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: Whether he’s playing a despicable villain (Robocop), a stern authority figure (Rambo III), or a well intentioned, but ultimately misguided father (Dead Poets Society), Kurtwood Smith’s appearances in front of the camera are as consistently memorable as his characters are formidable. In ABC’s Resurrection, Smith is once again being a dad, but this time he’s playing a fellow who’s decidedly more in touch with his feelings than Red Forman on That ’70s Show.
Resurrection (2014-present)—“Henry Langston”
The A.V. Club: Resurrection has a similar premise to the French series The Returned, but it’s actually based on an unrelated book by Jason Motts. You mentioned during the TCA panel, though, that you’d seen the film that inspired the French series and didn’t exactly love it.
Kurtwood Smith: Yeah, I saw the French film, and, you know, it’s so completely different from Resurrection anyway. It’s a much larger-scale situation, and the people aren’t the same. They seem very disjointed, distant. When you first see them, there are thousands of people – or you’re supposed to feel like there are thousands of people—kind of walking down the street very zombie-ish. Not literally zombies, but kind of like that. So it’s a whole different thing than ours. I think maybe there is a child in there, but it isn’t really dealt with in the same way. It’s more of a film about meetings. Committee meetings asking, “What are we going to do?” That sort of stuff. Whereas ours deals with the immediate people and the emotional situations.
For me, it’s been a very different role. Since Dead Poets Society, I haven’t played a lot of roles that exist on an emotional level, and I think that’s primarily where the role of Henry is at this point, in the first season. We’ll see what happens later if we go on, which hopefully we will. His storyline in this is basically an emotional one. It’s his reacting to the child coming back and trying to deal with that, in the sense of, “How can I accept this boy who breaks my heart every moment I see him because of who he is and everything he reminds me of? What does this say about the memories of the other one? And how do I justify what I’ve done with my life for the last 30 years now that the boy’s back?” So it’s an emotional turmoil for him.
AVC: Did they come looking for you specifically for the series?
KS: My manager read the script and said, “Gee, you’d be great for this,” and so he got me a meeting through the casting director. I went in, I met him, I read for it, and I responded to it right away when I read the script and thought, “Oh, this is great! I’d like to do it, and I think it’d be great for me, because it is different.” I’ve always liked doing “different” as much as I can, since the beginning, rather than just doing the same kind of roles for 30 years. I’ve been fortunate to have a variety of stuff. I like thinking of myself as an actor rather than just somebody who does this or that.
Lou Grant (1980)—“Fire Captain”
Roadie (1980)—“Security Guard”
Soap (1980)—“Guy in Laundromat”
AVC: I always try to ask about an actor’s first on-camera role, and while it seems very unlikely, there’s a claim on IMDB that you’re in The Deer Hunter, playing a prisoner of war.
KS: Yeah, it’s not true. This past summer when we were in Atlanta, we watched The Deer Hunter. I hadn’t seen it since it came out, and… well, we don’t need to go into my reactions about the movie itself, but I did look for that moment in particular, and I see who they’re thinking of, but, no, that’s not me. I’d have no problem acknowledging that if it was me. I’m not trying to hide anything! [Laughs.]
[That role has since been removed from Smith’s IMDB page. —Ed.]
AVC: So how did you find your way into acting in the first place?
KS: I had some familiarity with doing oral interpretation in high school, narrating school assemblies, so I had somewhat of a performance background, but I hadn’t actually done any acting, or considered it until I was in college and… not doing well. I didn’t really have an interest. I wanted to go to school, but I didn’t really know what to do. So I ended up taking an acting class and I did quite well, and I thought, “Well, let’s see how this goes.” And it went well, and like in anything else, I just kept getting reinforced in what I was doing, and everything just kind of fell into line.
AVC: So what was your first on-camera role? There seem to have been several right around the same time, including tiny parts on Soap and in Roadie.
KS: Yeah, those things were all just things where I was scrambling around, trying to get an agent. I didn’t have an agent when I was doing all that stuff. I was just getting lucky here and there. But I think the first thing I did was an episode of Lou Grant, where I played a fireman. Then these other things came up here and there.
The Renegades (1982, 1983)—“Captain Scanlon”
AVC: Your first proper series role was as Captain Scanlon on The Renegades, right?
KS: Yep. That was kind of big for me, in the sense that it catapulted me out of day player into a kind of a guest star. The series didn’t go anyplace—we did seven episodes, then it collapsed—but it still put me on another level.
AVC: How was the overall experience of working on the show?
KS: Well… [Starts to laugh.] It was my first real experience, in a way, and I was working for Larry Gordon, and Chuck [Gordon] and Joel Silver ran the show. They were characters, you know. Especially Joel. He was just this aggressive young guy. And Chuck was so easy-going. Patrick Swayze was on it. It was fun, I have to say. A lot of times, looking back on it, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. But I was just going for it. And it seemed to work all right, you know? I had fun, and I learned a lot.
AVC: The opening credits are on YouTube, and you would be hard-pressed to create opening credits that scream “’80s action series” more than the ones for The Renegades do.
KS: Oh, my God. I’ll have to go back and look at them.
AVC: We’ll link to it, don’t worry.
KS: Okay, thank you!
AVC: Well, you thank me now…
KS: Oh. [Grimaces.] Yeah, you’re right. Well, let’s wait and see, then. [Laughs.]
Quick Change (1990)—“Russ Crane” / “Lombino”
KS: Well, you know, working with Bill Murray… [Laughs.] Bill co-directed that [with Howard Franklin] and cast it. And I got to work with Jason Robards! So it was fun. The thing was that, when I got the part, they said, “We don’t want him to be mafia,” and I said, “Okay.” So when I read for it initially, I just read it kind of like some executive, and they were like, “Great!” Then when we started shooting, they said, “Could you be more mafia?” And I was like, “What? That’s not what…” If I had thought about it and worked it up, it would’ve been fun, but there I am, on the set, and now they’ve decided they want me to be more mafia? It was a little perplexing to me. But that wasn’t coming from Bill. That was coming from Howard. But I had a fabulous time working on the movie because of all the people. I like Bill, and I got along great with him.
AVC: Do you have any specific anecdotes from the experience?
KS: We had a scene in the first-class section of this airliner. In fact, they moved the entire movie. The movie was shot entirely in New York except for this scene. They moved the entire picture to Florida where they had a mock-up in a studio of the first-class section of an airplane. So that’s where we were, and we had lots of extras; the plane was full. Jason was in the scene. I think Randy [Quaid] and Geena [Davis] were, too. So there were just tons of people. And we got ready for Bill to call, “Action!” So he said, “Okay, everybody ready? Sound? Everybody…?” And then he starts singing. You know the song “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”? He starts singing it kind of like the lounge guy he used to do on Saturday Night Live… and he sings the entire song. All the verses. The entire song. Then he says, “Action!” [Laughs.] It had nothing to do with anything. But we were all quite entertained. It was great!
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)—“Federation President”
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1996)—“Thrax”
Star Trek: Voyager (1997)—“Annorax”
AVC: Your Star Trek experience started with playing the Federation President in The Undiscovered Country.
KS: Yes. I had done a movie with Nick Meyer called Company Business before that—with Gene Hackman and Mikhail Baryshnikov—and then they called me up one day and said, “Hey, we’re doing Star Trek VI!” He had also done Star Trek II, I think. So he said, “Do you want to do something?” I said, “Yeah, sure!” He said, “Well, take a look and see who you like.” So I called him back and I said, “How about the Federation President?” And he said, “Oh, great!” They had gotten somebody else, but they were just looking to go a different way. So I did that, and… [Hesitates.] Well, you know, there was some fun involved, but…
AVC: You had some interesting makeup with that.
KS: Yeah, the makeup looked great, but the problem with that—and when I played this Kardashian on… [Starts to laugh.] No, not Kardashian. It’s like Kardashian. When I played the Cardassian on Deep Space Nine—is the makeup just isn’t comfortable, you can’t lay down. For the Federation President, I had to have the lenses where they made my eyes look blue, so everything was always foggy, I was never comfortable, and I’d never get enough sleep. You had to come in at, like, 4 in the morning to get the makeup, then they’d work you for 12 hours, then you’d spend another hour and a half taking off the makeup, so you’d end up getting maybe three and a half hours sleep a night. So by the end, you’re just punchy and grumpy. But when I did Voyager, it was less makeup and a much more interesting character who had some real depth to him.
AVC: You’ve described your character on Voyager as being rather Shakespearean.
KS: Well, I think that way of the Star Trek shows in general, because of the stories and because of the scope. That’s why so many of the actors on those shows are really trained actors. Rene Auberjonois and Armin Shimerman and Jeff Combs… I knew a lot of those guys from before, having done theater with them, so I knew about their classical backgrounds and such. I think that helps in those kinds of shows, because of the size of the characters and the size of the stories.
Fortress (1992)—“Prison Director Poe”
KS: Oh. Yeah. [Goes quiet.]
KS: [Laughs.] No, it’s just that I hardly ever talk about that film. I don’t know why. I liked acting in it, even though I was, uh, at odds at times with Stuart [Gordon, the director]. I still like Stuart. I don’t know why we never worked together again. He actually offered me something after that, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do. Yeah, we’d bang heads here and there, but that’s because we both had our views in what we wanted to do. I liked that character and the idea of the character.
We shot it in Australia, and one of the really great parts about doing this, at least when I was doing features, was traveling the world. It’s a different feeling when you’re there working than it is when you’re just visiting. When I’m working, I kind of feel like I involve myself more in the country. Even if I’m not making a foreign film, even if it’s an American film, somehow if I’m there and I’m working… I don’t know, there’s just a different vibe. You feel more connected to the country than if you’re just passing through as a tourist. I was in Australia for months on that film. I enjoyed it. It was odd, though, because everything was shot in the studio. So it was like, “Why did we come to Australia to film in a studio?” [Laughs.] “Why didn’t we film this in L.A.?” Everybody in the movie [was] American. But it had to do with money.
AVC: Do you remember specifically what you and Stuart butted heads about?
KS: No. Just character stuff, where he wanted me to play a scene one way and I wanted it to be another way. He may have wanted it more dramatic than I felt it should be. I really don’t remember. It could’ve been the other way around. It’s all small stuff in the long run, anyway. But it seemed important at the time. [Laughs.] And it is important! It’s important at times that you stand up for yourself, so you do feel that the character is yours, that you’re not just there doing somebody else’s bidding.
Cedar Rapids (2011)—“Orin Helgesson”
KS: Well, I was in a hotel in New York with my wife, and at one point I started to change clothes, but then I thought, “Oh, I’d better close this window. Nobody from that office building over there wants to see my wrinkled old ass.” And then I remembered, “Well, what am I worried about? I’ve already showed my ass to tens of millions of people!” [Laughs.]
That was my first day on the set, and it’ll always be my strongest memory of the movie, unfortunately, having to do a nude scene. It’s weird to be naked in front of 50 to 100 people who aren’t. Well, one other person was, but… Anyway, after we did that, it was fun. It’s one of those movies where… it’s just a movie full of funny people. Funny, insecure people. [Laughs.] Including myself! It was always fun hanging around the set. Mike O’Malley and I spent two days sitting at a table where the action was always elsewhere, and they’d get a shot of us occasionally, but otherwise O’Malley and I were just sitting at this table bullshitting. It was great.
Staying Alive (1983)—“Choreographer”
KS: [Slumps in his chair, then starts to laugh.] Uh… Wow, this is so strange. Yeah, I was doing the TV series we talked about a minute ago, The Renegades, I was in the cafeteria, and the casting director came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Rhonda Young, and I was wondering if you’d be interested in meeting Sylvester Stallone.” I was like, “Uh, yeah, sure.” So I went, she gave me these sides… maybe she gave me the whole script, I don’t remember. But I went and read for Sly, and he was like, “Hey, how you doin’?” She said, “Now, Kurtwood doesn’t really know anything about dance.” And he said, “So? Neither did Roy Scheider.” And that was it.
So I did it, and it was fine, but then they cut all my stuff! [Starts to laugh.] And they didn’t tell me… then they invited me to a screening! So I sat there, and I’m like, “Where’d my dialogue go?” I had dialogue with Chris McDonald! He was a producer of this show, and I was this choreographer, so I had a scene with him, and then I said something to [John] Travolta… All this shit, gone. All you see is me wandering around while these actors are auditioning at the beginning. It’s like, “Please! I have to live this down?” It’s bad enough to get cut out of the movie, but it’s almost worse when they’ve left you in the movie but not speaking. You might as well be the uncredited guy from The Deer Hunter!
AVC: Well, at least you can confirm this one, for better or worse.
KS: [Laughs.] Yes! I can confirm it, and I got paid! I still get residuals, even!
[Christopher McDonald does not appear on any credits for Stayin’ Alive. After reaching out to his publicist for confirmation, we were unexpectedly gifted with a voicemail from the actor himself to clarify the situation:
“Yes, I was in that movie, and I got a chance to work with Sly Stallone and all those people as the reader,” said McDonald. “I was playing Travolta opposite all of the girls who were coming in to read for the movie, so I hung out with Stallone and the casting directors and all that stuff for a while. Then they threw me a bone and I got into this beginning scene with Kurtwood, and he was great. He was the big director guy, and I was his assistant. Unfortunately, that scene never made it into the movie. It should be in the DVD extras or something!” —Ed.]
Rambo III (1988)—“Robert Griggs”
Oscar (1991)—“Lt. Toomey, Chicago PD”
KS: Even though Staying Alive didn’t work out so well, I did do two films with Stallone after that. Oscar was great fun. I enjoyed working with John Landis a lot. I didn’t really see that much of Sly, just having to do with the parts of the film we were in. I’d see him around the lot, though. We shot a lot of that in Hollywood, on the Lot—it used to be called Warner Hollywood Studios—over on Sunset Boulevard. So I’d see him around, and we’d go look at dailies.
AVC: Was getting Oscar the result of Stallone having worked with you before?
KS: I assume it was. When John asked me to do the movie through my agent, I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” I don’t remember if I asked to have lunch or he asked to have lunch with me, but in any event, we had lunch, and then he told me that it was Stallone’s idea to use me in the film, which I would imagine was because we did Rambo III together in Thailand! I was only in the last part of that film, and that was the part that was shot in Thailand. I enjoyed doing that film.
AVC: Had you been to Thailand before?
KS: No, that was my first time. I went back 10 years later and did another film [HBO’s A Bright Shining Lie], but at that was my first time there. It was in December, and we started in Chiang Mai, and then we were down in Bangkok, and Sly got sick, so they spent a week just filming Richard Crenna and I. Every day we’d go out on boats with a small crew—just a little skeleton crew—and cruise around different parts of Bangkok, and they’d film us looking around for Stallone. [Laughs.] I mean, Richard Crenna, what a wonderful guy. Great fun to hang around with. Very funny and warm, lots of great stories. That was a real treat, getting to do that.
Dead Poets Society (1989)—“Mr. Perry”
KS: One of my great experiences, getting to work with Peter Weir. A great director. When people ask me about directors, the directors I’ve loved working with… Well, I loved working with Paul Verhoeven, even though he’s mad. [Laughs.] Peter Weir’s probably the best in terms of being able to deal with big movies. And Alexander Payne, who I still stay in touch with. Alexander’s terrific. He does small films, but they’re quirky. Peter does as well, although he does big ones, too. All three of them are great directors, and all three of them are people who make sure they get what they need from you… and they will get it, one way or the other. Beyond that, though, they pay very close attention to what you’re doing, and at the same time they’re encouraging you in different ways and getting more from you than they asked you for.
Peter is that way in particular. He watches you like a hawk, and he’ll say, “Don’t forget that thing you did,” and you won’t even realize what you’ve done. “That thing with the slippers! Don’t forget that! That was great!” Once I spent half a day shooting stuff with Robert Sean Leonard at his school, that night I went and saw dailies, and I thought, “I wish I’d played that scene differently, because I’ve already been yelling, and it would’ve been so much better if I’d done it different.” So we went back the next day, we hadn’t shot Robert’s stuff yet, so we shot it, and I played it the way I wanted to. And Peter said, “You’re playing this differently than you did yesterday. Is that because of what you saw in the dailies?” I said, “Yeah, it was.” He said, “Yeah, I thought so. And you’re right.” And so he said, “Johnny, come here,” to our director of photography, Johnny. “Turn the lights around. I want to reshoot Kurtwood’s stuff from yesterday.” Because he was right. He caught it. Not only did he see what I was doing differently, but he knew exactly why I was changing it. I really learned a lesson then.
AVC: What moment was that?
KS: It was early in the film. It was at school, when I come into the room and say, “Okay, we talked, and you shouldn’t be on the school magazine,” or whatever it is. And he’s like, “But Dad, I want…” And then finally I said, “Come outside,” and I take him out in the hall and put the pressure on him about his mother and a bunch of shit, you know. When we first shot it, I was just on his ass right away. I was much more tough with him, instead of just trying to be firm and make him feel guilty. It was just a different way of doing it, rather than just strong-arming him. It made it more interesting.
House (2007)—“Dr. Obyedkov”
AVC: When you guest-starred on House, you didn’t really get to work with Robert Sean Leonard, but presumably you at least saw each other around the set.
KS: I did. Not very much, though. He came to the set one night when we were shooting to see me, and then toward the end we were all in the group scene… at least I think he was in that scene. Anyway, I saw him a couple of times on the set, yeah, so it was great seeing him. I’d seen him when he first started doing the show, but before that… [Sighs.] Well, actually, what happened with Philip Seymour Hoffman has reminded me: I’d seen Robert in New York, because I’d gone to see A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which he was in with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, and Vanessa Redgrave. So I saw Robert then, and that was the first time I’d seen him since closer to when we’d done Dead Poets Society.
Probably about a year or so after Dead Poets Society, I was in Paris, working on Company Business, and I got a phone call from him that he was in town. He and Ethan Hawke were just kind of cruising around Europe, basking in their teenage glory, and they’d just been to the Cannes Film Festival. They’d thought it was going to be great fun to show up at this big function in tuxedos and tennis shoes, but when they did, they wouldn’t let them in. They just said [In an Italian accent.] “No, no, no! You have on the wrong shoes!” [Laughs.] So I had dinner with the two of them in Paris. I continued to follow Robert’s career after that, but he was primarily doing stage work for so long, so I saw him in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but that wasn’t until, what, almost 15 years later? But then within about a year or so of seeing him in that, I started seeing him at FOX functions, because I was doing That ’70s Show and House had started. Robert’s a really nice man and a wonderful actor.
Boxing Helena (1993)—“Dr. Alan Harrison”
KS: Oh, wow, yeah! I loved Jennifer Lynch. She was great. But I ended up on that film because I knew [co-writer] Philippe Caland through… his girlfriend, I think? Sorry, we’re going back to the early ’90s here! But Philippe had this script that he wanted to do that was written by Jennifer Lynch, and they wanted me to play the lead, the part that Julian [Sands] ended up playing. I said, “Yeah,” and then there was a bunch going on with money and this and that, and ultimately what it came down to was that they could get the money, but they couldn’t get the money with me playing the lead. [Laughs.] So they asked me to do another part, and after I got done sniffling, I said, “Sure, okay.”
So first Ed [Harris] was going to do it with Kim Basinger, and it was all set to go, but then all of a sudden she fell out, and then Ed fell out, and then they sued Kim over it… and won, actually, because they had raised money on her name, and then she dropped out at the last second. You’ve gotta be careful when you sign these intent letters, you know. Usually they just say, “If I still have the time and I’m still interested, I want to do this film,” as opposed to “I’m definitely doing the film.” Anyway, then it ended up being Julian and Sherilyn Fenn, and Bill Paxton, too.
So we all went off to Atlanta and made this film, and I think what happened with that film was that it kept getting softer. I think it was a much freakier film to begin with, as I recall. I haven’t seen it in so long, but as I recall, when I finally saw the movie, I thought, “Well, it’s a lot softer than the original script.” I mean, I’m sure Jennifer Lynch was under pressure from the distributors to do that. But it was a much harder-edged movie originally and—I thought—a more interesting film. I haven’t seen Sherilyn in a long time, but I saw Julian last year, and he’s doing fine. Oh, and Art Garfunkel was in the film, too! That was great, to be standing around in the yard all night, talking to a legend. He was telling me about how, at that time, he was walking across America. Not all at once, but he’d go and he’d walk for a week or so, then he’d go off and do some singing or a part in a movie, and then he’d go back to where he’d left off and start walking again. It was his intent to get all the way across the country. I don’t know if he ever did or not, though.
Company Business (1991)—“Elliot Jaffe”
Hitchcock (2012)—“Geoffrey Shurlock”
AVC: You described Art Garfunkel as “a legend.” Have you ever found yourself starstruck by someone you were working with?
KS: Yeah, sure. I mean, I guess it depends on what you mean by “starstruck,” but there are a lot of times when I’m in projects where… Well, take Hitchcock, for example, with Anthony Hopkins. He’s a great actor, and it was great getting to work with him. The great thing about guys like that, be it Hopkins or Gene Hackman or any of those kind of guys, the way in which they behave toward you is generally professional, at least in my experience, but beyond that, they’re also usually easy to converse with and kind of be social with, and they tell stories or whatever. Hopkins was wonderful that way. And Jason Robards was terrific when I worked with him on Quick Change. He was so much fun to talk to.
Gene Hackman… isn’t very chummy. [Laughs.] He’s certainly friendly and extremely professional. If you want to talk about acting, he’ll talk to you all day. If you want to talk about the character, the situation, he’s right there for you. He came in on his day off and did the other side of a telephone conversation for me! That’s great stuff. I asked him about working with Woody Allen, because I was going to be doing a film with Woody, and he spent some time talking about Woody Allen. But the kind of questions you might ask… like, if you wanted to talk about, like, “So what was Mississippi Burning like?” Uh, no. Gene wasn’t much for that.
AVC: You probably won’t be surprised to hear that we’ve yet to have any success at pitching him on this feature.
KS: [Laughs.] No, that doesn’t surprise me. But, you know, as far as the work goes, it really didn’t matter whether he was chatty or not. He was still terrific. Like I said, he was always quite friendly and professional. And once you’re on the set and the cameras are rolling, they’re just actors, they’re good at what they do, and you’re just working with them.
I’m trying to think of an example of this off the top of my head and I can’t, but I have also worked with people where, when I was acting with them… I don’t want to sound like I was disappointed with them or anything, but it just seemed like good work. We’re both working, we did the scene, whatever. But then I see the scene, and somehow there’s a magic there that’s coming from them that I wasn’t really aware of when I was doing the scene. That, to me, is sometimes surprising. It’s part of the magic of knowing how to work in front of the camera, I guess. Some people have it, and it just radiates from them in a way that you’re not even really aware of it when you’re physically in the room with them.
So, sure, I get starstruck in the sense of meeting people whose work I love and I’ve always been impressed with. But it doesn’t usually carry over to actually working with them. Once we’re working together, it’s just… work.
Shadows And Fog (1991)—“Vogel’s Follower”
AVC: How was your Woody Allen experience?
KS: Oh, it was fun! You know, they warned me so much before I first went to meet him, which was out here [in Los Angeles], actually. He was filming Scenes From A Mall out here, so I went to see him, but they’d said, “So when you’re out on the set, he’s not really going to talk to you. He’s just going to say, ‘Hello,’ and that’s it, so don’t ask him questions and such.” [Laughs.] I’m like, “Uh, okay…” So I went in, his assistant brought me into the bedroom of his house, and he said, “Hi,” and we chatted. He asked me a couple of questions, I asked him a couple of questions about being in Los Angeles, and he was very engaging, thanked me for coming, and I got the part.
It wasn’t a big part, but I thought it’d be an interesting experience, and it was. When it actually came time to shoot it, it was really fascinating watching him, watching how that was shot. At that time, he was using a camera on a crane a lot, so he’d block a scene and would block the camera movement at the same time, so it’d take a long time to set things up. I’d come out and block the scene; it’d be me and him and the camera operator and Mia Farrow. And then they’d send me away, and it would take a while, but then when they came back, everything was ready. We’d do three takes, I think, and that was it, because the close-ups, the medium shots, it was all worked into the camera blocking. So it wasn’t like you shot it and then shot it again from a different angle. The camera did it all in one master. That was interesting to me.
At some point, though, something went wrong and, again, the assistant director tells you, “Don’t bother Woody in between takes. He doesn’t talk to you people.” [Laughs.] And it just wasn’t true. He was just standing there, I was just standing there, so we started talking, and I had a great time talking to him about New York and movie theaters that he used to go to when he was a kid and what he was trying to do in this film, with the way he was working on it. He was very easy to talk to.
As far as actually working with him, he just told me what he wanted and I did it. At one point, he was kind of fluffering around with one of his lines, and it was my cue, and I was never quite sure when he was finished. But he asked me to come in quicker on that line, and I said, “Okay, I will, but… I’m not quite sure when you’re done with your line.” And he said, “Oh!” So he checked to see what the line was, and he did it that way, and that was that. That was the only direction he ever gave me, other than, you know, “Okay, you come up the ramp, talk to her, talk to me, blah blah blah, go off that way.” That was it. But, again, a lovely time, and there was so many interesting people on the movie.
Robocop (1987)—“Clarence J. Boddicker”
KS: Oh, wow! Well that was a big deal for me.
AVC: You referred to Paul Verhoeven as “mad” a moment ago.
KS: “Mad” as in the intensity that he brings to the project. Not “mad” as in, like, “crazed.” [Laughs.] I don’t want to be perceived as going around saying he was a nutcase or anything! We really developed that role, and they really gave me a lot of leeway in terms of developing that character. And, God, it really did a tremendous amount for my career, you know? So I’m grateful to all of them for that. Not only the part, but the way in which they allowed me to work.
But Paul was intense, because he cared very much about what he was doing, and he was under the impression that certain things would be ready. That was what he always got angry around: when things weren’t the way they were supposed to be. Because it threw his schedule off. Now, he may have been more demonstrative about it than other directors, but I don’t think there was anything unusual about his demands and his being upset. But he, uh, didn’t hold back about yelling and screaming on the set. [Laughs.] But once you sort of saw it and realized where it was coming from and what it was about… He didn’t do that to the actors, because the actors were there, they knew their lines, they knew what they were supposed to do, and they did it. So he was fine with all of us. It was when technical things didn’t work. That’s when he would lose it.
As to the rest of it, I had a great experience with him and Ed Neumeier, the writer, and the other guys, the other gang members. We all hung out together, ate dinner together a lot, went to the Texas State Fair. And eventually I became friends with Peter [Weller] and spent time with him as well. He was always great fun. It was one of those cases where it was like, “Well, here we are, we’re all off in Texas making a movie together, having a good time.” And sometimes the weather would be horrible, and we’d all suffer together. When we’d feel really feel bad, we’d look at Peter, encased in that wetsuit with all that plastic glued on top of it, and then we didn’t feel so bad. [Laughs.] In that warehouse scene, the big drug scene where Robocop comes in and shoots us all and throws me through the window, that scene took over a week to shoot, and there wasn’t any air conditioning in that warehouse, so it got very, very hot. It was also full of gun smoke, and if you forgot to put your earplugs in, you paid for it. I always like to blame my tinnitus on that, but it came from more things than just that.
AVC: When we talked to Ronny Cox, he said he enjoyed going from playing “sweet, nice next-door-neighbor guys” to playing “a really nasty, mean villain,” because “playing the bad guys is about a gazillion times more fun than playing the good guys.”
KS: [Laughs.] That’s right. I really only have one scene with Ronny, but our characters are so tied together in the film that it seems like we had more time together than we did. But I really liked that one day with him. I thought he was great. Something else that was interesting about that film was when we would go to dailies.
When I first read that script, I thought it was a B-movie, and that was probably good, because it made it easy for me to go in and audition. I was like, “I don’t know who these guys are. Some guy named Paul with an unpronounceable name.” But I read for Clarence and for Dick Jones, and there were some people who were involved in the film who had been involved with a film I’d done earlier called Flashpoint. I’d had a nice role in that, and it hadn’t really done anything at the box office, but the people connected with that film—the casting director and one of the producers—recommended me for Robocop. I thought they were looking at me for Dick Jones more than Clarence, so I was quite happy to get Clarence when it turned out that way. But then I got very excited about it when I looked up Paul Verhoeven and started looking at his Dutch films. I thought, “Oh, my God! This guy’s great! This movie is gonna be much more interesting than I thought!”
That film’s the only time it’s ever really happened this way, but we only looked at dailies once a week, and that was on the weekends. On Saturdays we were allowed to go in and watch our dailies, and we’d watch all the gang dailies in the couple of hours that it took to do that, but that’s really the only stuff I saw. So I was able to look at that and go, “Oh, this movie’s gonna work as an action movie,” but it wasn’t until I saw the movie right before it came out… I’d been in Japan and missed the screening. So I my wife and I went to someplace in Century City, a small screening room, where it was the two of us and one critic.
We watched the film, and I was just blown because all of a sudden, I was seeing all of that comedy, and the satire through the news, which I’d forgotten about or had overlooked because it didn’t affect me as much in the film. And there was the humanity about Robocop and Murphy. There’s the great scene where he goes through the house and finds the pictures, and the scenes with him where he takes his helmet off out in the steel mill. All that stuff, I really hadn’t seen any of it, and then the action was as good as I’d thought, of course, so I was like, “I’m in a great movie!” [Laughs.]
It was so exciting to have it come out a few weeks or a month later and have it get great reviews. Prior to that, while we were making the movie and while we were waiting for it to come out, when people would ask me what I was doing, I’d say, “Well, I did something called Robocop,” and I’d always kind of smirk, because it sounds like… I mean, come on, Robocop? [Laughs.] It sounds silly! But when it came out, it was great. Nobody was smirking then!
AVC: You mentioned Flashpoint a moment ago. The only thing I’d planned to ask you about that film was if you ever got tired of people asking you if you really believed that Lee Harvey Oswald hadn’t actually assassinated JFK.
KS: You know, nobody ever did… because hardly anybody saw that movie. [Laughs.] Even in interviews like this… I never got interviewed for that movie. Nobody knew who I was, and everybody always thought that my name was Kevin Conway, anyway, because he got better billing than I did, so nobody talked to me about that. I didn’t even get to go to a screening! I went to see that movie with my wife and another couple at a theater on Hollywood Boulevard. There wasn’t even a premiere, if that tells you anything.
I was just a complete Pollyanna on that movie. It was my first big role, and there I was, working with Kris [Kristofferson] and Treat [Williams]. I was into taking pictures at the time, so I took all these photos. At the same hotel/motel type place that we were staying at. It was in Tucson, Arizona, and also staying at the same hotel was the Revenge of the Nerds cast. So it was a lot of fun around the pool, the combination of us and the Nerds. [Laughs.] Robert Carradine and John Goodman… I keep telling John every time I see him that I’ll give it to him, but I have a picture of him singing with Treat and Kris. He keeps saying, “I want that!” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll get that to you.” I do have it around here somewhere…
Citizen Ruth (1996)—“Norm Stoney”
KS: Oh, another great experience! Alexander Payne, as I said earlier, is one of my three favorite film directors to have worked with—with Peter Weir and Paul Verhoeven. They all have complete command of what they want to do. They have the movie, they know exactly what they want, and they’re going to get it, no matter what… but they’re all smart enough to know that they can get more. And they want to, because they care about their product, in an artistic sense. So when they work with you, they not only are making sure that they get what they need, but they’re looking at you to see what you’re bringing to it and how they can reinforce that or make use of it. All three of them are like that.
Citizen Ruth, that was another love-fest movie. We were all in Omaha together, so we’d go out to dinner all the time. Mary Kay Place and Laura Dern, Alexander and Jim Taylor, the writer, we were always doing stuff. Every night we’d go to dailies. Whether we were in the dailies or not, we’d meet, have a glass of wine, have food brought in—Chinese, Italian, whatever—and we’d watch the dailies. It was great.
Recently we had kind of a reunion at Kevin Tent’s house over in Los Feliz—he was the editor on the film, and he’s still Alexander’s editor—and Alexander was there, and Mary Kay, Laura, and Jim. I don’t think Kelly Preston or Swoosie [Kurtz] made it. But the film was just lots of fun. And a real learning experience. I’d been doing films for quite a while, and I’d been acting for quite a while, but I would watch those dailies and watch Laura Dern work, and it was like going to class just watching her work. In different takes, there were different things that she was doing, different spins, but always completely grounded and real and funny.
I’ve always loved Laura and had such a place for her parents, too, because that’s where she really learned from. You can see that from their work. If you look at Bruce Dern… I mean, look at his movie he just did with Alexander [Nebraska]. But if you watch that series, Enlightened, Laura’s mom [Diane Ladd] played her mom in that, and if you look at her work in that and in the past… They’re just people who really understand that your basic approach to acting needs to be grounded and real, and if you are grounded and real—this is really important in a lot of Bruce’s work in the past—you can really go far. You can make that character big and crazy, ’cause it’s rooted someplace. Anyway, I always felt that I learned from watching those guys, and Alexander’s one of my favorite people and one of my favorite directors.
Squirrel Boy (2006-2007)—“Mr. Johnson”
Neighbors From Hell (2010)—“Don Killbride”
Beware The Batman (2013)—“Lt. James Gordon”
AVC: Do you have a favorite voice-acting role on your résumé?
KS: I’d have to say my favorite is Neighbors From Hell, which is a series I did. I loved doing that. It was so much fun—which was shocking—playing that part, because I didn’t get the kind of fun out of it that I usually get. One of my favorite things about doing voiceovers is when the whole cast works together, and you’re in a room with a bunch of loony people at the same time, whether you’re in the scene or not, because you’re there for the whole thing. But that’s not the way we did Neighbors From Hell. We would have a cast read-through once, but then we’d record it individually. And there are benefits to that, too. The character took too much energy, but he was so funny that I just had so much fun doing it.
So Neighbors From Hell would be my favorite, although in terms of just showing up and actually doing the work, I had a lot of fun with Squirrel Boy, just watching Pam [Adlon] and Richard [Horvitz] go nuts. [Laughs.] I mean, they’re just nuts. It was just a treat every time to go and record an episode. I just did Beware The Batman, and it looks like that’s not going to come back, so that’s too bad. I did a season of playing Commissioner Gordon on that, but I guess it’s not doing as well as they would like or something. I don’t know, it’s not official yet. But it doesn’t look good.
“12:01” (1990)—“Myron Castleman”
KS: Oh, yeah, Jonathan Heap! [Laughs.] Well, it’s just one of those things that came about… What was that, 1990? Jon sent me the script, asked me to do it, and… [Hesitates.] It wasn’t a student film. I don’t think they do this anymore, but they had a thing at that time called Chanticleer Film, and they had grants and things to do short films. And what would happen was the short films—the better ones, anyway—would get nominated, as we did, for an Oscar, and then they’d have a recurring life on Showtime. Showtime would plug them into half-hour slots between movies. I don’t think they do that anymore, so that if a movie was over at 12:20, rather than starting another movie right away, they would show bits that would be a half-hour long, and then they’d go into the next film. So that was the purpose of it.
So Jon asked me to do this, and as far as acting goes, it was really my movie, so I said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll give it a shot.” I was sort of interesting in it. I liked the character. I loved the idea of a nebbishy sort of character that is driven to extremes. So I worked with Jon. He and his buddies, they were all just budding young filmsters, you know? [Laughs.] And we had a great time.
AVC: And, as you say, you got an Oscar nomination.
KS: And… I think we should’ve won. [Laughs.] No, I’m serious! Not taking anything away from the young man who won, but I think that, film-wise, 12:01 should’ve won.
That ’70s Show (1998-2006)—“Red Forman”
KS: [Long pause.] Well, you know, geez… [Starts to laugh.] It’s getting so it’s hard to talk about Red. He just seems to be so much a part of me and my family. I did not write any of those jokes, but when I first auditioned for the role and from then on, I always had my stepdad in mind. And he passed away just before I did the pilot. Like, a month or so before. But it was just a pleasure doing that show. I mean, even if we had a day or two here and there that wasn’t fun for whatever particular reason, by and large it was just a pleasure. I loved working with all those folks.
We had the same director for every episode after the pilot, David Trainer, so David and I and Debra Jo [Rupp] and Topher [Grace], working on those scenes in the house—especially Debra Jo and I—it was a particularly special time. For it to go on that long, eight years, and to have a character that meant as much to me as he did personally… well, that was special. And then, of course, that’s why I have money. [Laughs.] It’s because of that show! I mean, all those other things are nice, but I made money doing that show. I mean, we’re not talking about Friends money or anything like that. But as far as being able to have a successful financial career, anyway, it certainly gave me that. So it was special for many reasons. And, of course, I’m reminded of it every day. There are reasons in my house to remind me of it, and if I go outside, I don’t have to go too far or too long before someone mentions That ’70s Show.
And Robocop, actually. There’s still Robocop. It’s amazing the amount of recognition that I still get from that. I mean, I’m still recognized because of my work since then. When I look back at myself and see clips from that, from 25 years ago, I don’t think people would’ve recognized me if I hadn’t done anything since then. I think they recognize me because they’ve seen me along the way. But that movie made a very strong impression on men, not just at the time but also over the generations since then. How old are you?
AVC: I’m 43.
KS: And did you see it in the theater?
AVC: Hell yes.
KS: You see? [Laughs.] So there’s guys your age, who were 17 or 18 at the time, but then there’s 18-year-old kids who come up to me now and say, “Hey, Robocop!” So many young men see that movie at that time of their life. It’s right where young men are coming of age and starting to get interested in those kinds of action films. And at the same time, they’re being able to appreciate the satire in the movie as well. Because there were other films around that time period that were doing similar things as far as sci-fi violence, but there weren’t very many that had that great satirical edge that Robocop has. And, to Peter Weller’s credit, it has a genuine emotional thread to it as well.