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: Gerald McRaney started his acting career in the late ’60s and kept so busy throughout the ’70s that it seemed like he was in every hour-long drama on the primetime schedule. Not long after he entered the ’80s, he made the jump from character actor to leading man, spending eight seasons playing Rick Simon on CBS’s Simon & Simon before shifting into sitcom mode for four seasons of Major Dad. Although he’s more or less downshifted back into character-actor mode over the course of the past several years, McRaney has no complaints about the end result, which has given him the opportunity to work his way into the ensembles—sometimes briefly, sometimes for lengthy arcs—of such series as Deadwood, Justified, and House Of Cards.
McRaney can currently be seen in the fourth season of Longmire, the series’ first since making the jump to Netflix. (If you’re a fan of the series and haven’t had the opportunity to dive into the new season yet, you may want to skip ahead to the next role, lest you learn more than you’d like about where things are headed with McRaney’s character.)
Gerald McRaney: He’s scary. [Laughs.] I didn’t quite know what was going to be required of the role when I got it, but Barlow took some twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting. At all. When I got the last scene of last season—not this season, but the one before—it was, like, “Oh boy, this is bizarre…” But it was an interesting role, which I’d much rather play than something that’s bland and ordinary and easy to figure out. But it was a challenge as well. It’s good as an actor to have something that scares you a little from time to time. It reminds you of the fact that you’re an actor and not a C.P.A.
The A.V. Club: How did you find your way into the series in the first place? Did they come looking for you specifically, or was it an audition?
GM: No, they came looking for me specifically. I had worked with [executive producer] Greer Shephard’s father back when he was with CBS, and I’ve been sort of in her orbit for some time, and I think that Greer more than anybody wanted me. And their line producer, Pat McKee, is a guy who started out as a trainee on Simon & Simon in the old days, so there’s an association with a couple of people on that show.
AVC: When you first started on Longmire, was Barlow intended to be a recurring character even then, or was he originally a one-off?
GM: No, there was a story arc in that first season. But I don’t know what their intention was beyond that.
AVC: Was there a particular point when you realized that it had grown into something beyond just that arc?
GM: When they asked me back. [Laughs.] When they asked me to do more than the original storyline.
AVC: And when did you find out that this was going to be your last season on Longmire?
GM: When I read the script! [Laughs.]
AVC: Fair enough. I just didn’t know if you’d gotten any sort of advance warning.
GM: None. I read the script, and I was, like, “Whoa, what did I do to piss somebody off?”
AVC: There are probably a lot of answers to that question when it comes to Barlow Connally.
GM: Oh, yes. I’m sure! With Barlow, it’d be a lot easier to figure out the people he didn’t piss off. [Laughs.] But I just thought they wrote me some fascinating and wonderful stuff to play, and I had a ball doing it. I loved working with those people. Robert [Taylor] is just a joy to work with, and everybody on that show gets along with everybody else, which was another great part of the experience.
But I have had the most fascinating career, particularly this latter part of it. I’m back to doing what I started out doing. I started out in a rep company, where you’re carrying a spear one night and being the king the next. I tell people all the time, if you could make a good living at it, I’d still be doing rep, because that’s where all the fun is. And I’ve been having fun the last 10 to 15 years, where it’s been like that. I’m playing all manner of different roles.
Night Of Bloody Horror (1969)—“Wesley Stuart”
Women And Bloody Terror (1970)—“Terrance Bradford”
The Brain Machine (1977)—“Willie West”
AVC: It would appear that your first on-camera appearance, excluding any commercials that might’ve preceded it, was playing Wesley Stuart in Night Of Bloody Horror.
GM: Good God! You are going back. I think the most important thing all of us learned from that was how not to make a movie. [Laughs.]
AVC: And yet it was obviously not the only movie that you made with Joy N. Houck Jr. How did you fall into his orbit in the first place?
GM: Actually, it was through the aunt of one of the producers on the film, Al Salzer. His aunt Wilma was a sometimes casting agent in New Orleans for films. When they came in, she would do local casting and stuff, and she actually lived in my neighborhood and I got to know her. And then through her I got introduced to her nephew, and this guy, he was going to be making this little low-budget film, and we all sort of hit it off, and we wound up making a movie. It was like one of those Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “my uncle has a barn we could use” scenarios. And they had had a little bit of experience in the movie business, but not enough so it showed. But just about all of those people have wound up with careers in the movie business… to my mind in spite of Night Of Bloody Horror rather than because of it! [Laughs.] We were just sort of stumbling our way into doing what we do, and there’s a certain aspect of that sort of guerrilla filmmaking that appeals to me, because I think a lot of good creative stuff winds up being done. Again, sometimes in spite of yourself, but it gets done.
AVC: In the case of the other two films you did with him, was that a case where you felt like you owed it to Houck for getting you started?
GM: Yeah, as much as anything else. That, and an opportunity to work in front of the camera again. In those days, that was as beneficial as anything else I was doing, so I went ahead and did those things.
AVC: Prior to your acting career, word has it that you got your hands dirty in the oil fields of Louisiana, but how did you find your way into acting in the first place?
GM: Well, it’s interesting: That actually sort of helped me. The first inclination I had about acting was in junior high school and, you know, like any other kid who grew up with the cowboys and stuff like that, I was sort of interested in the movies on that level. And then in ninth grade I messed up a knee about halfway through football season and was out the rest of the season, and somebody suggested that I go over to the drama club and help them build sets, because my father had built houses and I had worked as a carpenter. So I did. And one of the teachers put me in a play. And I thought, “Hey, this is kind of fun! I think I could do this!”
I started to do it, and then at Ole Miss, where I went to college, I was in a lot of the productions the first year. By the second year, I was bored with college at that point and I dropped out, and I went to work in the oil fields and auditioned for a place in a reparatory company that was in New Orleans. And I worked half the year in the oil fields and half the year in the rep company. So I was bouncing back and forth between oil field work and doing Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw and Ibsen and things like that. So it was a strange existence for four or five years, but the oil field work actually allowed me to afford to be an actor. I mean, you couldn’t make any real money working in that rep company. But it got me started. And at the same time, I was doing those little low-budget films and a little piecemeal work in various and sundry other projects. The oil fields allowed me to be an actor, quite frankly.
AVC: Growing up with cowboys began your interest in movies, and then you ended up appearing on the definitive cowboy series, and on three separate occasions, no less.
GM: Yeah, I was in three episodes of that during its last three years, including the final episode of Gunsmoke. The last episode of the 20th season.
AVC: And your big claim to fame was that you were the last person to be in a gunfight with Matt Dillon, right?
GM: Well, the last showdown. [Laughs.] There were people shooting from behind cover and stuff for the rest of the episode. But I opened it up, having the shoot-out with Matt Dillon. Naturally enough, he won!
AVC: But what a way to go.
GM: Yeah! And that was a great joy for me, because my dad and I—and this is going way back—would listen to Gunsmoke on the radio, and then we were big fans of it when it came on TV, so to wind up with a role on that, strapping on the six-guns and going out on Dodge Street… That was great.
AVC: This is an absolute on-the-fly question based on what you just said, but when you did your episode of Cannon, did you mention to William Conrad that you used to listen to him on Gunsmoke?
GM: I did, indeed! I think he just said, “Do we have to go back that far?” [Laughs.]
GM: What a great role that was. [Creator] David Milch is one of the most interesting human beings I’ve ever been around. Forget producer and writer and all that for a moment. To just sit and have coffee with that man and have conversation is worth anything you do. He’s incredibly intelligent and has his own sometimes-bizarre take on life, but there’s this essential truth to Milch. It’s just in him. And everything that he does, on first glance, can have this quirky, odd appearance to it, but there’s some essential human truth at the bottom of all of it. He’s just a fascinating human being. And then, again, he wrote a three-story arc for this guy that he had been building up to for a season and then just kept asking me to come back. In the third season, he said, “Can you do three more?” “Yeah, sure, fine.” And it was three more again and again and again until I was in every episode of the third season! [Laughs.]
Some actors would complain that he would change dialogue on them at the last moment, but I loved it, because it was always being refined, always being perfected. Some people complained that the language was hard to learn, but to me it wasn’t. It was easy. And I don’t know why that was, other than I’ve always found it fascinating that good writing tends to go in my brain and bad writing refuses to go there. [Laughs.] But David’s stuff was just so fascinating to me and so almost poetic, that you just loved those words and wanted them to be in your brain.
There’s one speech in particular, one scene in particular, where Hearst is waxing eloquent about how the agreement upon gold having value is going to be the savior of humankind, and it was just magnificent what he had written for me. Especially for an actor who started out on the stage, I think, but having delicious words like that to say, that’ll just make your day.
AVC: So have you heard any rumblings about the continuation of the show, either a movie or another season?
GM: Just what everybody’s also heard, and I think at this point that’s a rumor that I’m not prepared to take to the bank.
AVC: If you heard that it was written in stone, would you be in?
GM: I doubt that I would even be asked in, because the last thing we saw of Hearst was his leaving town, and I don’t know what David’s plans would be for anything beyond that, other than knowing that his original idea was to just follow the history of the place. There would’ve been the eventual burning of the town, because the original Deadwood got basically burnt to the ground and then rebuilt. So I don’t know where he was headed, but I don’t think Hearst would’ve necessarily been a part of the immediate future.
AVC: Did you enjoy the opportunity to have a little Deadwood reunion on Justified?
GM: Oh, my. That was terrific. I’m still in touch all the time with Jim Beaver, and working with Timothy [Olyphant] is terrific. I agreed to do Justified just as long as he agreed not to grab my beard.
AVC: And did he make good on that agreement?
GM: Yes, but I think he was tempted from time to time. [Laughs.]
GM: Well, that was fascinating because of the director. Wolfgang Petersen is, as you well know, one of the finest film directors ever, and I had just—well, several months before being offered that role, I’d seen Das Boot, and I was just blown away. And when I got word through my agent that this director had asked for me to do this little role in a film that he was doing, I was, like, “When do I show up?” [Laughs.] And playing the role was fascinating. Wolfgang just sort of let me do whatever I wanted to do in the character. But it was fairly predictable what he wanted from the guy: it was a father who was distracted and wanted his son to be a certain way, thought it was nonsense that the kid had such a fantasy life, and one thing and another. I’ve known a few men like that, who wanted a 5-year-old to straighten out, which is ridiculous, of course. How would any of us wind up being actors or artists if he had decided to just straighten up at the age of 5? Or 35 or 55 or 65, for that matter! If you give up the fantasy life, I’m out of business… and who the hell wants that?
GM: I didn’t care for the experience, quite frankly. There was this—I thought—mistaken notion of rich people. I tried to tell the producer at one point, “Even billionaires don’t dress in silk suits to watch the ballgame on Sunday.” You know, you throw on a pair of jeans! Rich people… It’s not a fashion show for them. Not even if you’re in the fashion business. If you look at them, even designers, they’re not always dressed to the nines. They show up to their fashion shows dressed rather casually. But that was one of the things that irritated me about it, and I realized it my first day there, when they took me for fittings to a private shopper. I called my wife after the whole fitting was over, which took hours and hours and hours, and I told her, “I think they just spent more money on the wardrobe than they’re ever going to pay me on this thing.” I mean, they must’ve spent over $100K on my wardrobe… and do you really have to spend that kind of money on a skinny bald guy? Come on. There’s a law of diminishing returns that comes into play at some point.
AVC: Maybe they felt like you had to live up to Raquel Welch’s fashions.
GM: Never. And who could? But she was terrific. I like her, I really do. I think she’s a terrific lady.
GM: Well, that was a fascinating character to play, just being on West Wing. And I loved the sort of philosophy he had about war crimes: “All wars are crimes.” I’ve met several people who were at that level in the military, and they all have this sort of thing in common that nobody has ever stated in exactly these words, but their job ultimately is to try and piece things back together as best they can when everybody else has screwed things beyond all recognition.
AVC: You had the experience of doing an episode when Aaron Sorkin was at the helm of the show and then another one when he wasn’t. Was there any discernible difference from your perspective?
GM: Well, on my level, I wouldn’t have noticed any discernible difference. I was a guest actor on the show, my participation in it was the blink of an eye, and to really notice things like that, you have to experience a few episodes and see how the editing has changed, how scripts overall have changed, what the tone has been that isn’t anymore, or has the philosophy of the show changed, or the theme? Things like that. You don’t notice those sort of things so much as a guest actor.
AVC: Tusk was reportedly influenced by, if not directly based on, Warren Buffett.
GM: Oh, I think he was influenced by any number of people, but I think primarily Buffett. That thing of living fairly modestly and not really caring about the money all that much, I think all of that is sort of Warren Buffett.
AVC: Did you know that going into it, or was it just something you picked up on?
GM: Well, it wasn’t explained in exactly those words, but, yeah, that sort of tone was explained to me up front. Working on that show—it has been magnificent. And to work with Kevin [Spacey] was so much fun. You know, we play adversaries, and normally I don’t think civilians would think of what we do sometimes as being necessarily fun, but that especially is fun. To have an acting partner of that kind of immense talent and to be able to go one-on-one with him, it’s like a tennis player playing a great opponent or a football player being a receiver to a great quarterback. It was just one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life. The writing on the show is fantastic, the people who do the show are fantastic, all the directors were incredible, and one of the great things about doing something for Netflix is nobody gives a damn about numbers. You know, you don’t hear about this ratings business. It’s all about the quality of the show. That’s all anybody on that show cares about. And that’s a blessing and a luxury, when it really is about the art of the thing.
AVC: This next one is the most obscure thing on my list—there’s not even so much as a clip from it on YouTube—but the credits alone are fascinating enough that it’s a must-ask.
GM: Oh, God, I don’t know if I’ll remember it!
AVC: I can’t imagine you won’t remember this one: You played David Sherman in Keep Off My Grass!
GM: Oh, God. That was something written by people who had no concept of what hippies really were, but it was their hippie movie. And it had no bearing in reality whatsoever and was… really not a very pleasant experience.
AVC: There are probably half a dozen posters for the movie that are floating around the internet…
GM: Oh, good God.
AVC: …and they’re all absolutely epic.
GM: [Snorts.] Yeah. I’m sure.
AVC: What’s most fascinating, even more than Micky Dolenz playing the lead, is that it was directed by Shelley Berman.
GM: Uh, yeah. And Shelley Berman as a director is a damned good stand-up comic.
AVC: Do you have any specific recollections of filming the wedding scene? From what I’ve read, there’s apparently an LSD freak-out after someone spikes the ice cream.
GM: Oh, just that idiotic conceit of stomping on a glass with a bare foot. That’s my one big thing to remember about that. Oh, wait! There is one other thing: It was only going to be a montage, the wedding, but then that day, as I was getting into makeup, they brought me Hebrew dialogue! I’m a redneck kid from Mississippi, born and raised a Southern Baptist. What the hell do I know about Hebrew? [Laughs.] But there it was for me to learn. “And you’ve got 10 minutes!” So that was sort of fascinating. And then they wound up not using most of it, if any of it. I don’t really even remember if it wound up in the movie at all. I just remember having to learn it.
GM: That’s the most beneficial role of my life, easily. Again, a beautifully written part, but of course the most important thing is that it’s what really introduced me to my wife [Delta Burke]. And it’s fascinating, because I had met her—briefly—at the Publicist Guild Awards luncheon. We were both presenters one year, and I wanted to see her again, and I couldn’t figure out how. We had just met, we were introduced, and we hugged each other instead of shaking hands. That made an impression on me, and I wanted to see her again.
About a month later, my agent called me to tell me that Fran Bascom, a casting director who had been helpful to me when I first came out here, wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing a guest role on a sitcom she was casting. I was just about to start back to work on Simon & Simon, and I very nearly turned the role down because I just didn’t think it was a good idea, but I said, “Just out of curiosity, what’s the show?” My agent said, “Designing Women.” I said, “I’ll do it.” [Laughs.] He said, “I don’t know what the role is.” “Doesn’t matter.” “I don’t know what kind of money it is.” “I don’t care! Get me on that set!”
But then the dates conflicted. I had promised my sister that I would go and be with her while my brother-in-law went through open-heart surgery in Virginia, and the dates conflicted, and I had to turn it down. And I was in Virginia, and my agent called me again and said, “When can you be back home?” I said, “Well, that all depends on how Butch does tomorrow.” He said, “Well, let me know as soon as you can, because they’re holding that role open for you.”
And it turned out that he got through the surgery fine, I got back, and I was on my way to the set when my agent stopped me and gave me the script, so I got there a little bit early and was able to read it. Not only was I going to be doing the show and seeing her again, but I was going to be playing her ex-husband and there was a love scene! It was, like, “Who the hell do I have to pay for this?” [Laughs.] We had lunch together the first day, and we had our first date just after we finished doing that episode, and basically we’ve been together every day ever since. So, yeah, that was the most beneficial role I’ve ever played in my life!
AVC: And then she did an episode of Simon & Simon not long after that, right?
GM: Yeah, later that same year, I think, she came over and did an episode of Simon & Simon.
AVC: Was that a “turnabout is fair play” situation?
GM: Yes, it was. Absolutely it was. And the writers in that episode stole a line from me, because there’s a scene where the brothers are driving to meet this lady, and A.J.—Jameson Parker’s role—has never even heard about this woman, and there’s this big effect that the mention of her name has on me, and he wants to know about her, and I’m being rather closed-mouthed, and he says, “All right, just… what does she look like?” And there’s a little back and forth, and finally I said to him, “All right, well, one thing: She’s got those kind of gin-clear blue eyes that a man knows, once he’s lost in them, he’s never going to find his way out.” [Laughs.] Yeah, that was my description of Delta. They stole that and put it in the episode.
AVC: You and your wife have also worked together a few other times, but it seems like there’s a decent shot that you might have a story to tell about working with Willie Nelson on Where The Hell’s That Gold?!!?
GM: Well, there was the time that Willie had a new album coming out, and he wanted me to listen to an early copy of it. So we went into his trailer to listen to that album, and when I came out of the trailer, I wanted to eat every potato chip in that county just from breathing the air. But apart from that, no, not really. [Laughs.]
AVC: Simon & Simon was your first time as a series regular, but you’d certainly done a ton of guest roles by that point.
GM: Yeah, I had, and a lot of them were there at Universal. But the way that role came about was that I had gotten as far as testing for the studio and it was down to me and a couple of other guys for a thing called Gypsy Warriors, which was going to be a series about two Americans during World War II who go behind enemy lines in France and work with the underground at making ready for the invasion of Europe. And instead of me, they hired some guy named Selleck. I don’t know why they did, but… [Laughs.] But the producer of it and the guy who had written it, Phil DeGuere, when he had a show called Pirate’s Key [the TV movie that served as the pilot Simon & Simon] he remembered me.
The network didn’t even want to hear about me, but they had tested everybody else in creation for the role opposite Jameson, who already had his role. And nothing seemed to work, they were running out of time, and then finally they agreed with Phil that I could come and read for the thing, and they would just bring the network people to his office at Universal, because there was no time left to go through that normal process of getting me passed by the studio and then bringing me over to read for the network, and all that. There just wasn’t time, because they started filming the next week! And I went in and read with Jameson for the studio people and the network people all crammed into Phil’s office, and by the time I got home that afternoon, I found out that I’d better start packing, because we’d start working Monday… in Florida! So that was how I stumbled upon that one: they just ran out other actors, is ultimately what that was all about. They had to have somebody. So they got me.
AVC: And it seems like it was a game-changer for you, not just from an acting standpoint, but because it gave you the opportunity at various points to both write and direct.
GM: Well, it was a great school for me. It really was. We had such wonderful directors on that show and some wonderful writers, and what I’d do was just get in their hip pocket and follow them around like a puppy dog, watching them do what they did. And they were very nice. I could go and hang out with them in the editing bays and things like that. But we had guys like Vincent McEveety and Burt Kennedy and several other people, but there were a handful that I really admired what they were doing, and I basically just sort of copied what they were doing, at least to begin with. But it gave me an opportunity to direct and it gave me an opportunity to write, and of course when Major Dad came around, I was one of the executive producers on that show. Simon & Simon was a great, great launching pad for everything I’ve done since.
AVC: You mentioned “some guy named Selleck” earlier. How was the experience of doing the crossover with Magnum, P.I.? Was it weird because it was two different creative teams?
GM: A little bit, a little bit. But nothing bad. And the great thing about that was, we got sent over to Hawaii, we were there for, like, nearly two weeks, and we had to work all of five days. We had to keep putting off all the scenes that were shot at the mansion because every time we would schedule that day, it would be raining on that side of the island, so… “Okay, I guess it’s time to go swimming in the ocean again. Not a problem. We can do that.” [Laughs.] So we had a wonderful time on that show because we very rarely did anything! Being stuck in Hawaii at a five-star hotel is not bad. There are worse fates.
Oh, also on Simon & Simon, in 1984, when the Summer Olympics were going to be in L.A., Phil decided it would just be a logistical nightmare trying to shoot in competition with all the traffic that would be going on around the Olympics. And since he had an apartment in Paris, it was decided, “Let’s go shoot there!” So he wrote—or had written—a two-hour episode of Simon & Simon, and we went to Paris for a month and shot. [Laughs.] Back in the glory days when they actually spent money on television shows!
AVC: Out of curiosity, did you happen to see “The Greatest Event In Television History”?
GM: I did, indeed. [Laughs.] I did, indeed. And later on, I was at the Emmys—or an event before the Emmys, I guess—and Jon Hamm was there. And I just sidled up next to him and said [Witheringly.] “Some people just can’t wear the hat.” And he looked at me and… just sort of freaked out for a moment. But, yeah, I saw it, I don’t know why they did it, but it was spectacular!
AVC: During the run of Simon & Simon, you and Jameson also teamed up to work on a film called Jackals, directed by Gary Grillo, who was a director on the show.
GM: Yes, and he was one of our first ADs on the show.
AVC: Was it weird working with Jameson in that capacity, as opposed to the brotherly love of Simon & Simon?
GM: Nah. No, not really. You know, it really doesn’t matter what the role is, whether you’re playing brothers or friends or enemies. When you’re actors, it’s just play. I mean, let’s face it. And it beats the hell out of working for a living. So it wasn’t weird… except occasionally in a particular scene, we’d laugh about something. [Laughs.] I improvised the last line I had with Jameson’s character, which was, “So long, pretty boy!” Because that had been my original take on him when I met him, when he and Phil came over to ask me to read for that role: “Oh, geez, a pretty boy. What am I getting myself into?” And then he wound up just being this great guy who I still hang out with. He and I went deer hunting last November together, and we’ve been friends this whole time.
AVC: Jackals was also your first time working with Wilford Brimley.
GM: Yeah. What a great guy to work with. What a character. I love him. Pretty much what you see is what you get with Wilford. There’s no nonsense with him. And he has wonderful instincts. There were a couple of scenes in that film which were kind of overwritten, if you know what I mean. Where the writer took it upon himself to write the subtext for the actors. And Wilford, without even thinking about it, just changed everything and did the scene, and it was, like, “Oh! This is terrific!” And it was done. That no-nonsense, no-wasted-effort approach to acting. I really liked it.
Simon & Simon: In Trouble Again (1995)— “Rick Simon”
Jake Lassiter: Justice On The Bayou (1995)—“Jake Lassiter”
AVC: The year you did the Simon & Simon reunion movie, you also starred in Jake Lassiter: Justice On The Bayou, a character featured in a series of novels by Paul Levine.
GM: Yeah, I proposed the Simon & Simon reunion movie to CBS and they went for it, and that was fine. I think Jake Lassiter was on NBC. I thought that would’ve been a great experience because we had a little house in the French Quarter at the time, and it would’ve been nice if that’d gone to series. But it didn’t happen.
GM: I got… [Sighs.] I was very excited about Jericho in the beginning of it because it was going to be dealing with the after-effects of a nuclear war. It was going to be post-apocalyptic. And then I think people started to pay too much attention to some of the stuff the critics were saying, like, “How is this show going to sustain? Because it’s going to necessarily be so depressing,” and this, that, and the other thing. And I think people got timid. So they started doing things like—we would talk incessantly about how we’re running out of food, and then by the end of the episode there’d be a block party to pick up people’s spirits. And this sort of stuff just happened throughout the show. And I began to get the feeling that what we were doing wasn’t really right, because it sort of indicated that post-apocalyptic life was not only survivable but, you know, wasn’t really all that bad! And I just didn’t feel like being a part of it anymore. And I asked to be let out of it. And was.
AVC: I hadn’t realized that. That being the case, when the show got picked up for a second season at the final hour, I don’t suppose it bothered you all that much that you’d died in the finale of season one.
GM: No, it didn’t. [Laughs.] But, again, it was a great idea. And then they started second-guessing themselves. That’s all that was: They started out with a wonderful idea, a wonderful premise, and then started to second-guess what it was they were doing. And it was another case where it was about the numbers. Instead of being, “Let’s make this the best show we can make about this subject,” it was, “Yeah, but are people going to tune in in big numbers to watch this?” As it turned out, they didn’t tune in in big numbers anyway. The fans that the show had were adamant, but it wasn’t enough to keep it on the air.
AVC: In the ’70s, you were basically on every show ever.
GM: [Laughs.] Well…
AVC: And you were on some of them multiple times. For instance, you did four episodes of The Rockford Files, playing four different characters. Back then, every day must’ve brought you another new experience.
GM: Yeah, that’s what it was. But like I said, it’s what I’m used to. I’m really supposed to be a character actor. It was a fluke, my getting to play leading-man roles for a while, but I’m really a character guy. That’s what I’ve always been. And it’s what’s fun for me. It’s what I like doing.
But I’ll tell you something very important about The Rockford Files: That’s where I learned how to handle myself like a gentleman on set, because Jim Garner set such a great example of exactly how to do that. My first day on that show, I got my little cubicle dressing room, and there’s a knock on the door. I open the door, and there stands Jim Garner, saying, “Hey, hoss, I’m Jim. It’s nice to meet you. Welcome aboard.” Well, shit! [Laughs.] You know, I’m just a day player, but that was the reception I got!
Jim loved actors. He just loved actors. And he loved making movies, television shows… Whatever it was, he liked doing it. Very rarely did he go to his trailer, unless he was tired or there was an interview or something like that going on. Most of the time, he was sitting in his canvas chair with a cup of coffee and a cigarette, chewing the fat with whoever wanted to. He liked the crew, he liked everybody in the movie business, and he was just such an up-front guy that if Jim didn’t like you, you knew that, because you’d just lost some of your teeth! [Laughs.] But normally he just loved everybody.
Night Gallery (1972)—“Tuttle”
The F.B.I. (1974)—“Sheriff’s Deputy”
Barnaby Jones (1974 / 1976)—“Pete” / “Dave Boyette,” “Jim Cabe”
The Streets Of San Francisco (1975 / 1976)—“Jeff Dixon” / “Buck”
AVC: Your ’70s output is a significant amount of ground to cover, but are there any of those guest appearances during that era that particularly stand out for you?
GM: Well, the first one that I had out here was the direct result of my acting teacher being the director of an episode of Night Gallery. [Laughs.] That one stands out because it was the first role I had in Hollywood, and let’s see… All of those Quinn Martin roles, those were great fun, because it was that Quinn Martin repertory company. Once you got into a couple of those, you were pretty much going to do them all… and I think I pretty much did do them all at one point or another.
But it started out with those roles, and it just built up. Once they saw that I wasn’t going to screw up too badly, that I could in fact walk and chew gum at the same time, I got asked back to do more. And that’s been my career all the way along, really. I’ve never had what you would call a breakout. I mean, Simon & Simon is as close as it comes, and that obviously really kick-started things, because it was on the air for eight years. But I had to earn my way all the way up to that level, and it’s been that way ever since.
AVC: Did you happen to have a good Incredible Hulk anecdote? That’s the only other series besides Rockford that you did on four separate occasions.
GM: Yeah, the last one of those that I did… Well, for one thing, I was doing it when I was doing the audition for what became Simon & Simon, when I did the reading for Pirate’s Key. But it was an episode that was written by Nick Corea, who was a writer-producer on that show. He’d written it expressly for me, and it came at the end of a year where I hadn’t worked, but here this guy wrote a role for me and wasn’t going to hear of anybody else playing it. So that was pretty great.
AVC: Circling back to Selleck for a moment, you also worked with him some time later, playing Patton to his Ike.
GM: Yeah, that was great fun. And Selleck is such a cool guy. I had auditioned, actually, for a role in Magnum, P.I. before I got the Simon & Simon gig. That show had come first, or their pilot had come first, and I went in and read for this role in the pilot episode. Tom was there for me to read with—I had never met him before—and when I got back from that reading, my girlfriend at the time was there, and she said, “Well, tell me: What’s he like? Is he really that good looking?” And I said, “Yeah. Yeah, he is. He’s about 6 feet 4, 6 feet 5, he’s really that good-looking, he’s really fucking talented… and then the son of a bitch has the temerity to be a nice guy!” I mean, if you’re going to have all that other stuff going for you, the least you can do is be a jerk. Have some common decency, for Christ’s sake!
GM: Major Dad was an exceptional, exceptional experience. Not so much creatively on that one, although it was a wonderful creative experience, and Shanna Reed was just a joy. I love her dearly, and Beverly Archer, Jon Cypher, Matt Mulhern, and all the kids on the show were just terrific. But the association that I got to have with the Marine Corps because of that show just was mind-altering. And to realize that, throughout the military, the dedication of these people and the realization that they’re just people like you and me who have a really, really demanding, strange, sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrifying job to do, and they do it, and they do it magnificently… That was a life-altering experience for me to do. On USO tours that I did, the time that I spent with Marines in Somalia and Saudi Arabia, Haiti, and all sorts of places… And I got to fly with the Blue Angels, for crying out loud, because of that show! It was a magnificent experience.
AVC: You haven’t done a ton of comedy since Major Dad, but you got to return to the sitcom world a few years ago when you had a recurring guest role on Mike & Molly.
GM: Yeah! I’ve been so lucky in my career with the variety of roles that I’ve played, and I like doing all of it, but… there’s something so civilized about doing a sitcom. [Laughs.] You go in, you go to work, you have a read-through like proper actors, and then the writers go back and they change things because it didn’t quite sound the way that they expected to coming out of real mouths. And you rehearse for four-and-a-half days, and then they bring an audience in, and you shoot it. And you can actually plan a life around that schedule! You can say to your wife, “I’ll be home at 8 p.m. this evening, let’s have dinner together,” which you can’t do with a movie or an hour-long TV show. It’s a very civilized way of being an actor.
AVC: Is there anything in your back catalog that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
GM: No, not really. And I’m a big subscriber to Satchel Paige’s philosophy: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
AVM: This must be the most terrifying conversation you’ve had in a long time, then.
GM: [Bursts out laughing.] Yeah! And I keep looking over my shoulder for what might be gaining on me! You know, I have some of the old DVDs of Simon & Simon, and the most painful thing for me to do is see all the stunts that I used to be able to do and think to myself, “How the hell did I ever do that, and why can’t I do it anymore?”
AVM: That reminds me: you’re credited on The A-Team for “Stunt Double.” Is that an inaccurate credit, or were you your own stunt double?
GM: No, other than driving the humvee, I think that’s about as close to doing a stunt as I did on that movie, so I don’t know why I’ve got a credit as doing stunts on that.
AVM: That’s actually one of my favorite recent guilty-pleasure movies.
GM: Well, I’m glad. I had trouble following the movie myself… and I was there when they made it! [Laughs.] But, you know, I don’t think that sort of movie is meant to be terribly literary or anything like that. The script is just the adhesive material that connects one explosion to the next.
GM: Oh, well, on that one… I think you might be able to appreciate this one: I’d get so fascinated watching [Robert] Duvall work, I forgot it was my turn to talk! [Laughs.] I’m doing a scene with him, and I’m just watching this guy do what he does, and it’s so simple and it’s so powerful and it’s just so damned good… I just got caught up watching him and totally forgot I was in a scene with him, which was a little embarrassing. But he’s just that damned good! And that came as a direct result of doing a play that Horton Foote had written in New York, off-Broadway. Bobby came to see it, because they’re old, old friends, and he wanted me to do a role in this movie he was doing. So I wound up down in Georgia doing Get Low.
AVC: That’s great that, at least to some extent, you can still find yourself in awe of other actors.
GM: Well, I am in awe of any kind of superb talent. Writing, acting, singing… I don’t care what it is. Football, baseball… It doesn’t matter. Anyone who’s that good at something they do, I’m still in awe of that, and I hope I never get over it. My God, I’d hate to be a cynic. How boring!