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: William Devane got his start in the theater, turning heads in New York with his performance in the play MacBird!, earning the opportunity to step in front of the camera as well. Devane popped up on the big screen repeatedly in the 1970s, working with Robert Altman (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), Alfred Hitchcock (Family Plot), and John Schlesinger (Marathon Man) before getting the chance to play the leading man in Rolling Thunder. Although he was ensconced within Knots Landing throughout the majority of the ’80s, Devane has continued to work in both movies and TV ever since. He can currently be seen taking a rare comedic turn on Fox’s The Grinder, and took time out to speak to us during Fox’s evening event at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour.
William Devane: Playing Dean Sr. is… It’s interesting. It’s challenging for me, in that he’s supposed to be a really sweet guy. [Laughs.] I haven’t had a lot of practice playing those kinds of guys!
A.V. Club: How did this come about? Did they come after you specifically for the role?
WD: Well, they asked me if I was available, and then I went up for it. But they didn’t call up and say, “Hey! You’re Dean Sr.!”
AVC: This actually isn’t your first time playing Fred Savage’s father.
WD: That’s right! What was that called?
WD: Crumbs! We had a lot of fun doing that. Yeah, that was fun. It could’ve been good. Jane Curtin was my wife on that. I thought we actually had the more interesting story.
AVC: Hadn’t her character just gotten out of a mental institution?
WD: Had she? I didn’t think so. But I don’t know. I usually only read the lines that I have. [Laughs.] Maybe she did, and I just didn’t know it!
AVC: How has it been working with Fred and Rob Lowe on this series?
WD: Well, this is really a triple-A professional organization, you know? There’s no slackers here. Everybody’s a hard worker, understands the game, and knows how to play. That’s always fun. You’re never waiting for anybody. Everybody knows what they’re doing and when they’ve gotta do it, so let’s go! So that’s a lot of fun. Then it can get really creative, because then the lines aren’t all over the place and everybody can keep up.
AVC: Are you enjoying having a regular work schedule again?
WD: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. It won’t be that bad a schedule. I think we do four or five, take a week off, do four or five more, take a week off. So it’s not grueling, you know? But it’s always nice if somebody’s running around going, “Where’s Bill? Get Bill here as soon as you can!” [Laughs.]
AVC: Your first on-camera appearance looks to have been in a film called In The Country.
WD: God, I can’t believe you knew that! [Laughs.] In The Country. Yeah, what the hell was his name?
AVC: From what I can tell, I don’t think your character even had a name.
WD: Oh, no, I meant the guy who put it together. Robert Kramer! He was a pretty good writer. I think he wrote for The Village Voice, and his wife’s name was Jane, I believe. They were pretty smart people. But oh my God, that was a long time ago.
AVC: How did that come about? You’d been doing theater work before that. Had you been looking to step in front of the camera?
WD: No, it probably came to me. I was working off-Broadway a lot in those days, and… there’s no way I’m going to remember all of that. [Laughs.] But, yeah, I think they came to me, and said, “Would you do this?” They didn’t have any money or anything. We went over to Jersey and shot it. I think it was in his uncle’s backyard or something. But it was fun.
AVC: Do you recall if that was before or after you appeared in MacBird! with Stacy Keach and Rue McClanahan?
WD: It was around the same time, I think. Because that’s when I first started to get a little recognition in New York. I worked at the Shakespeare Festival a lot, but you’re just one of the guys there, you know? Then when MacBird! happened, I started to get a little bit on the radar screen.
AVC: The Missiles Of October was certainly a memorable moment for your career, TV-wise.
WD: Oh, yeah, that was huge. Huge. That was supposed to be Hal Holbrook and Marty [Sheen]. Hal was doing, I think, a six-hour Abraham Lincoln thing, and it was running over, and it was running over, and it kept running over. And finally they just had to go ahead without him, but Marty said that he didn’t want to do it if Hal wasn’t going to do it. I actually went in about playing Bobby Kennedy. I knew the director, Tony [Page], from the Shakespeare Festival in New York, and he said, “Do you want to give this a try?” So I read it for him a few times, and then of course I had to go to the network, but they said, “Yeah! Let’s go!”
AVC: So apparently Martin Sheen didn’t mind playing against you in the end.
WD: No, but that’s when it got hard, because when he didn’t want to do it, I was trying to get them to hire Jimmy Woods. But they didn’t want to hire Jimmy, so they finally talked Marty into doing it.
AVC: How much prep did you have to do to master your JFK delivery?
WD: Oh, I worked hard on that. You know, that’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever worked on, as far as character prep and all of that. I kind of worked like Meryl Streep on that one. [Laughs.]
WD: That was another weird thing. I don’t even know how the hell that happened. Kevin Costner’s in that. I knew Jane [Alexander] from New York, but that wasn’t the hook-up. I have no memory whatsoever of how I got into it. And I couldn’t even watch it, it was so dark. I remember the first time I went to see it, and I left about halfway through it. It was just really disturbing for me. Also, I was dead by then. [Laughs.]
The only thing about that movie is that in my entire career, it’s the only time I ever missed a day of work. I had strep throat and couldn’t talk. Actually, you know, I did work, now that I think about it: I did that bicycle ride in the movie. But I was really sick. I couldn’t speak or anything. So I guess that’s the only time I ever came close to missing a day of work!
WD: Yeah, that was great. Again, I don’t know how the hell I get these things. [Laughs.] I think Marion Dougherty got me that. She was a really great casting director in New York. They were looking for a gangster Yalie, and she thought that I fit the bill. That was fun, though. Mel [Gibson] is a lot of fun to work with. It was real crazy, but we had a really good time. And that plays more than any movie—any anything—that I’ve ever done. My residuals are down to, like, 15 cents now, but wherever I go, people talk to me about it. It’s on cable all the time. Good movie. I also tell everybody to watch the original with Lee Marvin, too. It’s a really good picture.
WD: That was a real fluke. [Robert] Altman and [Warren] Beatty came to New York to see MacBird! When they saw MacBird!, we had a drink afterwards, and they asked me if I would do this. And I said, “Yeah.” I shot the last two days of that movie. They flew me up to Vancouver—it was one of the first movies they shot in Vancouver—so I went up there when they were shooting the end, and I got to do my two beats. But that was really nice, yeah.
AVC: It’s not a big part, but it’s a memorable one.
WD: Yeah, it was kind of Bobby Kennedy, a young, brassy kind of lawyer. But it was fun. It’s always fun when you go from off-Broadway making $9.47 to standing there with Warren Beatty. [Laughs.] It definitely makes you go, “Wait a second!”
WD: I was always tight with John Schlesinger. Boy, they totally misunderstood his attack in that picture. It got hammered. He got killed, like he was trying to take America down. But if you look at the picture, it’s pretty incisive and pretty interesting how that whole thing went. It was a lot of fun. Although the elephant got paid more than any of us.
WD: I actually did two films back to back for Schlesinger, or at least right around the same time. First I did Yanks, and then Honky Tonk Freeway came right after that.
AVC: You two clearly worked well together, given the results.
WD: Oh, yeah, John was great. We got along really well. He lived down in The Desert [in Palm Springs] ’til he died, so I used to see him a lot down there. A fabulous guy.
AVC: I don’t want to monopolize you at this event tonight, because I know you’ve got rounds to make and other critics to talk to. Do you want to finish this up by phone?
WD: I want… a beer. [Walks off to bar. Returns after a moment, takes a swig of his beer.] I don’t like talking on the phone. What else ya got?
WD: That was interesting. And it probably would’ve made a big difference if they’d actually released it properly. But when they tested it… I’m trying to think of where the hell they tested it—it might’ve been San Jose or Fresno, someplace like that—but the Mexicans set the theater on fire! They were really, really, really down on it. So then the studio backed way off, and it never got the release it would’ve if they’d really jumped on it and supported it. But I didn’t understand to operate in those days. I still don’t know how to operate. [Laughs.] But a movie star guy would’ve done everything he could to force them to release it properly, you know? And Tommy [Lee Jones] and I were just starting. God, that was the first featured role I ever did. Good picture, though. It’s a really good picture.
AVC: Do you find people still bring it up even now?
WD: Oh, yeah! Because they just released the DVD of it not that long ago. A new one, I should say. And Tommy and I did some of that stuff you do on DVDs, where you talk about it.
AVC: Was it odd for you to carry a film like that?
WD: Yeah, you know, I never thought that way, so it wasn’t, like, a big deal. And the director [John Flynn], he hadn’t really directed a big feature, but he really knew what he wanted and what you should do and everything. So it was fun. The whole idea of shooting it is nothing. It’s what happens after, not letting them stick it in the closet, forcing them to release it. You know, they tried to do the same thing to Warren Beatty with Bonnie And Clyde. But Warren was hip enough and smart enough and knew how to put enough pressure on them to get them to release that picture. And I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t have any idea.
WD: That’s one of those great things. Clint [Eastwood] just called me up and said, “Billy, do you want to do this?” And I said, “Yeah.” That was really nice. I’ve played a lot in the AT&T [Pebble Beach National Pro-Am], so I’ve played a lot of golf with Clint and knew him through that world. That was fun. I don’t know what they call the technique, but all that space stuff was animated. He had it on a screen, so Clint would set the cameras there and everything, and if he wanted to, he could watch the whole sequence animated. It’s like a storyboard, but an animated storyboard. So I really learned something. I’d just sit there by the camera with them all the time and watch how they got that done. “Fly Me To The Moon.” [Laughs.]
WD: That was weird, that thing, man. I mean, that thing should still be on. There was a weird thing going on at ABC in those days with Jim [L. Brooks]. I had a good time doing that, but I don’t know, for some reason… [Shrugs.] That was political. Because that could still be on. Instead, they took it off.
WD: Oh, was that the one with Carl Weathers and I? Yeah, we were playing [Shawn and Gus] as older guys! I always like to go to Vancouver. Actually, Carl and I thought they were going to do a number of them with our characters, but they ended up not doing anymore. But that was fun, because those two guys were just winging it all the time. They were really good at it, y’know? So you had a lot of fun working with them, and there was never any pressure. It was just a lot of fun. But you might have noticed that I do very few things that aren’t a lot of fun.
AVC: That’s certainly a plus.
WD: Yeah! It’s a real plus! [Laughs.]
WD: Yeah! That’s a part I wanted. [Director] Michael Pressman, I knew his dad really well. Again, it’s a picture that didn’t get off the way I would’ve liked, but I run into guys your age who walk up to me and say, “Boy, I loved that movie! I watched it all the time when I was a kid!” A nice picture, though. It was a lot of fun.
AVC: How was it to work with Jackie Earle Haley?
WD: Oh, in those days, Jackie was wanted for everything. He was really good, and he was a lot of fun to work with. Then he sort of took a dive for awhile, but of course he came back on and he’s done really well. All those kids were a lot of fun. We had a really good time down there in Houston. It was pretty easy-going.
AVC: Were you worried at all about stepping into Walter Matthau’s shoes?
WD: Nah, I looked at it from playing ball, that aspect. It always bothered me to watch actors play ballplayers when they can’t actually play ball. I mean, I knew I could play ball, so I wasn’t worried about that. The Matthau thing was entirely different. This was a whole different thing. I was a real good teacher. That’s the way I approached it: I was a teacher.
WD: That was the best, huh? [Grins.] The best. That’s a great experience. Wonderful people, great organization. I thought we had a great time. And that just evolved, you know? It was the craziest thing. I was the Secretary Of State forever, and all of a sudden I got the best part in television!
AVC: Did they warn you in advance that you’d be getting an upgrade when they brought you back?
WD: No, you know, for years I kept trying to get to play the president, but they went with a woman, they did a lot of different things. This was a well-thought-out deal. But once I got it, that was probably the best part I’ve ever had in television.
WD: I went on for eight weeks, I ended up staying for 10 years. [Laughs.] It was great.
AVC: Did you have any favorite character arcs during the course of the run?
WD: Nah. I was the outsider, you know? But it was all great. They should release the whole thing. You can’t even get it in a box set.
AVC: Yeah, I think they only released two seasons of it.
WD: I think it’s because they don’t have the rights to the music. I think that’s what happened. They used a lot of current popular music that they had the rights to use for, like, one season. That’s what happened to that, I’m pretty sure. And that’s too bad, because it’d be nice to have. I think Michele Lee has all 14 years, though. [Laughs.] I think she’s got ’em on a shelf in her library. But she’s the only one!
AVC: How was it working with Ava Gardner?
WD: The best. Absolutely the best. People don’t even get it when I say, “Ava Gardner was my mother.” But she was great, Ava. You know, I used to drive her to and from the set. We’d be out there working in Hidden Valley or wherever the hell we worked out there, and they’d say, “Okay, the car’s ready,” and she’d say, “No, I’m going to ride with Billy.” We’d drive back, stop and have a drink, and then I’d drop her at her hotel. She was the best. Really a great dame.
WD: Yeah, that was a nightmare. A nightmare.
AVC: Was it just a complete misfire?
WD: It was all set up wrong. [Michael Richards] had a real warped sense of what it was. Yeah, that was a disaster. And it laid off a lot of people two weeks before Christmas. You’ve got a responsibility when you’re the star of something like that. You’ve got a responsibility over all those people who work there. You act like an asshole, and the next thing you know, 50 people are out of work. It was stupid.
AVC: Was that the only issue, though? Was it creatively fixable?
WD: No, it wasn’t fixable with those people. They needed Larry David, you know? Ultimately, the show runner is the guy who gets it right every day before you shoot. The other guys write ‘em and whatever, but ultimately the show runner is the guy who makes it work. And they didn’t have a guy who could make it work.
WD: Well, you know, I just went because I wanted to play Roy [Scheider]’s part. [Laughs.] But that’s where I met John Schlesinger, and he was really good to me. But I remember that both Roy and I tested for Roy’s part. He tested the two of us, and then when Roy got it, John said, “Well, you can do this.” And [cinematographer] Connie Hall shot the test, and he shot it all in one take, moving the camera up, down, and around. I had never done anything like that before. I had never seen anything like that before! But it was fun. I mean, the book was so quick and good and interesting, and they kept the script pretty close to it. Dustin, of course, was a trip. But it holds up. John knew what he was doing. He was a great director. You look at all of John’s pictures, they hold up.
WD: I can’t think of the actor’s name I replaced halfway through the movie.
AVC: Roy Thinnes.
WD: Yeah! But the movie was half-done when I got there. In fact, some of the stuff in San Francisco, dragging the body through the streets and stuff, is the other actor! [Laughs.] I think I got that part because I fit the clothing! [Alfred] Hitchcock was trippy. He was a lot of fun. We had lunch every day. Sometimes he’d fall asleep between “action” and “cut.”
AVC: I remember Ed Lauter saying that Hitchcock was already planning his next film even when he was making Family Plot.
WD: Yeah, well, you know, [Lew] Wasserman was totally behind him. He could’ve done whatever he wanted to do. And it was like working at a bank, working for Hitchcock. You went to work at 9, and you were done at 5. There was no 14-hour days or any of that shit. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was all story-boarded. He knew exactly what was going on. And it was fun. It was pretty basic stuff. But I remember him saying, “Cat’s feet, Bill! Cat’s feet!” I was, like, “Huh?” He meant “pause.” He’d say shit like that.
And he’d tell great stories, ’cause his wife was, like, best friends with George Bernard Shaw. So you’d be sitting there, and he’d be telling Shaw stories! He never told a joke or a story that you had ever heard before. He was really interesting. Oh, and he loved Barbara Harris. Barbara and I used to eat lunch with him a lot and sit there by his bungalow or wherever the hell we happened to be, because he really loved her. And I liked her, too.
He didn’t get along with Karen [Black], unfortunately. He would sit there, and Karen would do something that he didn’t like, and he’d say, “Well, I don’t think you should do that.” But she would just continue to do it. And I’d look over at him, and he’d look at me and do like this. [Makes scissors with his fingers.] And I was still new enough at the time that I didn’t know at first what he was doing, but it didn’t take long to realize that what he was telling me was if you want to do something interesting, don’t do it here, because I’m cutting that shit! [Laughs.]