Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Tim Robbins on <i>Shawshank</i>, <i>Howard The Duck</i>, and the <i>Straight To Hell</i> cameo that never was

Tim Robbins on Shawshank, Howard The Duck, and the Straight To Hell cameo that never was

Screenshot: Bob Roberts (YouTube), The Shawshank Redemption (YouTube), Photo: Stefania D’Alessandro / Contributor (Getty Images), Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

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 about.

The actor: The Shawshank Redemption turned Tim Robbins into a household name, but Robbins had already built a career any artist would envy by the time of its 1994 release. Highlights include his memorable turns in Bull Durham and The Player and his acclaimed directorial debut, Bob Roberts, which paved the way for 1995’s Dead Man Walking, which earned him a nomination for a directing Oscar. His supporting turn in Mystic River finally scored him a statue, and he’s remained prolific ever since—when not acting in HBO series like The Brink and Here And Now, he’s stayed busy with The Actors’ Gang, the experimental theater troupe he co-founded in 1981. Now, 25 years after the release of Shawshank, he’s returning to the world of Stephen King for the second season of Castle Rock, Hulu’s King-aping horror anthology.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)—“Andy Dufresne”

The A.V. Club: You’ve said that Shawshank was one of the best scripts you’d ever read. From an acting perspective, what was it that drew you to playing Andy? 

Tim Robbins: Well, first of all, I think it had to do with the way I looked at incarcerated people. I grew up in a neighborhood in New York that was challenging. Had to learn at an early age where to walk, where not to walk, how to run to get away from problems. And, unfortunately, also how to fight. I saw friends of mine get caught up in the criminal justice system, and I felt blessed to have been brought up in the family I was brought up in. Those were things I understood when I was a young man—that there were people being incarcerated for things that I was doing. It was a civilization of marijuana in the ’60s and ’70s and the over-incarceration of particular factions of society gave me a perspective about who we were incarcerating as well. So, there but for the grace of God go I.

When I got the script for Shawshank Redemption, I viewed it through that lens, and I felt it was a great opportunity to create a story about friendship and humanity in a place where we don’t often see stories like that. There’s a lot of human potential in prison. As Sister Helen Prejean once said to me, “Every person is worth more than their worst acts.” I began to understand this even more when I began to work inside prisons 13 years ago. Of course, when I walked in, I walked in with the fear that everyone would have. Within a day, I understood that the fear was not warranted and that in fact the work that we were doing inside was something that was not only welcomed by incarcerated men and women, but protected.

To be able to work with those actors: Morgan Freeman and Clancy Brown and the whole cast… there was a spirit of security on that set that was driven by this wonderful script. And it was difficult at times but the difficulty arose out of people’s passion for that script and protecting what it was to them.

AVC: When you say protecting it, what do you mean exactly?

TR: Well, when you read a script—if it’s something that inspires you, you want to realize that inspiration. So everyone has their own contributions to make in realizing what they believe is the truth of the film. And when there’s a creative difference, if you don’t care about something, there’s not going to be much of a fight. But people worked really hard to get at the essence of it and that’s what I mean by protecting it—that we wanted to be able to figure out a way to best realize it together. And that involved disagreements at times. And that’s okay, that’s good. That’s good for the creative process.

Castle Rock

(2019)—“Reginald ‘Pop’ Merrill”

AVC: To pivot to Castle Rock, what was it like to revisit the world of Stephen King again—this time in a world where Andy from Shawshank is an in-canon character?

TR: I’ve been asked that question, and honestly, I really didn’t think about it that way. They’re such different animals. And it’s a testament to Stephen King as a writer that he can write so effectively in different genres. So, other than the name Shawshank, I didn’t really see any parallels.

One of the wonderful things about being an actor is that you have no idea what your next thing is going to be or where you’re going to do it. So, you know, it happened again to me on Castle Rock. I had my plans. I had my next seven months planned out and then this great script came in and, all of a sudden, I was in Boston in an empty apartment that I had rented with no furniture in it about to start a brand-new project. I never would have thought that that would have happened, but it’s kind of the nature of the profession. You have to just roll with it. But I remember sitting that first night in Boston in this empty apartment going, “Wow! I need furniture.” [Laughs.] “How did I get here exactly?”

AVC: Did you get a chance to read Sun Dog, the novella that King wrote about Pop Merrill? Was there anything from that story that you really responded to?

TR: Oh, yeah. And we integrated some of it. That dog. The Polaroid pictures. For me, it was the starting point. But there’s a lot of license to create because it was the character in a different time. I love playing morally complicated characters. I think all of us possess good and evil. And it’s the struggle that defines the person. And what I liked about this character was that we’re not really sure—the audience isn’t really sure whether Pop is good or bad.

AVC: Were you a King fan before Shawshank? 

TR: Somewhat. I’m not to the degree that the creators of this show are. So I followed their guidance on that. But as a young man I read The Shining and it blew my mind. I loved entering that world.

St. Elsewhere (1982)—“Andrew Reinhardt”

AVC: Per IMDB, it looks like your first credit was a three-episode arc on St. Elsewhere. Usually when we do these interviews, an actor’s earliest role will be much, much smaller, so that must have been exciting for you as a young actor.

TR: Oh, it sure was. I had graduated UCLA seven months, eight months before it happened. And I had an agent coming out of college and I couldn’t get anything. I was a punk rocker at the time and part of me was just rejecting the whole notion of it, you know? Most of the parts I was reading for I just thought were dumb. To read a script with some intelligence behind it and to be able to play a character—that was a gift. It was something that made sense. And then to walk on a set and to work with those actors—David Morse, Howie Mandel was on that show. It just seemed like a very heady thing for me at the time. I was terrified. [Laughs.]

But then when it premiered and when I saw it, I was really impressed with the way they put it together. I started to understand that there are these kinds of projects out there. At the time, I was financing the early days of the Actors’ Gang by delivering pizzas in Beverly Hills. If you’re going to deliver pizza, it was the place to deliver pizza because there were pretty good tips. And so I was able to use that money to produce the first Actors’ Gang show and, after I got the checks from those episodes, I realized, “Oh, my gosh, I can keep producing theater with this kind of money. So my attitude shifted and I came to understand that part of the quest for freedom of expression as an artist has to do with being able to pay the rent. It was a liberation for me because, when I started to work more and more, I was able to carve out more and more time for myself to produce, write, and direct in the theater.

The Love Boat (1984)—“Young Erik”
Legmen (1984)—“Brewster Kingston”
Hill Street Blues (1984)—“Patrolman Lawrence Swan”

AVC: In the following years, you did episodes of The Love Boat, Hill Street Blues, and some other big shows at the time. Were those to help finance those theater projects? 

TR: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, The Love Boat financed A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was playing Oberon—I was directing it, but I was also playing Oberon and Theseus. So that ridiculous haircut I got had to work for the two little fairies, you know? [Laughs.] Hill Street Blues was great. It was like the gold standard in television at the time. There was stuff like that, but there was also this show called Legmen that I remember that was a lot of fun to do. I got to start creating different, weird characters. It gave me a great training ground. I guess the thing you have to learn pretty quickly is how to work under pressure. The hardest challenge in that is to create comedy working under pressure. You’ve got to learn fast and you have to be humble enough to understand that you don’t know everything. So, when I started working in movies, it was, you know, longer time commitments, but kind of an opportunity to develop richer characters.

Bull Durham (1988)—“Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh”

TR: First of all, before I got offered Bull Durham, I had been offered Eight Men Out as well. I had been a big fan of John Sayles’s Matewan, and I was really torn on that decision. And my agent at the time was having none of it. [Laughs.] She was like, “You don’t understand how good this script it.” I said, “I understand how good it is. But John Sayles!” And she says, “No. [Director] Ron Shelton. This is going to be something.” And she was right.

So in my audition, in order to get the part, after I had read for it and the director liked me—I had to be able to go out and throw a baseball. Because Ron wanted people that played ball. And so I was made for that. I’ve been playing baseball since I was a kid. I had never pitched before, but I had played third base, and you have to have an arm to play third base. So I was also a huge fan of baseball and, when I was a kid, we didn’t have a television, so I was listening to New York Mets games on the radio and act them out in my living room. So, walking onto the set of Bull Durham in a baseball uniform was like a dream come true. Like a fantasy realized.

Bob Roberts (1992)—“Bob Roberts”

AVC: At the end of Bob Roberts, Jack Black’s character and the other Young Republicans are gathered together and it has such a cultish feel. It’s hard not to compare it the MAGA sect in our current culture. How would you say the film’s message dovetails with what’s going on today?

TR: It was meant as a warning. Not as reality. I would love to see it rereleased, personally. I wish it was more available to be seen. I begged Netflix before the election to put it out, and they did, but I don’t know if it’s still available. [It’s not, but it is on Hulu with a Starz plug-in—Ed.] All of those warning signs were there. The current nightmare we’re living in didn’t just happen overnight. It had been happening for quite some time.

One of the things that led to it started under Reagan, which was the deregulation of the airwaves. When very rich people could start to own more and more licenses for broadcast, less and less points of view were expressed. I remember it used to be that, if you had any kind of political message on a show, you had to get the counter message as well. You had to allow airtime for that. It was a public license to be able to broadcast. You had a responsibility to your community. And if you were going to have someone on expressing a point of view, you had to express the opposing point of view.

When Reagan deregulated the airwaves and that continued to happen during the Clinton and Bush years, it’s a recipe for disaster for democracy. Because democracy thrives on open sources of information. And when you start limiting voices, when you keep people off the airwaves, you’re doing a service to your own point of view or your own propaganda, but you are not doing a service to democracy. And so I think we’ve gotten out of the idea that it should be viewed as a privilege to have a license to broadcast and that there are certain responsibilities that come with that. I think we’ve lost that completely.

AVC: And it just feels like there are more conglomerates every day. Everyone’s merging and the number of voices are limited.  

TR: Yes. We had a brief period where that movement was kind of thwarted by the rise of internet journalism. But I believe that that’s now in a precarious situation as well. When you start talking about muting voices for political reasons, and you’re doing it because there’s an overall consensus that there shouldn’t be that kind of message going out, it’s a very dangerous thing because who’s deciding that? And how long will it be before what started as a censoring of, for example, voices that we hear as dangerous hatred—how long is it before someone is judging someone that is disagreeing with someone as hatred? It’s a slippery slope.

AVC: When we spoke to Giancarlo Esposito for this feature, he credited Bob Roberts with his interest in activism. Have you heard that sort of sentiment expressed to you before? 

TR: Yeah. I think it woke some people up. Gore Vidal’s involvement with that project was, for me, truly how it’s held its legitimacy. And I’m forever indebted to him for that. There was one day in particular—we were on a very tight budget and had a super strict, tight schedule, but I had Gore Vidal on the set. So I asked my production designer to just get me a set, a desk, and a wall, and we’d sit Gore down and ask him about influencing the election. And the producers didn’t know about it. But I said, “I need an hour and a half and we’re just going to do this.” And I feel like that adds a gravitas to the movie, his perceptions of American politics and through the lens of a candidate who’s just been defeated I think gave a great weight to that film.

Nothing To Lose (1997)—“Nick Beam”

TR: I loved that film. I think it’s really funny. It was really difficult to do. Giancarlo [Esposito] actually saved my ass on that film because I came down with some serious back pain on that movie. And I was going everywhere: chiropractors, osteopaths, MRIs. They couldn’t figure out what it was. I remember the day that I did that foot-on-fire dance—I got to work that day on my back in the back seat.

And then I had to focus and dance as crazy as I could. And as soon as I was finished I was on my back again. So Giancarlo came up to me and says, “Hey, I have a book for you. It’s called Healing Back Pain by John Sarno. You’ve got to read it.” As I’m reading that book, my back started healing. It changed—I had chronic back pain for many years and it went away. So anyway. I’m grateful to Giancarlo for turning me on to that book. It’s hard to do comedy when you’re in pain. [Laughs.] Especially when you can’t move.

High Fidelity (2000)“Ian Raymond”
Anchorman (2004)—“Public TV News Anchor” 

AVC: You’ve had such great cameos over the years, like Anchorman, Austin Powers, The Tenacious D Movie. What stands out to you as a particularly memorable one, or a time that you had a particularly great time on set.?

TR: Oh, I loved doing Anchorman. I also loved doing High Fidelity. When they asked me to do them, I said, “Yes, I’ll do them. I know there’s not going to be any pay, but I’ll do them if I can wear a wig.” And so, what that meant was that they had to make a wig for me. I still have those wigs. I use them on Halloween all the time. They’re very helpful to disguise myself on Halloween.

I loved doing all of those movies. High Fidelity was fun. It was great to work with Jack [Black] again and with my friend John Cusack.

Tapeheads (1988)—“Josh Tager”

AVC: You two previously co-starred as the leads in Tapeheads.

TR: We did Tapeheads together, yeah. [Laughs.] That has some fond memories.

AVC: Did you spend any time with executive producer Michael Nesmith? 

TR: Yeah! I got to work with Jello Biafra on that. And Don Cornelius.

AVC: That’s a fascinating group of people.

TR: I mean, talk about cameos. Fishbone was in Tapeheads as well. They were friends of ours.

I’ll tell you a story about a cameo I was going to do. Alex Cox had just done Sid And Nancy. And he invited me to do a cameo in Straight To Hell. And I was about three weeks away from starting Five Corners. And John was about to start a movie. And we got over there and we go to meet Alex Cox, and he says, “You have to shave your fucking heads.” And we were like, “Um, this is for one line, right?” We’re like, “Oh, my god. I would love to, but I’ve got to start a movie in three weeks and I can’t do that.” And then he said, “Well, then you’re fucking fired.” [Laughs.] I was like, “Goddammit.” So I get back to the hotel, and I remember Eric Fellner, the producer of that movie, coming up to us and going, “Oh, my god, we’re so sorry. Why don’t you stay three days. We’ll pay for your hotel room. We’re really sorry this happened,” blah blah blah. So I got to stay and hang out with Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello—who else was on that show? All these punk rock icons. It was incredibly fun. It was a really wonderful time. Me and John and Fisher Stevens was there—we all had a good time.

AVC: Being a musician, did you get to jam with them at all?

TR: I would not have picked up a guitar next to those guys. Not at the time, no. Oh, there were guys from The Pogues there, too. That was one of my favorite bands. It was The Clash, The Pogues, and X were my jam at the time. Add in the Circle Jerks and Fear and Black Flag. And then Zander Schloss was there, the bass player.

AVC: That’s got to be a dream, sharing a drink with Shane MacGowan.

TR: I got to sing with Shane MacGowan.

AVC: When? During that trip?

TR: It was on a show called The Rogue’s Gallery with the music producer Hal Willner. And we were playing Dublin and I got to sing a song with Shane and Lou Reed.

Howard The Duck 

(1986)—“Phil Blumburtt”

AVC: What’s your recollection of Howard The Duck? It’s kind of remained notorious over the years.

TR: What do you mean by “notorious”?

AVC: Just in the sense that people still talk about it as a “how did this get made” kind of movie because it’s so strange.

TR: [Laughs.] How did it get made? Well, first of all, put it in perspective. George Lucas had just done the Star Wars trilogy. He was producing this movie. The comic book was pretty great. I was thrilled to get the job. It was also more money than I’d ever seen. But walking onto the set the first day, I realized they had miscast the duck.

AVC: How did they miscast it? 

TR: Well, look how it looked. It looked so pretty. It looked so pretty and so tame. Howard’s a cigar-chomping, rude, skirt-chasing, weird-ass alien. And this was just a ton of cute.

AVC: Is it a movie you’ve revisited at all?

TR: Watched it? No. But I do have a movie that I made on the set of Howard The Duck. With my video camera. It’s a short movie. It’s about five minutes long. I’ve been thinking about posting it recently, but it’s an alternative reality to Howard The Duck. [Laughs.]

I have quite a few of those. You know, when I first bought a video camera, I would take it to sets, so I have some behind-the-scenes ridiculous behavior on a bunch of films. I’m not sure legally what I can do, what I can release without people’s approvals, but maybe someday.

Cradle Will Rock (1999)—Writer/director
Code 46 (2003) —“William Geld”
The Secret Life Of Words (2005)—“Josef
Catch A Fire (2006)—“Col. Nic Vos”

TR: While we’re at it, if you want a career perspective, there’s three movies you forgot that I really wish people would see. I’ll just mention them so they’re in print, and if people are curious, they can go find them.

Well, there are four, actually, that I’m super proud of. One is The Secret Life Of Words, a movie that won a lot of awards in Spain but didn’t really get a viewing here. It’s a beautiful, poetic romance. Code 46, Michael Winterbottom’s movie, set in the future, another romance. I think it’s really beautiful. And Catch A Fire. A movie I did in South Africa with Philip Noyce—it was a story about apartheid and the struggle between the ANC and the police and the government.

And Cradle Will Rock, which I really would love for people to see because I saw it recently and it holds up really well. It’s actually really reflective of what’s going on right now. I asked [Robert] Altman what his favorite film was of his and he says, “My favorite—I look at my films the way I look at my children. I love the ones that don’t get the most attention.”

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.