The actor: Ron Leibman, a stalwart of the New York theater scene, who’s had a steady second career as a character actor in movies and television since the ’70s. Leibman typically plays acerbic, live-wire authoritarian types, though in his younger years, he took on more eclectic parts, including that of a macho rebel detective in 1974’s The Super Cops, which is now available on DVD from Warner Archives.
The Super Cops (1974)—“David Greenberg”
The A.V. Club: The real-life cops that inspired the movie, David Greenberg and Rob Hantz, became celebrities for a time, didn’t they?
Ron Leibman: In the New York area, yeah. They were known, actually, as “Batman and Robin.” They were, I think, more interesting than the movie. They were hustlers, these guys. I didn’t know this until about halfway through filming. When they were going to make some of these busts, they would call newspaper guys that they knew to show up to give them publicity, because they were dead-set on writing a book and maybe making a movie sale while they were doing this stuff. And when I heard that, I said to Gordon Parks, the director, “That’s the movie! That’s interesting.” He went, “Shut up, let’s finish with what we have.” [Laughs.] They were around the set a lot, Greenberg and Hantz. Do you have any record of what happened to those guys?
RL: I’d be very curious. They were around for a bit, and they were helpful. The actual precinct that they worked out of, I traveled around. They were no longer in that precinct, at least before the movie was made, but I traveled around with some of the other cops for about 10 days. I don’t know if you remember, but that area we shot it in, Bedford-Stuyvesant, it’s different now. That was a war zone back then. They called it a war zone, with white cops in a predominantly black neighborhood. It was a big drug time, and a lot of warfare. So it was dangerous to shoot there, if you were dressed as a New York policeman. We had bodyguards to get us from our trailer to walk a block or two, because some of the people in the neighborhood didn’t know a movie was being made, and if you’re dressed as a cop, they’d think you’re a cop. So we had Black Muslim bodyguards to get us from one place to another. It sort of added to the flavor of doing that film.
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AVC: Gordon Parks didn’t have a very long filmography, but he had an amazing eye, and really captured that area well.
RL: Yes. He did Shaft, and whatever followed Shaft. He has an amazing history. He was the first black photographer for Life Magazine. Rather extraordinary. He was basically a photographer.
AVC: Did he have much of a feel for actors?
RL: He had a highly professional, New York, theater-oriented acting bunch working for him, even in the small parts, so he sort of stood back and gave us our rein. He would come in, but he wasn’t directorial in the sense of being the warlord of the movie. He trusted us, and that’s nice. We didn’t misuse his trust, I don’t think. I have to see it again. I haven’t seen it probably since it first came out.
AVC: It holds up well. It’s a very entertaining film.
RL: That’s what people have been telling me, and if I sound shocked, that’s only because it was so long ago. It was released so badly, because MGM was closing down at that point, and they didn’t put the kind of bucks they could have put into it. Because it was good entertainment. That was the challenge of it. It’s basically about serious themes, but it had a comedic side. Actually, it was written that way. I said, “This is not easy to pull off. This is not going to be easy.” And that’s what interested me about doing it. “Can we make this thing funny, entertaining, as well as about important stuff?” It’s nice to hear people liking something. You’ve inspired me to watch it.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)—“Paul Lazzaro”
RL: I was only around for our section of that movie, the prisoner-of-war section. The Dresden section, the bombing of Dresden. Like the novel, the movie’s in different parts, and part of it’s on the planet Tralfamadore, and part of it’s back in Minneapolis. What I remember is that we were playing prisoners of war, we actors, and we were in Prague, which was then run by Russians. The Soviet Union was in control of Czechoslovakia then, so we were in an occupied country playing prisoners of war. For us actors, it added a reality that you never could make up, because there were Russian troops around, watching, and despised by the locals. That was the atmosphere of making the film, and it was very sad to be around the people of Prague. If you know the history of Czechoslovakia, it was probably one of the more liberal Eastern European countries, and still is. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Prague, but if you ever have the chance, go. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful city. The reason why George Roy Hill, the director, used Prague, is because it was a sister city, architecturally, to Dresden. Because there was no Dresden anymore. It was wiped out. So we used Prague as Dresden. It was, for me, quite an education, I’ll tell you.
Kaz (1978-79)— “Martin ‘Kaz’ Kazinsky”
RL: Short-lived, well-remembered. I’m sitting at my desk now, and there’s an Emmy award right in front of me that I got from that. I got an Emmy, and the show was canceled two weeks later. [Laughs.] What a business, huh?
AVC: Why do you think that show didn’t connect?
RL: I have no idea. I really don’t understand this business. I’ve stopped trying to figure it out. It was a very urban show, and I think they wanted it to be more suburban for their viewership. My question was, “Why the hell did you pay for the thing in the first place? You knew what it was about. You saw the pilot. It was always a big-city show.” I didn’t know much about television then, because I was a theater actor who had been snatched up and taken out there. And suddenly I was on this television show, which I’d helped write. I was a co-writer. It was my idea, basically, a guy who had been in prison and then gets out and joins a law firm. A man haunted by his past. A sort of Les Misérables theme. I had no idea if it was going to be successful or not, but when it went on the air and I saw the commercials, they were for trucks. And I said, “Wait a minute, the audience watching this show ain’t buying trucks.” [Laughs.] I thought we might’ve been in the wrong place—and sure enough, that was true. I learned a lot, very quickly. When I went out there, I didn’t know anything.
AVC: Do you think timing was a factor? If it had been a few years earlier, Kaz would have been of a piece with the gritty cop shows of the early ’70s, and had it been a few years later, it would have been around at the time of Hill Street Blues.
RL: I don’t know. I really don’t know the reasons. I asked, of course, but I never got a satisfactory answer. We did one season, I think 22 shows. Then it showed all over the world. That’s the way it goes. Nothing I could do about it.
AVC: Any plans for a DVD set somewhere down the road?
RL: No. I guess Warner Brothers would probably own that now. I’ve never thought of that. I wonder who I could ask?
Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981)—“Captain Esteban”
RL: Oh my goodness. Dear George Hamilton. Speaking of having fun. We really did have an awfully good time making that. Dancing with George was one of the highlights of my life. We worked on the dueling stuff together for several weeks before we went down to Mexico. The whole thing was shot in Mexico, including a Mexican studio in Mexico City. We had a lovely time.
AVC: Would that movie be considered politically incorrect today?
RL: What, because Zorro had a gay brother? For us, it didn’t mean anything. But we realized for the general audience of that period, it might have been shocking or something, I don’t know. Should it be re-released, probably it would be politically incorrect. I didn’t know George Hamilton, but what I knew was that image we all have of him, the Hollywood suntan guy. Have you ever spoken with George, interviewed him? He’s a very sophisticated guy, which surprised me—and a big Lenny Bruce fan, as I am. So he was very different than what I thought he was going to be. We had a lot in common, including loving Lenny Bruce, but we became good friends, which was a surprise. I thought he was going to be a Hollywood guy, and he wasn’t at all. He was too smart for that. Very smart guy.
Rhinestone (1984)—“Freddie Ugo”
RL: To be rigorously honest with you, the script that I was sent was not the script that we wound up shooting, much to my chagrin. The script that I was sent was rather funny. The script when I got there, I think Sylvester Stallone had rewritten it, and it was no longer the script I had signed for. I did like Dolly [Parton] enormously, as probably anyone you ever speak to who knows her will say. She became a friend. I’m basically a theater person, and whenever I was in a play, there’d be Dolly. Whenever she was in New York, she’d come backstage. She was terrific, is a terrific lady.
AVC: It did seem like a strange pairing: Stallone and Dolly Parton.
RL: Yes. [Laughs.] Speaking of strange chemistry. Didn’t work, really. Did not work.
Night Falls On Manhattan (1996)— “Morgenstern”
RL: Oh, to be able to work with Sidney Lumet! Dear departed Sidney, recently departed Sidney. I had always wanted to work with Sidney, because so many friends had, including my wife, Jessica Walter, who did two movies with Sidney: The Group, and something called Bye Bye Braverman. Early films of his. But everything I’d heard about Sidney was true. We did rehearse for two weeks, which is quite unusual in film, and he really gave you a chance to work on it like a play. And it’s a great role. I love that role. He had seen me in Angels In America and said, “I got a part for you.” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” Directors always say that. Then a year later, sure enough, he did have a part for me. I love the role. Terrific character. I love working with Andy [Garcia]. You know, James Gandolfini was in that before he was a big star. But he was wonderful in the film. Ian Holm, Richard Dreyfuss—it was a really good cast.
AVC: You mainly have the job to come in and be electrifying for a few minutes at a time and then disappear from the movie for long stretches.
RL: That’s the job. You come in and kick ass, and then you have a dying scene when you’re old and dying. There were other scenes in between, but there’s a whole section where he does disappear from the story. But don’t forget, as you know, in film, you don’t shoot in sequence, so it didn’t feel like that. Sidney would do all of my stuff in the film in a bunch of days and weeks in order to not have to pay me for 10 weeks or 12 weeks of hanging around.
Friends (1996-2004)—“Dr. Leonard Green”
RL: They’re still on, those things. It’s quite amazing. It’s like, “Ah, God, there I am again!” The thing I can say about that is I had never seen the show when they asked me to do it. I’m not a big television-watcher. It sounded stupid to me, so I turned it down. And my daughter, then, who was of that age, said, “No, you have to do it, you have to do it! I love that show, and I want to meet those kids.” She had to meet those kids. I said, “All right. I’ll do it. I’ll do it once, but that’s all I’m doing.” So I did, and had a very nice time, and they asked me back, and my daughter did get to meet those kids, so I was a big hero in the house. It’s amazing, the power of the tube. I’ve done all this body of work, and they say, “Oh yes, Rachel’s father.” I go, “Give me a break.”
AVC: I think that show also cemented the impression of you as a mean guy.
RL: He was nasty, which made it more fun. Nice guys are boring. I don’t mean in real life. As an actor, those characters are boring. I loved that he was difficult, particularly to the Ross character, David Schwimmer’s character. Most of my stuff was with Jennifer [Aniston] and David, which was terrific, because I really like them both. I didn’t have much to do with the other people. But when I first came on, I didn’t know who was who, because I’d never seen the show. So I started talking to Lisa Kudrow, thinking she was Jennifer Aniston. I had no idea. This was the second year of Friends, or maybe the end of the first year. They weren’t the huge stars that they became later. I had no idea who was who. But they were kind enough to point me in the right direction. Pathetic, I know.