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: Though he’s the son of an actor (John Carradine), the brother of two notable actors (Robert and David Carradine), and a man with three kids—Martha Plimpton, Cade Carradine, and Sorel Carradine—who have all grown up to be actors, Keith Carradine originally had no plans to pursue the life of a thespian himself. Thankfully, he eventually succumbed to the inevitable and changed his mind, resulting in a long and prolific career which has seen him earning acclaim for his work in film (Nashville), television (Chiefs), and Broadway (The Will Rogers Follies), even making his way into the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 (“I’m Easy”). Carradine recently wrapped up a new film with director Alan Rudolph (Ray And Helen), and just returned to work for the third season of CBS’s Madam Secretary. He’s spent much of this month serving as the host of TCM’s month-long programming special Shane Plus A Hundred More Great Westerns, which continues through July 27.
The A.V. Club: Your hosting gig on Westerns for TCM includes what seems to have been your first feature film: McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Keith Carradine: Actually, that was my second. My first feature film was a movie called A Gunfight, with Kirk Douglas, Johnny Cash, Karen Black, Jane Alexander, Raf Vallone… It was shot in Santa Fe, Mexico, in 1970, and it was directed by Lamont Johnson. It was the first gig I did when I got to California from having done Hair in New York on Broadway for a year. It was a Western, though! But that film was not a successful release. It didn’t get any attention to speak of. Great people involved, though. Part of my claim to fame is that my first film was also Johnny Cash’s first film. [Laughs.]
AVC: I watched a bit of it on YouTube last night, and saw Kirk Douglas take you down.
KC: Yeah, that was interesting, because originally the way it was written, my character was more kind of an innocent. And Kirk Douglas took one look at that and said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, I can’t shoot someone like that. That’d make me look terrible!” So they had to kind of toughen me up. But it worked out. I went out to Santa Fe and shot that, and that was the beginning of my feature film career! But the one that put me on the map was certainly McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
AVC: Robert Altman had a history of not so much auditioning actors as simply having an instinct as far as who he thought was right for the role. Did you have that experience with him as well?
KC: Very much so. At that point, he still had the Lionsgate offices, which was the company that he established, and the offices were in Westwood. It was a little office complex with a courtyard. And I knocked on the door, and he said, “Come in!” And I opened the door, and it was an apartment that he had up there!
But he was standing there… [Starts to laugh.] And he had a T-shirt on and a bathrobe, and he was unwrapping a brown paper-wrapped package, and he says, “Yeah, I just got back from Colombia!” I’m seeing him unwrap this package, and I’m thinking, “He’s got a pound of dope here!” But, in fact, it was some pre-Colombian art that he had bought when he had gone down there for the Cartagena Film Festival. And that was how the interview was conducted: with him standing there in this bathroom.
He looked at me and he said, “So we’re going to do this movie.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Did you read it?” I said, “Yeah.” “So you saw the part?” “Yeah.” “You want to play it?” “Yeah!” That was my audition! [Laughs.] But that’s Bob. That’s what he did. I mean, he perceived an essence pretty quickly, and he realized right off that the kid standing there inside his door had the right kind of innocence that would serve the role in the film. Because, you know, this is a kid who comes to town and gets shot, really, in cold blood. And it’s the dénouement of the film, and it was his way of really showing the savage, random violence that existed and was so much a part of life in that time and place.
So, yeah, that was it. That was how I began my career, my relationship, and my friendship with Robert Altman.
AVC: As far as getting into acting in the first place, you obviously come from good stock on that front, but what actually led you to follow in the family’s footsteps?
KC: I suppose it was kind of inevitable. [Laughs.] I was artistically inclined, as the saying goes, and that was evident from the time I was quite small. I had a knack for drawing, I had an ear for music, and it was obvious that I had certain proclivities, certain tendencies. They were always a part of my life, all the way up through my adolescence.
And then when I was in high school… I loved the outdoors, and I was introduced to wilderness camping. I was in a little prep school—a boarding school in southern California, in Ojai—and when I was in this school, they had a camping program, and there would be regular trips: hikes into the mountains, the Sierras, the Sespe River Valley, and different places. And I became quite enamored of being in those places under those circumstances, so I decided, “Well, I’ll be a forest ranger!” Because I thought, “I’ll get to go out in the woods, I’ll be in the forest, and I can sit in a tower and watch for forest fires and play my guitar. That’s what I want to do!” Well, I was an idiot, of course. [Laughs.] I was accepted to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, which is a terrific Aggie school, and they had a great forestry program. But when I saw the syllabus and realized what I was going to actually have to be studying, there was a lot of science! If you want a degree in forestry, it’s basically a science degree. And I just thought, “No, no, no, wait a second. Never mind!”
So there I was, accepted to this school, and I changed my major to English literature, which was on the advice of my father. I finally said, “You know, Dad, to heck with it: I’m just going to be an actor. But I’m going to go to school.” And he said, “Well, if you’re going to go to school, then major in English literature. Those are the tools you are going to be working with as a man who’s going to be acting in English, one would assume.” So I changed my major to English and I went off to Fort Collins. And within the first couple of weeks, I noticed that they were having auditions for a production in their theater department. They were going to stage Jean Anouilh’s Becket, which was a film I loved, with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. So I went down and auditioned, and I got the role. I got the Peter O’Toole part. So here I was, a 19-year-old playing King Henry. I did that, and I became completely immersed in the theater. And that was all I did: I neglected my studies, and by the end of my first quarter there, I was on academic probation. [Laughs.]
So I dropped out of college, and the next thing I knew, Hair came to town in Los Angeles, I saw that, and I was gobsmacked. And when they had auditions for replacement roles for various companies around the country, I wound up auditioning through another interesting set of circumstances: I was actually playing the piano because my brother David and his good buddy Jeff Cooper went in to audition. They wanted to play the roles of Claude and Berger. They were, of course, thirtysomething, but that wasn’t that unusual, because [Gerome] Ragni and [James Rado, co-writers of the original musical] were also in their 30s. But it was a play about kids, and Ragni and Rado were there at the audition, and when they saw me playing the piano, they asked me if I sang. And I came back the next day and sang a song, and I wound up being cast and sent to the Broadway company in New York! And that was it: I never looked back after that.
Kung Fu (1972)—“Middle Caine” (uncredited)
Love, American Style (1973)—“George”
AVC: You mentioned your brother David a moment ago. You actually did a few episodes of Kung Fu where you played him.
KC: I did the pilot episode, where I played him at age 17. I was, in one sequence, as his character, and they obviously used that footage over and over again throughout the course of the series. [Laughs.] I would get residual checks for $30 all the way down to maybe $1.75 at one point.
AVC: You also got to work on Love, American Style with your dad.
KC: Oh, my, you’ve done your homework. Good God! [Laughs.] You know, it’s funny: When Dave was doing Kung Fu and he invited me to come play that part, I had just finished working with Robert Altman, and I thought, “Well, I’m on my way!” And when David invited me to come do that part, I remember showing up there and having to put on the bald cap and do this number, and I thought I was doing my brother a favor by coming and doing that part on that show for him. And I remember Jerry Thorpe, who was the executive producer of Kung Fu, acting like he was doing me this huge favor to have me come in and do a day’s work on this pilot. It was a very odd circumstance.
And when my dad came to me and was going to do Love, American Style, the basis of the story was that they had the young and the older guy, and he thought that would be a perfect opportunity. So basically I said, “Oh, okay, Dad.” In my own private, self-important world, at that point in my life and in my career, the last thing I wanted to do was an episode of Love, American Style! But it was the old man, you know? And you know what? I had a good time. And it’s one of those oddities in my list of credits that I look back on and I actually have a very fond memory of. My dad and I did not actually get to work together, but what I did get to do was try to evoke the younger John Carradine, which I found it challenging and kind of fun.
KC: I knew James and Stacy Keach—we were friends with those guys—and they had been working on putting this thing together, and they finally got the elements required to actually make this movie the way they had this idea of making it. There were a lot of acting families around, and that was a story about brothers and cousins—the James-Younger gang, the Millers, and the Fords—that was all historical fact, but no one had ever put a cast together actually used acting families in that way. It was a first, and we were all very excited about the prospect. Then, of course, there were the logistics involved in getting everyone to commit and carve out the time. David was a hot property at the time, but the nature of the beast was that no one was going to get the kind of money that they ordinarily got. Everybody was going to have to take a little bit of a cut just to do the thing, and then they were going to have to commit the time. And it was not a small commitment: This was probably three months overall, and you had to be out of the marketplace to do this movie. But we all agreed.
So we went off and made this movie, and I’ve gotta tell ya, it’s as much fun as I’ve ever had making a movie. It was kind of like adult summer camp. We put on this Western gear, strapped on our six-shooters, and went out and played cowboy all day! It wasn’t an easy shoot. It was hard work, and there were a lot of challenges to it, but to be able to work that way with your brothers… You know, when you step up and play a scene with your brothers, you can’t get away with anything. [Laughs.] They’ve known you forever! So all of that gets stripped away, and if there’s even a hint of B.S., you’re gonna get called on it. So it was a great experience in that way, and I think that the film still resonates, because there’s just something that you can’t fake about those kinds of relationships. When you see James and Stacy Keach on the screen together, they’re brothers! You see me and David and Robert, we’re brothers! You see Christopher and Nicholas Guest, or Randy and Dennis Quaid… I mean, there’s a wonderful texture to that, one that’s really unique, and I don’t think it’s been done quite as well since. I know the Bridges did The Fabulous Baker Boys. That’s the only time they’ve worked together, and that worked wonderfully. But you don’t often see that.
So I think The Long Riders was a unique opportunity, and I think Walter [Hill] made a hell of a movie. He’s a really first-rate director. He’s one of our directing heroes, I think, in this country, and unsung to some extent. I know he’s had a wonderful, successful career, but I don’t think Walter gets the credit he deserves for the filmmaker that he is.
AVC: You clearly bonded with Walter Hill quickly enough to do Southern Comfort immediately thereafter.
KC: Yeah, that was the next thing we did. Again, it was a terrific experience, and I think it was hell of an action movie. David Giler, who wrote the screenplay… It’s quite an obvious Vietnam allegory, but I think it works to great effect in that regard. I mean, it’s basically a story about the folly of our misadventure into that war, done in the context of these National Guard weekend warriors who wander into a world about which they know nothing and then wind up wreaking havoc on themselves. You know, just the fact that they’re carrying weapons with blanks… [Laughs.] They don’t even have real ammunition! I thought it was a very clever and smart comment on the mistake that was our adventure into Vietnam.
KC: Walter called me up and said, “Hey, we’re doing Wild Bill, and it’d be great if you could come down and play Buffalo Bill.” I said, “Absolutely!” Well, it was after I’d done a miniseries called Dead Man’s Walk. It was by Larry McMurtry, and it was kind of the prequel to Lonesome Dove. David Arquette and Jonny Lee Miller were playing Gus and Call as young men, and there was this role for me to play: Bigfoot Wallace. And I did some research on it and decided that I would have this kind of classic western scout look about me, so I went to Ziggy, who’s one of the great wigmakers, and he made me this long-haired wig to play that role. So I had that wig, and I brought that in and used it on Wild Bill and played Buffalo Bill.
Deadwood (2004)—“Wild Bill Hickok”
AVC: It’s funny that you played Buffalo Bill Cody in Wild Bill, only to play Hickok yourself about a decade later.
KC: Yeah! I was actually filming in Atlanta when I got a call from Walter Hill saying, “Well, it could be your turn to play Hickok.” I said, “Oh, well, great!” He said, “What’s your hair look like?” I said, “Well, it’s short, Walter, but… I’ve still got that wig!” [Laughs.] He said, “Well, bring it!”
That was really how that occurred. He arranged for me to meet at David Milch’s house in Brentwood. Walter basically brought me into that, and it was one of the great experiences. I mean, what a role to have the chance to play, but especially as written by Milch. It was extraordinary stuff. He wrote this kind of American Shakespeare. But I played my part for four episodes, and the rest is history!
AVC: He’s definitely a writer with his own vernacular.
KC: Yes, very much so. But it’s historically accurate, and he would take great pains to point this out to people who would sort of take him to task for the roughness of the language. He’d say, “You have to understand that our history of western movies, what we’ve been doing in westerns since the movies began to talk, you had audiences that would be offended by certain things, and there was a cleaning-up of the way people spoke.”
I wouldn’t call it an urban legend, but I guess I’d call it a rural legend that the cowboy was always soft-spoken, mild-spoken, well-mannered. Milch said, “No, in a place like Deadwood, which was an outlaw community to begin with, if you didn’t present yourself with enough steel, you could get shot dead on the spot.” I mean, it was a rough place, and you had to wear this kind of cloak that you were a badass, and the most efficient way to do that was with your language. Swearing was just a part of how you got by during the day, and it was quite historically accurate, that depiction.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)—“Sheriff John Taggart”
KC: I walked into an office, and… I’d met Harrison Ford before, but he was just finishing a meet with Jon Favreau and the other producers on the film, and we said “hello” as he walked out and I walked in and sat down and had this meeting with those guys. They basically described what they were looking for, and they thought that I brought a certain amount of authenticity to the genre, and would I want to take part? And I said, “Absolutely! I’d love to!” This was an occasion where a studio was willing to spend a lot of money to make a film set in that time and place, but the hook was that they were also going to have aliens from outer space! [Laughs.] They said, “If you’ll put aliens from outer space in it, then we’re letting you make this Western!”And that’s the aegis under which we were all there. We had a great time. And it’s as big a movie as I’ve ever been a part of. Jon Favreau, he’s a first-rate director. He knows what he’s doing. So it was a terrific experience, spending time in Santa Fe, where we shot that.
KC: I had just finished playing Hickok on Deadwood, and this little sitcom came up. I went in to meet with Mike and Julie Scully, who were the writers on that. They had just come off writing on The Simpsons for a number of years, and they were just delightful. And they had this idea for a show about this guy who was a bachelor, and he has five sons. When I met them, it was interesting, because I said, “Look, I’m not sure what you guys are looking for here. I’m not really a sitcom guy. The only way I’m going to know how to play this is to play it straight, which I think might actually be funny.” They said, “That’s exactly what we’re looking for. And what we love about what you’re bringing to this is that we saw your Hickok, and we know that you can be a little bit dangerous and a little bit scary, but in this circumstance, with these kids, it could be just the element we’re looking for.”
And, in fact, we had a great time. We shot 19 episodes, and well, you know, we were the victim of timeslot hell. You can have a show that has everything going for it, but if you don’t get put on at a time when you’re going to reach the audience that you were meant to reach, then there’s nothing you can do. We should’ve been on Tuesday nights, which was comedy night on ABC, but they didn’t put us there. They put us on Friday night, and they actually sandwiched our show—which was really a guy show—between two female-oriented shows. So we became what is known as a hammock: There would be a certain rating for the girl show that was on before us, and there was a similar rating for the girl show that was on after us, but we were a guy show, so our rating was less. And that was pretty much the writing on the wall. But as long as we did last, we had a great time. And I still look back at that stuff every once in awhile. You don’t see them in reruns because we didn’t shoot enough shows for it to be syndicated, but they were funny, and some of them, I look at them now and they still make me laugh.
AVC: Mel Gibson was an executive producer on the show, but how was it working with him in his occasional capacity as sitcom guest star?
KC: Well, you have to realize that Mel, he’s a funny guy. He’s got a wicked sense of humor. And he was delightful to work with. And he came in and directed a number of episodes as well as acting in a few. He played this kind of sadistic motorcycle cop. [Laughs.] He was terrific. And he had this great sense of visual comedy. It was almost kind of a Chuck Jones sensibility. You know, from the Bugs Bunny cartoons? Mel could stage physical comedy and put the camera in such a way… I mean, we did some really funny stuff, and he had some great ideas about how to do it. It was a delight to work with him in that regard. And he was steeped in controversy at the time: He had just directed The Passion [Of The Christ], and it had just been released as we started production on Complete Savages. But I have to say, nobody ever talked about it, and he never brought any of that to work. He was just delightful, and I had a great time. We all did. And we were all sad that we didn’t get to carry on.
The Will Rogers Follies (1991)—“Will Rogers” [on Broadway]
Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle (1994)—“Will Rogers”
KC: All I know is that I was mentioned to Pierre Cossette, who was producing the show, by his wife, Mary. I kept hearing that there was this Pierre Cossette whose wife kept insisting I was perfect, but I had no idea who this Mary was! When I finally walked into the meeting with Pierre at his offices in Los Angeles, he finally said, “Yeah, come back to New York, and we’d love to put you up and have you audition in front of our creators.”
And at that point, it was Tommy Tune, Peter Stone, Cy Coleman, and [Betty] Comden and [Adolph] Green, and they were all out in the audience in this little theater, and I got up on stage and auditioned. I had learned to spin a rope, and I sang a song and did some Will Rogers patter, and at the end of the audition, they walked up to the stage, and Tommy Tune said to me, “How do you feel about spending some time in New York?” And I said, “I’d love to!” So basically I was given the part right then and there.
When I finally auditioned and Pierre came up to me at the audition, he said, “Can you stay awhile?” And I said, “Yeah, I’d love to, but I was going to get on a plane.” He said, “Forget the plane! Cancel your flight, grab your bag, and come on up and stay with Mary and me!” And I kept hearing about this Mary! And I walked up to Pierre’s apartment and knocked on the door or rang the doorbell, and they opened the door… and there was Mary. And I went, “Oh, my God!” Because Mary had formerly been married to an agent of mine, Harry Ufland! I knew that they had split up years before, and Mary had obviously remarried and married Pierre. So I had known Mary since I was in my early 20s… but I didn’t know it was the same Mary until I walked into their apartment!
So, anyway, that was the beginning of that experience, which was, of course, one of the great periods of my performing life, to have the chance to play that part in that show.
AVC: So you did The Will Rogers Follies on Broadway, and you played Will Rogers again in Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle.
KC: Oh, well, that was Alan [Rudolph]. I was actually on tour with The Will Rogers Follies—and he was doing Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle and I think it must’ve been a phone call at that point when he said, “Listen, because we know it’s historically accurate that these people were all in New York at this time, and Rogers was a huge star, if you want to come up and have a moment at the Round Table with Dorothy and everybody, it’d be great.” And I said, “Man, I would love that. I haven’t been on a film set in almost two years. That’d be great!” So I flew up there, and they actually found the suit that I had worn when I did The Moderns with Alan in Montreal. He was working with a lot of the same people, and they found that suit, and it fit perfectly and was the right period. So I walked on and did that little bit.
Welcome To L.A. (1976)—“Carroll Barber”
Choose Me (1984)—“Mickey”
Trouble In Mind (1985)—“Coop”
AVC: Speaking of Alan Rudolph, you first encountered him when you were working with Robert Altman, right?
KC: Yeah, the first time I worked with Alan, he was directing second-unit on Nashville, all of the extras and crowd stuff. That was when Alan and Richard Baskin first worked together, and when Alan got the idea for Welcome To L.A., using Richard’s music.
AVC: And then after Welcome To L.A., you did kind a trifecta of films with Alan in the ’80s, starting with Choose Me.
KC: Alan and [his wife] Joyce came to New York, and we went out to dinner and he’d said that he had this opportunity. Shep Gordon had managed Teddy Pendergrass, and Teddy had his accident, so Shep was looking for a way to lift his spirits, and he had this song that Teddy had recorded called “Choose Me,” giving this song to Alan and saying, “Listen, if you can make this song into a movie, we’ll make a movie.” So that was the inception of Choose Me: it came from a Teddy Pendergrass song! [Laughs.] So Alan came to me and said, “So here’s this idea, and we have no money, but we’re going to figure out a way to do it. And if you want to play a part… Well, I haven’t written it yet, but what would you want to do?” And I said, “Oh, Alan, you know what? Let me do all the stuff that nobody lets me do.” And that was basically what he wrote! And that’s the movie we made. We shot it in 21 days in Los Angeles, I think our entire shooting budget was $710,000, and the result was Choose Me. And it became kind of a cult hit. I think it still has the weekend gross receipts record at Laemmle’s Royal Theater in Santa Monica! They still have our poster in the hallway. It was quite an interesting experience.
So Choose Me was the second film Alan and I made together, and then along came Trouble In Mind, which he had an idea to shoot and had written a script. He had [Kris] Kristofferson to play the hero, but there was this role in it that he thought I would bring something to, and I had a ball playing that part.
AVC: That’s a really interesting film, and certainly one way in which it stands out is that it features Divine in a rare non-drag role.
KC: Yeah, I think it was the only time Divine didn’t appear in drag, or certainly one of the few times, anyway. Alan created a time and place that was no time and no place, so it was not identifiable with any particular period or any particular city or any particular country, for that matter. I mean, everybody spoke English, but that was about it. So you couldn’t pigeonhole that film. It was obviously a genre film, but the context in which the story takes place was so completely its own time and place that I think it holds up remarkably. And after that, of course, Alan came to me with The Moderns, which we’d been trying to make since Welcome To L.A.
KC: After we made Welcome To L.A., the next thing we were going to do was this story about Paris in the ’20s, and we’d been trying to make that film ever since then. I think it was, what, 11 years between when we first talked about it and when we finally got it made? At one point I was shooting a film in France that Michael Ritchie was directing called An Almost Perfect Affair, and we shot in Paris for a month and then we shot down on the Côte D’Azur in Nice for another six weeks. But while we were all in Paris, Donald Sutherland and his wife, Francine Racette had an apartment in Le Marais, so I rented their apartment for the month I was in Paris. And it had a couple of extra rooms, so Alan and Joyce Rudolph actually came and stayed with me in that apartment while we talked about The Moderns and tried to figure out how to make it. We were kind of all living there on my per diem from An Almost Perfect Affair, trying to make that movie! We came close, but then it all fell apart.
At that point in time, it was going to me and [the antagonist] Stone was going to be played by Mick Jagger. Mick and I actually had a long phone call one time, and he called me in Paris and said [Does a credible Jagger impression.] “So what’s going on? I haven’t heard anything from Alan!” And I said, “Well, here’s the deal, man: we’re trying to get it made, and we’re trying to get the money, so just sit tight, and I’m sure he’ll let you know.” And then, of course, it all fell apart, and we never did get to make the movie. And then when we finally did, Mick was unavailable, and we couldn’t wait for him. And according to Alan, Mick has been kind of miffed with him ever since that we didn’t wait for him to play the part, because he wanted to do it! Oh, well.
KC: Yes, I did. Well, I was playing a guy who was a painter in his own right, and he was specifically a forger. I mean, he had his own style and his own thing, but he was a very gifted forger and actually could make money doing it. So that’s a big basis of the story: he gets commissioned to do these forgeries of some of these, a Modigliani and a Matisse. So I set up an easel in my hotel room! I had actually been working on it even when we were all in Paris together. I copied some of Cezanne’s charcoal and pencil sketches when I was in the apartment there, to try and work on it and kind of get my hand in. And then I set up an easel in my hotel room in Montreal and started painting.
Alan had this postcard of a painting by [Kees] Van Dongen called “Montparnos Blues,” and he was using that as his idea for what the tone of the film was, in terms of the color and the atmosphere. So when I was in my hotel room, copying Cezanne and Matisse, I took this Van Dongen and began to copy it. And then I sort of branched off and added a couple of figures to it, because we had seven principals in the cast. So I forged this van Dongen and I added two more figures, and in his original painting, the faces were very amorphous and nondescript, so I actually took the faces of all the principal actors and put them in the painting. And then at the bottom of his Montparnos Blues, there’s a street scene, but the size of my canvas was such that I had space at the bottom, so I just decided, “Well, I’ll riff on that.” And I put a nightscape of Paris in the ’20s underneath them, and I actually put the Tour Eiffel—the Eiffel Tower—underneath. I think it’s John Lone’s foot. [Laughs.] I think he’s standing atop the Eiffel Tower!
When I finished it, Alan was so taken with what I’d done, and they all loved it, so it became a poster for the movie, although the distributor for the film—as they will do—missed the aesthetic of that. And when they actually packaged the film and put it out on VHS, my painting and that logo were underneath an overlay, and on the outside of the overlay was sort of a typical Hollywood rendering of some of the characters in the movie that really had nothing to do with the tone or the feeling of the film. It was very much a Hollywood ad campaign idea of what the poster should be, and it was kind of lame, frankly!
The Duellists (1977)—“D’Hubert”
KC: Ridley Scott was making that movie—it was his first feature film—and we all had the same agent, I think, was how that came about. And Ridley had this opportunity to make this film for Paramount, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but apparently Paramount told him he could make it if he got certain people in the cast, and I was among their list of approved actors, having done Nashville for them.
So Ridley came to me, and I read the script and thought it was interesting, but I was at the time on my first national tour. I was playing clubs with my band. You know, because I had a hit record because of Nashville! “I’m Easy” was a Top 10 record, and I was out there being sort of a fledgling pop star, and I remember resisting going and doing The Duellists because I was having fun on the road. So I got a call from Ridley—I think I might’ve been in Chicago—and he said, “Are you going to do the film, Keith?” And I said, “Oh, Ridley, I don’t know, I don’t know…” He said, “Keith, we’re shooting it in the Dordogne region of France.” And I said, “Yeah?” He said, “Think of the food!” [Laughs.] And I laughed, and I said, “Okay.”
So we went off and made that movie, and we shot it in a little village called Sarlat, which is oftentimes referred to as the stomach of France. It’s where the truffles come from, and it’s where the foie gras is made, which if you know how that comes about, it’s such an extraordinary level of cruelty to animals to produce that product that I’ll never eat it. But it was an amazing experience. It was a low-budget film, but… it was Ridley. And he’s a genius. What he managed to do for $1.1 million, which I think was the budget of that movie. To do a period film and have it come out looking the way it did, it was a remarkable experience. And the film really holds up.
KC: I guess at that moment in time I had a certain… presence? A certain level of presence in the industry. But that was at Madonna’s request. There was a concept for the video, and the idea was that it was kind of a Howard Hughes and Marilyn Monroe sort of idea, that there was this guy behind the scenes making it all happen. And she saw me as that guy, so she asked for me. And I came and did it. There were rumors that flew about the two of us, which were complete poppycock. There was never any romance between Madonna and myself. I mean, we had a moment where we’re kissing in that video, but she at the time was with Sean Penn, and I was married with two kids, so there was no funny business there. I think people start those rumors because it creates interest and it makes people look at things and become more interested in what they’re looking at. But there was absolutely nothing to any of that.
KC: That was Robert Aldrich. And that was one of the only times I actually got a part in a movie in the conventional way: The role was there, I auditioned, I auditioned again, and then I actually did a full-fledged screen test, which they shot on a soundstage on the lot at 20th Century Fox. They put up a set, and Robert Aldrich actually directed me in this screen test. I was fully made up and wardrobed, and the thing was shot with a Mitchell BNC camera. I’ll never forget it: one of those great big ol’ cameras and this huge blimp of a sound protection thing around it. I mean, it was classic old-school, everything about it. And we shot that screen test, and then I waited for I think almost six weeks before they finally said, “You got the part!”
Lee Marvin was there at the same time, and I knew obviously it was his movie, and Ernie Borgnine was playing the other part in the movie. But I met Marvin there at wardrobe, and he said, “What are you doing for lunch?” I said, “Nothing.” He said, “C’mon with me!” And he took me to the commissary. I walked into the commissary with Lee Marvin at 20th Century Fox, and he introduced me to people. He said, “This’s Keith Carradine. We’re doin’ this movie together.” He was so cool. I mean, my God. And the two of us sat down in this booth and had lunch together, and one of the first things he said to me… He said, “Well, congratulations on getting this role.” I said, “Well, thanks!” He said, “You know, every other actor in Hollywood hates your guts right now.” [Laughs.] He was just the best. Just the best. And that was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until he died. And the same with Ernie Borgnine. You know, I went up there and did that movie with those guys, and I actually was with Ernie the night that he died.
These guys, you know, they were the real deal. And it was a great thing to do very early in my career, because I got a chance to spend eight weeks on a movie set up in Cottage Grove, Oregon with these two legendary actors. Talk about film school. Talk about acting class. But even more than that, it was a class in professionalism and just how you come to work every day and how you do your job. It was an extraordinary opportunity as a young actor, and as I say, I stayed friends with those guys all their lives. And I’m still friends with Lee’s widow, Pam.
KC: The reason I got the chance to play that part was because they had originally cast Andy Griffith in that role. And he got sick, he had some illness that sidelined him for about a year, and I don’t remember exactly what it was, but he had to bow out of the project. And to go from Andy Griffith to Keith Carradine… That’s quite a stretch! [Laughs.] But that was really how that came down.
So I went down to Chester, South Carolina and made that movie. Jerry London directed it. And it was a miniseries, so it was six hours of television. We were down there for about three months, and I got to play that role, which was challenging, in that here’s a character who’s in all six hours of the miniseries, and he goes from being a twentysomething-year-old guy to being in his late 70s. That was quite challenging, especially in the context of doing a miniseries for television. There was not a huge budget for a lot of heavy duty makeup, so I couldn’t do the typical aging thing of a lot of appliances and things to make you look 70-plus years old. So a lot of it I had to kind of create physically, and it was an interesting, challenging thing to do. But they liked it. I got an Emmy nomination for that!
Raising Hope (2014)—“Colt Palomino”
KC: Well, now, that was an opportunity that I had been waiting for for many, many years: to have a chance to go in and play with my daughter [Martha Plimpton]. It was the last season of the series, and they didn’t know it at the time, but they had a suspicion, I think. And Martha was finally comfortable enough to give me the chance to come and hang out with her for a week. I had a ball.
Fargo (2014-15)—“Lou Solverson”
KC: When that came along, I jumped at that chance. [Showrunner] Noah Hawley is a genius. He managed to channel the Coen brothers and take what they had begun with their movie and then sort of ramp off from there. But it was still their voice, so much so that, when they saw what he’d written, they allowed their names to be put on it. They had a choice: they didn’t have to have their names on it. But they said, “Yeah, go ahead, because this is really good.” And it was a chance to work with Billy Bob [Thornton]. I’d never worked with him before. The whole experience was great. And Allison [Tolman], she was just an amazing discovery. I look forward to seeing anything she’s going to be doing next.
The Big Bang Theory (2010 and 2015)—“Wyatt”
AVC: How did you end up playing Penny’s father on The Big Bang Theory? That was a relatively big deal when the series finally cast someone to play that part.
KC: Some of the guys in the writers room on that show had worked on Complete Savages, so I suspect that there was a suggestion made when they were discussing various actors who might play that part. I believe that’s how that came about, because it came to me as, “Would he be interested?” And I said, “Absolutely!” And that was that. Off we went!
Madam Secretary (2014-present)—“President Conrad Dalton”
AVC: With Madam Secretary, you’re obviously not there 24/7, but you’ve still got a high-profile role. It must be nice to be able to pop in and out like that.
KC: It’s what a lot of actors will refer to as the golfer’s part. You know, you can do two or three days work, and the rest of the time you can just go play golf. [Laughs.] I actually have played golf in my life, but I’m a terrible golfer, I’ll never be any good at it, and I don’t do it that much anymore, so I can’t really call it a golfer’s role for me. But it is a wonderful part, it’s a terrific show, and Tea [Leoni] is just the best of the best. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of, and so far, so good: We’re about to start filming season three. In fact, my first day of work is tomorrow!
Thieves Like Us (1974)—“Bowie”
Nashville (1975)—“Tom Frank”
KC: Joan Tewkesbury was doing research for Nashville while we were shooting Thieves Like Us in Jackson, Mississippi back in 1973. We were all down there filming, and Joan—she had written the screenplay for Thieves Like Us—would go up to Nashville every weekend and hang out and talk to people and just sort of observe. She and Bob had this idea for this film, and Joan was designing it and writing the screenplay for it. And while we were shooting Thieves Like Us, Bob likes to have parties, and he had a party one weekend, and everybody was hanging out. Well, I had my guitar and I was playing, and I’ve written a lot of songs. And that was where the idea came from to use my music and put me in Nashville in that context.
Originally the concept was that there was this trio—Bill and Mary and Tom—and the original casting for Tom—they had cast Gary Busey in that part, and I was going to play Bill. But then Busey got an opportunity to do a pilot for a TV series called The Texas Wheelers, with him and Jack Elam, and Gary said, “I’m gonna do this pilot!” So when he dropped out, Bob—in his own inimitable way—put me into the role of Tom. And Gary Busey and I could not be more different or more opposite, really, in many, many ways. But Bob put me into the role of that guy, and I had a hard time with it, you know?
I mean, I agreed to play the part and everything, but the nature of the guy’s character and his relationship with women I found incredibly—it just made me very uncomfortable playing that guy. And I remember coming to Bob at one point halfway through and saying, “Bob, I’m not feeling this. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t think I’m doing well.” He said, “You’re fine, you’re fine.” He wouldn’t even talk to me about it. Well, later I realized that what he had done was put me in that role, and what he got—and what you see in the movie—is a guy who doesn’t like himself. And that’s Bob’s genius. I was an actor who didn’t like who I was playing, but what the audience sees is a guy who does not like himself. And then he took that song, “I’m Easy,” and he put it in that context, and the way it gets performed at the Exit Inn, with all of those different women that the guy’s been with… I mean, that’s a straight-ahead love song, and yet he puts it in that context. There’s kind of a loving cynicism about it, and it made it unforgettable.
AVC: It’s so odd to think that more people have probably heard “I’m Easy” than have seen Nashville.
KC: That might be true. In fact, yes, that’s probably true. But that song touched a nerve, man. It became a hit!
AVC: How shocking was that for you, to suddenly find yourself with a hit single?
KC: It was amazing! I think it went up to No. 17 on the Billboard chart, and it probably would’ve made it to No. 1 if there hadn’t been two versions of it in the marketplace. But that was sort of a classic Hollywood tale. ABC Records, who had the soundtrack for Nashville… You know, everybody said, “‘I’m Easy’ is the single!” And they said, “That’s not a single, there’s no way, it’s not gonna get any airplay, blah blah blah.” So we had the recording, but they didn’t put it out! So I recorded another version of it for my own personal album that John Guerin produced under the aegis of David Geffen, who signed me to Asylum Records.
When the song broke, it was actually broken by a radio station in Buffalo, New York. They played the song one day on the air, and they immediately got, like, 150 phone calls, people calling in and saying, “What was that? I want to hear that again!” That’s sort of how records were broken back then, if you weren’t part of the payola thing: if a record played and people responded. And that’s what happened with my song. All of a sudden it took off, and people were trying to buy it, but they couldn’t, because ABC had not put it out there, and the Asylum version wasn’t out yet, because we were also behind the eight ball. Then the thing won the Academy Award, and it was still a month after it won the Oscar before you could buy the single in a record store.
AVC: After I’m Easy, you did a second album, Lost And Found, but that was it. Did you consider continuing onward with further albums?
KC: Oh, I would’ve kept going. But Lost And Found didn’t do any business. I actually thought it was better than the first album I made, but it wasn’t selling any records. I think my first album sold just under a half a million records. On the second one, though, I don’t think we sold more than, like, 80,000 LPs, and after that, the record company basically said, “Well, good luck!” And that was it. I’ve never stopped writing songs, but it’s a young person’s game.
AVC: Just as a quick sidebar about Lost And Found, you did a version of “San Diego Serenade” on that album.
KC: Yeah, I’m a big Tom Waits fan. Tom Waits and I worked together: We did a movie called Cold Feet. But Tom and I had been friends since back in the day, and our lives have criss-crossed a bit. My daughter Martha, when she was about 4 years old—Tom and Shelley, Martha’s mother, were in a relationship for a couple of years. So Tom and I, our paths have crossed in interesting ways over the years. But I just think he’s a genius. I think he’s maybe one of the top 10 songwriters of all time, and I was a huge fan of Tom’s before we even met.
The first time we met, he was doing a gig at McCabe’s [Guitar Shop], and I went to see his concert because I had heard his first record and was a huge fan. I’m trying to remember the name of the folk artist who was on before him, but I wasn’t too interested in her, so I was just kind of hanging out in the guitar shop. And he was out there, so I went over to say hi. I said, “Hey, I’m here to see your show, man.” And he said, “Hey, I know you!” And I said, “Well, I’m…” He said, “No, no, no, no. I know you. Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me where. I know you. Where’d you go to high school?” I said, “No, I’m…” “Are you from San Diego?” ’Cause that’s where he’s from. I said, “No,” and he said, “Don’t tell me!” I said, “Well, anyhow, I’m really looking forward to hearing our set. I’m a big fan.”
I walked away, and then he came over to me and said, “Cigaret!” I said, “Yeah?” He said, “Cigaret, man. I drove 90 miles to see that movie when it first came out.” And he recognized me as playing Cigaret in Emperor Of The North! He was very interested in that world and that genre, that kind of American folklore. And Lee Marvin was very knowledgeable about that period of time in American history. When he was a kid, he lived through it: the “black shadow,” as it was called, it was all these homeless, itinerant workers who sort of moved from east to west, and a lot of them rode the rails. Tom Waits, he’s kind of a sociologist, you know? He’s very, very interested in all of those kinds of aspects in American culture, so he was very interested in that movie and drove a long way to go see it when it came out.
KC: Great. We had a really good time. And Rip Torn was amazing. You know, I’ve had a chance to work with some legendary actors in my life, and Rip is certainly one of them. But Tom, I mean, he’s a great guy, you know? And we’ve stayed in touch sporadically over the years. I got a really nice phone call from him when my brother Davey checked out. And then I got another really nice call from him when… [Chuckles.] he finally caught up and saw Deadwood. This was just a couple of years ago, but he and Kathleen, his wife, finally got around to watching Deadwood, and he called up to leave me a message about that.
AVC: Is there a project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
KC: You know, there are a few of those. Obviously the stuff I did with Alan Rudolph. It always sort of ended up below the radar. And he and I have just done another movie, so we’ll see what happens with that. It’s called Ray And Helen, and we just finished shooting it in Los Angeles. As Alan likes to say, “Well, it’s a first-run movie. First run, then duck!” [Laughs.] So we made another one of those!
There’s also The Bachelor, a film I did that was directed by a wonderful Italian filmmaker called Roberto Faenza. It was based on an [Arthur] Schnitzler short story, and we shot that in Budapest, Hungary, and then in the Canary Islands. It was me and Miranda Richardson, Max Von Sydow, and Kristin Scott Thomas, and [Ennio] Morricone did the music, Milena Canonero did the costumes… It’s an exquisite little movie. And try as I might, I couldn’t get it distributed. I finally found a distributor here whose only claim to fame was that they had distributed porno flicks! [Laughs.] But they wanted to go legit, and I found these guys, so we actually screened it at the San Francisco Film Festival, and it got an amazing review. But I couldn’t get anybody to take it seriously, so no one’s ever seen it.
And then there’s another that I did that we never even got prints made of it! It’s a film I did with Dirk Benedict called Cahoots, and I’m particularly proud of that, but no one ever got to see that. We shot that on video, and that was really a tough little movie, and I thought it was a terrific movie, but we were a victim of the producers’ syndrome. The guy who financed the film made more money by making sure that it did not get sold. And, in fact, that company was investigated—and I think they’ve been brought up on criminal charges!—because they’ve done that on a number of films. So it was sort of ill-fated from the beginning.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)—“Guest at Heartland”
AVC: To close on a complete absurdity, you were part of the big closing scene in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
KC: Yeah. Isn’t everybody? [Laughs.]
AVC: Was that just a case where they did a cattle call for whoever was nearby?
KC: Pretty much, yeah. And everybody came. I mean, you saw who was there! And the film was just—well, it’s ridiculous! But we didn’t know that, and we weren’t a part of it. We just came in to do this sort of grand finale singing at the end of the movie. And we thought, “Well, what the hell: It’s the Beatles.” Well, at least it’s their music. But how do you say no to that? So we all went and stood up there in those bleachers and did that. [Laughs.] Hey, man, what can you say? It’s just one of those great mystifyingly inept moments of pop culture!