade. Stephen’s terrific. We got newer characters coming all the time, one named Alex Skarsgård, from Sweden I think. The trick will be for me to survive, but I keep thinking of a Waylon Jennings song called “It’s The World’s Gone Crazy (Cotillion).” “The backups all sing lead, people changing dance partners…” I really can’t be eloquent about it. Not being a star, you don’t want to babble too much. It’s a thrill to be a part of it. I think the show’ll be even better this year, and more about the humanity between the townspeople. I printed up T-shirts saying “Why I hate William Sanderson,” and I put Sheriff Dearborne’s picture on the back. The paranoia never goes away once it gets entrenched.