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Iconic movie dad Paul Dooley talks about Breaking Away, Popeye, and the scene John Hughes wrote just for him

From left: Paul Dooley in Sixteen Candles (Screenshot), at the premiere of Other People in 2016 (Photo: Mike Windle/Getty Images), and in Breaking Away (Screenshot)
From left: Paul Dooley in Sixteen Candles (Screenshot), at the premiere of Other People in 2016 (Photo: Mike Windle/Getty Images), and in Breaking Away (Screenshot)
Graphic: Allison Corr
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

Paul Dooley made his film debut at the age of 49. Before that the West Virginia native had made his mark in New York and Hollywood working with a variety of comedy troupes, which led to a long string of commercials. Dooley is ultimately best-known as the ideal movie dad, from the cranky used-car salesman father of the bicycling-obsessed hero of Breaking Away to Molly Ringwald’s sympathetic dad in Sixteen Candles. Dooley says that Robert Altman discovered him on stage, and wound up casting him in films like 1978’s The Wedding and 1980’s Popeye, which started a TV and film career that’s included everything from Law & Order to Shakes The Clown. The now-92-year-old still shows up frequently in movies and TV show guest spots.

Since 1984, Dooley has been married to My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman (“You may not know this, but my wife is a very famous writer”) and Dooley is currently writing himself, working on his memoir, titled, appropriately, Movie Dad. In honor of Popeye’s release on Blu-ray this month, Dooley took the time to talk about what life was like with Robin Williams on the film’s set, how his time doing commercials led to his work on The Electric Company, and what convinced him to join the cast of Sixteen Candles.

Popeye (1980)—“Wimpy”

The A.V. Club: What was that set like, with Robert Altman and Robin Williams?

Paul Dooley: That was half of my life. I do remember a lot. [Laughs.] Spent six months doing that movie. Long time. First six months of 1980.

AVC: Why did it take so long? 

PD: Well, it had been planned for four months, and there were 50 actors at that point. Altman let all of them go home except about 10 of us who were the principals. That way they didn’t have to pay for hotels and per diem and all that stuff, and the expenses were less. We thought we’d finish with the filming on the water and a couple of boats in about a week or two. But then we got bad weather. So we’d shoot one day and be off for two and shoot two days and be off for three. We operated with high winds and choppy waves and [were] unable to shoot on the water. So that’s what extended it for another couple of months. Feels like a lifetime.

AVC: Robin Williams had a reputation for always being “on.” Was he like that on set? Would he stay in character? 

PD: Well, as you know, with movies, more than half the time, you’re not filming. You’re between takes, between setups, between lighting. And he was always our court jester, because he obsessively could not stop entertaining. So we were happy to have him, and we didn’t get bored because we had him. And then, of course, when we filmed, he would go into the part. Although he did a lot of ad-libbing, because that’s the nature of Robin. I tried to follow the script as much as possible. But we had a wonderful time together. Could have been very boring otherwise.

I remember one day we were on a break for 20 minutes and just hanging around all of us in costume. Some minor actor on the set had a crutch for some reason, and Robin borrowed the crutch and then did about 20 minutes of humor of just using a crutch. But he played the crutch as if he was drunk. It was amazing. He hardly had to talk. But of course, knowing Robin, he did talk. But I do remember that drunken guy on a crutch.

He was doing his nightclub act half the time, you know. We all had a great time. And I did notice something about him, which I saw later in his work. He had long periods of time where he’s just on, couldn’t stop entertaining. But suddenly when he wasn’t doing it, he kind of retreated into himself, refreshing his batteries or something. And he would almost be melancholy. And if you think about his film work playing dramatic roles, he has a melancholy quality about him, a thoughtful quality. He played a few psychiatrists and some strange characters. But when he wasn’t on, he was off. I kind of thought of him as a little undiagnosed manic depressive, because when it was manic, he was manic. But he did have those moments where he was quiet and sort of going into himself. Not paying much attention to the rest of us. There was about 85% of the comedy. And the rest of it was kind of very, very serious.

AVC: You grew up in West Virginia. How did you get started in New York?

PD: I went to New York after college, and I fooled around there. I worked on the stage and off Broadway and really became successful more as a commercial actor, which I did for many, many years. I became more popular on commercials than I did on stage for a long time. I didn’t make my first film till I was 49 years old. But from the ’60s into the ’70s, for 15 years I did commercials. On-camera commercials, maybe a couple hundred, maybe 250 of them.

And then I started doing voice-overs, and then I drifted into doing comedy on radio with some partners of mine from Second City, where we used improvisation to create the commercials and recorded radio. And I did that for a long, long time. And then I was in a show off Broadway, written by Jules Feiffer from his newspaper column. And Robert Altman discovered me there, and he put me in five movies in a row. And that’s how I got into the film business. I was a discovery. [Laughs.] I’m writing a book now about my experiences, and I say, after 49 years as a New York actor, overnight I was discovered.

AVC: Altman was known for letting his actors ad-lib, so your improvisational background probably came in handy.  

PD: Yeah, I spent a lot of time improvising. First, I joined the Second City group that came to New York, then after [that] I moved to California. There were several groups out here that I joined. And so once out here for absolutely no money, I went every Saturday night out to Santa Monica. There’s a street called the Promenade. There’s no cars there. There was a little nightclub. And we worked every Saturday for five years for no money, just for fun. But I worked with a lot of great improvisers. And I never stopped. I’ve always worked here and there with different groups of people out here in L.A.

Waiting For Guffman (1996)—“UFO Abductee”
A Mighty Wind (2003)—“George Menschell”
For Your Consideration (2006)—“Paper Badge Sergeant”
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2005)—“Cheryl’s Father”

AVC: That improv history probably helped your work in the Christopher Guest movies as well.

PD: Oh, yes. And I also worked with Larry David, where we improvise our dialogue. And Christopher Guest. I did three movies with him. I met Chris when he was only 17. And then later, a little later, I met him again, and he put me in a few movies. I loved working with him. I look at him as kind of a genius. You know, he’s a writer and an improviser and one of the best, actually, and a terrific comic actor. If you think of Guffman and the character he played as a director of that wonderful group, he chose the best actors in the world to play the worst actors in the world—Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and all of them. It was a thrill to work with them.

Breaking Away (1979)—“Dad”

PD: The best movie I ever made was called Breaking Away. It’s about bicycle racing. And it’s been my calling card ever since. And that was also about as old as Popeye, which is 42 years old now. It was so well-received that I still get work from it, and people meet me, and they mostly connect me with that film and Sixteen Candles, where I also played the father. Those are my two favorites actually. It’s still popular after all this time. It took off and then revived and on cable all the time. And retro theaters will play it at special times. And they recently had a big reunion for that film. And it was a huge audience out of Hollywood. And some of the actors who were still around were doing a Q and A, talking to the fans.

And over 90% of my work has been fathers after that. And it’s kind of connected, mostly with Sixteen Candles. I got to be sort of typecast, as they say, which I didn’t mind. An actor always likes to get parts that are different, so you’re not playing the same thing all the time. But if you are typecast, that means you work a lot.

AVC: Right. You need a perfect dad, you call Paul Dooley.

PD: That’s right. And if an actor is good at playing a cop, you’ll play 40 of them. Good at playing a gangster, would do 40 of them. Casting directors like to use people who have done it well before. So it’s easy to get typecast if you’re successful at one thing.

AVC: You’d probably read a lot of scripts by then. Did you have a feeling that this was going to be this sleeper hit?

PD: I thought it was a great script. Sometimes you could have a great script, but for various reasons, it doesn’t become a commercial hit. But I know it was a great script. That’s the best script I ever read. It was just brilliantly written. [Steve Tesich] won the Oscar for the writing, original screenplay. It was so beautifully considered, and they created these characters that are so different to each one from the other. And my part allowed me to be very, very funny and also kind of dramatic sometimes.

AVC: Like that wonderful scene when you’re walking through the campus at night with your son, played by Dennis Christopher. Did you feel a bond with him? He had already played your son the year before in Altman’s The Wedding. 

PD: Yeah, I’m still friends with Dennis. I see him all the time. Not so much in the pandemic, but we’re still friends. We have dinners and lunches, and I watch him if he’s in a play. He comes to see me if I’m in a play. Recently worked with Dennis Quaid. He had a series just before the pandemic, and I met him again and worked with him, very friendly. But Dennis [Christopher] and I are very closely associated. Once he got a job on Law & Order and he called me and said, “They’re looking for a guy to play my father and I gave them your name.” So I did Law & Order with him. And we both were led away in handcuffs at the end. He’s a good friend of mine. I really enjoyed that. I never again found writing quite that good for me to play.

Sixteen Candles (1984)—“Jim Baker”

PD: I was only there a couple of weeks, because most of the scenes are with the kids. They became very friendly with a kid named Gedde Watanabe, who played Long Duk Dong, the Korean character. He and I became friends. I knew it was going to be a hit, but I thought it was really just for kids. But then when I saw it, I realized it’s entertaining for anybody, for grown-ups, too. It’s just a very funny show, and it’s really interesting.

The big scene that people remember—young women write me and stop me on the street all the time—about that late-at-night scene where I’m being really warm to [Molly Ringwald’s character], I originally found that that scene wasn’t in the movie. I turned down the movie because I was only in it for the first two or three minutes and the last two or three minutes. And then finally John Hughes, the writer-director, called me, and said, “I wrote a scene in the middle of a movie, just so you’ll be in the movie.” And I read it, and it was a good scene, and that became the scene that everybody remembers. All the young girls love that scene. They say to me when they write to me or meet me on the street, “I wish you were my dad.” [Laughs.] So that’s a nice thing. I am a dad. I have four children and three grandchildren.

The Electric Company (1971)—Co-creator, writer

PD: I created that show. I was the head writer. I spent a year doing that. It all came about because I’d been writing so many funny radio spots. And someone heard of me and knew that they were going to have short segments, because of children’s shorter spans of attention. So you could almost do a scene that could be a commercial, but for reading instead of a product. That was kind of connected to all my radio writing and experience.

But I learned a lot, and I was proud to have been involved with it. I hope we helped some kids get more interested in reading. It would take about a year of my life, but I found it a very rewarding thing. I said to a friend when I started working there, “I’m finally going to use my comedy skills for good instead of evil.” Instead of just selling stuff, it was going to be about perhaps helping kids. But it was a wonderful chapter in my life, because I’d been a kind of writer and an improviser and an actor, all kinds of different things in my life.

The Good Doctor (2017)—“Glen”

AVC: The shows that you’ve guest-starred on recently, it’s such a long list. You’ve done everything from the drama you’re describing on Law & Order to comedies like Modern Family and Children’s Hospital.

PD: At a certain point, I stopped auditioning. Maybe, I don’t know, 15, 20 years ago now. Now people just call me because they know who I am. Especially television. I don’t really audition for TV anymore. You just get invited to be a guest star. Sometimes I still go and audition for a film, but of course, with the lockdown, nobody is doing anything right now.

Normally a character actor often will have one day’s work. You might have one scene or two scenes once in a while. You’ll have two or three days out of an eight-day schedule. But I did The Good Doctor, and I had about eight or nine scenes, and it was a real guest-starring part, not just a small scene, but it was very dramatic, a guy who wanted to die in the hospital. And I was very happy doing that one.

A lot of them were very short-lived. You’ll come in, and it takes about eight days to do a drama and about five days to do a sitcom. But often guests will come on and work one day, one scene, maybe two. I had a few jobs or I was there the whole week and it worked very well. I got a couple of Emmy nominations for Dream On and for The Practice with the David Kelly series as Judge Wright. I enjoy it all. It’s a lot of fun, I like working with other actors. My favorite stuff is working with Chris Guest and Larry David. You’re not only an actor, you’re a writer. If you’re improvising, you’re writing just without a pencil.

AVC: And you have so much stuff still coming out. It looks like you have five films that are in post-production or production right now.

PD: I have some independent films that are slowed down in the editing and all. You can’t find a theater right now, but I did three or four independent films in 2019, and they’re still waiting to find a home, will probably stream at some point. But everything is slowing down. I’ve even been offered some jobs in the last six months to go to a set and to work safely, you know, be tested. But if it wasn’t a very interesting part I wasn’t going to subject myself to maybe catching COVID. I just turned down three or four of them because they were boring parts anyway, but certainly didn’t want to risk anything. I owe it to my wife and my family.

I’m at the at-risk age. And in about eight years I will be 100 years old. Pretty long career. I have over 200 credits on the IMDB. I got very busy once I started working in film and television. But I’d have even more credits if you counted all the commercials. So I did get a lot of experience, because you could learn from doing commercials because you can still learn about camera technique and work in front of the camera. So I was all prepared when they started doing real movies. Anyway, it’s been quite an interesting journey.

Strange Brew (1983)—“Claude Elsinore”
Shakes The Clown (1991)—“Owen Cheese”
Slap Shot (1977)—“Hyannisport Announcer”

AVC: In the 200 credits, is there a movie that you have a soft spot for that never really got the traction that Breaking Away or Sixteen Candles did?

PD: Well, there are movies that are a little cult films that college students like, like Strange Brew, with those two Canadian guys from SCTV, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis. I had a big part in that. I was the heavy. And another one is Shakes The Clown with Bobcat Goldthwait. I was the agent for a bunch of clowns. And they’re little cult films with young people, because they’re about pot-smoking clowns and alcoholic clowns, and Strange Brew is about drinking beer.

Another one I have a very small part in is Slap Shot, which is very popular with people who like sports. I was in it one day, but I have a nice little part, which I improvised. And there are a number of things like that. But you know, going in, you know some films will be popular and some won’t. Even a film that is not so popular, it will find an audience. So I was at the carousel picking up my luggage at the L.A. airport, and Bobcat, who I didn’t know, came up to me. [Adopts Bobcat voice.] “Paul Dooley! I’m making a movie. I’d like to have you in it. Would you do the film with me?” With his croaky little voice. Get a job while you’re waiting for your luggage. It’s funny.