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: Jim Beaver got his start as an actor neither in New York nor in Los Angeles, instead taking his first step in front of the camera in Dallas—both the city and the TV show. He did eventually make the jump to L.A., getting his first significant notice as a result of his work in the 1989 Norman Jewison film In Country. Regularly flipping between the big screen and the small screen with his various acting gigs, Beaver quickly established himself as a trusty “that guy” figure, but he got a major bump in his prime-time profile through two recurring characters: Whitney Ellsworth on Deadwood and Bobby Singer on Supernatural. Beaver will be returning to the latter series for a guest appearance sometime this season, and given his everyman status, there’s no telling where he might turn up next, but you can find him in a recurring role on Netflix’s The Ranch, which drops new episodes later this month.
The A.V. Club: For your first on-camera appearance, IMDB shows you with several uncredited roles right around the same time, but what was the first?
Jim Beaver: It’s funny, I was talking about this the other day with somebody. I can’t quite remember which was actually filmed first, but I’m pretty sure my first on-camera appearance, the first time I was ever placed in front of a camera, was an episode of Dallas. And I can’t tell you a lot about that—I was basically an extra. But I do remember that I was a diner in a restaurant scene. And I got a valuable lesson that day.
Larry Hagman was the star of the show who was in the scene, and I remember that he messed up a line. He just stopped for a moment, and then he started the line over again. And it was such a revelation to me, that it wasn’t a disaster if someone messed up a line. It wasn’t the end of the world. They weren’t going to call “cut” and everybody wasn’t going to freak out. You just stopped and started over. And I realized, “Oh, they’ll cut it! They’ll cut it so it works!” And it was this gigantic relief to me to know that if you made a mistake, they weren’t going to fire you. [Laughs.] Of course, he was Larry Hagman, so they probably weren’t going to fire him, anyway. But it was the first time I realized that it was just a process, that people make mistakes, and they keep going. They keep doing the work, and nobody freaks out. So I got a nice lesson my first day in front of the camera. I’ve had many, many lessons since then!
AVC: You had a couple of different occupations before you actually became a full-time actor, but what led you down the path of acting in the first place?
JB: Well, there, too, it’s a little bit foggy in memory. I remember specific things that happened, but I don’t have a full recollection of where the first impetus was. When I was in the Marines, before college, I had a buddy who used to tell me about how much fun he had acting in plays in high school, and I was really taken by his memories of happy times doing that. I thought, “That sounds kind of interesting, maybe I’ll try that someday.” I don’t recall it ever being anything like a career choice. I wanted to be a film historian when I got out of the Marines. You know, because there’s so much money in that. [Laughs.]
But this was 1971, 1972, and I was going to college in Oklahoma, and… it wasn’t like things are today. Film schools—and certainly film archives and film study courses—on college campuses were rare, mainly limited to the East Coast and West Coast. And I wasn’t on either. So there wasn’t anything for me to take in college to study to be a film historian. But I do remember thinking I could sign up for theater classes, because that was kind of close. And then my roommate in college asked me to help him with his audition for a show, so I played the other part in a scene with him, and they ended up choosing me! So I kind of fell into it that way. But the first moment I stepped foot on a stage in front of an audience—I had six lines in The Miracle Worker—and before I even said the first line, I knew that I was in this game for the rest of my life. [Laughs.] This was way too much fun. And then, of course, there was the added bonus of not knowing how to do anything else. It seems to have worked out. It’s still fun, and nobody seems to have found me out yet.
AVC: Well, there’s still time.
JB: Oh, yeah. There’s time. There’s always time. Every job could be your last! [Laughs.]
AVC: For a while, you were writing at the same time you were acting. Were you holding out hope that the writing would shift into becoming your full-time gig?
JB: No. Once I started acting, writing was just something I did because I felt like it or because I had a project that interested me or because I could make some money at it. But it was always a substitute for what I wanted to do. Once the acting bug bit, everything else became second place. I ended up being more successful as a writer at first, but it was always a means to an end. “If I could write a play, maybe I could be in it,” that sort of thing.
AVC: In addition to appearing on Dallas, you also found your way into the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders’ TV movie.
JB: Oh, God. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was about a millimeter step above extra. And then when the film came out, it ended up being just something that happened in the distance, in the background of a shot. But I remember the New York Yankees’ player Bucky Dent was playing the boyfriend of one of the cheerleaders or cheerleader candidates, and he was supposed to be trying out for the Cowboys team, and I was another guy trying out for the team. We were shooting in the old Cowboys stadium in my hometown of Irving, Texas, and it was kind of cool. We were all down on the field, and the director set up some shots to show the guys trying out for the team, and they had these 40-yard dashes to do. I remember Bucky Dent showing off his World Series ring to everybody, and then the director told me to race him in this 40-yard dash they were going to shoot, and he said, “I’m going to need you to beat Bucky.” And I’m, like, “This guy just came off a World Series team. I couldn’t run a 40-yard-dash if I was on fire. And you’re expecting me to beat this guy?” [Laughs.] And I did my best, but I don’t think I beat him, because he was like fire and I was like molasses. But I loved the direction. He didn’t say, “Bucky, I need you to lose the race.” He told me to win it, which I wasn’t really qualified to do.
But they shot this whole sequence with us, and then when the movie came out on television, you see it in the background through the window of one of the offices in the stadium, and it looks like ants running. So don’t go looking for me in that movie. I’ll be the third ant from the left! [Laughs.] There were a lot of pretty girls floating around in that movie, though, I’ll say that.
AVC: We actually talked to one of them for this feature: Jane Seymour. That’s why it occurred to me to ask you about it.
JB: I got to see her from a distance. I discovered that throughout my career I’d get to see lots of beautiful leading women from a distance. But she looked very nice from 50 yards away.
JB: That one’s got a special place in my heart, because that was my big break. It might never have happened. I was writing television—I wasn’t particularly getting any acting work—and we were in the middle of the big Writers Guild strike of 1988. I was visiting the office of my literary agent, Paul Alan Smith, just shooting the breeze. He couldn’t pitch clients, and his clients couldn’t write anything except on spec, so there wasn’t much to do for several months, so I’d come in every few days and just chew the fat with Paul.
I was getting ready to leave one day, and he walked me to the door, and one of the theatrical talent agents, Ilene Feldman, was walking by. And he said, “Oh, Jim, let me introduce you to Ilene here. Ilene, this is Jim Beaver, he’s one of our writer clients.” And she said, “Oh, hi, nice to meet you,” and then she paused a second and looked at me hard, and she said, “Are you an actor?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Are you represented?” I said, “No.” And she said, “Well, there’s a part in this Norman Jewison movie that’s casting that you might be right for. Would you mind if I submitted you?” And I said, “No, I wouldn’t mind that at all!”
You have to understand that nothing about this is typical about the business. There’s no reason that a high-powered agent should have latched onto a complete unknown that she’d never met before and put him up for a starring role in a big studio picture. It shouldn’t happen. But it did. [Laughs.] It’s a movie about Vietnam vets in the years after the war and how they cope—or don’t cope—with having been in Vietnam. And having been in Vietnam myself, I felt like that maybe gave me a little bit of an edge.
So I went in to meet Norman Jewison. No casting director, just an appointment in his office. I went in, I said hello. It was kind of a frightening and intimidating experience, because when I walked into the office, there were other actors there, and I was the only one I’d never heard of! I mean, this was a big picture. Bruce Willis was starring in it, and a lot of people wanted to be in it. So I met Norman, and I said, “You know, there’s a scene in the script where somebody’s pinning pictures on the bulletin board at a veterans dance, pictures of the guys in the movie when they were in Vietnam. Is this the sort of thing you had in mind?” And I held up an 8-by-10 of myself in Vietnam. And Norman just looked at it and said, “Oooooookay.” And then I read for him, and I went home.
The next day, the agent called and said, “I don’t really believe this, but there’s a chance you might get this part. We’ll know in a couple of weeks, but he really liked you.” And I said, “Terrific! Now, how am I going to survive the next couple of weeks waiting to hear?” And the next day, she called and said, “You have it.” And she was shocked. Utterly shocked. Because I was unknown, and this was a pretty good sized role in the film. So I spent the next couple of months working on my lines and learning them and trying to be absolutely perfect by the time I got to Kentucky to shoot it in the summer of ’88.
And then when I get to Kentucky, Norman Jewison treats me like I’m one of the stars. It’s Bruce Willis, Emily Lloyd, Joan Allen, and just a terrific cast. And every time he talks to the press, he mentions who’s in the film, and he always mentions me, even though my part is a supporting part. I just felt so well-treated. And then he was such a wonderful director. I came in and started doing my stuff, and he changed everything that I had decided on. Because he knew how to direct, and I didn’t. [Laughs.] But it was just a glorious, wonderful experience, I made great friends, and as the only real Vietnam vet in the principal cast, I got a lot of extra publicity. There was a great New York Times article about the film that focused a fair amount on me. So it was a pretty big deal. And on my last day on the film, Bruce’s agent—who was and still is a very big agent in Hollywood—had flown out to Kentucky to see Bruce working, and he happened to be there on the day of my biggest scene. That was Saturday. On Sunday, I flew back to Los Angeles, and on Monday morning, this agent called up and said he wanted to represent me. And that changed everything.
The picture wasn’t the success that we all thought it was going to be. I think it’s a success as a movie. It’s a beautiful, beautiful movie, and it’s very much a tearjerker, but it didn’t do as well as the box office as we’d hoped. But I’m very proud of it, and most everything in my career came from that. So walking to the door at just the right moment was a really good career move. [Laughs.] Of course, I guess you could say that going to Vietnam was a pretty good career move, too, because I think that photograph got me the part!
JB: I had an interesting audition experience for that. That was a basketball movie that William Friedkin directed, with Nick Nolte. I came in to audition for it, and I remember going into some office at Paramount to read for it, and the casting director, the director, and the producer were sitting together, and they were a little more separated from the actors than usual. There was a lot more space between them. I couldn’t even see them all that well to make out their faces. I thought that was a little odd, but it didn’t really have anything to do with anything. I didn’t know any of the faces I was seeing from that distance. But I read for them, and when I was done, the director said, “Well, that’s perfect. That’s exactly what I want. You’ve got the part!”
First of all, that almost never happens. The best is that sometimes you’ll get a call from your agent on your way home saying that you got it. But I remember thinking that this director looked like a young kid, and I thought, “Man, his producer is going to smack him down for offering me the part without even having a conversation!” I mean, there’s got to be consultation with the guy who’s producing. So I went home feeling pretty happy, but I also felt like maybe it wasn’t going to happen. I thought, “The moment I walked out of the room, that producer went, ‘What are you talking about, offering him that part? We haven’t talked yet!”
But a few days later they called me to come back and read again with Nick Nolte, so I came back. But this time we’re in a crammed little tiny space. And I see the director better now, and I recognize him, and I realize it’s William Friedkin. And that’s also when I realized that it didn’t matter what the producer thought, because Billy Friedkin was gonna get what he wanted. [Laughs.] But I did read again with Nick, and I got the part.
We shot it in French Lick, Indiana. I remember getting there for the first day, and somebody gave me a call sheet for the next day’s shooting, and I saw my ex-wife’s name on the call sheet as the actress playing my wife. And I thought, “Okay, this is too weird.” But it turned out that it was somebody else with the same name. I just had one day on the film, playing the father of a young basketball prospect, and we shot it at a real farm. I didn’t expect to get much attention, but I do remember that I came out in the morning to get ready to go to the set, and they were serving breakfast in front of the hotel for the cast and crew, and when I got my breakfast, Nick Nolte came by and said, “Hey, come up on the porch and sit with me.” And it was not my experience with big stars that they invite guys who have one day on the movie to come sit and have breakfast with them, but he did, and I did, and we just sat and talked about theater and stage work and acting processes. I was delighted, but I was also kind of bowled over, because… I don’t know, Nolte had a different kind of reputation. But he was terrific, and he was a wonderful guy to work with.
Billy Friedkin’s got something of a reputation himself, one for being a fellow with a temper who can lose that temper fairly easily. There was one point while we were shooting when we’d done several takes, and in one I changed the inflection a little bit just in how I said a word or a line. And he stopped and said, “What is this ham acting? What is going on here? What happened to you? This is terrible! This is awful!” And I’m kind of taken aback, because nobody had ever talked to me like that. And he went on and on about how this was just awful, saying, “If I had wanted a ham, I would’ve hired a pig!” And finally I just said, “Hey! I get it!” And he said, “Okay, fine, then let’s go shoot.” And as I walked back to my place, Nolte leaned over and said into my ear, “I guess you thought you weren’t going to get one of those, didn’t you?” Apparently I was the last one in the cast or on the crew to get that side of Billy’s approach to directing. But the funny thing is, in the film, the take he used is the one he yelled at me for doing! [Laughs.]
It’s funny, I ran into Alfre Woodard not long afterwards, and I mentioned that we’d both been on that picture—she also only had about one or two scenes—and she said, “Oh, that movie! I was on that for five weeks!” I said, “Our roles were about the same size, and I was only on it a day!” But that’s the movie business, y’know?
And, of course, there were all of these basketball stars in the film. Shaquille O’Neal was in it, and Bob Cousy has a great scene. But I didn’t get to meet any of those people. I only got to work with Nick. But that was a real pleasure. I very much enjoyed working with him, a nice man who was very nice to me.
AVC: We talked to him last year for this feature, and he was great.
JB: The last time I saw him, I ran into him in the lobby of a hotel in Barcelona as I was checking out. He walked through the lobby in his pajamas, and… it looked like it had been a rough night. I didn’t bring up our former acquaintance. I figured, “Whatever’s going on, it’s probably not the right time!”
JB: Yeah, wow, I don’t know what to say about that except “bad haircut.” [Laughs.] I remember auditioning for it. Lee Tamahori was directing it. It’s one of three pictures I’ve done that Nicolas Cage was involved in, and yet I’ve never met him. They had this incredible set for the NSA offices, and as I recall, they only used it for one shot. I remember thinking, “That’s an awful lot of money for one shot!”
I worked with Julianne Moore, who was an absolute delight. She was a real sweetheart. But there wasn’t too much to the part. It was the federal/law enforcement/security functionary role that’s always in one of those movies. I worked a few days on it, but I don’t really remember much. I remember shooting the scenes and the lines, but I don’t remember anything in particular happening. I did end up dating an extra in one of the scenes for awhile after that, though. [Laughs.] Even in the things that aren’t memorable, there’s always something interesting you can find to remember about it. But as far as the movie itself goes, I didn’t have all that much to do in terms of the overall plot. Just a couple of scenes basically saying, “Find this guy, get this guy, stop these bad guys,” and then other people go out and do that stuff, which is probably the more exciting part of the movie.
When I started shooting Deadwood, they asked me to grow my beard out, and almost everything I’ve done since then has overlapped, so I’ve had a beard in almost everything I’ve done for the last 14 or 15 years. Before the beard became part of my everyday life, I was playing lots of parts like that, where I was a sheriff or an FBI agent or a police detective. I’ve been a CIA director. I don’t know what it is, but there’s apparently something about my face that says “law enforcement.” Which is probably kind of a laugh to the people I went to college with. [Laughs.] But I’ve played an awful lot of those guys, and other than the fact that this was good money, good billing, and a really terrific actress to work opposite, there wasn’t anything terribly memorable about it for me. I just barely remember what happens in the movie! But, hey, it was a nice paycheck. It made up for the bad haircut.
JB: That was an unexpected dream come true. I got a phone call one day, they said, “Guillermo Del Toro wants to know if you want to play Emma Stone’s father in his next movie,” and I thought, “This has got to be a joke. How does he know who I am?” In fact, I’ve often said that if I write an autobiography, that’s going to be the title: How Does He Know Who I Am? [Laughs.] I was really kind of dumbstruck. I said, “Of course I’d be interested!” They sent me the script, and I was even more interested after I’d read it. And then I didn’t hear anything for about four or five months, and I thought, “Well, that went away.” And just about the time I completely gave upon it, I got a call to come meet Guillermo for lunch and to talk about it.
I still figured this was a get-to-know-me kind of thing where the decision has yet to be made. By this time, neither Emma Stone nor Benedict Cumberbatch were attached to the film any longer: Mia Wasikowska had replaced Emma Stone, and Tom Hiddleston had replaced Cumberbatch. But I went over to Universal and had a meeting with Guillermo, and when I put out my hand to shake his, he threw a big bear hug on me, and I realized that’s how he greets people. [Laughs.] And while he was bear-hugging me, he whispered in my ear, “The studio gave me a long list of people they wanted for this part, but I told them I had my guy.” And I was really flattered. I still didn’t think I had the part, though! I thought this was a meeting to see if we got along and all that stuff. But throughout the meeting he kept talking about how much fun we were going to have in Toronto, and it slowly dawned on me that this was a deal. There was no employment deal in place, but this wasn’t going to go away. He’d already made up his mind.
A month or so later, I went to Toronto to do some special effects preparation work—they had to make a body cast of me—and Guillermo took the cast and a couple of department heads to dinner one night, and this was my first meeting with Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wasikowska. I’m sitting there at dinner, and I’m mainly engaged in a conversation with the costume designer and the producer, but out of the corner of my ear, I hear Guillermo explaining to these big stars who I am and why I’m there. [Laughs.] Because none of them had any idea who I was, as far as I could tell.
So I hear him explaining why I’m playing this big part in this movie, and I heard him say, “I wrote the part for him. I saw him on Deadwood, and I said, ‘I want this guy in my movie.’” And then he started pitching Deadwood to them, because none of them had seen it, and he was saying, “You’ve got to see it! You’ve got to see it!”And that was the first time I realized that it wasn’t just that he had this part and he decided I could play it. He had seen me and it had shown him in some fashion what he wanted in the part. It was the greatest eavesdropping moment of my entire life! [Laughs.]
And then we made the movie, and it was an extraordinary experience. In my mind, he’s one of two confirmed geniuses that I’ve ever worked with—David Milch being the other—and it was an utterly extraordinary experience. The production treated me like a king. They went out of their way to make me feel the equal to Tom, Jessica, Mia, and Charlie Hunnam. Even though my contract didn’t call for it, I got a motor home the same size as theirs. On a big studio feature, if you’ve got a good part, it’s kind of like dying and going to heaven, the way they treat you. And I had just finished a picture that was shot for about the same budget as craft service for one day on Crimson Peak! [Laughs.] So it was a big shift to go to Toronto and find myself treated like Hollywood royalty, even though I wasn’t. And everybody on the cast was great. I had so much fun sitting around talking Shakespeare with Tom Hiddleston for three months.
It was an utter honor to be part of that film. And it was a great part. I got to do something different from my familiar gruff-but-lovable rural type. I really like gruff-but-lovable rural types—they’ve paid for my house!—but the idea that somebody wanted me to come play an industrial Brahman in 1904 Buffalo, New York, somebody who wore white tie and tails to dinner every night, was a real shift for me. And it was a grand part. The only thing I didn’t really care for was the fact that about nine months before I finished the movie, Guillermo had asked me to grow my beard out as long as I could, so by the time we shot, I looked like Rutherford B. Hayes! Which was fine for the movie, because it fit the period, but when I was out on the street in T-shirt and jeans, I just looked like Santa Claus’ homeless brother. [Laughs.] I was very anxious to get the beard cut off, and Guillermo was gracious enough to let me shave it the last night of filming. Usually they make you wait a day or two, just to make sure nothing goes wrong with the film, but he knew how badly I wanted it off, so he let me go ahead.
So, yeah, that was just an amazing experience. Guillermo has made clear that he wants to work with me again, so I’m crossing my fingers that that holds true, because I had more fun on that film than an awful lot of things I’ve worked on.
JB: Considering they only aired, what, five or six episodes? And I think they only made 12. But I sure did that part a lot. That’s because I got cast in the part in the pilot, but they kept re-doing the pilot. It was a sitcom for ABC, and Victor Fresco was the creator, who’s got a deliciously twisted mind. It revolved around these three neurotic young men and their group therapist, and they would have group therapy sessions in most episodes. I was a guy named Gary, another member of the therapy group, and Gary was the real twisto in the group. Very quiet, but when he said something, it was just kind of jaw-dropping. I remember I had one line where they were going to have some sort of group get-together, and somebody said, “Well, how about Saturday night?” And I said, “Oh, I can’t on Saturdays. Saturday is the night I bathe my neighbor.” [Laughs.] It was a part that I got to play fairly deadpan and fairly weird, which was a lot of fun.
I think it was Jon Cryer’s last unsuccessful show. For some reason, they kept re-doing the pilot, and some of us would stay with it, but every time we would come back, there would be one or two lead actors who were different. I guess they just never felt like they had the right chemistry. There was a fellow who had a couple of lines in one scene playing the boyfriend of our group therapist, who was played by Paget Brewster, and this guy—like me—managed to stay in every version of the pilot, so every couple of months we’d get a call to come to do the pilot again, so we’d all see each other. And it was a little weird, because it was a little reunion, but we were doing exactly the same stuff we had done two or three months ago. But this fellow who played the boyfriend hadn’t had much going on in his career at that time. But he did all right later. His name was Jon Hamm.
AVC: Oh, that guy.
JB: [Laughs.] Yeah! And Jon was a delightful guy. You know, we had fun on the show. It didn’t last very long, because it was really quirky, and I think it was maybe a little too quirky for mainstream audiences? I don’t know. I had a blast on it. The people on the show were really funny, and the people who wrote the show were really funny. And it got to the point where I think we all kind of knew it wasn’t going to last very long, so there was a lot of fun to be had. I remember one time the entire cast did an interview for Entertainment Tonight, and they did the entire interview naked, which was kind of a shock, I think, for the Entertainment Tonight people! I’m sure there’s some interesting raw video of that somewhere…
JB: [Laughs.] I hate that! For one thing, if you hadn’t seen the movie and you see that credit, it doesn’t make any sense. Maybe even if you have seen the movie it doesn’t make any sense. I was a fellow in a bar, and the bar was called The Smiling Peanut. I don’t know if they ever actually said that in the movie or showed the sign, so I’m sure people see those credits and go, “What the heck is that?”
I had auditioned for Paul Thomas Anderson for a different part in the picture. There’s a fellow early on who has a sexual encounter with… Oh, gosh, I’ve forgotten: Is it Melora Hardin who’s in that? At any rate, I auditioned for that part but didn’t get it, but then Paul called me back in for this other part, this guy in the bar where William H. Macy comes in and has a conversation with Henry Gibson. There were a couple of us there sitting at the bar who were all part of this conversation. I didn’t have an awful lot to do—I had a few lines—but we sat there for three or four days shooting this, and it was one of the most meticulous scenes I’ve ever shot in terms of a director’s approach to it. He shot, it seemed to me, many, many, many, many takes. It was a Steadicam shot at the beginning where Bill Macy comes in and walks around the bar, and for a scene that probably took a minute or a minute and a half onscreen, we shot for a lot of days, which meant there was an awful lot of time just sitting at the bar, kind of like our characters. Except they weren’t giving us anything real to drink.
But the joy for me on that film was getting to sit there for several days with Henry Gibson, talking to him about things he had done, particularly Altman’s The Long Goodbye. We talked about his working with Sterling Hayden on that film. Hayden is an idol of mine. Henry was just a wonderful man. At some point I mentioned that my wife, Cecily, and I were going to Italy on vacation right after we wrapped the film. I don’t know how it came about that he knew she was Catholic, but the next day he told me that he had called up his old college roommate, I think, who was now the appointment secretary for the Pope in the Vatican, and he was trying to arrange a meeting with the Pope for my wife, which I thought was just the most extraordinary and thoughtful thing to do. It ended up not working out because it turned out his friend was on vacation somewhere and couldn’t make it happen, but I didn’t care so much about that as I did that here was this guy who I’d just met on a movie set, and he goes out of his way to try and make something really lovely happen for the wife of a guy he’s just met.
So I have really joyful memories of Henry Gibson. I did another thing with him a few years later, but a sweeter man you would never meet. We had a good time. I don’t know if we had all that great a time shooting the movie, but we had an awfully good time sitting on the set talking. And I love that movie. I’m very proud to be part of it, even though I don’t have much of a part in it.
AVC: You’re also credited as being in Aimee Mann’s video for “Save Me,” from the Magnolia soundtrack, but there you’re credited as Jim.
JB: Yeah, when we finished shooting that scene in the bar, we set up and Paul shot that section of the video. I don’t know if you’ve seen the video, but the song runs occasionally in the movie, and the video is shots of the various characters from the film, but it’s not footage from the film. It’s original footage that plays directly to the rhythms and text of the song. So that was kind of cool. It’s the only music video I’ve done. I didn’t get paid extra for it or anything… [Laughs.] But it was fun.
As far as the billing goes, at one point they had us all billed in the movie under our real names. In our conversation at the bar, they used our real names, those of us who were not playing specific characters that were part of the larger story. I remember Henry was playing Thurston Howell III, which is the same name as the guy from Gilligan’s Island. [Laughs.] But those of us who were playing the smaller parts there at the bar, in our conversation we all used our own names. So at one point we were all billed that way, but then somebody got the bright idea of calling us Smiling Peanut Patrons. I occasionally go on IMDB and try changing it back, but it never seems to stick. But if that’s the most humiliating thing in my life, I’m doing okay.
JB: Stephen Tobolowsky is an old friend, and he’s a terrific actor, but I had known him for a good number of years before I ever worked with him. We’re both from Dallas. He wrote this play called Two Idiots In Hollywood that was the first play I did in Los Angeles after I moved here, and it ran for months in L.A. It was a cult hit. The critics, for the most part, hated it. I remember the posters outside the theater had all these quotes from critics about how terrible it was. “An utter waste of time.—The Los Angeles Times.” That sort of thing. But it didn’t keep us from being a success.
It was a wild play, absolutely crazy and full of bizarre stuff. It was about two morons from Ohio who come out to Hollywood to make it big and somehow inadvertently do make it big by pitching and selling an idea for a TV show about Pac-Man. It was just stupid. It was really smart, stupid stuff. And it ran for a long time. Everybody for the most part played multiple roles except for the two Idiots, Jim McGrath and Jeff Doucette, and you’d run off stage, switch wigs or switch shirts, and come back on as somebody else. It was a hoot. Well, then Tobo somehow or other pulled together the money to shoot it as a film.
There were a fair number of changes. They didn’t manage to track me down until fairly late in the filming process, so I hadn’t been able to play the part that I had played on stage. But for some reason there was a mock trial, and we shot it in the swimming pool of the Hollywood Athletic Club. Of course. [Laughs.] It was just craziness. It was absolute wackiness. There’s a trial, and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln comes in, and a robot from Mars comes in, and you’ve got Academy Award-winning screenwriter Edward Anhalt breakdancing with his shirt off. It was a weird freaking movie. And it’s not all that easy to see.
I think even Tobo would say that the film wasn’t quite as successful in capturing the idiocy he was trying to promote as the play was. But I got called in at the last second, and he said, “Well, here, you can be the crying man.” Somebody’s telling a sad story from the bench—where a three-headed judge is presiding!—and there’s a cut to me crying, and I’ve got tears gushing out of my eyes like faucets. I won’t necessarily say that I’m proud of my performance in that, but the fake tears worked really well. Anyway, it ain’t exactly The Best Years Of Our Lives. [Laughs.] But it was fun to do. It’s basically a bunch of friends who got together to make a movie. The fact that a lot of those friends are talented and reliable, well-known people was almost coincidental.
Gunsmoke: To the Last Man (1992)—“Deputy Willie Rudd”
Gunsmoke: The Long Ride (1993)—“Traveling Blacksmith”
JB: I made two Gunsmoke movies, and they told me at the time that I was the first actor in Gunsmoke history to ever play different roles in two consecutive Gunsmokes. Of course, this was the TV movies, it wasn’t the series. The series had been off the air for a number of years.
First off, you’re doing a Western. There’s hardly anything more fun. And I had a couple of fun scenes. Deputy Rudd wasn’t clueless, but the job was a little bit bigger than he was. So when Marshall Matt Dillon rides in trailing three bodies on his pack horses, I found myself—as the character—intimidated and not exactly certain what to do.
It was an interesting situation. I found myself really excited to be there—I think we shot that one in Arizona, east of Tucson—and I was really excited to be doing a western and one as iconic as Gunsmoke, and I was… [Sighs.] I was really kind of disappointed when I met James Arness, because there wasn’t anything outgoing about him. He wasn’t especially friendly. He wasn’t mean or anything, but he was kind of terse, and he didn’t speak much directly to me even when we were rehearsing scenes. He would say to the director, “I’ll ride up, and then this guy will do this or that.” And I was “this guy.” I had one little vaguely cordial conversation with him about a mutual friend, but other than that, he wasn’t as warm and friendly as I had expected and sort of hoped. He managed a “hello” in the morning, but that was about it.
Also, I was taken aback a little bit because he would do one take or so, and then he would say, “That’s it, I’m done,” and he’d walk off, whether they’d gotten it or not. So I played an awful lot of my scenes with him to his stand-in. I remember I had one scene where he’s on horseback and I’m walking alongside him talking, and the double is on the horse, and the words are coming from the script supervisor, who’s behind the camera. So I’m walking along, having a conversation with someone I’m neither looking at nor hearing! Which was pretty weird.
I found out later that part of the reason was that Arness was badly wounded in the attack on Anzio in World War II, and his legs were shot up pretty bad, so he had a hard time standing. So they would shoot his stuff as quickly as possible so he could go get off his feet. And that was a lot of the reason why, with the coverage, I’d be acting with his stand-in. Once I understood that, I found it imminently forgivable. [Laughs.]
And what was particularly odd was that there were lines that were really kind of cool, and on a couple of occasions he said, ‘I’m not going to say that.” And the director said, “Well, we need to get this line out,” and he said, “Well, let this guy say it,” meaning me. I ended up with a couple of really great laughs in the movie because he didn’t want to say these lines that turned out to be pretty funny. But I left the film thinking, “Well, this guy’s kind of a sourpuss and not very warm and friendly,” and it was kind of a disappointing experience. But then I went to a screening of the film a month or so later, and those lines got big laughs, and he came up to me afterwards and said, “You really did well with those lines!” And I thought, “Well, that’s nice.”
A few months later, I got a call to come to New Mexico to shoot another one, doing a different part, this time a blacksmith. You would’ve thought I was Jim Arness’s long lost son. He was so cordial, so friendly. He was, like, “Oh, you did such good work on the last one, I’m really glad you’re back on this one.” I thought, “Okay, is this the good twin?” [Laughs.]
The only thing I can think of is that maybe there was something going on with him personally during that first one where his mind wasn’t on it and he wasn’t up to being happy-go-lucky with everybody. But he was just the sweetest when I worked with him the second time. Again, it was a fairly small role, just a couple of scenes, but he treated me really nice, and I had a lot of fun. Even on the first one, I had a lot of fun. Nothing beats playing cowboy.
Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)—“Proclamation Officer”
NYPD Blue (1997)—“Truck Driver / Jesus Christ”
Deadwood (2004-2006)—“Whitney Ellsworth”
JB: Not to put too fine a point on it, Deadwood was the single greatest experience of my acting career. I would have gladly played Whitney Ellsworth for the rest of my life.
They sent me basically a monologue for my audition, and I read this thing, and I thought, “This one is mine. I may not get it, but it’s mine.” You never can tell whether you’re going to get something, but this was… [Hesitates.] I had never read a piece of material that I thought I understood and knew how to play as fully as this monologue. It’s the first monologue Ellsworth has in the first episode of Deadwood. I just read it and I thought, “It’ll be a crime if somebody else gets this, because I can’t imagine there’s anybody else who knows how to play this role the way my instincts tell me.” And it may sound egotistical, but the fact is, most of the time you get a script and you look at it and you have to figure out how to play the part. You have to figure out who the character is, you have to do a little digging into yourself, and your instincts may play part of it, but it often takes some study to really know the best way to approach a part. I read this audition scene for Ellsworth, and I just knew exactly how I was going to play it.
I went in to audition, and I had worked for David Milch once before. If you can believe it, I had played Jesus Christ on an episode of NYPD Blue. [Laughs.] Needless to say, the episode involved some dream sequences! But I had done that one part a few years earlier, and I didn’t really expect David Milch to remember me. It wasn’t that big a deal. And Walter Hill was directing, and I had done a very small part for him in Geronimo nine or 10 years earlier, but I didn’t really expect him to remember me, either. People work with an awful lot of people. I often have to be reminded that I worked with somebody a decade earlier. So I wouldn’t have taken offense if they hadn’t remembered me, but I didn’t know if they did or not. But I came in, I did the monologue, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see David leaning forward and almost hopping in his seat. [Laughs.] In a physical presentation that made me think he was happy. I wasn’t sure, but that’s what I thought. And then when I got through with the piece, there was this silence. Nobody said anything until Walter Hill said, “Well, I’m glad to see you remembered everything I taught you.”
So I went home not knowing that I had it, but I got a call a day or so later saying that I probably would get it, and would I come in and do them a favor by reading the off-screen part for some guys who were screen testing for the role of Al Swearengen, neither of whom was Ian McShane, who ended up with the part. Afterwards, David and Walter told me to keep my beard, don’t shave it. I thought, “Well, okay, but this is a guest shot. I’ve got to work between now and then!” And I was playing all these cops back then. So I said, “Well, I’ll try my best not to have to shave it.” And they looked at me kind of funny. A couple of days later, they called and gave me the offer for the job, and that was the first time I found out it was for a series regular and not just a guest role in the pilot. So I went flying over to the studio to tell David and Walter not to worry, that I wasn’t shaving my beard. I had no idea they were offering me a long-term job, and of course I was going to turn down anything that interfere with it. I wanted to get that straight. I didn’t want them to think I was some sort of fly-by-night guy who was only half-committed to the show!
I could talk for two or three hours minimum about this show. It was such an extraordinary experience. I was working with such a mass of strong, committed talent, people who were really playing at the top of their games, and who were committed to the way of working on that show, which was a difficult way of working. Working for David Milch isn’t like working for anybody else, because things are written and re-written and re-written again at the last minute. I never saw a complete script for the series except for the pilot. We would just get a couple of pages and they’d say, “You’re doing this tomorrow.” And that freaks a lot of actors out, because a lot of actors like to have some time to prepare, and most of the time there was very little time—sometimes only minutes—to prepare a monologue that you’ve never looked at before. But it gave me a new way of working. It gave me a fearlessness because I knew we’d shoot until we got it. And I knew David wasn’t gonna let me die. Nothing he was asking of us was he unprepared to see through to a successful end.
Now, the flip side of that was that we shot very long schedules. Normally a 22-episode season of a show will shoot from July to April. We were shooting from July to April on a 12-episode series! I remember seeing a call sheet one day that said, “Day 19 out of 10.” [Laughs.] We just shot until we got everything, which made for an expensive show, which ultimately was the cause of its demise. But while we were doing it, it was simply the most extraordinary acting experience I’ve ever had. It was a company of players who were extraordinary. It was a character who ended up having one of the greatest arcs in television history, as far as I’m concerned, because I don’t think anybody who watched the first season of Deadwood had any notion that my character was going to end up where he ended up. It was such a major shift, but such a completely organic one. It’s my favorite character I’ve ever played. Everything about the show was magic.
I went through a really difficult time while I was doing it. My wife, Cecily, was diagnosed with lung cancer while we were shooting season one, and she died right after we wrapped season one. It was an awful time. And yet I had this place to go to work where everything about it made me feel good. And I had a very supportive cast and crew, starting at the top with David, who was incredibly generous both with my needs and with the offer of funds should I ever need them. It was a tough time, and sometimes I think I might not have made it through that time if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was shooting Deadwood while I was going through it.
It was extraordinary. And I miss that company of crew and actors probably more than any bunch I’ve ever worked with—and I almost always like the people I work with. It’s the thing I’m proudest of, and even nowadays critics write articles about what the greatest show in television history is, and often they’re talking about The Wire and The Sopranos and Mad Men and Deadwood. And I don’t care if we’re the greatest show in television history. I’m part of the argument. And that’s enough for me. To be part of something that people talk about in those terms is… It’s not what I planned for my tombstone, but I wouldn’t mind my tombstone reading, “Jim Beaver: He was in Deadwood.”
And, of course, it opened the doors to the rest of my career. It was the first thing in all my years as an actor that people recognized me from, and that I got jobs because I had been on it. It was the end of always auditioning for parts. I still audition for parts, but it was the end of always 100 percent of the time auditioning. I started getting offers just because people knew me from Deadwood. I can’t think of a bad thing to say about having been involved with that show, except that it ended too soon. But now it looks like they’re making a movie!
AVC: So the rumblings are continuing, then? They’ve been going on for a while, but it never seems to be anything concrete.
JB: Well, I know that they have been calling actors to check their availability, and that is the first sign I’ve seen that it’s really happening, because while it can still fall apart, once they start checking availabilities, they’re not going to want to do that again six months later. They’re trying to figure out a way to get everybody together again. So my fingers are crossed. Deadwood would’ve been my favorite show in history even if I hadn’t been on it, so getting to be on it… It was amazing. It was truly amazing. And the rest of my life, no matter what happens, I’ve got that.
AVC: Just as a sidebar, since you mentioned Cecily, I can see my copy of Life’s That Way from my desk. I picked up a copy a few years ago. It’s beautiful.
JB: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.
AVC: I’m sure it must’ve been painful to write while also being incredibly cathartic.
JB: Well, yes, it was. As readers of the book will know, it didn’t start out to be a book. It was just emails to family and friends to let them know what was going on in our lives during that difficult year. It only later became a book. But there’s a fair number of Deadwood references in that book because that was the life I was living at the time. It was sort of surreal to have these horrors going on at home and then to throw my bag in the car and drive out to New Hall, to the Melody Ranch studios, and play cowboy all day. It was a remarkable thing to have happen, and it was kind of an intriguing thing to write about. It was a fascinating time, and it had its mixed blessings, but… You know, life’s been good to me, and for all the difficulty of that time, it was also one of the best times of my life. It’s kind of contradictory. But I highly recommend that if you’re going through something horrible, do it while you’re also going through one of the best things you’ve ever gone through. [Laughs.] It somehow made life a little more livable.
AVC: At least it didn’t take long for you to work with Milch again: by the next year, you were part of the cast of John From Cincinnati.
JB: Yeah, well, as you might imagine, it was a really, really hard day for me when David pulled me outside on the Deadwood set and told me what was getting ready to happen with my character. I don’t think any of us knew at that point that the entire show was going down soon. But he said to me, kind of as a way of easing my feelings, that he had just sold a new show to HBO and that I was going to be part of it. Now, you have to understand that David is a man who really likes people to feel good, and he’s sort of famous for telling almost everybody he meets that they’re going to be in his next show. [Laughs.] And I’m absolutely convinced that he means it every time he says it, but it’s simply impossible for him to maintain the promises. So it wasn’t much comfort for me at that point to hear David say that I was going to be on his next show after leaving my favorite job ever.
But lo and behold, it happened: that summer, he started production on John From Cincinnati, and he put me in it, playing this character Vietnam Joe, which was a fun character. So much of what is wonderful about working for David Milch was part of John From Cincinnati, but it was a very different experience. On Deadwood, we had 25 regular characters, and every single one of those actors was absolutely on board with how David works. It’s difficult, but having faith in him and jumping in and saying, “I’ll play,” I think all of us on Deadwood found it very rewarding, ultimately, even though sometimes it was a tough task. On John From Cincinnati, the cast was much more divided on that topic. [Laughs.]
There were a good number of us from Deadwood who were involved with John from Cincinnati—Dayton Callie, Paula Malcomson, and Garret Dillahunt all came over—and all of us were already onboard with how David works, and I think we had pretty much the same great time, the difference being that the show was a little more obscure. It was more of a fantasy, and I confess, there were lots of times I didn’t know what was going on! [Laughs.] But it felt like something big was going on. But the problem on the show was that there were also other people who perhaps had not even worked for David—not all of them, but a few, fairly high on the food chain, cast-wise—who were not happy working that way, who were just not comfortable with the concept of not having a week or two to look at the script. So it made for some conflicts on the show.
And then, of course, my opinion—just a gut opinion—is that HBO canceled Deadwood because it was so expensive, and John From Cincinnati being about a bunch of surfers on a beach, they thought, “How expensive can that be?” And it ended up being just as expensive, largely because we were shooting down in Imperial Beach, near San Diego, and because of the way David works, coming up with stuff spur of the moment, most of us in the cast just lived in hotels down there, in case he might need us. And that, I suppose, piles up the money pretty fast. And as a result of that, and also because the show was a fantasy and was something you really had to pay attention to, HBO apparently began losing faith pretty early and started deleting episodes from the season order. So as we were shooting the arc of the first season, they started cutting chunks out of it, episode-wise. I think we started out with a 12-episode season order, and then they reduced it to 11, and then to 10. And every time that happened, David had to compact the story arc he was telling for the season, which I think made it even more difficult to follow, because more and more hour-long chunks were being removed from the season arc. I’ve never discussed this with anybody connected with the show with the network—this is all my guesswork—but my sense is that HBO wasn’t happy that they were spending just as much money but now it was on a show that didn’t have built-in critical acclaim and wasn’t all that easy to understand.
You know, a lot of people who aren’t in the know have accused David of losing interest in Deadwood, coming up with this show, and jumping off to something new and shiny, which wasn’t really the case at all. I read the first script for John From Cincinnati, and it was dated a year or two before Deadwood. He had been working on it for quite some time. It went through a lot of changes from that first script, but he didn’t abandon Deadwood for John From Cincinnati. The fact is, the television industry is rife with show creators who create one, two, three, four, five shows and have them all running at the same time. Look at David E. Kelley or Dick Wolf. It’s not unusual to have more than one show going from your company. And the idea that David would abandon Deadwood in order to jump to John From Cincinnati just isn’t accurate. David really fought tooth and nail to keep Deadwood alive. Anyway, that’s pretty old news at this point, and I haven’t even talked about doing the show. [Laughs.]
It was wild. You know, you’ve got this odd creature, John, who shows up from someplace that’s probably not Cincinnati, and people start levitating, and there’s a lot of psychic weirdness going on. It was a strange show. But I had a really good time doing it, even when I didn’t know what I was talking about. I had some terrific scenes in it. I finally got to work with Ed O’Neill, who—as I think I mentioned—had been the original choice by David for Al Swearengen in Deadwood.
AVC: You didn’t mention it, but I’ve talked to Ed about it.
JB: Yeah, Ed was just terrific to work with. And a lot of the crew and a lot of the cast were my friends from Deadwood, so it was like Old Home Week. Except we weren’t knee-deep in horseshit. [Laughs.]
I remember when we were shooting episode 10, there was a big crowd scene on the beach, and almost everybody in the cast was in the scene, as well as a couple of hundred extras. And David’s gathered us all around, and he started talking about his vision for the show. Somehow or other, just by happenstance, I ended up standing directly in front of him, and almost everything he said was directed straight into my eyes. And he went on at some length about his philosophy for the show and what he hoped to convey with it, and it was mesmerizing. I didn’t really understand it. [Laughs.] But I remember thinking, “I don’t know what he’s talking about, but if it all comes true the way he’s describing it, this could end up being the greatest show in television history!” And that may just be a tribute to David’s power of expression, because it was kind of like having Descartes speaking to a graduate course in philosophy: It was way over my head most of the time, but it was fascinating. Then again, I also remember turning my head and seeing Scott Stevens, the line producer, checking his watch and shaking his head like, “Oh, man, this is $1,400 a minute…”
But I had a great time on the show, and I wish it had gotten a real chance, because I do think it could’ve ended up being something pretty remarkable. Whether it would’ve been wildly commercial, I don’t know. But if it had been done the way David originally envisioned it, I think it would’ve been pretty amazing.
JB: I think it was 1993 when I was cast in the pilot for Thunder Alley. I had auditioned for maybe one or two sitcom guest shots in my life. I almost never went out for them. I was almost totally typecast in dramas, if anyone was paying enough attention to typecast me. I had done a lot of comedy in the theater, I had even spent some time doing stand-up, but I never seem to be able to get arrested in television comedy. I remember going to one sitcom audition and having the casting director call my agent afterwards and say, “I thought you said this guy was funny!” Which was pretty ignominious. So it was a real shock to me that the first sitcom I ever appeared on, I was one of the stars. I didn’t understand why they cast me, because they’d never seen me in anything but dramas, if they had seen me at all.
I was in Texas shooting a movie called Bad Girls, and I got this call to fly back to L.A. to audition for Thunder Alley. Well, I told you my comedy track record. I thought, “I’m not flying back to L.A. to audition for a sitcom. It’s pointless! Nobody’s going to hire me for one of those.” Not to mention the fact that they weren’t going to pay for me to fly back. [Laughs.] So I said, “No.” And nothing succeeds in this business like saying “no,” so they kept asking. And I kept saying, “No,” because the one thing they wouldn’t cross the line on was paying for my trip back. I had plenty of time. I was on hold for a long time in Texas between scenes, so I had time to fly back. But I wasn’t going to do it on my money.
But then the picture wrapped a little sooner than planned, and I flew back home, and my agent called and said, “You know, they still want you to come in.” And I’m, like, “Why? They don’t even know who I am! Is it really true that all you have to do is say, ‘No,’ and everybody wants you?” Well, that’s been proved not to always be the case, but it kind of was in this case. So I went in, completely convinced that this was a complete waste of everybody’s time, and I read for it. And then they took me and another actor to the network so the ABC execs could see us, and on the way home I got the call that I’d gotten the part. I was in shock!
But I knew it was a part I could play. I’d played it a lot in the theater. You look at where my career’s been for the last 10 or 15 years, and I’m not the first guy probably most people would think of for a Gomer Pyle part, which is basically who Leland DuParte was. I usually describe him as the village idiot on that show. But I got on it, and I had a blast on that show. It was three-camera in front of a live audience. Working with Ed Asner was one of the great joys of my life. He’s a wonderful, deeply human, but deeply crusty fellow. [Laughs.] I adore him. And I adored him from the very first day or so. I remember we broke for lunch the first day of the pilot, and he complained afterwards about how terrible the sushi was in the commissary at Disney. So the next day we’re at lunch, and I sat down with him at the table with my tray of sushi. And he looked over at the sushi, and then he looked up at me, and he said, “You stupid son of a bitch.” And I knew we were going to be really good friends. And we were. We still are. I love him dearly.
We had a little 5-year-old boy on the show who had done very little, but we quickly knew that this 5-year-old boy was probably going to own the studio one day. His name was Haley Joel Osment. And he was the most gifted young performer I have ever encountered in my life. We used to all just stand around in awe and just stare at him, wondering how this little boy could be so good and have such great instincts. A few years later, when he was nominated for an Oscar for The Sixth Sense, I don’t think anybody who had ever worked with him was surprised.
It was such a great show. It was very much a family. The mom character ended up being played by three different actresses over time. Felicity Huffman did the pilot, but she was replaced because… [Starts to laugh.] Apparently ABC didn’t think she was funny. Which is really funny. She turned out to be one of ABC’s big stars, so obviously they rethought that thing, since she’s proven her comedy chops over and over. I loved working with her on the pilot, but that didn’t happen. And then Diane Venora took over, and Diane’s a brilliant actress, but I don’t think sitcoms were her strong suit. It’s a very weird form of acting. So then after a few episodes they replaced her with Robin Riker, who I always thought of as the reincarnation of Lucille Ball. I think Robin’s just one of the most amazing comic actresses out there, and she did really well.
We lasted for a couple of years, we had a great deal of fun, and this was back when there were only three networks, really, and we were the No. 13 show in the country, with ratings that any network would kill for now. But ABC decided to get rid of all of their family programming and go real edgy, so they canceled us, even though we were almost in the top 10. And then, you know, they did a season or so of edgy, and then they brought back the family stuff. It was sad getting canceled, but it was a great experience while it lasted.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1986-1987)—Writer
Sweet Revenge (1987)—Writer (additional dialogue), “Smuggler” (uncredited)
Tour Of Duty (1988)—Writer
Vietnam War Story (1988)—Writer
AVC: Just to jump back briefly to that period where you were writing more than acting, there’s one project back then where you did both: a film called Sweet Revenge.
JB: Oh, boy, you are… [Starts to laugh.] Sweet Revenge. Oh, my God… I like to refer to it as Martin Landau’s last bad film. I don’t know if it actually was, but it was definitely his last really bad film.
My sister-in-law [Stacey Adams] got a job somehow, weirdly, casting this picture that Roger Corman’s company was doing. I’m not exactly sure of the corporate structure, but a couple of the producers named Brad Krevoy and Steve Stabler were directly producing this thing, and it was going to be your standard exploitation adventure film shot for $4 in the Philippines. I don’t know how Stacey got chosen. She’d never cast anything in her life. I don’t even know how old she was. She might’ve been 19 or something. But in kind of a panic, she called my wife, Cecily, who at the time was interning in a casting office and said, “I have to cast this thing, and I don’t know how to do it. Will you join me?” So the two of them cast their first movie together, and then my sister-in-law ended up playing a role in it, my wife, Cecily, wound up being the director’s assistant—as opposed to the assistant director, which is a very specific job—and they all went off to the Philippines to shoot this thing, which was kind of a comedy of errors in the making of it. There were all these stories about the producers refilling the Evian bottles with tap water and everybody getting sick.
But in the midst of this, I started getting messages from Cecily that they were having real problems with the script, and was I interested in taking a crack at a rewrite? And I thought, “Yeah, I can do something with this.” So they gave me a contract for whatever was left in their $4 budget, and I took a crack at it. There wasn’t anything really worth saving in it. It was all about hot young girls getting abducted to the Philippines to serve as slaves in this empire that Martin Landau had maintained. I don’t know. It didn’t make any sense at all. But it was a chance for these girls—Michele Little, Gina Gershon, Nancy Allen, and my sister-in-law Stacey—to run around and play action hero. Martin Landau was the bad guy, and Ted Shackelford of Knots Landing was the good guy, kind of a low-budget Indiana Jones. He was really good. I really thought that if this had been a picture that anybody was ever going to see, it could’ve really established him as a leading-man hero in big movies.
But this kind of picture is made by the thousand, and most of them are worth more as banjo picks than as entertainment. It was cheap, and they didn’t have a budget for special effects. It was kind of a disaster. But I got a couple of good lines in that I thought were fun, and when they had to do some retakes back in the States, we spent one night in Bronson Canyon and I got to do a little cameo in it. But it was a weird experience, not all of it good. But 90 percent of it I wasn’t anywhere near. I just wrote pages and sent ’em to them in Manila. My wife had wonderful stories about the making of the picture, but they’re kind of outside the purview of what you’re doing here, mainly because I wasn’t there!
But right after that I started getting work writing in television, and I wrote a bunch of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the revival of that show in the mid-1980s, and because I was a Vietnam veteran, I got a lot of offers to write for Vietnam-oriented projects. I did Tour Of Duty, and an HBO series called Vietnam War Story. It’s like I said earlier: oing to Vietnam was a pretty good career move for me! But once the acting took off, I never really looked back at writing for film and television. I’ve written some stuff that I liked, but I’ve never liked the idea of writing for somebody else’s show or writing for somebody else’s characters. Because I’ve been lucky enough to act, I’ve never really made much effort to go back to writing, other than if I have an idea of my own. I’ve got a screenplay that I like that, if this was 1960, somebody would probably make. But it doesn’t have any superheroes in it, so nobody’s going to make it now. But I don’t really miss that, because compared to acting, writing is work! [Laughs.] The old expression about how “you just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead” is not too far off, at least in my experience. I much prefer acting.
AVC: You did get a credit on Hollywoodland as biographical consultant about George Reeves, though, and you’d said in the past that you were working on a Reeves biography. Are you still working on that?
JB: Yeah, I’ve been working on that since… Well, not quite since he was alive. [Laughs.] It feels like it, though. It feels like I’ve been working on it since the Spanish-American War! But, yeah, I was their biographical consultant on Hollywoodland, and I started the book many years ago, back when I didn’t have a career doing anything. And then in the middle of my work on it, I suddenly got to do everything I ever wanted, and all I had to give up was my time. So the book is still in the works. I try to work on it every day, and when I have time off between jobs, I get a lot done, and when I don’t have time off, I get a little tiny bit done in there. I’m hoping to finish it just in time for the last person on earth who knows who he was to die. But it’s a fascinating story even aside from the mystery of his death, and I think it’s going to be a compelling story to tell. I’ve just got to find enough space between jobs to finish it up!
JB: [Bursts out laughing.] Oh, man, that’s one of my favorite stories! Okay, so the show was called Nasty Boys, and it was, y’know, Show #7,204 in the long history of cop shows about elite special units who don’t abide by the rules. Dennis Franz was the star, I think Benjamin Bratt was in it, and… Well, you know, it was a cop show!
I got a call for an audition for it, and I said, “What’s the character?” And they said, “It’s a Colombian drug dealer named Cortazon.” And I said, “What?! I’m a pseudo-cowboy from Texas. What in the world are we wasting all of our time with this for?” And they said, “You should really go in.” And I said, “But I’m not going to get the part of a Colombian drug dealer!” They said, “Go in anyway. They want you to. I don’t know why.” I thought, “Well, I’m not going to go in there doing my bad Colombian accent and try to pull off being South American.” So I put on my best suit and a bolo tie, and I went in and did it with a Texas accent. And to my shock, they hired me, and they changed the character’s name to Wetstone, and I ended up doing the show. Now, that episode of that show was pretty wild. The cast in it…
AVC: The cast was specifically why I wanted to ask about it.
JB: Yeah, we had Billy Barty, we had Tracey Walter, and we had Michael J. Pollard. We had helicopter gun battles. We were out in the desert, with all these people shooting machine guns at each other and blowing up trucks. It was a pretty big deal for an hour of television! We had a sandstorm that shut down production for the day, and we were scared that none of us would be able to get home, because you couldn’t see outside the bus we were in.
But my favorite thing was that, since I was now this Texas drug dealer now named Wetstone, I had a band of henchmen with me. Tom Duffy was my main guy. But we’re on the bus going out to location and there’s a fellow sitting there in the seat next to me, and I asked him what he was playing. And he says in this thick provincial British accent that he’s playing a henchman. I said, “Oh, you’re one of my guys. Hi, I’m Jim Beaver.” And he said, “I’m Ginger Baker.” And I thought, “Wait a minute.” [Laughs.] Because I’m a child of the ’60s, and I know who Ginger Baker is and—son of a gun—this guy looks like him!
And it turns out that he is indeed the world-famous drummer Ginger Baker. I think he was a friend of one of the producers, and they talked him into doing this part. He didn’t even have lines! He was just going to be one of the gang. He’d just be in the background. So we had a long scene where I’m talking to my gang about how we’re gonna do whatever nasty stuff it is we’re gonna do, and all of the gang is just sitting around in a circle listening to me. And we got a call from the production office, and they said, “Could you give Ginger maybe a couple of pencils? And maybe he could do a little paradiddle on the tabletop of something?” And they passed this on to Ginger, and he said, “You can’t afford for me to drum.” [Laughs.] So that idea went right out the window! He was a cool guy, though, and I enjoyed talking to him.
But it was just one more weird thing in a very exotic TV episode. I had a lot of fun on it. It was a lot of stupid stuff. I stabbed a guy with a pocketknife that didn’t look long enough to kill a Barbie doll. But, hey, we got to shoot machine guns in the desert and pretend to shoot down a helicopter. It was cool. And I’m pretty sure that nobody’s ever been in a weirder cast than that one on a network television show.
AVC: Lately, you’ve been on Netflix’s The Ranch, and you filmed some new episodes recently. Are you still in the midst of filming?
JB: I think I’ve done five episodes for this current season, and there’s still a couple more to go. I don’t know if I’ll be in them or not, but at the moment it’s ongoing and I’m still a part of it. So who knows? It’s a nice show, and I get to go to work with Sam Elliott every day. That’s pretty amazing. He just told me the other day that he was an extra in the movie The Way West in 1967, which pre-dates his ostensible film debut by a couple of years. It wasn’t even on his IMDB credits until I put it in a few days ago. [Laughs.] That’s my alternate life: filling IMDB up with stuff as accurately as I can!
JB: Who? [Laughs.] Yeah, Bobby Singer… Well, that guy’s made me a nickel or two.
AVC: Was Bobby always intended to be a recurring character? Or did he start out as a one-off and evolve into something more?
JB: My opinion is that it was a one-off. There was an actress named Loretta Devine who’d played a character in the first season named Missouri, and she was kind of a wise and experienced older guide for the characters of Sam and Dean, very much in the same pigeonhole as Bobby Singer ended up being. And she was working on something else and wasn’t available for this episode, so—as it was told to me—they had to come up with another character who had the same sort of background, wisdom, and experience, and they decided to make him quite different from the character of Missouri. So they came up with this sort of gruff rural type named Bobby. I was wrapping up the season on Deadwood when I got the call to do the episode, so I still had my beard, which I’d grown specifically for Deadwood, and I couldn’t shave it, because they weren’t quite done with me. So Bobby Singer ended up having a beard. And I haven’t shaved since 2002. [Laughs.]
He didn’t actually have a last name in the script, as I recall, and I think he was just planned for one episode because she wasn’t available for that one episode. My understanding is that, as a joke, the set decoration people used the last name of the executive producer, Robert Singer, on a sign in Bobby’s wrecking yard, so just in passing you saw a glimpse of the sign. But the character was just Bobby in the script. Now, this is just my version of the story, but for something so mundane, it’s taken on legendary proportions, and there are a lot of stories about how all of this happened. I had worked for Robert Singer 10 or 15 years earlier. I did a series for him called Reasonable Doubts, with Mark Harmon and Marlee Matlin, and I hadn’t worked with Bob again since then. His version of the story is that they came up with this character and he said, “Oh, I know the guy for that part,” and he had them offer me the role. My version is that I was called in to audition for it, but when the casting people here in L.A. were preparing to send the audition tape up to Vancouver for Bob to look at, they tell me he asked, “Who’s on the tape?” And they mentioned my name, and he said, “Oh, just give it to Jim.” That’s how I heard it from the casting people. But Bob has gone public with saying that he thought of me for the role from the very first. So I don’t know what’s true.
But at any rate, I got the part, and I thought it was just a one-off. On one hand, the crew was very cordial when we were shooting it. They all kept saying, ‘Maybe you’ll be back, we haven’t killed you yet,” which apparently is the deciding factor. But nobody seemed to really suggest that he’d ever be back, so I was a little surprised when they called me during the next season. But when they brought the character back, they realized that they had established—just kind of as an in joke—that his last name was Singer, so he was kind of stuck with being Bobby Singer. Which, by the way, was much to Bob’s chagrin. His writer friends are always coming up to him saying, “Are you kidding? You named a character after yourself?” When, in fact, supposedly he was unhappy about that fact. But, hey, I’ve made him more lovable and famous than he could’ve ever dreamed. [Laughs.] Which is only partly true, but…
AVC: You know, Loretta Devine is actually returning to the show this season for a guest spot.
JB: Oh, is she?
AVC: She is. Will there be an appearance by Bobby this season, too?
JB: Yeah, Bobby will be back in the middle of the season. It’s not a secret this time. Sometimes when I come back for an appearance… Your readers may not know that I’ve been dead about four times on the show. [Laughs.] But the last time pretty much took. Since then I’ve been back in various ghostly, dream, or flashback forms, but sometimes when I come back it’s a surprise. They don’t want anybody to know. They want a little shock value. But this time it’s out there: I’ll be back in the middle of the season, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a great place to work.
You know, it’s 13 seasons now—I’m not sure anybody dreamed we would be around this long—and I’ve been in every season in some capacity or other. So the character has really developed. In my first episode, Sam and Dean don’t seem terribly familiar with me. They know that I was a friend of their father’s, but that’s about it. But that quickly got subsumed by the more prominent mythology that I’ve always been sort of a surrogate father to them, and maybe a better father than their own, at least in some eyes. I’m sure going back after 13 years and looking at my first episode, it’d seem a little strange that we all seem vaguely unfamiliar with each other. [Laughs.] But, man, it’s been a great ride. It’s a wonderful character, considering that it’s the kind of show that I’m not normally drawn to. I’m not a big genre supernatural/fantasy/sci-fi fan. Not that I hate those genres, but I’m not particularly drawn to them, and I certainly never would’ve watched Supernatural deliberately if I hadn’t ended up on it. But I was shocked to find out how good it was.
It wasn’t just monsters and young hunky guys with their shirts off, strutting around. Considering that I came to it directly from Deadwood, I would have to say that, in terms of powerful dramatic scenes and really engaging material for an actor to do, I’ve had more of that stuff on Supernatural than on any show I’ve ever worked on. Any specific moment I might prefer to be remembered most for one show or another, but in terms of consistent great stuff to play, Supernatural has been a goldmine for me. I really feel like an actor on this show. I don’t feel like a prop. I don’t feel like somebody who just has to spout jargon to get us through the hour. I’ve been able to play comedy, I’ve been able to play tragedy, some of the most deeply emotional moments I’ve ever played in my career, I’ve played on the set of Supernatural. The show turned out to be funny, witty, clever, and very, very human, and when I began engaging directly with the fans at conventions and such things, I was shocked when they expressed almost unanimously that they would watch the show even if there weren’t monsters, so engaged are they with the relationships. That’s pretty telling.
I have a line in one of the episodes where I say, “Family don’t end with blood,” which has turned out to be something of a catchphrase for the series and kind of a mantra for its fans, who have themselves turned into a giant extended family for all of us. It’s been an astonishing experience, in that I never saw it coming. It’s been really good. And I never expected to have an experience of this quality from a show about two hunky guys chasing demons. [Laughs.]
AVC: Given the sheer volume of work you’ve done over the years, you may not have an instant answer to this, but is there a favorite project you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
JB: Well, I’ve already talked about it, but certainly my first big break, In Country, which I thought was a marvelous story. Not heavily compelling plot-wise, but a real beautiful slice of life, and a slice of life that hadn’t been explored deeply before then. I was incredibly proud to be a part of it. It has some great work in it all around, and I was really sorry that it didn’t reach the audience I think it should have.
I had a wonderful experience doing The Life Of David Gale, which is a kind of odd experience in my career, in that the critics absolutely tore it to pieces almost unanimously, and yet I’ve never met or spoken to a non-critic who didn’t love it. I’m sure there are some out there, but any time I tell people I was in The Life Of David Gale, they tell me, “Oh, I love that movie!” And yet the critics ate it up like it was free chitlins. So what do I know? I thought it was a good movie.
Yeah, you know, there’s always a few that you’re really proud of or feel very good about. I had a great part on a series called Day Break, and I thought that was a wonderful show, really suspenseful and interesting and innovative. Well, I mean, as innovative as a series drama rip-off of Groundhog Day can be, but still. The network canceled it before it finished its run, so the only way you could see it was on DVD. I was really proud of that, especially because I got to play a heavy in it. That’s always fun. But it was a good show that nobody picked up on.
JB: Playing Lawson the gun dealer on those two shows was an unusual experience for me. I was in the middle of shooting an episode of Supernatural when I got this call to come do this one scene in an episode of Breaking Bad, and my recollection is that I couldn’t do it because I was shooting Supernatural. I think they ended up shooting it on the weekend so I could fly down on a Saturday, shoot it on a Sunday, and then fly back that night, as I recall. I did this one scene selling a gun to Walter White, and they were really nice people, great to work with, and very congenial.
It’s the most specific show in terms of saying the dialogue precisely as written. I’m a firm believer in saying the writer’s words the way they’re written, but sometimes—especially if it’s material that you’ve learned fairly quickly—there’s a tendency to paraphrase, to change up a pronoun here and there, or something. And most of the time nobody says much about it. I’m not talking about ad-libbing. I’m just talking about not being quite as precise as the script indicates. But I’ve been on a show where they were more precise, more specific, more insistent that you get it absolutely verbatim, down to every comma. For some reason that stood out, mainly because it was unusual. But I had a good time doing it.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but while we were shooting the Supernatural episode that kind of surrounded it, everybody on the show was sick. It was a horrible time on the show. People were dropping out, going to the hospital, flu was going around, and everybody was sick, including me. And I remember I had this terribly raspy voice that felt like razor blades to talk through. But I flew down to Albuquerque to shoot this one scene in Breaking Bad, and my voice was all just gruff and gravely far beyond normal, but I thought, “Well, no big deal, it’s just one scene in one episode.” And then the next season they called me to come back and play the same guy again. And I was, like, “Oh, my gosh, how did I talk?” [Laughs.] I thought, “I’ve got to go back and look at that episode to see what my voice sounded like, because I don’t sound like that anymore!” And I think eventually I just stopped worrying about it, but it was a little weird trying to remember how I sounded the first time around.
The second episode I did of Breaking Bad, I sold Walter a machine gun, and it was the first episode of season five, I think, and I remember it was really weird because nobody knew why I was selling him a machine gun. That show is so strong, but so—I think—unusual, in that they will write themselves into corners. They will create situations that they have no idea where it’s going to go or how they’re going to get out of it, and then suddenly, five, 10, 15 episodes later, they figure out a payoff. And I’m not sure why they do it that way. Certainly this machine gun that I sold him, it’s a big question mark: Why is Walter White buying a machine gun? And nobody on the show could tell me! They just said, “Well, it’ll pay off later, we’re sure.” [Laughs.] Well, of course it did. It ended up paying off gangbusters in the final episode.
And then when they did the prequel, Better Call Saul, I was pleased—though not necessarily shocked—to get a chance to go back and start selling guns to Mike Ehrmantraut. I was sad to see that this past season went by without anybody needing a gun.
But I’ve done four episodes between the two shows and never more than a single scene in each of them, and yet it’s probably the power and the reputation of the shows, but I’ve gotten more comments and, frankly, more praise for that first scene in Breaking Bad than almost anything I’ve ever done. I don’t think there’s anything all that special about what I’m doing, but that scene, for some reason, resonated with an awful lot of people. I remember that the day it first aired, somebody sent me a screenshot of a tweet from Mindy Kaling, who I think was on The Office at the time, and her tweet just said, “Who is this cold open gun-seller guy in Breaking Bad? Give him an Emmy!” [Laughs.] I was really flattered by that! But I was also shocked, because it wasn’t the kind of thing I looked at and thought, “Oh, yeah, that’s a great piece of work.” To me, it was just a job, another day at the office, and I didn’t feel like I did anything special. But I can’t argue with the fact that I’ve gotten an awful lot of comments about that one scene.
You know, it’s weird, because I think I’m good at what I do. I think I’m a good actor, especially given the right kind of part. But when I get exorbitant praise, most of the time I’m, like, “Really?” I don’t quite get it. There have been a couple of performances where I’ve gone, “Okay, if somebody thinks I knocked it out of the park, well, I’m in total agreement.” But most of the time I just feel like I’m doing the best I can. And if somebody is stunned by my work, then I’m stunned, because I’m… [Pauses.] I mean, you know, a lot of what we who work mostly in television do is only rarely deeply dramatic or deeply difficult. A lot of it is fairly similar. I don’t think I’ve been typecast, but I’ve certainly been cast within a range of parts for the most part. Village idiots not withstanding. But it’s only rarely that I’ve thought, “Okay, this is the kind of material that can really make me shine.” And I’m very much of the opinion that it’s the material that makes the actor shine, if he’s got the goods.
Almost nobody gets awards for playing badly written parts, no matter how good they are. And sometimes it’s harder to make something out of a badly written part. There may be some cases with some actors where it may be a greater acting challenge and a greater acting accomplishment to make something out of a poorly written character. But if you’re handed a really rich character with rich dialogue—the kind of stuff I was given routinely in Deadwood, for example—if you’ve got your basics down, it’s not terribly hard to come off as giving a wonderful performance. Whereas you might put the same work into doing some piece of crap and nobody would think you were doing a great job. [Laughs.] So it’s all in the writing. Some of us are better interpreters of the writing than others. But if you don’t have good writing, nobody’s going to give you much of a second look.