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: Daniel Stern started his career in the theater, but when he jumped in front of the camera for the first time, it was with a sizable role in the successful film Breaking Away. With that high profile, Stern found himself with regular work right out of the gate, including both leading roles (Diner) and memorable supporting roles (Blue Thunder). By the late ’80s and early ’90s he’d become recognizable not just his by face, which was familiar from roles in Home Alone and City Slickers, but for his voice, which could be heard every week narrating ABC’s The Wonder Years. Currently, Stern is in the WGN atomic-bomb drama, Manhattan.
Manhattan (2014-present)—“Glen Babbit”
Daniel Stern: My character is one of the show’s big thinkers. He understands the bigger concepts. But one of my jobs in the function of Los Alamos as well as in the function of the show is to oversee Frank, John Benjamin Hickey’s character. If you’ve seen the show, you’ve seen that Frank’s a very eccentric genius. He has very little in the way of social skills, and, you know, you can be as much of a genius as you want, but you still need to translate that into practicality. If there’s a conduit between that genius and the guy who puts it all together, then that’s my role: to help make our scientists interface with the military better. I’m the consigliere in that way. My character also has a genius understanding of the science, but I serve an emotional role as well.
The A.V. Club: The bigger question, though, is if you already had the beard before you got the part.
DS: You bet I did. I’ve been preparing for this role for my entire life! [Laughs.] No, I started with this little beard, and I thought, “They’re going to make me trim it down,” but they said, “No, grow it big and wild!” So I’ve got the mad-scientist beard.
AVC: How much did you know about this particular historical era going into Manhattan?
DS: I knew there was a bomb… [Laughs.] No, I didn’t know hardly anything about Los Alamos. I knew about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I knew the results, I knew the horror of that and the ramifications of that horror up to today, but this kind of secret community and the race against the clock against the Nazis and the Japanese? This was all new to me, especially the social part of it. The science is interesting and incredible, but the culture that was created in this Los Alamos environment—I had no idea. And that’s really what our story’s about—the building of a community as much as the making of a bomb.
AVC: Did you have a desire to look for more information about the program, or did you prefer to just stick to what was in the script?
DS: Well, we went to Los Alamos, and we have a great technical advisor there to answer questions. I wanted to know the general workings of it, but my mind doesn’t really work that way. I want to know what my character’s doing, what the other characters are doing, what the inner workings are and the interpersonal stuff. That’s really what my job is: to communicate those things. I can fake the science as much as I need to. [Laughs.] It’s not that I’m not interested in it. It’s just that my job is the emotional side of it. That’s how I feel about it, anyway.
AVC: On the surface, Manhattan would seem to be more of a miniseries event than a proper series. Did you have any concerns about its possible longevity—or lack thereof—going into it?
DS: I did wonder about that, but what was inspiring was that when I said, “I know how this ends, so how does it go on?” Sam [Shaw, series creator] said, “It doesn’t end there. In some ways, the story just begins when we drop the bomb.” There’s so much story after the bomb is dropped. Why did we do it? Did we need to do it? What are the ramifications? The creation of the superpowers, the military secrets that continued after that—there’s so much story after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which are obviously enormous turning points. So if you look at it as if it’s about the creation of the bomb, then, yes, it would have a shorter shelf life.
But it’s not about that. It’s about the lives of the people. There’s a beginning, a middle, and—there is no end to that story yet, is there? Because we’re still trying to figure out how we deal with nuclear weapons, war, and who we fight and who our enemies are, what secrets we keep, and how to keep a society safe. It’s all the same questions! So I love that about the show, and I love that about Sam’s vision for the show: that it doesn’t just end with the bomb dropping. So you’ve asked a very good question, and I hope that helps answer it for you, because it answered it for me, and it’s made me very excited about the series.
Breaking Away (1979)—“Cyril”
Starting Over (1979)—“Student #2”
AVC: It’s been said that your first film was Breaking Away, but you’ve also got a credit as “Student #2” in Starting Over, which sure sounds like a first-film sort of character name.
DS: No, it was Breaking Away. I was on film as a kid in high school—when I was doing Fiddler On The Roof, they filmed it for a local station—but that doesn’t really count. [Laughs.] No, my first movie ever was Breaking Away. I stumbled into an incredible part in a movie that was incredible to be a part of. Peter Yates, the director, became a lifelong friend. He sort of plucked me from obscurity and gave me a life.
AVC: How was the experience of being on camera after having only had a background in theater?
DS: I think Peter Yates set a tone where it was very natural. It was a very unpretentious set. It was very low-key. I mean, it was a small-budget movie. I think it was a $2 million budget, all unknown actors, a six-week shoot, and all on location. So it didn’t have a Hollywood glitz to it. It felt like we were hanging out at the quarry or at the guys’ house. It was a very un-intimidating set. I remember my first days of shooting—I was doing a scene in a bowling alley or fighting in a fight or something like that, but I think back on my first days, and… I was very comfortable! And, again, I think that was Peter setting a tone. I think the other guys had done a movie or two, but he knew I didn’t know what I was doing. [Laughs.] And he guided me accordingly.
AVC: When we talked to Jackie Earle Haley, he said he was “almost never actually the guy on the bike,” but that he’d never been much of a bicyclist, anyway. Did you walk away from Breaking Away sick of biking?
DS: I hate them. [Laughs.] I hate bicycles, and I never want to be on one again as long as I live! But people come up to me who love bicycles and say, “Oh, it changed my life! I was into it!” It was so sweet when I was directing [an episode of Manhattan] the other day. The crew here is absolutely fantastic, but on my last day of directing, the grip department had all bought Cutters T-shirts. There were six of them, and they all had Cutters T-shirts. They all love it. They’re all bicycle heads or whatever. It still lives, amazingly, 35 years later.
AVC: Was Hometown was your first series-regular gig?
DS: Yeah, it was. Boy, yeah, but I don’t remember a lot about that one. [Laughs.] That was, like, the precursor to thirtysomething. That was sort of the feel of it. I think I played a chef or something? You know, mostly I was having my second kid right then, and she was born right in the middle of shooting, so that’s really what I remember from that time. And the actors were great: John Bedford Lloyd and Franc Luz. I had friends in it. But that was one of the—I hate to say it—less memorable roles. That was a random one, and it’s come and gone.
AVC: Did it leave you with a taste for doing more TV, or were you quite happy to go back to the movies?
DS: Yeah, the film thing was better for me. It wasn’t quite the commitment, and it was a little… [Hesitates.] I mean, it’s strange. Even in Manhattan, although I love it, you’re signing up for a show and you don’t really know what you’re going to be doing, you know? With movies, I know what the part is from start to finish, but this keeps evolving every week. Hometown did, too. But that one didn’t evolve quite as cleanly or as interestingly as this one is evolving. So there’s a lot of fun to this TV series thing, of being ready for whatever they’re going to throw at you the next time, but there’s also something solid about going into a project where you know the beginning, middle, and end of it when you start. And I like that, too.
Very Bad Things (1998)—“Adam Berkow”
DS: [Grins.] Now that’s a good movie. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but that was a crazy, dark, horribly funny movie. I had the best time. Peter Berg’s first venture as a director, and… I watch his movies now, and he has a gift for winding people out, to get them really hot. He wants the movie to start at “9” on the dial. “And we’ll move our way up to 10, 15, and 20!” [Laughs.] So the intensity of those scenes were really fun. And it was a great character! I mean, I don’t remember a ton about it, but I just kind of got to go insane. And Jeremy [Piven] runs me over, I think. Yeah, my brother kills me! It just got more and more violent, and crazier and funnier. I loved doing that part, and I loved being part of that ensemble. It was really fun. Cameron Diaz was crazy. Everybody was crazy. So that’s a very good character. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
AVC: Where does it fall with your comedic sensibilities? Do you skew toward dark comedy?
DS: I enjoyed doing it. I don’t know if I could create it. [Laughs.] I don’t know if I could write that dark. But I can certainly play that dark! When it’s by somebody else, I’m happy to go on that ride. I mean, we’re digging the graves, there are body parts, and we’re fumbling around with blood and dead hookers. That was funny and crazy and dark, and I loved playing it. Again, I don’t know if I could create it, but I certainly loved being a part of it!
Whip It (2009)—“Earl Cavendar”
DS: Oh, yeah. That was sweet. You know, that movie reminded me a bit of Breaking Away, in a way, in that it was sports themed and coming-of-age. And it was interesting that I was the dad. I’ve been in the movie business long enough that I’ve moved to being the Paul Dooley character in Breaking Away! [Laughs.] But Drew [Barrymore] was tremendous—a very emotional director. You know, very in touch with the feelings of the characters. I love working for other actors who can convey that to you. And Ellen [Page] was a star. I loved it. You know, I was a solid dad, helping his kid realize her dream. I thought it was a classic coming-of-age movie, and I was very, very proud to be part of it. I don’t think I did anything totally crazy in that, but I feel like it was a solid character. I liked the character, but I loved the movie.
AVC: You gave it a hint of respectability.
DS: [Incredulous.] I gave it a hint of respectability? [Laughs.] I think it had a lot of respectability without me. I was just glad to be a part of it.
C.H.U.D. (1984)—“A.J. ‘Reverend’ Shepherd”
DS: Now that was a genius movie. That’s a movie that we put together, just friends. Everybody in it was a friend. Our friend [Shep Abbott] wrote it. He had the idea for C.H.U.D. John Heard, Christopher Curry, and I starred in it. The director [Douglas Cheek] was a friend. And that part of the reverend wasn’t even in the original script, but I wrote it. We wanted to do this movie together, and there wasn’t really a part for me, so I helped write that part into the movie. So it was sort of a custom-made part for me. [Laughs.]
It was just a blast. I mean, a summer in the sewers of New York? What better way is there to spend your summer? [Laughs.] But we got to make our movie, you know? And if you look at it now, it’s got Jay Thomas showing up. John Goodman shows up. It’s just our old buddies, and it was really guerrilla theater at its finest for us. And the part was great. I mean, I got to go climb through the sewers and find the bad guys and shoot a gun. I blew something up. I don’t know—it’s just a good, action-y part. And in the end, once we’d done it, the producer… [Starts to laugh.] Now, it has these weird monsters in it, right? These bad, slimy creatures. But when we shot it originally, there were no green monsters in it. The people who turned to C.H.U.D.s were just actors who turned into cannibals. But then in order to sell it as a horror movie, they added in these terrible slimy things. It wasn’t quite what we’d wanted to make it, but the experience of making it really showed me how to make a movie. That was the first time I’d been on the ground floor of writing it, and the director was a good friend, and Claire Simpson, who’s turned into a world-class editor—I got to sit in the editing room and help her go through it. So that was a great learning experience, too.
AVC: Plus, it gave the world one of the great acronyms of pop culture.
DS: When Shep—the original writer—said “C.H.U.D.,” we just said, “What’s ‘C.H.U.D.’?” We had a stencil, and we went around New York and just sprayed the word “C.H.U.D.” Because it was just such a hook kind of a word, you know? Everybody wanted to know what “C.H.U.D.” was. And when we were writing it—it was “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers,” but the plot point we added was that it was actually the disposal site: “Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal.” That was the secret of C.H.U.D. They did a C.H.U.D. II a few years later. What was it, Bud The C.H.U.D. or C.H.U.D. The Bud? Something horrible. [Laughs.] But I’ve actually had an idea of doing C.H.U.D. as a musical. A Broadway musical.
AVC: Is this a scoop? Can we say, “You heard it here first”?
DS: You heard it here first! Yep. I’ve got two songs written for it, actually. It could be interesting. I mean, it’s like I said: It’s C.H.U.D. I think that grabs people! So I’m working on it. When I’m looking for investors, I’ll let you know. [Laughs.]
Frankenweenie (1984)—“Ben Frankenstein”
DS: Hey, I’ve had a pretty good career! [Laughs.] That was Tim Burton’s first movie. Again, the role was the dad, and I don’t remember a lot about the role, but I certainly remember the experience itself, seeing a genius birth himself. Tim had done an animated stop-motion thing—I can’t remember what it was called, but it was a short film [Vincent]—but this was his first live-action film. It was only a half-hour. Disney was going to use it as, like, the opener for an animated film, although I don’t think they ever released it that way. But to see Tim and his design concepts—and when you walked on the set and it was this gothic stuff—Tim shot a lot from forced perspectives to get these very weird looks to it. I mean, it’s his signature look that he sort of developed on that. It was incredible to be a part of it and watching that young man get his first try at it. And, like I said, I got to watch Peter Berg start his thing and see him find his legs. These first-time directors—I’ve had some great experiences, but Tim was one of the geniuses I got to take my little chance on. It was like, “A half-hour film? What is that?” But I saw his little short, and I said, “I want to be with that guy!” And Shelley Duvall was in it, too.
AVC: He gave you a “special thanks” credit when he did the full-length version of Frankenweenie in 2012.
DS: [Surprised.] Really? That’s nice to hear! Well, I’ll give him one on my next movie, then. I’m sure it’ll mean a lot to him. [Laughs.] But, no, that’s really sweet. I didn’t know he’d done that.
A Christmas Story 2 (2012)—“The Old Man”
AVC: I admit, I’m particularly curious about this one.
DS: Uh, yeah. I’m curious about it, too. [Laughs.] That one… I haven’t seen that one. Did you watch it?
AVC: I did not. I’ve seen the previews, and it’s, uh…
DS: Yeah—probably not that great a thing. I mean, the original—that was a sweet Christmas-y story, and it’s dear to a lot of people. It’s sort of in competition with the Home Alone movies as a favorite Christmas movie. When people said, “Oh, the first one, that’s my favorite Christmas movie, you’ve got to do it,” I was like, “Oh, well, all right.” I’ve got a crowd that sort of relates me to Christmas, so it seemed like I could do that. But they shot it really fast, and I’m not sure how that one turned out. I hope it didn’t disparage the original, because I know A Christmas Story is very near and dear to a lot of people. But I took a swing, and… [Shrugs.] It was fun.
AVC: Did you go back and watch Darren McGavin’s performance in the original?
DS: I did not. Because it was too iconic. Although I asked them if I was supposed to be that guy, and the answer was, like, “Not really,” because it’s not only Darren McGavin who’s played him. When I found out about that part, I guess that character’s story has been told a number of times, and different people have played him.
AVC: Yeah, Charles Grodin played “The Old Man” in My Summer Story.
DS: Right. So it’s an ongoing thing, and it’s all based on Jean Shepherd’s work, so it was interesting and flattering to be a part of that history. I just don’t know if this was the best of the best. [Laughs.] But at least I’m still part of it!
My Blue Heaven (1990)—“Will Stubbs”
DS: I thought I was cut out of that movie.
AVC: No, you’re definitely in it long enough for Rick Moranis to kick your ass.
DS: [Laughs.] I honestly had no idea if that made it in. I enjoyed working with Rick and Joan Cusack, but I couldn’t have told you what I did until you mentioned it. For whatever reason, I’d gotten the feeling that I’d been cut out of it. I never saw it. Either way, it apparently wasn’t a memorable part for me. But the people were nice. Steve Martin was certainly a nice guy.
Workaholics (2013)—“Travis Rockne”
DS: That was a blast. I just think those guys are the funniest, guys on television. They called me to do that, and it was a good, crazy character. I loved how horrible I looked. I scared the shit out of myself with that moustache. [Laughs.] And my wife left town while I was shooting that because she didn’t want to look at me that way. I got to go a little crazy—and that’s tough to do when those guys are so crazy to begin with—but I had a blast with that one.
AVC: Had you been aware of the show before they called you up?
DS: Oh, yeah, I’d watched every episode! I’ve never really done a guest spot on a TV show before. I had no interest in being on anything, not even Friends or those sorts of shows. But Workaholics, I just laughed my head off every week, and when those kids called and asked me to do that, I said, “Yeah! That’ll be fun to play with those boys!”
Otis (2008)—“Will Lawson”
DS: I don’t remember much of the character, but I really thought that movie was funny and crazy. Really good actors in it, too. Dark, dark humor, though. Kind of the same bizarre sense of humor as Very Bad Things, where you’re laughing at really horrible things. I guess there’s just a part of me that likes to participate in that. [Laughs.]
Celtic Pride (1996)—“Mike O’Hara”
DS: Oh, wow! Yeah, well, that was one of the best movies I ever did. That’s another one where I’ve never seen the movie, so I don’t know how good it actually is, but I got to spend an entire month on the floor of the old Boston Garden, on the parquet, playing basketball with real NBA players. I mean, that was a fantasy come true. I used to play basketball in high school a little bit and just love the game, so I got to hang out with Larry Bird and Bob Cousy and Kevin McHale, and play Horse with Gus Johnson and beat him at that. So it was a dream part in that way. I don’t remember what the hell I did in the movie. [Laughs.] But it was the greatest part I ever got.
AVC: You were also working with one of Judd Apatow’s early scripts.
DS: That’s right, yeah! And Dan [Aykroyd] was genius. I just saw Dan on The Tonight Show the other night. It made me miss him and love him. He was one of the funniest, most generous people I’ve ever met in my life. And Damon [Wayans] was fun, and—well, again, the basketball was just crazy. I mean, forget about what was going on in the movie. Just between shots, it was all basketball, all the time, so—I was a pig in shit, as they say. [Laughs.]
One-Trick Pony (1980)—“Hare Krishna”
DS: Oh shit, yeah! That’s another one where—I guess I’ve never really mapped my career, as far as why one would take different parts, but that one, my musical idol my whole life—even still—has been Paul Simon, and Paul asked me to play that part. But it was a bizarre job, because I think the scene takes place at the airport, so I flew into wherever it was… I don’t even know where it was, because I never left the airport. [Laughs.]
I think it was Cleveland. So I flew into Cleveland, shot the scene all night, hung out with Paul and his brother, Eddie, who was visiting and had a huge camper parked at the airport. I played guitar and sang with Paul Simon and Eddie Simon all night. We’d go from the camper to the scene in the airport. We did that for 12 hours, and then I got on the plane again and went home. I never even went to whatever the hell city it was. I’m pretty sure it was Cleveland, but I honestly can’t say, because I never left the airport. But a chance to play music with Paul and Eddie Simon? Maybe that’s the best part I ever had. Maybe I’m judging my career in the wrong light. [Laughs.]
AVC: Hey, if you enjoyed the experience, that’s half the battle.
DS: No, that’s the whole battle, as it turns out! [Laughs.]
The Milagro Beanfield War (1988)—“Herbie Platt”
DS: Yeah, I loved that part, actually. That was a very sweet character to play. He was a naïve social worker who came to this town, and I was sort of entrusted with bringing the audience into this world that Robert Redford created. David Ward wrote the screenplay, and obviously John Nichols wrote the book. It was a magical place and a magical movie to make. It still holds up. I mean, it was genius. And, you know, acting against Christopher Walken, John Heard, and Sonia Braga—just a cast of great actors. I loved it. I loved the part, but Bob—I mean, Robert Redford—he was a great film-acting teacher. He’s one of the major movie stars and really knows how to be an actor in front of the camera, and he really taught me so much during that experience about how to act for the camera and be aware of the lenses. It sort of made me want to move toward directing when I saw how detailed he was about not only the design and stuff but knowing what lens you’re on. If you’re in a super-tight shot, if you’re in a wide shot, you might act different. He was a great teacher. So it was another great experience.
I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can (1982)—“Jim”
Home Alone (1990) / Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992)—“Marv Merchants”
DS: Well, what can you say about Marv and Harry that has not been said? The humanity, the subtlety of those characters is beyond compare of anything that I think has ever been performed on the film.
DS: [Laughs.] Yeah, you know, that was just so fun and funny and silly and laughing all the time. Especially that second movie, man. Everybody already knew we were idiots, so we didn’t have to pretend to be scary at the beginning. We just were cartoony. Hell, I’ve never felt so funny or laughed so hard at other people being funny as I did during those movies, and the fact that people still love them and watch them with their families—it touched a lot of people. And it’s touched me in a lot of ways. Those movies have been an introduction to me for people all over the world. Children recognized me from Home Alone in Baghdad when I was visiting the troops there. When I was in Japan, when I was in Alaska, Australia—everywhere I’ve gone in my life since then, people know Home Alone. It’s an amazing way to walk through a life, to have people come up to you all the time and say, “Oh, I love you! You’re so funny!” That’s a pretty special gift I’ve been given by those Home Alone movies.
AVC: How was it working with Joe Pesci?
DS: [Laughs.] Pesci is a nut. Joe and I had worked together—and I don’t think you’re going to ask me about this character, unless you’re just going to be going through everything in my fucking IMDB listing—on I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can. But I did this movie many years ago, and Joey and I met on that movie. We played two guys in a mental institution and had a lot of laughs doing that, even though it wasn’t a comedy. So I love Joe. Joe’s a hero of mine. I mean, he’s one of the most amazing actors. I’ve seen him be serious and I’ve seen him be silly, and—he’s a cranky guy, but that’s what makes him even funnier. So I love Joey.
What you should really emphasize—and it should probably either be in the headline of the article or you should write an article just about this—is that Joe Pesci is one of the greatest jazz singers of all time that I’ve ever heard. He doesn’t even record under his own name, but he started as a singer, and he’s got an album you should look up where he’s called Joe Doggs, and he plays it with this other cool cat who plays the organ [Joey DeFrancesco]. Seriously, Pesci’s one of the great jazz singers I’ve ever heard. So there’s a scoop for you. [Laughs.] He never talks about it, and he almost never does it in public, but holy shit. His phrasing is classic, his voice is clear and high, and he sings these old classic songs. I’ve only found one album, but there’s another rare one that I could never find. Joe Doggs, man, I’m telling you. You should really look it up.
The Wonder Years (1988-1993)—“Kevin Arnold, The Narrator”
AVC: You said people recognize your face for your work in Home Alone, but your voice is just as recognizable for some because of your narration for The Wonder Years.
DS: Yeah, that’s another one that just sort of touched people in a deep way for a long time, and continues to. I’d never played a character just with my voice, but it turned out that was a very full character. It wasn’t just a narrator, it was really sort of getting inside his head or inside his life, and they wrote me beautiful things to say. Funny or sarcastic or emotional or sort of the meta-picture of the world and how time warps with nostalgia. Every week I told another story, and it really changed me as an actor and a writer and a director. Truly being a storyteller made me understand, oh, that’s what I do! [Laughs.] Yeah, I do some acting, I do direct and I write a little bit, and I sculpt, and I do all these things. But what I really am is a storyteller. I mean, I obviously really was a storyteller on that show. But what I mean is that it changed me as an artist by revealing that I’m a storyteller no matter what position I’m playing at any given time. So, yeah, The Wonder Years really pointed that out to me—helped me to understand my own mission or career or whatever, and it provided some real coherence.
AVC: How did you get the gig in the first place? Was it an audition, or did they come looking for you specifically?
DS: No, they wanted to do an audition where you didn’t say your name. You just went into a studio and you read the thing, or read some of it, anyway. But they didn’t want to know anyone’s name, because they just wanted to do it blind and just go off of the voices. But when I got the job, Neal [Marlens] and Carol [Black], the writers of it, said, “Oh yeah, we always had you in mind!” I was like, “Well, then what was with the whole secret audition?” [Laughs.] But it was a good way to do it. I never took any billing on that show, because I never wanted the voice to be separate from the character. My agent thought I was stupid to not take a credit, but I always felt that there should just be one Kevin Arnold, and I just wanted you to be inside his head and not have it be “Kevin Arnold, narrated by Daniel Stern.” It all had to be Kevin Arnold… and Fred Savage was Kevin Arnold.
Little Monsters (1989)—“Glen Stevenson”
AVC: You were already doing The Wonder Years by the time you played Fred’s father in Little Monsters, right? In other words, it wasn’t just, like, the biggest coincidence ever.
DS: [Laughs.] No, by then I was already friends with Fred, his brother Ben, and their parents, who I love. That sort of came together. I guess it was a sweet movie, but I don’t know if I ever saw that one, either! We had a great time in Wilmington, North Carolina, though. We had a little house on the beach, and we went rafting. Back east, you don’t boogie-board, but you had these old inflatable rafts that you’d ride waves in. I lived next door to a batting cage, so I did that and went surfing, and that’s pretty much all I did when I wasn’t making the movie!
AVC: Was Dilbert the direct result of your voice work on The Wonder Years?
DS: I guess so, yeah. After The Wonder Years, I ended up having a voiceover career, which was something I never even knew was possible. But after the character I was playing on The Wonder Years, people said, “Oh, would you like to do a Burger King thing? And there’s a 7 Up thing…” And then I got to do Dilbert. I think my voice kind of fit for that. I understood why Larry Charles wanted me for that. It was great to work for Larry. But I’d never done an animated thing—I hadn’t before, and I haven’t since—so it was a good learning experience. The scripts were funny, and it was an iconic character. So, yeah, funny stuff and a good commentary on life, I thought, but it didn’t really run long enough to completely find its way. You know, those things take time to develop, and—I don’t know, did that run two years or something?
AVC: Two seasons, yeah.
DS: Yeah, I thought so. So, yeah, it was beautiful. It was great, and I loved it. And those are keen jobs. You just go in, read your thing, and you leave. You can do it in your underwear. [Laughs.] And most jobs you can do in your underwear, you wouldn’t want. But that one, you do.
Diner (1982)—“Laurence ‘Shrevie’ Schreiber”
DS: Shrevie was a very awesome character, and it was a very full acting experience. A great part to play. At the time, I was newly married and figuring out, “Oh, I’m the only married guy. Can I still run around with my friends, or do I have to stay home and be married all the time? How does this work?” So it was a very parallel experience going on in my life and the character’s life. And we bonded quite deeply with each other as actors and as friends. We shot most of that during the night. We’d go to work at 6 at night and we’d get off at 6 or 7 in the morning, and then we’d go back to the hotel and have Bloody Marys and drink till 11, then we’d go to sleep and get up and do it again. So life was backwards, but we all shared it.
And that was Barry [Levinson’s] first movie. He was a ballsy man. [Laughs.] He was having us improvise half of that movie. A lot of the diner things were just sort of riffing. You really had to know your parts in that one. You had to know what you were supposed to say even when there were no lines to say. You just had to kind of throw your stuff in that you knew had to be in there in the middle of all the riffing. That’s what made that movie. Well, it’s one of the things that made it beautiful: the flow of that improv stuff. And it was led in large part, actually, by Paul Reiser, who had a smaller part in the thing but was so fucking funny that you had to keep up with him. If you’re improvising with Paul Reiser, man, you’d better hold on tight! So, yeah, I loved that character, and I loved the scenes I got to do and the friendships I made for life. To be a part of the beginning movie by Barry Levinson, one of our great filmmakers, that’s a cool little place to have been.
AVC: When I talked to Tim Daly recently [for an upcoming Random Roles interview], he mentioned how, when you got back to the hotel after filming, you guys would amuse yourselves by just randomly ordering various food and drinks for strangers.
DS: [What starts as a slight chuckle quickly becomes a long, loud laugh.] I forgot about that! Yeah, Daly was great. Guttenberg I run into, and Bacon—I mean, that was a damned good cast of people. Everybody was just hot, you know? And everybody was funny! And Barry just let them be funny. I can remember there were two times that we had to shut down shooting just because we were doing a scene where we laughed so hard that we couldn’t stop laughing, and they just finally said, “Fuck it, we’ll start back up tomorrow.” It just got too silly. Actually, that may have happened more than two times. [Laughs.] It was a pretty special experience.
Stardust Memories (1980)—“Actor”
Hannah And Her Sisters (1986)—“Dusty Frye”
AVC: You’ve been in two Woody Allen films, although presumably there’s less to say about Stardust Memories, since you’re only credited in it as “Actor.”
DS: [Laughs.] Yeah, I played an actor bugging him for a job in that. But it was genius just to be in it. He’s up there with Paul Simon as one of my heroes. And then he invited me back! But I got to do a little part in that one and improvise in that. That one was in black and white, so it was an amazing set to be on, with Gordon Willis as cinematographer. I was only supposed to do one scene, and then I got a call, and he wanted me to do a second scene. So I got to do two scenes!
Then he invited me back to do Hannah And Her Sisters. That was wild. I was sort of this rock star character, and it was me, Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow, and Woody Allen all at lunch that day. We’re at one of these downtown restaurants, and—that’s something I’ll never forget. I mean, who does not belong at this table? [Laughs.] So I just shut up and listened to the guys regale each other. It was beautiful. I’ve had a lot of lucky experiences in my life, but that’s one of the pinnacles. I mean, Woody Allen? Come on!
City Slickers (1991) / City Slickers II: The Legend Of Curly’s Gold (1994)—“Phil Berquist”
DS: Some of them you do and they’re just movies, they’re just parts, but some of them are really full characters. And I think Phil was a full guy with a full life. And so funny. I mean, I read that one, and it was just perfect. It was a perfect script. My character, starting with the crazy wife and then pretending to be asleep on the plane to avoid her… [Laughs.] And I was having an affair with the checkout girl at his grocery store, and—well, again, he was a full character with a full arc who finds his manhood and stands up to the bully. After he’s been bullied his whole life, he finally bullies somebody back.
The movie was great, but the shooting of it may have been even greater, personally. Billy [Crystal] is a friend for life, and ridin’ horses and ropin’ cattle—I got to do the whole City Slickers thing, the dude ranch stuff, and I got paid for it. Plus, I now own a 500-acre cattle ranch. [Laughs.] I loved the life so much that I kind of bought into it! I have 70 herd of cattle myself now, and horses and tractors and ATVs. I’ve got my own small cattle operation. That’s how much I was inspired by that movie. I bought into the whole thing.
AVC: Do you have a particular Jack Palance anecdote that sums up the experience of working with him?
DS: Yeah, I do. Oddly, one of my sharpest memories is just sitting and waiting to shoot. We’re sitting in our chairs, shooting the shit, and then Jack starts reading me poetry he’s written. For half an hour, I listened to him reading his poetry. He was a genius artist. He was a great character, he had that great face and certainly a great film history, but he was a hell of a painter and an amazing poet and an artistic soul, and he taught me a lot. I started sculpting again because of him. I’d done sculpting as a kid, but I do bronze sculptures now. Jack was an artist, Jack had his own cattle ranch, and I went, “Oh, shit! You can have a life outside of just being in showbiz, and it can be satisfying and artistic and creative!” And Jack was an inspiration for a lot of that, just seeing the other sides of this guy that you know is a great actor and all that, realizing, “Oh, what makes him interesting is that he lives a whole life. He’s not just an actor.” I really respected that and loved that about Jack. I was inspired by it.
Get Crazy (1983)—“Neil Allen”
DS: Yeah, that was a crazy movie to work on, definitely. Malcolm McDowell played a big rock star in it, but we also had Lou Reed in it, and we had a lot of other really cool rock people in it. It was a wild set. That was one of the first times I was a lead character in something. Allan Arkush directed it, and when I met him, I looked like him: He was my height, a Jew-y, big-nosed guy.
AVC: Given the beard, you still look a lot like him.
DS: Yeah, I think that’s why he picked me. I remember thinking, “Why do they need me? I’m already here!” [Laughs.] But, man, it was just fun as hell. All these rock acts, doing these big numbers. Lots of crazy punk people. Lee Ving of Fear was in the movie. What a trip, to hang out with those guys. It was silly, but it was funny. I think I saw it back then, but I don’t remember a lot of it. But getting to hang out with Malcolm—he and I also did Blue Thunder together. He’s such a star, a bigger-than-life character, so it’s always fun to be in his wake. Everyone’s drinking great wine, going to this thing and that, and there’s a party at a beach house. I’m like, “Yeah, I can go along with this!” That’s another one where I couldn’t tell you anything about the part, but the movie itself was a great experience.
Blue Thunder (1983)—“Officer Richard Lymangood”
AVC: Since you brought it up…
DS: That was fun, because that was one of the first big-budget movies I did. Big, fancy sets. They built a whole helicopter green-screen thing, but they also took us up in real helicopters—and scared the shit out of me! [Laughs.] Just doing this crash sequence where they cut the engine, and we’re zig-zagging. But I think John Badham sort of saw a goofy kid who would be a good counterpoint to Roy Scheider. Actually, Roy and I knew each other from New York. Again, you get in the wake of these big stars, and it’s sort of fun to be around that. Oh, and I died in it. I remember showing it to my son, actually. He was, like, 5 or something, and I said, “Hey, let’s go watch the movie I’m in!” And when I died, it was, like, “You’re probably not supposed to show that to a 5-year-old.” We had to leave the theater. I had to say, “Yeah, I didn’t really die. I come back at the end, and I save him, but we, uh, have to go ahead and go now, because Mom needs us for something.” [Laughs.]
Leviathan (1989)—“Buzz ‘Six-Pack’ Parrish”
AVC: By the way, this wasn’t even on my list to ask about, but since I remember seeing it on IMDB, was the Blue Thunder connection how you came to appear on an episode of Seaquest?
DS: Actually, I wasn’t on Seaquest. But I’ve seen that on IMDB, too! [Laughs.] What is Seaquest?
AVC: It was an underwater sci-fi series that Roy Scheider did for NBC in the ’90s.
DS: Is that right? Yeah, there’s a couple on IMDB that I never did, but that’s one where I didn’t even know what it was! Now, I did do an underwater movie: I was in Leviathan. But that’s different than Seaquest. What was my character’s name in Leviathan? Six-Pack? [Laughs.] That was another great experience. Six months in Rome! I said it earlier, but… I really have had an interesting career, haven’t I? It’s really been a nice little ride.