Random Anecdotes from Early Interviews (Part 2 of Several)
Stories from Clint Howard, Eric Roberts, Luke Goss, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei, Denis Leary, and Tom Smothers
During my five years as assistant writer/editor for Bullz-Eye.com, I talked to a veritable plethora of fascinating folks, and my experiences there were invaluable, but I think it’d be fair to say that the majority of the traffic that frequented Bullz-Eye was not coming specifically to read my stuff. As such, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you probably haven’t read the majority of the anecdotes I’m going to offer up from that era.
If you’re of a mind to check out any of these interviews in their entirety, you can do so by clicking on each person’s name. If you do so, though, just please be forgiving: I was still learning my craft. (Just ask my editors. I was an ellipses abuser of the highest order, and it will haunt me for the rest of my days.)
What are your thoughts on - wait for it - Ice Cream Man?
CH: Yes! ]Laughs.] Ice Cream Man was a blast to work on. Both Norman and I knew exactly what kind of movie we were making. It was a tongue-in-cheek horror movie. I really appreciated the fact that I got to play this crazy ice cream man character. It obviously was not a straightaway horror movie. Listen, it’s a notch on my gun belt for me to be a part of something as odd and offbeat and campy as Ice Cream Man was…meaning it’s something I’m proud of. It’s amazing: out of nowhere, I’ll get people coming up to me on the street saying, “Hey, man, you were the ice cream man!”
I can believe it. Once you’ve seen it, you never forget it.
I know! Listen, at times, I question why anyone would watch Ice Cream Man, but I actually have a funny little story about that… Well, about horror movies in general.
I was auditioning… Actually, it wasn’t so much auditioning as I was going in and having a meeting for this sitcom pilot. These were old school sitcom guys. These guys were guys that had done The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There were like three or four of these well-dressed creative people sitting around this room, and we were talking. It was Steve Landesberg, it was a pilot that he was attempting to do…oh, it must have been 12, 13 years ago now. One of the guys said, out of nowhere, one of these well-dressed creative guys said, “I just saw you in a movie called Ticks.” I was comfortable enough in the room at this time where I looked at him and I go, “Why did you watch that?” And he gave me a great explanation. He goes, “My wife and I, once a month or so, will go and rent a couple of horror movies.” And he said, “It’s kind of like Mexican food: we know that these horror movies aren’t that great, and they’re really not that good for you, but you know what? They’re spicy, and they’re fun to watch.” And you know, I’ve always remembered that conversation, because horror movies are like Mexican food. I mean, listen, I love it. I don’t like to eat it all the time, but occasionally it’s fun, you know?
And Evilspeak was a movie that I was really proud of because… Evilspeak was really my coming-of-age movie. It was the first movie that I worked on where I was the lead in the movie and I was doing it on my own. I had just turned 21, and my dad had slowly sort of cut me loose creatively. And my dad is a wonderful man, and he was my mentor, but I was beginning to get out on my own. Evilspeak was the first time that I, on my own, worked with the director. I was a part of that creative team that helped make Evilspeak. I was really proud of that movie. Eric Weston, the director, and a cinematographer named Irv Goodnoff, and…I mean, we were all a lot younger; I was the youngest one of the bunch. We sort of got together, and we were creative and we made that movie, and it was really my coming of age as an actor and as a human being.
King of the Gypsies was your debut film. You must still be fond of it to be willing to step up and do a round of press [for its DVD release]. Lord knows not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for their film debut.
ER: Really? Well, I’m actually really proud of it, mostly because my two favorite screenwriters…in my opinion, the two best screenwriters, who are still writing right now, are Frank Pierson and David Rayfiel, and in my first movie, I got to work with Frank Pierson. I was always a big fan of his, and I was blown away. He picked me, and I screen-tested, and he told Dino (De Laurentiis, the film’s producer) that I was who he wanted; he saw the screen test and agreed, and I got the gig, and it changed my life, of course.
How did you come to read for the film in the first place?
It was a cattle call, you know. Everybody in the world wanted that part at that time, you know. I was told…I’d rather leave the names out, so I don’t sound obnoxious, but there were some major stars who wanted that part who were very big then, so everybody had to screen test, and it was very sought after. But I was the unknown, and I got it. And it changed my life.
It’s very weird to see the credit of “Introducing Eric Roberts.”
You know, when they gave my Oscar to Don Ameche (Roberts was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work Runaway Train but Ameche won via the sentimental vote for his role in Cocoon), I called my agent and I said, “I will do anything anywhere if there’s one good thing about it,” because…it wasn’t just resentment over not being the winner. When you’re a mainstream movie star, which I was, you only make one movie every year…or maybe every other year or every three years. I started acting when I was, like, four and a half. I was a pretty good actor by eight, and I was a very good actor by puberty, and I knew it was gonna be my life by the time I was 15. So…what was I saying? Sorry, I just saw the pool man fall in the pool, and I lost my train of thought! What was I saying?
Oh, yeah! So what happened to me…it wasn’t because of losing the Oscar. I’m not…I’m not as badly OCD as my wife, who’s OCD out the wazoo. [Laughs.] I’m just mildly OCD, and it has to do with my work. If I’m not working, I don’t like myself, and it’s kind of like what I’ve grown up and given myself worth for is my talent and my abilities, so when I’m not executing them, I feel like a loser, and when I am executing them, I feel good about myself.
So I’ve been sort of making every kind of movie on the planet: A, B, C, D, TV, network, cable, whatever. Russian movies, Lithuanian movies, all over the world. Chinese movies! If anybody liked Eric Roberts, I went. And they didn’t always pay me the big movie money, but they paid me well…as far as I’m concerned, they overpaid me!...and I just started having a truly great life, because I got to travel and see the world with my wife, who is my best everything. I just…y’know, I threw in the mainstream towel and I went for quantity and fun. And I turned my life into something not quite so precious as it was – making a movie every 18 months – and into a real fun road trip. And I’ve had a blast ever since, quite frankly.
Prior to King of the Gypsies, how much acting in front of the camera had you done?
That was my first movie, brother.
Well, that I knew, but IMDb only shows one TV credit prior to that, and it’s your role on Another World as Ted Bancroft.
That’s all I’d done. I’d done, like, 90 plays by that time, because I started acting on stage at four and a half, and I was in repertory by the time I was seven, so I was doing six to eight plays a year for my whole adolescence. I was very practiced and very ready to settle it down to film acting, and did thanks to Frank Pierson, bless his heart.
By the way, I hope the casting director on that movie got a bonus, given how many other soon-to-be famous names were in there with you.
Wasn’t that incredible? I mean, for an unknown guy to be surrounded by that cast was amazing for me, and I made great friends with Sterling Hayden. He and I remained friends up ‘til his death from lung cancer...and I learned everything NOT to do on a movie set from Shelly Winters! And, of course, I gotta say that the kindest person to me on the set – besides Frank Pierson – was Susan Sarandon. She was so good to me, and so sweet, and so just…just unaffected, unpretentious and nice.
With Sterling Hayden already having been in The Godfather, I’m sure that only helped the critics who already wanted to call it “the gypsy version of The Godfather.”
[Laughs.] Y’know, I fell in love with him when he did…what’s the movie? The Killing. I saw The Killing as a kid and thought it was maybe the best thing I had ever seen at the time, because it was an actor’s film, and he was great! So I was a fan of his all the way up through The Godfather, of course…and then I got to work with him, and it was like a dream come true! I’ve got one quick Sterling story that I’d love to share with you.
I’d been working about two or three weeks, and when we went into our night shoot, I had my first scene with him, in the back of a car. I show up early like I always do, and he shows up late, like he always did, and I’m waiting for him to get ready. The assistant director comes and knocks on the door and says, “Mr. Hayden would like to speak with you.” And I’m, like, “Cool, man, great!” So I go over there, and I knock on the door. (does a perfect Sterling Hayden growl) “Come in, come in!”
So I open up this door, and it reeks of hash! And he says to me, “Have a seat, son! So, what are we doing tonight?” I say, “We’re doing scene 85.” “I know the number! What the fuck happens?” I say, “Well, it’s a night scene, and you want to bring me back into the fold because you don’t think your son is too capable but you think your grandson is,” I being the grandson. He goes, “Okay! How’re your improvisations?” I said, “I’m pretty good.” He says, “Well, that’s what we’re doing tonight: we’re gonna improv the whole thing. Now that I know what we’re doing, we’re just gonna shoot from the hip, okay?” I said, “Great!” He said, “Y’wanna get high with me?” I said, “No, if I get high, I can’t talk.” And he says, “Well, I can only talk when I’m high!” [Imitates Hayden’s raspy laugh.] So that’s kinda how we started. And we bonded, and I probably haven’t ever enjoyed working with an actor more until I worked with my wife.
Wow. So when you first saw yourself on that movie poster, staring back at yourself, how did you avoid letting it go to your head? Or did you avoid that?
It went right to my head, pal. It went right to my head for about three months. I thought I shit ice cream for about 90 days, but I got over myself. But when you’re 20 years old and you make a movie, you’re 21 when it comes out, and…the only bad thing about that time in my life was that I was under the tutelage of a manager who was always feeding me cocaine, and that was a problem that I didn’t drop until several years later, unfortunately. But I did drop it.
So that kind of stuff is…it kinda sets up a not very cool manner of thinking. So I was in love with myself for about 90 days, but I got over it. And also what you have to remember is that that was a time in show business…and I’m not saying it happened on this movie necessarily…but it was a time in show business where they’d send you to the prop truck for bowls of cocaine, and everybody from the executive producers to craft services were high. And, really, up until Don Simpson died at his own birthday party, having OD’d on heroin and coke, it was a part of life in Hollywood. And, then, suddenly, if you were caught as a drug user, you were blacklisted…but I was already through all of my shit by then. But, anyway…
Um…only because you’re talking about it, just out of curiosity, is there any role that you’ve done that you can’t even watch now because you know you were affected by the cocaine?
I don’t want to talk about that here.
It’s totally cool. It was just a question that occurred to me as we were talking.
[Chuckles.] It’s a good question, dude. And if it weren’t about, y’know, one movie, we could talk about it.
As one of the handful of Americans who bought and enjoyed Push…
LG: [Starts laughing.] Oh, God…
Hey, man, I still love “When Will I Be Famous”!
Why do you think Bros never really made it properly in America?
I think, for one, so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it as much now. ]Laughs.] It was the gods working in my favor, and I thank them very much. But the other reason was that we were signed to Sony and Epic and CBS and all that stuff. And the New Kids on the Block were signed there as well. We were a band before we were signed, but…anyway, they were American, and it was an investment, so the American company went in that direction. But, for instance, when we were pushed in Canada, we had a platinum album in a few weeks. So I think it was just a business thing. They were making a lot of money with the New Kids at the time…and I’m so glad they did. (Laughs) It was fun, though. I had no problem with it. It was a lot of fun, for sure.
I’ve always wondered: was it your decision to write your autobiography (I Owe You Nothing) way back in 1993, or were you kinda pushed to do it?
It was actually mine.
Yeah, but it wasn’t so much…I mean, it was an autobiography, but all the time when I was promoting the book, I kept saying that it saved me a fortune in therapy. ‘Cause I got stolen hard for a load of cash…like, twelve million bucks or something ridiculous…and I just didn’t want to go nuts, so the book was a really good way to keep the crazy demons at bay. And I got through it. There’s nothing like a self-indulgent catharsis to keep from going crazy. But it is kind of ridiculous to write one’s autobiography at 23. Somewhat ridiculous.
You said it, not me.
It was a very candid book. What I intended to do was to write it very honest and then look at the parameters afterwards for my own privacy and not try to implement them while I was writing. What I ended up doing was taking the names out but keeping it brutally candid, even at the expense of showing some vulnerability at that time. So I think at least that it was an honest book.
Is there a particular moment from that era that was completely ridiculous but you look back and think, “That was brilliant”?
Most of them involve underwear landing on me from various directions. And I still don’t have a problem with that…although it hasn’t happened in way, way too long, so maybe you can put that out there for me.
Maybe you could do more stage work.
There you go. Some low-end stage work. [Laughs.] As far away from Shakespeare I can. You don’t get a lot of underwear doing Shakespeare, do you?
In “Surfer, Dude,” there’s a scene where you’re naked and playing a didgeridoo. I’m sure everybody immediately parallels that to the, uh, bongo incident, but whose idea was it to include that scene in the movie?
MM: Um… [Laughs.] We just thought it was kind of off the wall! And we kind of thought it would be weird and funky and funny to have this guy kinda being off his tree and trying these ridiculous ways to get the waves to come back, these kinds of hideous, ridiculous ideas that he would have to get right back on time with Mother Nature. I’d been in Australia, so I picked up a didgeridoo and started playing it, and I was sitting around one day when we were going through the script in pre-production, and I would carry my didgeridoo with me and play it. And someone came up with…well, it’s a very weird instrument that not many Americans know about, but it’s a very cool instrument and one that we have in our score a lot. And it’s a very earthy instrument. So we said, “I think he should play the didgeridoo.” And we said, “What if, when he’s off his rocker, he’s just stuck at home, all alone, sitting out and doing a meditation, not even playing the didgeridoo very well, but he’s sitting out there doing it buck naked, and then Danni comes over.” And he said, “That’s a funny idea, let’s shoot it.”
Surely it occurred to you, though, that people would think about the reported bongo incident.
The reported one? [Laughs.]
Hey, man, I never actually heard you talking about it.
Yeah, most of that… Well, I definitely was playing some bongos. It was late, and it was hot, and there was…there wasn’t much clothing going on with the bongos. [Laughs.] But, yeah, we brought that up, that someone may go, “Oh, that might be a callback.” So, yeah, it’s a bit of a wink. Yeah, it’s a wink.
What would you say was your favorite pre-Star Trek appearance on television?
GT: Well, I'd done a couple of things that I'm particularly proud of. I did a Twilight Zone episode that gave me a fantastic opportunity to sink my teeth into some red meat. And…I don't know how young you are, but you may or may not remember Playhouse 90.
I'm aware of it, at least.
Yes, it was original drama, written for television, 90 minutes. And on live television, so there were some flubs. Millions of people all across the country saw that flub. It was both the best and the worst of live theater and television. The best of the television is the fact that you get access to millions of viewers, and the best of the theater is that you get to do solid drama, but the worst of live television is that any mistakes…and in theater, any mistake would only be seen by seven hundred to a thousand people, but on live television, it's seen by the entire nation. But that was one of the most respected shows on television at that time.
People like… Well, just in this morning's newspaper, in the obituary section, I read that Abby Mann passed. And he wrote Judgment at Nuremberg for Playhouse 90 initially, and then it was made into a movie with Maximilian Schell and Marlene Dietrich…and Richard Widmark, who passed away recently as well. But there were some amazing writers, like Paddy Chayefsky, and Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, he wrote Requiem for a Heavyweight, Patterns, and many other dramas. So distinguished playwrights were writing for Playhouse 90.
When I was going through IMDb.com, which is often not entirely accurate…
No, often it is not. [Laughs.]
…but they show that you did four different episodes of Hawaiian Eye, each time playing a different character. Did that ever drive you crazy, that they were apparently just going, "Eh, people aren't going to remember him"?
No, actually, I was a theater arts student at UCLA at that time, and I went from my classroom to the sound stages at that time. I was very lucky, and I really felt blessed. The first gig I did with Warner Brothers was a feature film. I was seen in a student production at UCLA by a casting director from Warner Brothers who became something of a mentor for me – Hoyt Bowers – and he plucked me out of that play at UCLA and plunked me into my first feature film: Ice Palace, the movie version of Edna Ferber's Alaska epic.
It starred Richard Burton, and we had two weeks on location up in Alaska, in the wilds and in the boondocks, in a small fishing village. And you get to know your fellow actors. I mean, he was Mr. Burton to me, but he insisted that I call him Richard. And here I was, a star-struck kid, and Richard Burton, this legendary Shakespearean actor from England. I kept peppering him with questions, and Richard loved talking about it, so we were an ideal pair. And then we had two months of filming back at the studio, and Warner Brothers apparently liked what I did, so although I went back to UCLA after that, they kept pulling me out of school to do these guest spots on Hawaiian Eye. So, no, it didn't drive me crazy. The fact that they were different characters was, for me as an actor, a wonderful opportunity.
I love both you and Bill Hicks and have never tried the side-by-side comparison. Are people just blowing smoke when they claim about his material having been swiped by you?
DL: Well, here’s the deal. I actually did this for TIME Magazine, so I don’t know if they used it or not, but I’ve done it so many times. It’s a thing I shy away from because there are two people involved and one of them is not here. But here is the bottom line truth…but this is not going to change anybody’s opinion, because people get caught up in conspiracies and myths.
When Bill and I first met, it was at Catch a Rising Star and I think it was 1987. Bill Sheft would remember the year better than I. Bill Scheft, who’s David Letterman’s head writer and has been for years, he hosted a night there. The core of my act, which was the middle and probably the most famous part for No Cure for Cancer on record, but the actual special itself was longer. But you know the whole smoking and anti pop culture and P.C. thing was already established. I mean, that’s what I was doing. He walked out of a room and said, “There’s a guy here from Texas and you guys are going to love each other,” because he had just seen his act. Bill and I, not only did we become friends, but then Bill and I found ourselves having club owners in New York saying, “Well, we can’t book you guys in the same show because you guys are too similar.”
Caroline Hirsch said…whose club at that time, Caroline’s, was downtown at the Seaport…said, “You guys are my two favorite young guys. I’m putting you on, you’re going to co-headline and you guys can decide who goes on first and who goes on second.” We did that for a weekend and sold out and audiences loved it. We ended up doing her New Year’s Eve show for a couple of years in a row, which was a big gig at that time. Literally, I would open and he would close and then the next show vice-a-versa. So not only were we both aware of it and dispelling it but doing it in a very public place in New York and doing it with a lot of witnesses.
Now, to go from that to getting famous first and being accused of stealing his material… And, quite frankly, there was about six or seven other guys, one guy who claimed I stole his aura. [Laughs.] I said, “You know, it’s funny, I guess I’m just a…I did nothing on my own.” I decided…because Bill was a really talented comedian, and I think just sort of hitting his stride when he got sick, as far as I’m concerned, time would have dispelled it, anyways, if he had lived. I obviously just kept working. It wouldn’t have been an issue, I think, if Bill had lived. It’s just that people look at a tragedy and they look at that circumstance and they go, oh, this must be how we can explain this.
Like I said, they are never going to get over it. They are probably going to look at my book when it comes out and claim that there is Bill Hicks material in there, which is fine. I just continue to work and I wish the guy was around because I think he was a brilliant comedian. Sometimes I’m coming up with material so fast and furious, and I just think to myself, “Boy, it would be a lot easier if I could steal this stuff!”
When John Lennon and Harry Nilsson were thrown out of the Smothers Brothers show at the Troubadour in the ‘70s…
TS: Oh, yeah.
…just how disruptive were they? I mean, how bad was it from your perspective?
My brother I hadn’t been performing together for a year or so, and we were going to be putting our act together again, but Dickie was working on music, so I went up to the Cellar Door in Georgetown to do a single. By myself. And I went there, and Harry Nilsson was a good friend of mine, and I told him I was going out there. Harry was afraid of crowds; he never liked to play live.
Well, I get there, and they said, “There’s a guy named Harry Nilsson here who wants a ticket.” He had flown out! So he’s up in the balcony of the Cellar Door, and I did my hour show in 25 minutes. My chops were gone. My timing was off, and it takes awhile to get back into the swing of things, because I’d been doing television rather than live performances. So I said, “Any questions?” Because we’d just been fired not long before this. And everybody’s asking questions, and all of a sudden Harry’s yelling down, and we were having arguments, and…well, I did an hour show! [Laughs.] And he was there for the second show, same thing. We had a good time and hung out.
And then Dickie and I go to the Troubadour in L.A., and… [Laughs.] …and all of Hollywood was there to see what the Smothers Brothers were going to do. And Harry comes in with John Lennon. Well, he told John Lennon, “Tom likes hecklers. It helps him. It gets him through his show.” And every time there was a silence, they were hollering out things like, “God fucks pigs!” I mean, it was really filthy! Blows were thrown, and it just got wild. The next day, I got flowers and all kinds of apologies from Lennon and from Harry Nilsson. It just got out of control. But they were pretty ripped when they came.
BE: I’ve heard they were wearing tampons on their heads at one point.
Oh, yeah! And then it got physical, and there were the car parkers and…I mean, it was one of those little moments that was kind of fun, but the timing was…it was just so hard to do the show!
The other moment I had with Lennon was before that, when he did the Bed-In for Peace and I was playing guitar with him (on “Give Peace a Chance”), and he stopped me in the middle of the song and said, “Tom, don’t play that way. Play what I’m playing.” I was playing up the neck, giving it a couple of passing chords and diminished chords, trying to fill it in, and he said, “I want you to play exactly what I’m doing. I want the sound of two guitars. Double what I’m doing.” It was kind of embarrassing. I was showing all my hot shit, and he says that! I hung out with Harry and Lennon a little bit in London between our shows, and it was great, but I couldn’t play like they did because…well, I had to do 26 shows! They were working on an album or hanging around or whatever, but there were no live performances for them to focus on. And I just said, “I can’t do this! You’re too fast for me!”