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: Alan Ruck got his start in Chicago theater before gradually transitioning into on-camera work by picking up roles in films and TV series produced in the area. After making the jump to Broadway by scoring a role in Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues, Chicago once again played a big role in his life, as the city was the setting for his breakthrough movie role: Cameron Frye in John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Despite being a central figure in an iconic ’80s comedy, it hasn’t necessarily been all wine and roses in Ruck’s career, but since securing the role of the lovably lecherous Stuart Bondek in the mid-’90s sitcom Spin City, Ruck has been on a path of steady work, bouncing between film, television, and the occasional theater role. Currently, Ruck can be found within the ensemble cast of the new series Succession, which airs Sunday nights on HBO.
Succession (2018)—“Connor Roy”
The A.V. Club: You’ve racked up credits for a ton of different directors over the years, but Succession was your first time working with Adam McKay. Did he ask for you specifically, or was this an audition?
Alan Ruck: It was an audition. Actually, I almost didn’t go to it. At the time, I was on The Exorcist with Geena Davis, and we were shooting in Chicago, and I would come home on the weekends. I live in Los Angeles. So I came home—I guess I had three days off—and I was getting ready to go back Monday afternoon. On Monday morning this audition comes in, and my manager sends me this thing for an HBO show. And I’d promised my wife [Mireille Enos] that I’d take our little boy to the Mommy And Me music class. But this thing comes in, and I say, “Honey, this audition just came in for an HBO show.” And she starts to weep. She starts to cry, because I’d been away a lot and I had promised. So I said, “Okay, you’re right, I’m sorry. I promised. We’re gonna go. I’m gonna take Larkin to the music class.” So I call up my manager and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t go. I’ve gotta take my kid to the music class.”
So I go to the music class, and—because you leave your phone with your shoes when you go in—I come out and I’ve got, like, seven messages on my phone, and they all just said, “Go to Adam McKay’s house! Go right now!” And I called up and I said, “I don’t even know the material!” “It doesn’t matter. Just go over to his house.” So I went over, and the casting director was a woman named Francine Maisler, who’d put me in a movie with Brad Pitt [War Machine], so she thought of me for this. It was one of the last parts they cast. So I auditioned, and some of the scenes I knew and some of them I didn’t, and Adam was, like, “Ah, just make it up. Just make it up. Whatever comes to mind.” So I did, and I was, like, “Well, I enjoyed that. That was fun.” And then I got on the plane to Chicago. And by the time I landed, I’d gotten the message that they’d cast me. So it was fortuitous. It was luck. It was just meant to be.
AVC: How would you describe Connor in a nutshell?
AR: Damaged. He’s a fiftysomething-year-old man who’s never had a job. He’s never had to have to job. We’ve discovered some things along the way, but it was clear from the beginning that he suffers from delusional disorder, which I actually found out is on the same spectrum as schizophrenia. Whereas the delusions of a schizophrenic are impossible, the delusions of someone suffering from delusional disorder are within the realm of possibility. Like, say, “I want to be president.” He has something akin to Asperger’s. He has some sort of learning disability. We haven’t actually given it a proper diagnosis yet, but it’s clear that Connor’s marching to the beat of a different drummer, and it’s not necessarily the one called reality.
AVC: There’s definitely a Shakespearean vibe to the family in Succession.
AR: What’s really interesting is that it’s all about money and power and all that big stuff, but it’s also about a family and how desperately these children of different ages need their father’s approval. It’s all about getting Daddy to give us the thumbs-up on anything we might be doing. I think a lot of people can relate to that.
Bad Boys (1983)—“Carl Brennan”
AR: I’d gone to the University Of Illinois, and then right after school I went up to Chicago, which was great. It was a bit of good luck for me because the theater scene was just bursting at the time. It was a really amazing place to be. And Chicago had also just become a really hot location town for features. Not TV yet, but for feature films, mostly because of The Blues Brothers. And all the infrastructure was there. They shot a lot of commercials there, so there were the houses to develop the film, the labs, the equipment houses, all these crew people that had a lot of experience working on commercials and some features, and then there was this huge pool of actors. So it made sense for Hollywood to go to Chicago and cast all the small parts with Chicago actors, because it just saved them a lot of money, and there were a lot of talented people.
So, yeah, Bad Boys was… I got my eardrum perforated on maybe the second night of shooting. I played Sean Penn’s stupid friend, and we decide to go rip off a little gang of black kids who’ve got a bunch of drugs, and they’re getting ready to sell these drugs to some Hispanic kid. I was supposed to be shot twice—once in the abdomen, which doubled me over, and then once in the upper chest, which threw me back into a car—and then I was supposed to die. Unbeknownst to me, the director told the special effects man to put an extra strong squib on my shoulder because he wanted to see blood on my face. Because it was very dark, and we had on watch caps and jumpsuits, and we had that black junk underneath our eyes.
So they call “action,” and I fly out of the car, I start shooting my gun, I get shot once in the belly, which doubles me over, and then I get shot in the shoulder, and my left ear felt like it turned into a steak. It hurt like hell. I slid down the car, and I was holding my pistol above my head, and my arm was shaking. Because it hurt, you know? And the assistant director gets on the bullhorn: “Alan, drop the gun. Alan, drop the gun!” So I let go of it, and it bounced off the top of my head. And it was a real pistol! So they’re, like, “Cut! Cut! The actor dropped the fucking gun on his fucking head!” And then I said, “Hey, my ear hurts. My ear really hurts!” And then everybody said, “Oh, Alan! Oh, gee, your ear hurts, huh? You want something cold to drink? Here, sit down. Wow, how’d that happen?” And then somebody said, “Well, where’s your earplugs?” I said, “I didn’t know I was supposed to ask for earplugs. I’ve never been in a movie before.” And the special effects guy says, “Well, I never give ’em unless they ask for ’em.”
So they took me to a hospital—it was a night shoot, so it was midnight, which was our lunch hour—and I walk in there with one of the production assistants for the film. And this nurse looks down the hallway, and my T-shirt is, like, covered in stage blood, and my hair is plastered with the stuff, and she looked at me for a second, and then she went right back to her phone call. And when she came in to see me, I said, “How did you know it was movie blood and not real blood?” And she said, “Well, I didn’t. But I figured if you could walk in here under your own power, you were probably gonna be all right.” So there’s that story. Afterwards, the stunt coordinator on the film, a wonderful guy named Chuck Waters, said, “That’s a hell of an introduction to the picture business.”
The Edge (1991-1992)—Various characters
AR: I was living in New York with my first wife and our little daughter, just kind of eking by, doing one play and one film a year, and I just thought, “Well, I’ve got to try to make a living in this business.” So I decided to move out to California, and it just did not really go as planned. It was a lumpy time in my career. I always looked younger than I was, but I was starting to not look like a teenager anymore, but nobody wanted to cast me as a lawyer. So I was trying to get some sitcom work, with mixed results, and I go in and audition for this thing, this sketch comedy show, and they liked me.
David Mirkin was the executive producer on The Edge—he wrote for The Simpsons for many years, and he might still be there for all I know—and he liked me well enough. And he also liked this guy Paul Feig, who turned out to be a major writer-director. [Laughs.] So they hired Paul and I, and every other week it would be Paul or me. We did kind of a tag-team third-banana routine on that show. But it was fun. I got to meet Tom Kenny, a wonderful guy. And he met Jill Talley on his show, and they later got married. Just funny people. Carol Rosenthal was on that show, Wayne Knight, Julie Brown… Oh, and a very young Jennifer Aniston, pre-Friends Jennifer. So it was funny people, and it was fun, but, you know, it was a gig. That’s what it was. I needed a job. I had that job at that time, and I’m grateful.
AVC: Did you have much in the way of a sketch-comedy background?
AR: No. When I was young, I just wanted to be an actor. I didn’t think of myself as particularly funny. I knew I could be funny, but I didn’t think of myself as a comedian. But no matter what I did, people laughed at me. So then it was, like, “Oh, I guess I’m doing comedy.” But, no, I had never done any sketch comedy. I’d never trained at Second City or anyplace like that.
On Succession we actually improvise a fair bit. It’s a fun way to work, because we’ll do the scene as written a few times, and then the writers will come up with some alternate lines, some different ideas, and ask, “Do you want to try this? Do you want to say that?” And it’s always good. You want to do all of them. And then usually about the time we’ve done it five times or so, the director of the episode—certainly Adam McKay and Mark Mylod, but most of the directors—will say, “Okay, free one. Do whatever.” By that time, the DNA is down in your bones, you know what the transactions are, you know what the situation is, and you know what they want, so you just go. And sometimes it’s pretty similar to what was written, maybe just the wording is a little different, but sometimes somebody will throw a curve ball, and if you’re alive to it, it’s really fun, because you don’t know exactly where it’s going, so you just have to hang on for the ride.
Going Places (1990-1991)—“Charlie Davis”
AVC: A reader on Twitter suggested this one and advised me to check out the opening credits.
AR: So this is one of those times that I came out to Los Angeles, I auditioned for a few things, and all of a sudden there’s this element of the auditioning process that I’d never gone through before called the network test. You know, you audition for basically the writer and one of the producers, and then you come back and then maybe you audition for the director and one of the producers, and then you come back and audition for some more producers, and then you audition for the studio. And then you audition for the network. And each time, at least in my particular experience, you get more and more nervous. The first few times it’s loose and easy, then you start to second-guess yourself, and each time the response from the people you’re auditioning for is less and less. And it’s weird when you’re doing a comedy and the people in the room are smiling but they don’t laugh. So it’s just an intimidating thing.
But I did wind up in 1989, I think it was, doing a pilot with the late Nell Carter, who had a deal with NBC. So I had all these NBC people coming up to me saying, “Hey, buddy! What’s it feel like to have a steady job? This is on the air! Yes!” And I kind of bought into it, foolishly. I was old enough to know better, but I bought into it. And we just bombed. The pilot [Morton’s By The Bay] was terrible. It turned out to be a nothing. As the week went on—it started out as one thing on Monday, and by Friday it was a different animal. It was just formless. So that bombed. I think was, like, 32 or 33 years old, and I had moved my wife and baby out here from New York, I had rented this small house. I basically had spent all my money. And then the show bombed. And I actually had no marketable skills. So I went to work for an employment service, and they sent me to a Sears warehouse in East L.A.
So here I am, working at a Sears warehouse, and because Ferris Bueller had been out already, people were clocking me and going, “Do you know you look like this guy in this movie?” And I was, like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Not me. It’s not me. I’m not that guy.” Because I didn’t want to get into it. I thought that they’d probably go, “You were in the movies and then you wound up here? We should just beat you for being stupid!” So it was very grim and very humbling. And during the middle of that, Tom Miller and Bob Boyett called up my manager and said, “We want to meet Alan. We have an idea for a show, and he’d be right for it.” I’m working for minimum wage, and I have these guys calling me up and offering me a leading role in pilot. So I said, “Yes, thank you.” They sort of owned Friday nights, these guys. They had that TGIF thing. They had Perfect Strangers and Family Matters and a bunch of different stuff. And then they put us in there, and it just kind of… Well, again, it started out as one thing, and then they decided to add different characters and it became something else.
We did 19 episodes, and of the 19, I can honestly say that there was one show that was, like, sort of funny. Actually, no, it was funny. They did a very good job on that episode. But that was it. They were the nicest guys to work for, Tom and Bob, but the show just didn’t work, and it didn’t work from the beginning. It just didn’t work out. But, hey, I bought a house! But it was the kind of show where people would say, “Alan, you’ve got a show on! We’re gonna watch it Friday night!” And I’d be, like, “Nah, don’t worry about it. It’s okay. You don’t have to watch. Go out to dinner. Do something else.”
AVC: To jump back to the opening credits, what’s the direction you receive on something like that? “Okay, stop in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and put your feet atop Jack Benny’s footprints. Now look up and just smile your heart out!”
AR: Well, that’s kind of what they did. They were, like, “Okay, you crazy kids are out in Hollywood, your dreams should come true… Now let’s have a look at you!”
AVC: “Gimme a look that says, ‘I’m going places!’”
AR: Yes! And it was such a setup for the critics, because the reviews… We were setting ourselves up for the slaughter with that title. “Going Places? Going nowhere!”
AR: What was fun about that was that I got to hang out with a very young John Cusack. When I made that movie, I was 26 playing 18, and Cusack was actually 16, but in real life he was, like, 16 going on 40, because he was just incredibly smart and kind of knew exactly where he was going. He came from sort of a show business family. I think his father had been involved in film production in some way, and he was just a crazy young guy who used to come over to my house to smoke dope because it was warm. It was a nice, warm place for him. “Hey, can I come over?” “Yeah, but aren’t your parents worried about where you are?” “No, everything’s cool!” “Yeah, okay, come on over.”
AR: Cusack got our asses chewed out by the director in front of everybody. In front of the whole crew. Cusack and I were just given an ass-whupping. It was this elaborate scene, all physical gags, where Andy McCarthy goes to lean on something and a table falls down, a tray of pastries lifts and hits the head mistress in the face, and then he loses his balance again and grabs the front of Gina Madsen’s shirt, and it rips off and her boob falls out.
So what the director had said was, “Listen, you guys, it’s great if you’re laughing through the whole thing, but…” Rob had a button line, like a tag line, and the director said, “We want to do this all in one. We don’t want to have to set it all up again. So go ahead and laugh, but then make sure you shut up so Rob can say his line in the clear.” So this thing gets set into motion, and it was really funny, and Cusack and I start to laughing, and we’re, like, weeping. And by the time her boob fell out of her shirt, we were, like, wetting our pants. And then, of course, we laughed over Rob’s line. We did not do as we were directed. We did not do as we were told. And so Lewis Carlino just chewed us out in front of everybody. And I was, like, “Well, that’s it for me. That was a brief show business career.” But obviously John and me, we’ve moved on. John has done just fine.
AR: The part was originally described as being, like, a yuppie asshole lawyer whose BMW was in the shop for some reason, and then he had to get somewhere, so he just got on the bus, much to his misfortune. So he’s just a really entitled asshole. Just terrible. So during the audition, I’m shooting my mouth off to a character named Ortiz, and in the middle of it [the casting director] Billy Hopkins goes, “I’m 6’4”!” I immediately sat down, and I got a laugh.
It was really fun to work on that. The 105 freeway in L.A. had just been completed, but it had not yet been opened, and 20th Century Fox negotiated a deal with the state that we’d get to use the freeway as basically our back lot for about six weeks. So we spent days on different buses—they had half a dozen different buses that were rigged in different ways—on the 105 freeway. It was before Sandy Bullock was a big star, but she’s a charming, funny, vivacious girl, and we all got to be pals on that bus. Keanu [Reeves] is a wonderful guy. Really quiet, but a funny, intelligent guy. We just had a great time.
They did a lot of innovative things with camerawork. Jan de Bont obviously had been a cinematographer before he directed this. Sometimes he’d be like [In a Dutch accent], “No, I’m gonna operate it! No, I do it!” They did this thing where they turned the handrail that’s high up in the bus—the strap hanger rail—into a dolly track. They eliminated the bracket on the top and reinforced the brackets on the bottom, and then they built a special dolly where the rollers fit right on top of that handrail. And they would spin the camera from that dolly with bungee cords. So we could have a shot where they’d be up at the front of the bus, shooting over Sandy’s shoulder, looking at the road, and then they could whip-pan around and they could scream to the back of the bus to get a reaction from somebody along the way. So they were inventing stuff on the fly. The camera department was doing some really cool stuff.
Twister (1996)—“Robert ‘Rabbit’ Nurick”
AVC: With Twister, did de Bont just call you up?
AR: Kind of, yeah. Jan was very gracious to me. He was a lot of fun on the first movie. On Twister, there were a lot of things that were going on. Honestly, I think he was under a lot of pressure from the Spielberg people and from the studio and from everybody. And there were a lot of changes. So he was not a happy camper, Jan. But, anyway, yes, Jan was just like, “I want Alan to be in this picture,” because he thought I was a lucky charm. So that was nice.
But we had some trouble on that picture. He and the original cinematographer, Don Burgess, just did not get along, and at one point Don Burgess just took his crew and left. And Jack Green was brought in to finish it up. I guess it was about halfway through. We were on that movie for a long time. That was not a fun movie to work on. That movie was a pain in the ass, because we were in the middle of Ponca City, Oklahoma, which is about as big as a parking lot. There wasn’t a lot to do there. And we’d be staring at beautiful clear blue skies, and Jan was like, “It’s the biggest tornado you’ve ever seen! You’re gonna die!” And then you have to do all this big, hammy pretend-acting, and then you’re, like, “I’m just a liar, I’m just a phony.” And then when they put the CGI in there, you’re, like, “Oh, I could’ve been much bigger.” [Laughs.] But it’s hard to know at the time.
They made a hail machine by having an aluminum slide, at the bottom of which was a V8 engine with a big, giant blade on it, and they would slide big chunks of ice down this thing, and it would chop the ice up and shoot it up in the air, and it would come down. But it was sent up with such velocity, and things come down as fast as they come up, so there were ice cube-sized chunks of ice that were coming down and pelting us on the top of the head, on our shoulder blades, on our arms. It was really unpleasant. It was not fun. There was no glamour in moviemaking that particular day.
The Exorcist (2016)—“Henry Rance”
AR: When I told my wife that I had an audition for The Exorcist, she said, “You are not allowed to bring that energy into this house!” And I almost didn’t go in on that one, either. But then I heard that Geena Davis was gonna do it, and I said, “Honey, Geena Davis is gonna be in it.” And she said, “Well, you’ve got to do it now.”
AVC: Your character in the series changed a fair amount after the pilot.
AR: At first I wasn’t even going to be a regular character, and then Rolin Jones, who was running that show, decided that he wanted me on, which was great. It was not specific in the pilot beyond the fact that it was clear that Henry was brain-damaged. No one was sure if he’d had a stroke or what was going on.
I think it was in the second episode that we did—the first one after the pilot—where there was a bit of exposition that explained that I’d been hit on the head by a pipe and had suffered traumatic brain injury. So I had some days where I was perfectly lucid, other days where I was sort of non compos mentis, and other days where I was just kind of goofy. And that was explained as being part of the demon’s plan: to incapacitate this family in different ways.
But I got to work with great people. I got to work with the great Geena Davis, who is completely charming and one of the smarter people you’ll ever meet. She’s, like, Mensa-level smart. In fact, I think she’s actually a member of Mensa. Yeah, she’s a real smarty-pants.
Hard Knox (1984)—“Frankie Tyrone”
AR: I got to meet gangsters on that movie, because Robert Conrad had grown up in Chicago, and some of the guys from the neighborhood where he grew up had turned out to be guys in the outfit. So it was interesting when I met them at one point. I have a dear friend named Tom Joyce who was a stage manager in Chicago, and he knew Robert Conrad because Conrad had come and done The Fantasticks at his theater. And then a year or two later I worked with Tom in the same theater in a musical about the Kennedy family.
So the first night Tom says, “What are you doing tonight?” I said, “Nothing.” He says, “Then you’re coming with me, and we’re going down to this restaurant where we’re gonna meet Conrad.” I said, “Okay.” So we go down, and on the way down Tom says to me, “Okay, two things: Don’t ask anybody what they do for a living, and don’t ask anybody their last name.” I said, “Okay, got it.” But these guys were charming. They were wearing beautiful suits, and they were very well-spoken. And then I met Bob Conrad, and at one point when I went to take a leak, Tom said, “What do you think about the kid?” And Bob said, “I think he’s too old.” Tom says, “What if we shave him real close?” Bob said, “I dunno.” So when I came in a couple of days later, I was all punked out and I had my hair all up on my head in a mohawk.
Actually, that was my first network test. They flew us out from Chicago to audition for some NBC people in Los Angeles. But I got it, and we wound up shooting it in Mount Carroll, Illinois—which is right by the Mississippi River—on a college campus that we took over. Some little defunct college. And Bob was a sweet guy—gracious and really generous. We used to fly to and from Chicago on a private plane. It was a little plane. Not a jet, but a prop plane. But he was a nice man to work for.
Star Trek: Generations (1994)—“Captain John Harriman”
AR: This is crazy. So my manager at the time calls up—and this is in the days of faxes—and says, “I’m faxing you over some pages for a Star Trek movie.” I say, “Okay, great.” And the pages come over, and I read them, and in my mind I’m going to be playing an alien with a head shaped like a stalk of broccoli or something. So I go, “Who do they want me to play?” “Harriman!” Look, when I shave every day, I don’t look in the mirror and say, “Hey! There’s a starship commander.” [Laughs.] It’s just not how I picture myself. So I was, like, “Really?” “Yeah, that’s what they want.”
And then I talked to Rick Berman, who was in charge of the whole Star Trek thing at the time, and he said, “Yeah, we figured that Harriman came from a wealthy, politically connected family, and they sort of bought you this job as a stepping stone into a political career.” That was the backstory, which you never heard. All you knew was that there was this young, inexperienced guy who was given the Enterprise-B, which was ill-equipped. And it wasn’t his fault. It was because half of the systems hadn’t been installed. But they decided to take it out for this PR stunt, a publicity run with three heroes, and nothing works, and of course he doesn’t know what to do, so Kirk has to take over, after which Kirk gets sucked out into the Nexus, into a time warp, and it leads to his ultimate demise. So from that point on, half the people in the Star Trek world love me for killing Kirk, and half the people hate me for killing Kirk. And I can live with that.
Three For The Road (1987)—“T.S.”
AR: Well, this is another one of the low points in the rollercoaster ride, you know? I had gone to New York because I’d been cast in the Neil Simon play Biloxi Blues, so I did that for about nine months, and then right off of that I got Ferris Bueller. So then I came back and—I think I did another play, but I can’t remember what it is. Anyway, I’d been in New York, and I was looking for a job, looking to make a little money, so I auditioned for this thing Three For The Road.
In the original script, my character was supposed to be a traitor, a turncoat to Charlie Sheen’s character. I sold him out to, like, a National Enquirer type magazine. And then when we got to Little Rock, Arkansas, they were like, “Oh, yeah, we decided we didn’t want to do that, so now he’s just gonna be his buddy.” I was like, “Oh, great.” And the movie turned out to be an amazing piece of crap. It had been taken away from the screenwriter, and they had just kind of decided to do whatever they wanted to do with it. And nobody really cared. Charlie had Platoon coming out, so he was really just waiting for that to be released. I was going through some weird things in my life, and after awhile it became obvious that this thing was not going to turn out to be much of anything.
You know, there was an actor—he’s now dead—named Barnard Hughes, a guy from the New York theater. There was this great book that came out around 1977 or ’78 called The Theater, and it had all of these pictures of people from the New York theater, half of whom were movie stars who also did plays. Anyway, Barnard Hughes said, “The way to have a career is to take the first job that comes along. And if you get offered two jobs at the same time, take the one that pays more money.” Three For The Road was one of those times. I went, “Well, I’m taking this job because it’s gonna pay me some money.” And then it just turned out to be a nothing. But it is what it is. I have a great poster from that movie, though. It’s a beautiful poster of Charlie, Kerri Green, and me. But the poster’s better than the movie was.
Biloxi Blues (1985)—“Don Carney”
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)—“Cameron Frye”
AVC: You mentioned Biloxi Blues and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, so I’ll start by asking about the experience of working on a Neil Simon play.
AR: I’d started in Chicago and done plays there, and the thing about Chicago theater is that it’s mostly not-for-profit theater, so people were taking chances and doing exciting work. Nobody was making any money. But people were having a lot of fun and doing some interesting plays. So then I got cast in this very good play, a Broadway show, a Neil Simon play, but all of a sudden it didn’t feel like I was in the theater anymore. It felt like I was in show business.
It was a very fun thing to work on, though. The late Gene Saks was a wonderful director, and I was allowed to add little bits and pieces that got put into the show. It was one of those times where some of the improv that we did in rehearsal yielded fruit, so I felt pretty good about myself. We got in trouble in that show for being bad boys, for cutting up onstage and stuff. We were told more than one time that we were going to be fired, because we were just young and dumb. The phrase that you probably can’t use is “young, dumb, and full of cum,” but that’s what we were.
AVC: We can probably use it.
AR: Well, that’s what we were. We were cocky. The beginning scene and end scene in that play is all of us asleep on the train except for Matthew Broderick’s character, who’s speaking to the audience. And he’s a writer, so he was always writing in his notebook. So one night he nudges me after he’s finished talking to the audience, and he taps the notebook, and I look down out of the corner of my eye, and it says, “They offered me Ferris Bueller. Should I take it?” And I don’t even know if I nodded my head, but I went into my agent’s office in New York, and she called up Myrna Jacoby, and she said, “Listen, we have an audition for you for that movie that Matthew’s doing.” So I go, and the casting people didn’t want to see me because they knew that I was, like, 28. They’re like, “Nah, he’s too old.” And my agent says, “Listen, he plays opposite Broderick every night. They look like they’re the same age. Why don’t you see him?” So they did, and they liked me—it was Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson—and they had me come back and read with Matthew for John Hughes.
Now, I had met John a few years before in Chicago, when he was going to make The Breakfast Club as a little indie in Chicago, and it was during that process that he met Molly Ringwald, put The Breakfast Club on the back burner, and wrote Sixteen Candles for her over a weekend. So I knew John a little bit, and obviously I was friends with Matthew, so when I went in. They had originally offered the Ferris part to Anthony Michael Hall, and they had offered the Cameron part to Emilio Estevez, and I think Mike—that’s what everybody calls Anthony Michael Hall—had done four movies with John, so I think he wanted to do something different, and I think that was at the point where Emilio had been offered Repo Man. So they wanted to go do different things. So they decide on Matthew, and when I read with him, we’re already friends, so we don’t have to pretend we like each other. It’s already there. So that was just fortuitous. That was just some good, good fortune.
AVC: What are your thoughts about the theory that Ferris Bueller doesn’t actually exist?
AR: You mean the Fight Club theory? I think it’s fun. And I hope somebody got an A on that paper. I hope that was their dissertation and that they graduated with honors. Yeah, it’s a fun idea. You know, why not? It’s fun that people like a movie enough that they want to think about it in different ways. I just went to see it with my 7-year-old daughter. Her school had a little benefit night where they showed the movie, and they sold some tickets, and then I talked to the people afterwards and did a Q&A. And she couldn’t believe that my hair didn’t have any gray in it and that I looked like a kid. She got very involved in it, and she got very upset when I wrecked the car, and she was very worried that Ferris was going to get caught at the end of the movie on his way home. So that was fun.
AVC: Out of curiosity, why does Cameron wear a Redwings jersey? That seems like something that would have a story behind it.
AR: That was all John. In John’s real life, he’d spent part of his boyhood in Detroit, I think with a grandparent. I think he spent summers there, but I’m not sure. Anyway, he loved Chicago. He adored it, as do I. But it’s too damned cold for me. Now that I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I’m a big baby. But his idea was that Cameron had this dysfunctional relationship with his father, but he had a really good relationship with his grandfather, who lived in Detroit. And the old man would take him to Redwings games, which was one of the happiest aspects of Cameron’s life up to that point. It was the kind of thing where John felt that—like, if you look at the clothes Ferris wears, he wears these really funky, hip clothes, like the crazy pants and the leopard-skin vest. Fun stuff. But besides the Redwings jersey, Cameron’s outfit is really square. I mean, he’s got chino pants and penny loafers. But because it’s a sports jersey that his grandfather gave him, he’s allowed to wear that. So this is kind of Cameron’s best look, the one that represents who he is. Of course, that was all just John’s backstory. It was never mentioned in the film.
Spin City (1996-2002)—“Stuart Bondek”
Muscle (1995)—“Dr. Marshall Flowers”
AR: Playing Stuart, that was a license to steal. [Laughs.] There are a couple of parts to this story. First of all, there were two parts—Paul, who Richard Kind ended up playing, and Stuart—and when I auditioned for Gary David Goldberg and Billy Lawrence, the casting director said, “Well, listen, we’ve decided to let Alan choose between the two parts, whichever one he likes best.” And I said, “Well, I love Paul, but I adore Stuart, so there you go.” And I made ’em laugh, and they had me go to New York and audition for Michael [J. Fox], and it went very well.
So I auditioned for Michael J. Fox, I go to JFK to fly back home to L.A., and I talk to Connie, my manager at the time, and she said, “I got good news: They want you to do it.” I said, “That’s great.” And she said, “And I have more good news: Michael Boatman has already been cast as Carter.” And Michael and I had done this series for the old WB Network called Muscle, which was an insane show. But it was a lot of fun to do. We were dead last in the ratings for 13 weeks, but it was crazy fun to do, and I made friends with Boatman. They had paired us up in that show.
And then it wound up that Boatman and I got paired up again in Spin City. So it was a very happy time in my life. And it was such a great part, because I got to be such a pig. Maybe now, with the #MeToo movement and things, people aren’t as willing to laugh at this, but it was just one of those things where I could say anything and get away with it. So it was very freeing.
AVC: Is there a particular favorite Stuart-centric episode or even just a moment that really stands out for you?
AR: It was sometime in the first season. Actually, in the pilot, everyone was clearly defined except for Stuart—I think I had two lines in the pilot—but they knew he was going to be the office dick. They knew he was going to be the office asshole. So I came up with the idea of cutting my hair in a crew cut, because I figured that one of Stuart’s heroes would’ve been Robert Haldeman from the Nixon administration. So I gave him kind of a prickly look with that buzz cut, but I didn’t really have much to do in the pilot. And we all knew that we were on the air because of Michael, but I was like, “I don’t know if I’m going to last.”
In fact, I guess it was around Thanksgiving during that first season when I got a message—back in the answering machine days—from Gary: “Hi, Alan, it’s Gary Goldberg. Give me a call.” And I was like, “Oh, man, this it. I’m getting fired, because they haven’t figured out what to do with me.” And that turned out not to be true. What happened was that the show was conceived as a romantic comedy like Mad About You, but with Michael and Carla Gugino being this sexy young couple, and the mayor’s office was just supposed to be a workplace backdrop. But what happened was that all of the stuff that happened in the office was what popped, and since Carla’s character was a reporter, who was supposed to be sort of the enemy camp, they could never figure out a way to work her into the stories. So they decided to let her go. And she was like, “That’s fine,” because she had movies to do. But meanwhile they still really hadn’t figured out Stuart.
Not too long after that, though, there was this show where Richard Kind’s character was going to go on a date, but he hasn’t had sex in, like, five years, and he’s worried. [Does a spot-on Richard Kind impression.] “I… I might be a little rusty. I just don’t know what I’m doing. It’s been so long!” So Michael gives him a pep talk, and then it cuts to me as Richard walks out of the room and shuts the door, and I’ve been standing behind the door. And I’m just standing there, and I put a piece of gum in my mouth. And he’s like, “Um… Stuart? Did you… Were you listening? Were you listening?!” [Innocently.] “Oh, no. Why? What are you talking about?” “Oh, I… I was just in there talking to Mike. I thought maybe you might’ve overheard something.” And I said, “No, no, no, I didn’t hear anything. Take it easy… Rusty.” He said, “What did you say? What did you say?!” “Nothing. Nothing. I didn’t say anything.” And then as he walked away, out of the side of my mouth, like the Tin Woodman, I say, “Oil can! Oil can!”
On show night, it just scored so hard. I mean, we knew it was funny, but people were, like, wetting themselves. It was very, very funny, and I got to work with Richard, and we play really well together. But it just killed. And after that scene, they moved the cameras down to another part of the stage for another scene, and Michael J. Fox came up to me, he points, and he says, “I am so happy for you.” Because that was it: They had found Stuart. It was very sweet.
Young Guns II (1990)—“Hendry French”
AR: I had never ridden horses before, so they sent me north of Los Angeles to a guy named Jack Lilley, who’s an old-time movie cowboy. He’s in his eighties now, and both of his sons are stunt guys. But I went up there and just started taking to riding lessons from Jack, and the next thing I know, we’re in Arizona, where there was this horrible horse. I don’t even think this horse had a name. But I was having riding practice, like we all were, and all of a sudden, I think somebody told me to turn him around or bring him back in, so I pulled on the reins a little bit to get him to stop, and he started to buck on me. You know, like a bucking bronco. I was scared out of my mind. And then I hear Lou.
Lou Diamond Phillips is sitting there smoking a cigarette, and he’s like, “Ride ’im, Alan.” Meanwhile, I’m afraid I’m gonna soil my pants. I wound up being thrown off the horse, and a big cowboy—his name, for real, is Boots Sutherland, and he’s from New Mexico—grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me away from that horse, and then they tried to calm the horse down. Afterwards, a couple of people said, “If you’d held on for two more seconds, you could’ve made the rodeo!” So I was a little shaky about that experience, and then that same horse almost killed Lou about six weeks later.
We were in Arizona to begin with, and then we went up to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I believe it was while we were there in Santa Fe where they had this jailbreak scene, where Emilio [Estevez] and Kiefer [Sutherland] and I guess maybe Christian Slater break Lou’s character out of jail. So he had handcuffs on, and his hands were cuffed behind his back, and then they put him up on this horse. When the posse or the sheriff or whoever started shooting at these guys, they had this effect where they shoot these spark balls out of, like, a BB gun or an air gun, and the balls have some sort of metallic material in them that, when they hit brick or stone or whatever, they make sparks. Well, Lou was on the same horse, and one wrangler—Stevie Hanna—said, “I don’t like this. You’ve gotta let me hold those bridle reins off-camera, because this is not a good situation.” They said, “No, we can’t do that. We’ll see you.” He said, “Get some fishing line, and that’ll be fairly invisible, and I can still hold onto these reins.” They said, “No, we just can’t do it.”
Sure enough, they call “action,” and they set off the spark balls that they’re shooting at these guys, and this horse took off like a bat out of hell. And what happened was, Lou’s hands were handcuffed behind his back, he fell off, and the horse started to drag him. This is in the middle of the night in the New Mexico desert, in the little town that they built for Silverado in the middle of nowhere. And the only thing that saved Lou’s life was also the thing that caused him the most pain. His boot was stuck in the stirrup, and he was trying to sit up and get his boot out, and the horse dragged him very close to an old buckboard wagon. And he hit his arm on the metal-covered wheel of the wagon, and it dislodged his foot, but it shattered his arm. All I know is that Stevie Hanna, one of the cowboys, came to the apartment where I was staying and said, “Well, Alan, we almost killed Lou tonight.”
So Lou was in the hospital for awhile. I can’t remember what else he had to do on the picture, but they shot around him. I think maybe he went back later at some point to do reshoots. But he’s a very sturdy boy, Lou. He’s very athletic. And we were young then, so he healed up pretty quickly.
Greek (2007-2011)—“Dean Bowman”
AR: I don’t really remember a whole lot of specifics about doing Greek. It was one of those things where I was living in Los Angeles, and they called up and said, “Do you want to play the dean of this little college?” And I said, “Sure.” But to be honest, I never watched the show. I’d show up for various episodes, and I guess I must’ve worked on it for, what, half a dozen times over the course of a few years? And the tone of it would change. At one point I was supposed to be the deadly serious prick, and then there were other episodes where I was very lighthearted and, like, dancing with the female dean of students and doing the jitterbug. It was just very, very silly.
By the way, just because I don’t really remember a lot about it, don’t get me wrong: It was still great. It was just one of those happy little jobs where it’s like, “Oh, I’m working on this thing? Cool. So what am I doing? I’m a dean, and I’m with these kids? Okay, I can do that!”