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: Like more than a few other actors, Dan Lauria got his start in theater, and he’s returned to the stage on a regular basis throughout his career, most notably in his acclaimed performance as the title character in the 2010 play, Lombardi. On the whole, though, Lauria is known to more people for his work in front of the camera, both in film and on television. While he’s most recently been seen playing Steve Byrne’s father on the TBS sitcom Sullivan & Son, Lauria remains best known for another paternal role: Jack Arnold, Kevin’s dad, on The Wonder Years, the complete series of which is available (at long last) on DVD via Time Life.
The A.V. Club: Presumably you, like everyone else, were beginning to wonder if a complete-series set of The Wonder Years was ever going to see the light of day.
Dan Lauria: I’m sure you know this already, but they couldn’t secure the rights to the music, and that was all because Ronald Perelman, the guy who owned Revlon, screwed up the contract. So Time Life has really stepped up, and they got about 90 percent of all the original music, including the theme song [“With a Little Help From My Friends,” by Joe Cocker], which was a major feat.
AVC: That’d seem to be almost a make-or-break situation for its release.
DL: Oh, yeah. It was the first series to have a Beatles song as its theme. Now, you’ll have to ask [the producers], but I was told a long time ago that Paul McCartney actually had a lot to do with that. The Beatles didn’t own it when The Wonder Years got it, but supposedly Paul McCartney saw the pilot, and he liked it so much that he contacted the people that they’d sold it to and said, “If you’re ever going to let a Beatles song be on something, do this.” They got back to him and said, “Okay, we’ll let them do it, but it can’t be The Beatles version.” Anyway, that’s the story I was told. I always wanted to meet Paul McCartney just to find out if it was true. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you find your way into the series? Was it just a standard audition situation?
DL: No, actually, I did two Growing Pains episodes, and that’s where [husband and wife TV producers] Neal Marlens and Carol Black met. Neal and I got along really well, because we’re both from Long Island, and we’re both old jocks. [Laughs.] When I was younger—I’m a little older than Neal—my hometown, Lindenhurst, was the big dog, and when he was in high school, South Huntington, where he was from, was the big dog.
What actually happened was, I couldn’t get an audition for it. Joanna Kerns, the mother on Growing Pains—she and I were going out at the time—said, “Why don’t you call Neal?” And I said, “Nah, I can’t do that. Too unprofessional.” So she said, “Oh, don’t be stupid!” And she went in the other room and called Neal, and she said, “Neal said be there at 10 o’clock tomorrow.” So I went in and auditioned with a million other guys. The network wanted a star. They wanted an Elliott Gould. But Neal and Carol were very persistent about, “We want a family that looks like next door. We don’t want people from the movies.” If Joanna Kerns didn’t make that call, I probably never even would’ve gotten to audition.
AVC: Was Jack Arnold based on Neal’s father?
DL: Well, there was a lot of Neal’s father in there, and Neal’s father died at 49, so that’s why, at the end of the show, they had that—we weren’t supposed to end then. We were supposed to go do one more year. If you go and check our ratings, that’s a lot of bull in the biography of The Wonder Years that our ratings were slipping. It’s so easy to check: We were 27 out of 166 shows the year we were canceled.
But it was supposed to end on the day Nixon resigned, with Kevin getting accepted to college, coming home, and finding me dead on the floor. That was to be the end of The Wonder Years! And that’s pretty much what happened to Neal. He was playing tennis with his father, and he just keeled over on the tennis court. Sad. But I think that’s really why they don’t want to do a movie or create a new Wonder Years series, because Neal felt that it was the right thing at the right time, and let’s not exploit it.
AVC: How was it for you to do a period piece like that, given you’d grown up during that timeframe yourself?
DL: [Laughs.] The funny thing was, every time they talked about something old, especially being the background was the Vietnam War and I’m a vet, Fred [Savage] and the rest of them would go, “What was it like?” So Alley [Mills] and I started feeling very old. I mean, we were there when those events happened—the moon walk and all of those things—but Alley said, “These kids are making me feel old.” It was a good show, though. It really shows you what television could do.
AVC: Do you have a favorite Jack-centric episode?
DL: You know, there were a lot of them I liked. Boy, I know that one where I took Kevin to work, that’s still shown in elementary schools. I still get letters from fathers saying, “Thanks! Now my kids know why I’m so grumpy when I come home!” [Laughs.] But my favorite was when the daughter went off to college, and I gave her my duffle bag from the Marine Corps.
As a matter of fact, my only contribution to the character or any of the writing was that I had suggested to Neal—because I was a Marine—to make him a Marine. Obviously they couldn’t make him a Vietnam veteran, so they made him a Korean War veteran. But it came in handy through a lot of episodes. Bob Brush [one of the series’ main writers] said, “Geez, thank God we set up that you’re a vet!” [Laughs.] So that was probably my only contribution. I mean, everybody threw out an idea here and there, and Bob Brush was good about accepting themes for stories and all that, but Neal and Carol left after 18 episodes, and Bob Brush—and even Fred’ll tell you—was the real star of the show.
AVC: From all reports, it seems the cast of the show has maintained a very familial relationship over the years.
DL: Oh, yeah. Our business is like every other business: Fifteen percent of the people I work with are total assholes, and 85 percent are just the best people in the world. They work hard, they put their all into what they’re creating. The only difference between our business and other businesses: We promote the 15 percent. You’ll read a lot more about Lindsay Lohan than you’ll ever read about Danica McKellar, who’s a real inspiration to young women, and she’s got her fourth math book coming out.
But they’re all doing well. Jason Hervey is one of the leading producers for reality shows. Josh Saviano’s a big entertainment lawyer in New York City. He’s handled Broadway shows like Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark and some of the other big ones. And Danica’s my girl. I even babysit her kids sometimes! [Laughs.] But, unfortunately, our business doesn’t promote that. You would think some studio executive would say, “Let’s have a series with Danica in it and promote the positive as well as the negative!” As a matter of fact, it’d probably be smart to make a series with Lindsay Lohan and Danica. Maybe Danica could straighten her out!
Love Of Life (1974)—actor
C.O.D. (1981)—“Secret Service Man #2”
One Life To Live (1983-1984)—“Gus Thompson”
AVC: In trying to find your first on-camera role, IMDB says you played a Secret Service man in a film called C.O.D., but I can’t come up with anywhere else that backs up that claim.
DL: C.O.D.? Gee, I don’t even remember that. My first time on camera—actually, I think my first time on camera was a soap opera: Love Of Life. I think that’s what it was. I’m not sure. I don’t even remember C.O.D. Maybe I had one line in it or something.
AVC: Chris Lemmon was the star of it, if that helps.
DL: Oh, okay, well, I remember doing a project with Chris, because he was one of the producers. We became good friends. But that wasn’t first. That wasn’t anywhere near first.
AVC: In that case, what do you remember about the experience on Love Of Life?
DL: Well, Love Of Life was just nothing. But not too long after that, I did two years on One Life To Live, where I played Judith Light’s pimp. I was Gus, the killer pimp. [Laughs.] I was a two-year bad guy. That’s hard on a soap! But that’s where I met Judith Light, and that’s why, when I did Lombardi, they asked me for five names, and Judith Light and Wendie Malick were literally my first two names.
AVC: My friend Jeff Giles, who wrote Llanview In The Afternoon: An Oral History Of One Life To Live, shared a few anecdotes that your former cast mates had shared with him for the book.
DL: Uh-oh. [Laughs.] Did anyone tell the one about me looking in the camera?
AVC: It doesn’t look like it. But he got a good story from Peter Miner.
DL: Oh, yeah, Peter directed the show. Well, there was a time Gerry Anthony and I—I was the bad guy, you know—we’re almost having a fist fight in a restaurant, and they’re calming us down, and I’m supposed to sit down at the table. But as I sat, after the fight was over, I looked right in the camera, and I said, “What are you looking at?” And then I looked back. And everybody went, “Dan, what are you doing?” And I said, “I think once a week one of us should look into the camera, as if it’s a person in the scene. We could have the audience try to catch when it was.” And everybody went, “Wow, what a great idea!” Then we heard from the booth, “Um, we’re going to take a little break. Just sit there for a minute.” They tried to clear it with the network, and it took four hours to get a “no.” By the end of the second hour, everybody was like, “Oh, you had to open your big mouth, you couldn’t just shut up.” [Laughs.] I said, “I thought you said it was a good idea! What are you talking about?” I still think it’s a good idea!
AVC: So how did you find your way from theater to on-camera work?
DL: Well, in the old days—it’s so different today—there wasn’t this mass editing. In Argo, the longest take without a cut is 22 seconds. We had to do theater. We had no choice. Acting and casting directors had to go to the theater. So what you did was, you got a [another] job. I worked at a place called Café Central. Bruce Willis was a barman, John Goodman was the doorman, Eddie O’Neill was a bartender, and I used to wash dishes in the back, but we were all doing plays. We weren’t getting paid, but we did plays.
Eddie got signed with a big agent at ICM—Sheila Robinson—and was actually discovered by her assistant, a guy named Barry Douglas. Soon after, when Barry Douglas left to start his own agency, naturally Eddie wasn’t going leave ICM, but he said, “You want a guy like me, you ought to see my buddy Dan Lauria!” And Barry called me and said, “Let me know when you’re in a play.” I said, “I’m a play right now! I’ll get you in.” So he came to the play—he actually sat next to Elia Kazan—and I was his first client. That wouldn’t happen today. I’m doing a play with right now with my friend, Ray Abruzzo, who played Little Carmine on The Sopranos—I said to my agent, “You gotta sign Ray!” He said, “Oh, I know him. Send me his reel!” But he’s never going to come to the play.
AVC: Scott Bakula said even in the late ’80s, he remembered meeting with agents in L.A. and having them say of the musical he was in, “We didn’t see it, but we heard it was great.”
DL: Yeah, that’s right. They don’t go. See, we actually used to have to know how to act. Now you don’t. They blame the young kids’ attention span. You hear that crap all the time, but that’s not what it is. In the last 15, almost 20 years now, the studios and the networks are not the parent company. You know how they talk about “liberal Hollywood”? It’s because I work for General Electric, Westinghouse, Time Warner, the most conservative companies, and they’re all corporate-minded. So how do you take power away from an actor? You cut on every line. How do you take power away from the director? You have him fill a computer that he has no access to. How do you take power away from a writer? You go from 20 minutes of dialogue and five minutes of visual to five minutes of dialogue and 20 minutes of visual. That’s what’s going on.
DL: I don’t like those kinds of movies. I mean, the only thing good about it was that I got to work with Robert Loggia for a day. My mentor was Charles Durning, and they were good friends, and they let Charlie come on the set. So I got to sit for a couple of hours between those two great pros, hearing some great stories. I don’t like those kinds of movies, but you’ll notice that it’s the longest scene in the whole movie without a cut, the one of me and Robert Loggia walking and talking down the hall.
AVC: The closest Independence Day ever gets to an Aaron Sorkin moment.
DL: Yeah, well, with all of that cut, cut, cut—like Charlie always said, “Every time you see a cut, a good actor’s out of a job.”
Law & Order (2000 & 2001)—“Joe Strudevant”
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2003 / 2011)—“Peter Kurtz” / “Coach Ray Masters”
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2010)—“Sal”
AVC: You’ve actually done two episodes of Law & Order: SVU, but the one most people remember is the more recent one, where you play Coach Ray Masters.
DL: Oh, yeah! Then they aired it one week before the Penn State scandal, and everybody was calling me, like, “They knew about that!?” And I said, “No!” Because they take their story ideas from the papers, and it was actually about a coach in Florida who was charged. But everybody thought it was about Penn State. I said, “No, the writers didn’t know anything about what was going on!” [Laughs.]
AVC: I have to admit, I thought it was about Penn State, too. The first time I caught it was in reruns, and the timing was so close it never occurred to me that it wasn’t.
DL: Yeah, talk about being at the right place at the right time. It caused a lot of reaction. And we had the two pros [Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh] with us on the episode, too! But Dick Wolf, he’s always been great for me. I did a couple of episodes of the original Law & Order, the two SVUs, and then one of the other one [Law & Order: Criminal Intent].
Hill Street Blues (1985)—“Jim McNeil”
Cagney & Lacey (1986 / 1987-1988)—“Mr. Jacoby” / “Detective Harry Dupnik”
L.A. Law (1987)—“Joseph Sears”
NYPD Blue (1996)—“George Garabedian”
The Hoop Life (1999-2000)—“Leonard Fero”
DL: It’s guys like Dick Wolf, [Steven] Bochco, and Tom Fontana who keep actors like me alive. And Barney Rosenzweig from Cagney & Lacey. Everybody’s hoping to get a series, and most good actors do get a pilot, but the chances of the pilot going are slim. So you have to stay alive until that good moment comes, and it’s people like that who keep you going. I mean, Steven Bochco practically never made a show that I wasn’t on, I don’t think. Or at least that’s how it feels, anyway. And Dick Wolf—I auditioned once, and I never auditioned again. They’d just call you and say, “Dick Wolf wants you to do another Law & Order.” And I’d say, “Sure!” I never even questioned it. Whatever he wants. And Tom Fontana was the same way. Tom actually cast me in a series called The Hoop Life up in Toronto.
AVC: Actually, that’s on my list to talk about.
DL: Yeah, we got screwed on that. That was a bad one. I felt Tom and Joe Cacaci, our showrunner, really got screwed on that, because we were opposite something like The Sopranos or something on cable, so on our airing night—I think it was Sunday—we did terrible. But they would rerun it Tuesday night, and we would win the night. Once, we were the highest rated Tuesday night show on cable. I said, “Oh, next year they’ll bring us back on Tuesday night!” But they didn’t bring it back, so… [Sighs.] It was a good show.
AVC: And your character was the head coach on the show, right?
DL: That’s right. I’ve played a few basketball coaches in my time. [Laughs.]
DL: They called me—I didn’t even audition for that—and people were giving me some horror stories about Martin Lawrence and John [Whitesell], the director, that they were supposed to be hard to deal with. But they were both wonderful. I don’t know where that rumor came from, I don’t know who starts those things, but I’m telling you, Martin Lawrence getting into that stuff—we were shooting in New Orleans, and half that stuff would melt before he came to the set, it was so hot. [Laughs.] And he never complained once. In fact, when they made the next one, they asked for me, but I was working. But I’ll tell you, John and Martin—I’d work with Martin Lawrence again any time, any place. He was just a sweetheart to me.
DL: Oh, with Bill Shyamalan, yeah. Night. [Snorts.] He calls himself “Night”—his real name’s Bill. That was a weird one, because I was the first one to read that script. This is before he had a big agent, and we had a reading. I ran a reading series for playwrights, really, but during the week every once in a while we’d read a screenplay, for no audience. And I put Joe Mantegna in it, and Charles Durning as the grandfather and Mercedes Ruehl as the nun. And we thought it was just the most wonderful script. Then I hear they’re going ahead with it, and none of us are in it! Because he got signed by a big agent, and the agent, you know, packaged it.
But a really fine actor, Joe Morgan, was playing the priest, and at the last minute, the job he was working on didn’t end when it was supposed to, so Night called me and said, “Would you fly to Philadelphia here and do this for me?” And I said, “Yeah, sure, Night.” He goes, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re not upset!” He was very sweet about it. I said, “Bill, we know the business. We’re old pros. We know you’ve gotta go with your agent. But I’ve gotta tell you something: If you lose me to Joe Morgan, that’s no big loss. Joe Mantegna’s a great actor, but Denis Leary’s good, too, Robert Loggia and Charles Durning are both great. But when you lose Mercedes Ruehl to Rosie O’Donnell, you change the tone of the film.”
I mean, I think Rosie’s just one of the sweetest people in the world, and I worked on Another Stakeout with her and everything. But you change the tone of the film when you go from Mercedes to Rosie. And, of course, all the advertisements were as a comedy, and it wasn’t. So I felt that movie—I loved that little movie. It’s about a little kid looking for God! I mean, what [Frank] Capra could’ve done with that! But it would’ve been like taking Jean Arthur and replacing her with a comic like Lucille Ball: They’re both great, but you change the tone of the film. So every once in a while I’ll get a note from him, saying, “They’re trying to change the tone of my film!” [Laughs.] But that’s part of the business, you know? But I like Night. He’s a great guy. Very creative.
DL: Well, I was very young—if it wasn’t my first feature, it was certainly one of them—and I was supposed to just be mopping the floor. I had, like, three lines, and then Kim Basinger came down the stairs, and I stroked the broom handle. And the director got pissed off! He said, “Do it again without doing that!” So I said, “Okay, okay…” So I did it. And which take stayed in the film? The one where I’m stroking the broom handle.
AVC: It’s certainly memorable.
DL: Yeah, well, I was looking at Kim Basinger, you know? You know where my thoughts went! [Laughs.] And that’s what the film was about! It’s as close to porn as I’ve done!
DL: I actually co-wrote that with my friend Marty [Zurla], and, believe me, Dog Watch was not our title. Our title was Dead In The Street! “Dog watch” is a term for cops from midnight to 4 in the morning, but the people who saw the title of the thing thought it was a comedy about a guy watching his dog! But that was a good story. It’s a little bit of a theme from the movie Where The Sidewalk Ends, with Dana Andrews, and another movie. I mean, there are no new themes, you know? [Laughs.] So I combined the themes from two old movies. And we had it optioned on a much bigger scale, but the guy who produced Cops on TV, John Langley, he wanted to make his first movie, and I thought—you know, we shot it well, it looked good, but I hated the title, and then in editing they actually cut out a plot point.
The big surprise for me, though, was it was written for my friend Joe Mantegna, but they wouldn’t wait for him to finish his series, so they went with Sam Elliott. And I thought, “Oh, this is not right. This is not right at all.” But Sam was terrific. If you ever see the movie, there’s a confessional scene, and when he came out, I went up to him, and I said, “Sam, you know, I’ve always liked your work, I just didn’t think you were right for this part, but I can’t imagine anybody else doing it now!” And he says, “They just don’t write parts like this for me. I love this!” God, he was such a pro. We were all in awe of him.
AVC: I don’t blame you. I interviewed him for this feature last year, and I could’ve listened to him talk all day.
DL: Oh, yeah, he has that great voice. You know, he’s a big horseman. Him and Katharine [Ross], and he has a project that he wants to do about John Buford, the Union cavalry officer who first showed up at Gettysburg. But I don’t know if he’ll ever get it done. It’s a big movie, and none of us are getting any younger. [Laughs.] But, boy, I’ll tell you, if somebody said to me, “Sam Elliott wants you in a movie,” he’s one of those people like Judith Light and Wendie Malick: If they’re doing a project, I’d go hang the lights just to be involved.
AVC: Since you mentioned Wendie Malick again, it’s clearly not a coincidence that you found your way onto Hot In Cleveland earlier this year.
DL: Oh, no. [Laughs.] No, we toured together with the play, The Guys. And like I said, when they asked me for five names for Lombardi, the first two for me were Wendie and Judith. But none of the theater owners wanted them—or me!—because we weren’t movie stars. Then the NFL finally kind of said, “Look, if Dan doesn’t do it, we’re not going to support it,” and they said, “All right!” But then they were really adamant about not having a second TV star. But we were supposed to run 10 weeks and we ended up running 10 months, and all the shows with movie stars died. Bombed. The play’s the thing, you know? It’s not whether there are movie stars or TV stars. If you have a good play, people will come.
AVC: How did you enjoy the Hot In Cleveland experience?
DL: Well, I’m working with one of my favorite actresses, so—I mean, I know her more as a dramatic actress, because of The Guys. But the girls, the four of them, have so much fun. And Betty White’s just—you know, you’re working with one of the greats. And I’m good friends with Ed Asner—we play cards together—and he came on the set and was telling everybody, “Watch out, you don’t wanna work with this guy,” and stuff like that. [Laughs.]
So you’re working with a pro and a legend with Betty White, and then Wendie, she’s had three successful shows in three different decades. I don’t know too many people who can say that. Jane Leeves, she’s got all those years on Frasier, and Valerie Bertinelli, she’s had her share of hits, so you’re in heaven with them. And like I said, they all have so much fun, because it’s four-camera.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a taping of a four-camera show, but if Sullivan & Son gets picked up for another season and you’re ever in L.A., call me again and I’ll bring you to the set. You’ll probably hit me in the back of the head and say, “They pay you for that?” [Laughs.] It’s all fun. And the more fun we have, the better the show is.
DL: That was a big break by Deborah Del Prete, who is an old friend. Of course, it was packaged with all major stars, and there was a little part left over, and she asked me to come in and audition for Frank [Miller]. But because the part was so small, they said, “Read the police chief,” which I believe was supposed to be Harvey Keitel. And Frank heard me read, and he goes, “I want this guy!”
Well, it turned out that Harvey was in another movie, and they would’ve had to wait two more weeks and push everything back, which is a big hassle when you’ve got people like Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, and Scarlett Johansson. They’ve got pretty tight schedules. So when Harvey wasn’t available, Frank said, “Hell, how about playing the big part?” As a matter of fact, Richard Portnow got the part I was supposed to do—the curator. So if it wasn’t for Deborah Del Prete, who was a friend, I wouldn’t have got it. That’s the worst thing in our business now: A lot of times, we go up and audition, or they put you on tape, which can’t show whether you can act or not. But when I started, the person who could say “yes” or “no” was usually in the room when you auditioned. And that’s what happened with The Spirit.
I loved working on that. I mean, I know it didn’t do well, but, really, if you want to learn something about illustration and art and how it can be adapted to film on a technical basis, it was really remarkable to see. I think it helped a lot of other movies. You know One From The Heart, that one that [Francis Ford] Coppola did about Las Vegas? Big bomb, but everything was shot inside, even all of the exteriors, and they still use those techniques on backdrops today. We need those kinds of people. Frank’s that way. He’s very much an illustrator, and he brings illustration to film.
As a matter of fact, he was trying to explain how he was going to shoot Samuel L. Jackson, and I didn’t understand what he was saying, and I don’t think Sam did, either. And I remember saying, “Frank, I don’t quite get what you want.” And he pulls out a pad, and he drew a few frames, and both of us went, “Wow, that’s great!” And then he walked away, and Sam leaned over. “Let’s screw up again. I love watching him draw!” [Laughs.]
That’s another great guy. You wonder why he’s in every other movie that comes out? It’s because Sam’s always on time, always knows his lines, and he’s just a real pro. I remember at the screening, he kind of felt that the movie wouldn’t do well, and he leaned over and goes, “You’re the only one’s gonna come out of this alive.” And I leaned over and said, “Nah, I’m too old. My assistant’s gonna make it, though.” Well, my assistant was Stana Katic, from Castle. Then we’re watching the movie, and he leans back and says, “You may be right!”
Stana’s a sweetheart. And talk about intelligent: She speaks five different languages! You should interview her. See, these are the people who don’t get interviewed—but if they’d robbed a bank or were in jail or tearing up a hotel room, everybody would want to interview them. And some of these people turn on their charm when people like you are around, then they’re real pricks when you’re not, but Stana’s just that nice all the time.
DL: I got to be directed by Tom Hanks! God, you know, I’d do anything to work with him again. That was such a pleasure. You know all the rumors you hear about how nice he is? He’s even nicer. [Laughs.] I’m serious!
I was married to my ex at the time, and we were down in Florida shooting, and, of course, there’s thousands of people around because he’s there, but the set’s closed off. Well, my in-laws came in, and I always try to help the lighting guys, so I’m sitting behind the desk, getting ready to shoot this scene. And Tom comes over and says, “What are you doing, Dan?” I said, “Oh, I’m just helping the lighting guys.” He goes, “Oh, thank you!” Then he leans over to the stage manager and says, “Who are those people over there?” I said, “Oh, that’s my wife and my in-laws. I’ll ask them to leave if you want.” And he goes, “No, no, no! You sit here and keep helping the lighting guys,” and he went over and introduced himself, brought them coffee. My ex-mother-in-law still talks about it! We’re still good friends, and she’s like, “Oh, he’s so nice!” He was just so generous with people, and I hope he directs more, because he was just so fun to work with. But I never got to act with him.
AVC: Maybe next time.
DL: Yeah, when he did that play on Broadway, Peter Scolari said he wanted me for one of the reporters, but I was already doing a play. Maybe as time goes by, we’ll get to do something together.
AVC: It’s funny how closely your sentiments about him echo those of Kurt Fuller, who said that he went to see Tom Hanks in that play, hadn’t seen him since they worked on The Bonfire Of The Vanities together, and yet he spotted him, asked him to come backstage, and greeted him like no time had passed.
DL: Oh, yeah! I went backstage, too, because Peter Scolari’s one of my best friends, and Peter says, “Come on, Tom wants to say hello!” I said, “What? Tom wants to say hello to me? I mean, I don’t want to bother the guy…” But he goes, “Dan, what do you mean, ‘bother me’?” And we sat there for a while and just talked about acting. They’re real pros. They’re the kind of people I like to be around. My mentors were Jack Klugman and Charles Durning, and I’m doing a play now that was actually written for the two of them, plus Dom DeLuise and Peter Falk. I was close to them, and I loved being around those people. I didn’t care about how old they were. All the conversation was always about acting. And funny stories. God, you mentioned Dean Martin around those four, and forget it. Just sit back for the next long while, because your side was going to hurt from laughing.
DL: That was a blast. I had the bulldog, and the bulldog—when you gave this command—would pee on cue. I said to Forest Whitaker, “You know, I just found out the bulldog’s getting paid more than we are!” And Forest said, “Yeah, because we can’t pee on cue!” [Laughs.] We just loved that. We did that scene in the office at the beginning, and [director] John Badham kind of had what he wanted, so he opened up the camera and kind of let us go. And some of the funniest lines were all ad-libbed. Like, when I yelled, “I think I broke my zipper!” That was an ad-lib, and John kept it in there. He was great.
So were Richard [Dreyfuss] and Emilio [Estevez]. Emilio was going through some personal problems, and he was kind of down, but John Badham said to me and Forest, “I want you guys to watch him, now. Don’t let him get in trouble.” John was genuinely concerned. Not just about the movie, but about Emilio. But it was like putting a fox in charge of the henhouse. Jesus! [Laughs.] But it came across on camera. It was like the third-largest gross over that year.
I’ll tell you a funny story: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this one. But if you see that movie, when we go into the police station—which wasn’t a police station, it was an abandoned school and they put a sign up—you’ll see some American Indians making a totem pole. So we get there, we’re discussing the thing we’re going to shoot, and John says to the A.D., “Go over there and tell them they’re gonna have to move. We can’t have a totem pole in there!” So this A.D. goes over there, he’s talking to them for, like, 20 minutes, and then he comes back. John says, “So are they gonna move?” And he says, “John, they said if they move the totem pole, then we’ll have a disaster, and the movie won’t make any money!” And John said, “What, are you kidding me?” So John Badham goes over, and about 10 minutes later, he comes back and says, “We’ll leave them there.” So when you see the movie, you’ll see two totem poles being carved outside that police station. And there’s no explanation as to why or anything. But the movie was the No. 3 grosser, so when we went to do [the sequel], I only had a small scene in it, but John said, “I can’t find them damned Indians! I want another totem pole!” [Laughs.] So that’s why those totem poles are there: Nobody wanted to get the bad juju on the movie!
AVC: In regards to Another Stakeout, there was a bit of a delay before it finally came to pass. Was that a case where they just had to make the timing work to get it made?
DL: Well, the first one was so successful that you knew there was going to be a sequel. And the second one did well, too. I mean, it didn’t do as well as the first one, but, you know, the stuff with Dennis Farina—my dear friend who’s now gone—that was great. But Forest was working, so they made me the police chief, just to keep some kind of continuity. And they put the dog back in, too! [Laughs.]
DL: I loved that little movie. With Bob Goodwin, yeah. The people who caught it loved that movie. It was such a spoof. And because of that movie, I’m [Rachael Leigh Cook’s] father on Perception. Eric McCormack said, “You’ve got to get Dan for this part,” because it wasn’t long after we’d finished Alien Trespass. But I think it was a mistake, because my character could come back a lot more, but Sullivan & Son—they run at almost the same time, so they’ve got to use me sparingly.
I loved Alien Trespass, but you had to really know those old ’50s horror and sci-fi movies to really appreciate that. They had this one shot where Eric is obviously walking on, like, an escalator, and in the background it’s deliberately out of sequence, because in those old movies, the clouds weren’t moving and stuff like that. I rolled when I saw it, but I think I was the only one in the audience laughing!
I was hoping that would hit, because Bob wanted to do a spoof on a film noir, and then he was going to do a spoof on a Western. He had a series of three films. But he almost died. He had cancer. He’s doing well now, though. I always hoped he’d get a shot to do another one. I think today he would’ve done that as a cable movie. [Laughs.] Those monsters, they were like dildos! And the girl who found out that salt kills them, so she walks around with a salt shaker all the time? It’s such a spoof. The people who get it loved that movie. But you had to know something about movies.
AVC: You’d known Bob Goodwin ever since you worked with him on Hooperman, right?
DL: Oh, yeah. Hooperman was such a big disappointment for me, because John Ritter and I—we became very good friends. I just got the part of Barbara Bosson’s husband by an audition, but John and I got to be friends, and he knew I wrote and ran this reading series, so I wrote like nine scenes to be done over three episodes and Bochco approved them—and then the show got canceled. I was having fun on that show, and Steven Bochco couldn’t have been more gracious.
John, that was a real loss. What a sweet guy. Every time we did readings and I called him about new plays, never once did I cast him in a comedy, and he loved it. I had him playing junkies and killers, and he was great. In fact, he called me one day and said, “Can you get some guys together? I’ve got this script and I’m thinking of optioning it.” I said, “Yeah, the conference room’s yours. You want me to help you?” He said, “Yeah!” So I got Joe Mantegna, Charlie Durning, Peter Falk—the standard guys who were always doing it. I was downstairs, cleaning toilets and getting ready for a play reading, they were up in the conference room, but I remember them coming out, John coming down the stairs, and Joe saying, “You should play the gay character that I was reading instead of the bad guy. I’m telling you, this is the better part for you!” And I’m all filthy, but I say, “Hey, how’d it go?” He said, “Oh, thanks, man. We had a great time. We really got the script going!” And John said, “Oh, here’s the author: Billy Bob Thornton.” And it was Sling Blade! At the reading, Charlie Durning played the guy who owned the lawnmower store and the Robert Duvall part.
As a matter of fact, I think I got the last letter John wrote. I was in New York, and he had a screenplay, and he called me and said, “I want to do a reading of this. Can you help me?” I said, “Yeah, sure, send it to me. I’ll read it on the plane back and I’ll work up a cast for you.” And I hadn’t read it yet—I was sitting in the airport, and then it came on that he’d died. So when I got back, I went and saw his son, Jason, and gave him the screenplay and that last letter his father wrote. [Sighs.] Yeah, John was a good guy.
DL: Oh, that was Patty Duke, who played a minister, and Joe Spano and I were the other regulars. I was an old boyfriend who still wanted to go out with her who was a lawyer for her church, and Joe was the local head cop, and it had some mystical stuff to it. Unfortunately Patty was—she was just the sweetest person in the world, but about eight weeks in… They were only supposed to work her four days a week, but then, of course, it goes to five days, 15 hours a day, and the lithium level went off, and she was just too sick to go on. But the show actually did quite well, the first few that were aired.
I saw her again when she went to Broadway, in—I think it was Oklahoma! with Shuler Hensley. But she was fine. Shuler said, “Oh, yeah, she was great!” And it was obvious that, when she was on a set schedule, she had no problem. But when you were working 15 hours one day, five the next, and then 20 the next—and then you’re also one of the producers and you’re a perfectionist. It was a shame, because she was a sweetheart, and she worked hard. In fact, she worked too hard.
The people I like working with best are the people who know that it’s called a play for a reason: We’re supposed to be playing! As hard as Tom Hanks works, he makes it enjoyable for everybody to be there. And it actually helps his work, because it relaxes him and the characters. John Ritter was the same way. Wendie Malick brings cookies to the set. And Judith Light would bring everybody a bagel on the day we had two shows with Lombardi. We still call her “Mom,” the whole cast. [Laughs.] It doesn’t mean they’re not working hard. They’re just trying to get everybody in a relaxed, comfortable mood. You know, like an athlete plays his best game when he’s relaxed.
AVC: Okay, we’ve circled around it long enough I feel like I have to ask about it specifically: How did Lombardi come about?
DL: Lombardi came about because I didn’t listen to my agents. We did a play, The Guys, where we didn’t get paid, and while I was doing it, I met Tommy Kail, who was this young director who knew Ann Nelson, the author of The Guys. She liked what I did, so she brought this kid down, and I thought, “This kid’s gonna make it.” He was broke and living in New Jersey with his parents, and I said, “Well, I’m going back to L.A. Here’s the key to my apartment in New York.” It’s just one little room, I’ve had it 30 years, but I said, “You don’t have to pay me rent. Just do what you gotta do.”
I came back a few months later, and he said, “You’ve got to see my group. We’re in the basement of a bookstore.” And I went down, and I never saw anything as electric as that. I don’t know shit about musicals, but these guys were great. So I said, “What’s happening?” And he said, “Well, we can go off-Broadway with this, but we have to fire the lead,” [Lin-Manuel Miranda] who wrote it, and who was phenomenal. I said, “Hey, you fire him, you’re next. It just goes right down the line.” I lent him a couple of bucks to do a few more backers auditions, he calls me, he sends me my money back, and he says, “We’re moving to off-Broadway. We raised the money!” It’s the biggest hit off-Broadway, it moves to Broadway, it wins Best Play. It was In the Heights.
So now Lombardi comes. My agent says, “We mentioned your name, but they want a movie star.” They wanted Martin Sheen or Anthony LaPaglia, I think. So they said, “Okay, you’re out.” So who do they hire to direct? Tommy Kail. And then Tommy says, “I want Dan!” They said, “We tried! The theater owners don’t want him. He’s not a movie star.” So Tommy says, “Well, look, Dan’s crazy. He’ll fly in on his own money and just read it for our writers.” Because they had to cut it down. It was too overwritten. And after the reading, the writers—David Maraniss and Eric Simonson—kept saying, “We want this guy!”
Then it was Tommy’s idea to read it for the NFL and for the theater owners, and they had Jo Beth Williams read the female lead. That’s when Roger Goodell said that if I didn’t do it, they weren’t going to support it. And old Ted Mann, who owned Circle In The Square, said, “If you’ll do it in the round…” And he goes [Growls.], “In the old days, we used to just hire the right actor!” [Laughs.] I thought Tommy would never direct it in the round, but then he said, “I have a great idea if it’s in the round!” I said, “Hey, go for it!” Then we found out that Jo Beth couldn’t do it, which is when they asked me for five names and didn’t like the names I gave them because they didn’t want two TV names, even though Tommy loved the idea.
AVC: Well, you clearly won out in the end, as did Judith, since she pulled a Tony nomination for her performance.
DL: Yep. [Hesitates.] The only one. Which was really disappointing to me and Tommy and the lighting guy, because they were all people who had been nominated. But the theater community didn’t like us, because all the old jocks who’d never gone to plays were coming, and then the wives of those guys were going home and calling other wives, saying, “There’s something playing that you’ll be able to get the old guy to go to… and you’re going to like it, too!” That was all Judith.
DL: I got that because of Ken Topolsky, who was a producer on The Wonder Years. He had me come and play a coach because he knew I used to be a jock, and I became really good friends with Scott Wolf, who’s now on Perception. He plays my son-in-law. Scott did a lot of readings for us. You ought to see him onstage. He can carry the freight, too, when he has to. And so can Eric McCormack, by the way.
DL: You know what was great about that? I was Julie Bowen’s father, and Ed’s father was Phil Bosco, and Phil and I were old theater actors together. So Phil and I would just sit there and yak away all day. Usually when I was on, he was on. It had something to do with the in-laws. So, boy, that was… [Starts to laugh.] Julie Bowen used to sit there and say, “Tell us another story!” She was trying to get me on Modern Family, and so was Eddie, but every time they call, I’m working!
DL: Oh, yeah! And Fred was on our board at the reading group!
AVC: I was wondering how he felt about your portrayal.
DL: Fred’s the one who recommended me. I said, “I’ve got too much hair to play you.” He laughed. [Growling.] “Get over there!” He’s the only man to be the head of all three major networks, and a real supporter of developing new work. I’ve got to be honest with you, though: I said [Skeptically.], “Fred, this is about Charlie’s Angels.” He said, “Trust me.” Well, first of all, Aaron Spelling paid better than anybody else, but then the movie turned out to be very good. I’m glad I had the inside track on that one.
But, yeah, Fred was all for it. I said, “If it’s all right with you,” and he said, “Yeah, I recommended you, I want you to do it.” Again, that’s one of those stories you never hear. Fred Silverman, he’s supposed to be a taskmaster, a hard guy. But he was always looking for creative things, and he’s one of the most creative people I know, in or out of the business.
DL: Uh. [Hesitates.] That was a shame. As a matter of fact, Sue Costello couldn’t have been nicer until we were a hit. And I don’t know what happened. But Peter Roth, he was at Fox then, he came on the set, and—the guys that created it, they had done Home Improvement and a couple of others, and they didn’t want to deal with this. So Peter Roth came down on the set, and he saw me. They were over there yelling and screaming, I was just sitting there by myself, and Peter Roth says, “How are you doing, Dan? What’s going on?” I said, “Pull the plug.” He goes, “You know, you’re a hit.” I said, “Pull the plug! Life’s too short!” He goes, “Really.”
So now I’m on Sullivan & Son at Warner Bros., and who’s in charge at Warner Bros.? Peter Roth. So the first day we’re all together, he comes in, and he’s a real hugger. He’s a real cheerleader, one of the best people in our business, Peter Roth. He comes over, and tells the kids on Sullivan & Son, “Dan Lauria’s the only guy I know who killed a hit show!” [Laughs.] “I said, ‘How are you?’ and he said, ‘Pull the plug!’”
AVC: So when Sullivan & Son came along, were you actively looking for a full-time series gig?
DL: Everybody is! But in my case, it pays for my theater habit. [Laughs.] But getting Sullivan & Son had nothing to do with my agent. The person I got it from was Vince Vaughn. He called me, and they offered me good money to play the bigot at the bar, and I said to my agent, “I can’t do this.” He said, “Why? It’s funny!” I said, “Yeah, but I’m still the dad on The Wonder Years to a lot of America. These lines are not going to be funny coming from me. They’re going to be too grounded.” And, boy, my agents were pissed. But then Vince called and said, “Dan, you know this is an offer. You don’t need Peter Roth’s approval or anything.” I said, “Yeah, I know, but I don’t want to ruin your show. I don’t want to hurt your show.” And Vince, he said, “Yeah, I understand. I appreciate it.” Two days later, he calls back and says, “You wanna play the Sullivan in Sullivan & Son for twice the money?” [Laughs.]
And then Peter Billingsley is Vince’s partner, and he says, “You want to be in a Broadway musical?” It took me half an hour to stop laughing. I can’t sing a note. I don’t even sound good in the shower! And Peter says, “No, no, no, you’re going to be Jean Shepherd in A Christmas Story. You’re going to be the narrator. You don’t have to sing a word.” I said, “Okay!” And then, of course, in the first rehearsal, John Rando, the director—great director—he says, “Dan, you’ve got to come in on an eight-count.” I said, “Tell them to count slower!” I didn’t know what an eight-count was! [Laughs.] So all that is one job leading to another, which usually at my age is what happens.
AVC: Well, from what you’re saying, there seems to be great camaraderie on Sullivan & Son.
DL: I gotta tell ya, I’ve never had more fun in my life. And the more we fool around, the more I think the writers and producers love it, because some of the funniest stuff comes out of it. And to watch Jodi Long and Steve Byrne try to be mean to each other? All we do is laugh. They can’t get the lines out without cracking up! [Laughs.] They’re two of the sweetest people you’d want to meet. So it’s a lot of fun. And, of course, we’ve got Christine [Ebersole] and Brian Doyle-Murray, and we’ve got four stand-ups, so you can’t say anything without it being a straight line for somebody.
AVC: Well, you certainly can’t go wrong with Brian Doyle-Murray.
DL: Brian and I, all we do is laugh all day. I don’t know if you saw the episode this year where he threw some peanuts at me, but that was all us. He’s got too much testosterone because the doctor gave him the wrong shot, and he goes, “I want some nuts!” And I give him the nuts, and he throws them on the floor and says, “I don’t want peanuts! I want mixed nuts!” So I said to Brian, “Hit me right in the face with them.” But when we got to air time, I didn’t even tell him Brian that I had a nut planted in my mouth, so when I spit it out after he threw them, I got a double laugh. But Brian’s good like that. He can roll with anything.