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: Kurt Fuller started his acting career in the theater, and after hearing him talk about his earliest on-camera roles, it’s hard to believe he didn’t stick with the theater for a while longer. But if he’d done that, he wouldn’t have received an invaluable amount of on-the-job training, and he wouldn’t have garnered performances in—among other films—Miracle Mile, No Holds Barred, and Ghostbusters 2. Since those early years, Fuller has honed his craft considerably, having appeared in over 50 films and on more than 100 different television projects. He can currently be found within the ensemble of the new ABC sitcom Manhattan Love Story.
Manhattan Love Story (2014-present)—“William”
Kurt Fuller: I’ve just started Manhattan Love Story, and series start with sort of a bible that they write. They have a description of what the show is, and then the show starts getting made, and it usually becomes something quite different than what the intentions were. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse, but I will say that so far—I think we’re on our fifth episode—this show keeps improving upon its concept and itself.
I think it started out as a romantic comedy with a title that could be either a very good or very bad Woody Allen movie about an incredibly charming, charismatic young couple suffering the trials, tribulations, and joys of trying to get together in this crazy world, and it’s morphed into a show about that plus family dynamics in a funny and very real way. I grew up in a large family, and this is a large family, and it shows the way siblings compete, cooperate, love and hate each other, and look for attention in positive and negative ways. It’s all very funny, but it’s also very smart and true.
William, my character, is not a perfect father. He thinks he is, but he’s probably sort of like Lorne Michaels at the head of Saturday Night Live. Kids compete for attention, and I’m often the disapproving dad, because it serves my purpose and makes them work and struggle. William believes that more neuroses is better than less neuroses.
The A.V. Club: I watched the pilot for the series right before the Television Critics Association press tour—
KF: Oh, so you saw my two lines, then.
AVC: I did.
KF: I’m doing my rate now so that I’m getting paid by the line. It’s much, much better. [Laughs.]
AVC: One of the predominant topics of discussion during the TCA panel for the series was the element of hearing what the characters are thinking. Presumably, from what you’re saying, it moves beyond that gimmick rather quickly.
KF: Yes, it does. And I will say that any question that people have about this show, positive or negative, is being asked by the creators and writers and everybody. Everybody is wondering how much, what kind, whether it’s a device that’ll wear out, or if it’s a device that’ll endure, and they’re adjusting, they’re turning the dials, and they’re figuring out what works. But I think what they’re finding is that there are good ways to use voiceovers, and there are boring and bad ways to use them. And I think they’re using them in good ways.
AVC: Some critics were arguing, “Well, that’s not what somebody would really think.”
KF: Probably not. But if you watch most half-hour television, that’s not what somebody would actually say, so, I mean, pick your poison! [Laughs.] Why focus on what somebody might think? Nobody talks [on TV] like people really talk most of the time. But I will say that, on this show, at least the things people say make sense, and it’s not just joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, joke.
Knight Rider (1984)—“Cameraman”
AVC: It appears your first on-camera role was playing a cameraman on an episode of Knight Rider.
KF: That is correct. I was Cameraman. [Laughs.] It was my first on-camera acting job, and I was not young. I went to UC Berkeley, I graduated in 1976, immediately moved to L.A. with a degree in English, which did no more for you then than it does for you now, then sold real estate and did theater for nine years. So I was probably 34 when I got my first on-camera acting job, and it was through a friend of mine, who was working as a writer on the show, and I’ve never been more frightened in my life.
I’m filming a news reporter—who was played by some soap opera star at the time, I think—and then she leaves, and I go up to the car and look at it, and the car says something to me. And my line was, “The car talks. The car talks!” And I said it just about that badly. I remember the director said to me—and this has been said to me by that director, but also by Ivan Reitman during Ghostbusters 2, which was very early on as well, when I was petrified—“Do less than you ever thought it was possible to do.” And that’s been very good advice. The more I take it, the better I feel. I can overact in two seconds. [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, if you’re going to have a line on Knight Rider, it doesn’t get much more apropos than “the car talks.”
KF: And I said it twice! [Laughs.] Because somebody looked at me skeptically or something. I don’t know. It’s the most hair I ever had on film, that’s all I can tell you for sure.
AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?
KF: Well, in general, I did what a lot of character actors do: I did it to get girls. I was in college, I thought I was going to be a lawyer, I met this girl named Laura who was the most beautiful girl I had ever known, and she was taking an acting class, so I decided to take the same acting class. And I was a terrible actor in college. Terrible! Believe me, Berkeley is not known for its acting department. [Laughs.] You don’t go to Berkeley to become an actor. In fact, I don’t think you go to any school to become an actor. You’ve just sort of got to go out there and act. But I was so bad. It was not even that people were wrong about me. They were right about me. I was terrible! But I loved it so much, and I say it to this day: I was prepared to do it for nothing my whole life, just to do it.
I think that, when I got to L.A., I just loved it so much and I did so much theater, where everybody I worked with was so much better than me, that I just sort of learned. I just sort of figured it out. And I was lucky enough to be a “type.” Sort of a bad-guy type at the time, because I was tall and I had dark eyes. A lot of times, you don’t have to be good; you just have to be the right type. And I was the right type. So without being good enough, I started figuring out how to make my way through the minefield of a script, which is what it was to me at the time, and, you know, the rest is semi-history.
AVC: There was a long gap between when you started working in theater and when you made your on-camera debut. Was that by choice, or had you auditioned and just not gotten anywhere at that point?
KF: [Very long laugh.] Oh, I auditioned. But I had no idea that, when you audition for television or movies, you go to a big building—like, an office building—and you walk in the room, and everybody, I assumed, was smarter than me and better than me, and there’s actors you recognize. I once fainted at an audition. It was for a TV show. It was at the old MTM Studios, which is now CBS, and I was so nervous. I was sweating buckets. I was standing there, and I was doing a comedy, and they weren’t laughing, and… I just fainted. Right in the middle of the room. And I sort of got up, and I was like, “Oh, I’m not feeling well.” I had my agent call and say that I had the flu and that I was very, very sick. But I wasn’t. I would often have to walk around the block three or four times just to get up the guts to walk to the front door of these buildings. I can’t believe I did all that, looking back. I can’t emphasize the immediate panic that would set in when I had to audition. I can’t believe I did it. I mean, it’s crazy.
That’s My Bush! (2001)—“Karl Rove”
KF: Okay, now this… [Starts to laugh.] I got that role about two hours after I was asked to audition for it. I had no idea who Karl Rove was at the time. No one really did, unless they were involved in Texas politics, I guess. I didn’t know he was a Southerner, I didn’t know anything about him, and I didn’t have time to research him. I had two hours! So I walked into a room, and there were two idols of mine, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, sitting there. So I just did what was on the page, but, you know, I didn’t try to be Karl Rove…which was their plan all along! It wasn’t supposed to be a good sitcom, it was supposed to be a parody. They laughed, and an hour later I had the job. And I never looked up Karl Rove. Never. I thought, “Why ruin a good thing? If it’s working, why change it?” That was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had, working with those two. I don’t think many people are geniuses or brilliant, I think those are really overused terms, but not in the case of those two. On their worst day, they are funnier than most people on their best.
AVC: I don’t suppose you ever heard from Karl Rove about your portrayal.
KF: I have not heard from Karl Rove. [Laughs.] There was talk about us going to the White House, but I think that was a Comedy Central pipe dream. I was just worried about getting audited. That was the only thing I was worried about. “Am I going to get audited? I’m going to get audited, aren’t I?” But, no, there were no dirty tricks.
Wildside (1985)—“Elliot Thogmorton”
AVC: This was either your first gig as a series regular or your first time in a recurring role on a series. It’s hard to tell, given how short the run was.
KF: Oh, well, here’s the thing about that. [Laughs.] The great thing to come out of Wildside was that I was playing a cub reporter at a newspaper, and my boss was Meg Ryan. And this was when Meg Ryan was Meg Ryan. It was right before she did Top Gun. I was still a realtor then, and I had sold her then-boyfriend, Anthony Edwards, his first house. Well, he wasn’t her boyfriend then, but then they went and did Top Gun and became an item for quite some time. [Hesitates.] I don’t think I’m speaking out of school. I think everybody already knows this. I don’t know what she’s like now, I haven’t spoken to her in years, but at that time I was absolutely in love with her. Absolutely head-over-heels in love with her. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I knew that no way was I ever going to get anywhere with Meg Ryan. She really was America’s sweetheart, and I loved working with her. It was absolutely fantastic. And all I can remember from that show is her beautiful blue eyes and her sparkling smile. Man…
Miracle Mile (1988)—“Gerstead”
AVC: So was it your gig as Anthony Edwards’ realtor that got you the gig in Miracle Mile?
KF: Uh… [Laughs uncertainly.] How did I end up in Miracle Mile? I got an agent. I’m still very much in touch with Steve De Jarnatt, who wrote and directed Miracle Mile. But, yes, that was the way I got Miracle Mile. Boy, you’re bringing it back! Anthony Edwards recommended me for it. And that was wild. I still didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just faking it, and I would just throw myself into every role. You know, that movie… I have to say, maybe it’s a cult classic.
It was made for four million dollars by Hemdale [Film], which no longer exists. The special effects… When I got nuked, I had two piles of pudding in my palms, and then they flashed a light and I put the pudding up to my eyes, so it looked like my eyes were oozing out through my fingers. And I had an original Swatch, which are really worth a lot of money now, and they ruined my Swatch—I didn’t care at the time, it cost 10 bucks—by putting all this crusty stuff on it. But I miss that Swatch. I wish I had it. That was a case where I was working with somebody who encouraged me to overact. So that was an easy job. [Laughs.]
NewsRadio (1995)—“Ed Harlow”
AVC: You’ve got a lot of one-off appearances in your back catalog, but one of the most memorable is in the pilot for NewsRadio.
KF: Oh, my God. You know, that was the first time I was good, I think. That was because James Burrows was— he’s so laconic, and he’s so dry that it got me to be dry. I was desperate to be part of that. I wanted to be asked to be a regular. But the thing I remember about that more than anything was that there was a person who was let go during the week, who played sort of the handyman of the station. I think Joe Rogan ended up doing it? On Wednesday, it was Joe Rogan, but on Tuesday, it was Ray Romano. I think that just shows people out there that all bad things are not all bad. It’s the best thing that ever happened to Ray Romano. Which I have told him since then, but he just goes [Does a spot-on Ray Romano impression] “Ah, I don’t wanna talk about it.” And I don’t blame him, because it’s never fun to be fired. But like I said, that was the first time I thought, “Oh, maybe I’m starting to get this figured out.”
Parenthood (2012–2014)—“Dr. Bedsloe”
KF: Oh, well, you know, this is sort of the new me. Now you’re coming into the new me, the new Kurt Fuller, the guy who’s had a couple of kids, who’s married, who’s mellowed. I grew up as a very sarcastic person. I was always the class clown, and to date girls I had to be really funny. I was really skinny growing up. I was so thin, I had to run around in the shower to get wet. That kind of thin. So I always had to rely on humor and sarcasm. And when I started having kids, that doesn’t work with kids. Kids don’t understand sarcasm, and they certainly don’t understand my humor. [Laughs.] My kids don’t, anyway. So I started just naturally turning into a nicer person, and it actually helped broaden and lengthen my career. Dr. Bedsloe is a guy who was sort of a by-the-book doctor, not a warm guy, no bedside manner, but I still managed to make him somebody you liked. If I had not lived the life I had lived and did not have the wife I have and the children I have, I would never know how to play that role, and I wouldn’t have any of those qualities. It’s a real example of how it is true that the camera catches everything. Even the stuff you’re trying to hide.
Wayne’s World (1992)—“Russell Finley”
KF: Again, I was asked to do a reading of the script, and it was just a general reading, but the reading went really well—I made Lorne Michaels laugh—and I got the role. Nobody making the movie thought it was going to be—we had no idea what it was going to be. It was total anarchy on the set, with [director] Penelope Spheeris and Mike Myers. I had no idea what was going on. I had great affection for Dana Carvey, and I think we all thought, “Dana’s the guy. There’s the comic genius.” And it just goes to show you. The guy with the great idea… Mike Myers, I don’t think, was the performer that Dana Carvey was, but he had some great ideas, and he emerged as sort of the uber-talent for, what, 10 years? But I had a lot of fun doing it. Everybody was really nice to me, and it helped my career a lot, to be in that movie. And I wish I could get a part like that now. Those are hard parts to get now. There are no Russell Finleys in my future. I was the old guy even then, and that was 20 years ago!
AVC: Sometimes doing this feature makes people feel very old.
KF: [Laughs.] Yeah, I know! I can’t believe it. I started out old, but I have to say that I’ve been very lucky to work consistently since I started. I’ve really never been out of work. I got all of my out-of-work time done in the years when I first came to L.A.! But like I said. I started late. I’m 60 now, and I can’t believe it!
The Running Man (1987)—“Tony”
KF: Oh, man. You’re really… [Trails off into laughter.]
AVC: What can I say? I enjoy doing my research.
KF: Oh, thanks! [Laughs.] What’s interesting, I will say, is that I was sort of the sidekick for Richard Dawson, who was in Hogan’s Heroes, and I ended up playing Colonel Klink in Auto Focus, which shows what a weird, strange world it is. But The Running Man was directed by Paul Michael Glaser, and I was really still sort of awestruck then, because it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was directed by Paul Michael Glaser, who played Starsky in Starsky And Hutch, and I was working with Richard Dawson! And there I am—again overacting!—and Paul Michael Glaser was very nice to me, and I was again told, “Do less and less and less and less.” And I still was bad! I can’t believe I kept getting hired after some of these things I did! It’s baffling to me. I’ll go back and look at it, and I can’t even watch it. I have to look through my fingers, because I just see myself acting all over the place. I don’t know how I kept getting hired! I really don’t.
That was a fun job, though. It was not earthshaking, but Richard Dawson would, uh, start every day with a big glass of orange juice that was only half orange juice. [Laughs.] And he would drink that all day. I think that’s how he got through the movie. And he was the best thing in it! So there you go: The best thing to do, if you really want to be good, is drink vodka all day, from the second you get up to the second they say, “Cut!”
Red Heat (1988)—“Detective”
AVC: You were in another Schwarzenegger film right around the same time: Red Heat.
KF: Yes, I walked downstairs and said one line. [Laughs.] That’s it. And I was happy to do it.
Auto Focus (2002)—“Werner Klemperer”
AVC: You mentioned it in passing a moment ago, but how was the experience of doing Auto Focus?
KF: That was, I believe, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because we were doing real scenes from Hogan’s Heroes. I am not Werner Klemperer, I don’t do dialects very well, and Greg Kinnear and I would sit in a trailer, and we’d look at the scene, look at the scene, look at the scene, and then go do it. Then in addition to playing Colonel Klink, I also had to play Werner Klemperer. A lot of that didn’t end up in the movie. But trying to play the character and the man, and trying to do justice to the scenes from the show and still make it my own?
It’s never good to just imitate somebody. That never works, because then you’re not filling it with anything. But I have to say, I think I sort of pulled that off. I actually thought I was good in that movie. Again, I was in such awe of Paul Schrader, one of the great screenwriters of all time. And Willem Dafoe? Oh, my God, just really great people, and there I was! A lot of times early on, I would be with these people who were so good, and I always felt like I didn’t belong. Now I do, but I didn’t for years and years. I hope some people feel that way about me now!
Capital News (1990)—“Miles Plato”
KF: Oh! One of the biggest heartbreaks of my life. That was my first real series. That was when I was a series regular. I was not a series regular on Wildside, although I ended up in every one. Capital News, I went to the network, I made it through the panic of auditioning, I got the role, and I was originally a reporter married to a woman, whose name I will not mention. The network didn’t like the relationship, so they got rid of the woman, but David Milch, God bless his soul, wanted to keep me, so over the weekend he rewrote it into this flamboyant, actually maybe the first gay character on television: the Rolls-Royce-driving Miles Plato. This has no bearing on reality. [Laughs.]
So I was playing a Rolls-Royce-driving, Thomas Wolfe-dressing gossip columnist for The Washington Post, and, man, I thought I had made it. I thought, “This is it! I’m on a series! It’s nothing but uphill from here!” I was as happy as I’d ever been on a set. Every day, I’d never been happier. Then we got canceled in four episodes. I didn’t come out of my bedroom for three weeks. I just couldn’t believe it: You go from the penthouse to the outhouse, from the motor home to the honey wagon, so fast in show business, it makes your head spin. So that was my first taste of, “I’m a network star!” But it was very brief.
The Tortellis (1987)—“Charo’s Manager”
KF: [Sudden whoop of laughter.] Oh, I’ll tell you, you’ll like this. Boy, these are the most obscure things I’ve ever been asked about! You’re lucky you got me now, because pretty soon Alzheimer’s is gonna set in, and I’m not going to remember some of these. But that was Dan Hedaya and Rhea Perlman, I think?
AVC: No, Rhea Perlman was tangentially involved—it was a spin-off of Cheers about Carla’s ex-husband—but it was Dan Hedaya and Jean Kasem.
KF: Jean Kasem… [Sudden recognition.] Oh, my God, that’s right! Wow. And Charo, at the time, was… People wouldn’t know it now, probably, but she was very popular. She was always on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, she was very attractive in a certain way, intelligent, and I think a pretty good singer and guitarist, but she did this whole “I’m a crazy Latin coochie-coochie girl, but, really, I’m very intelligent” thing. This was, like, still one of the first things I did, so I would’ve done anything for anybody. But on the day of the table read, Dan Hedaya was there. I don’t know him at all, and he was nice, but that day—
Every line Charo had, she would go, “Oh! This reminds me of a story!” And she’d start to tell this story, and the story would go on and on and on. I hadn’t been in many table reads, I didn’t know if this was what a table read was like or if this was how they were supposed to go, but I kept seeing Dan Hedaya. It was like he was eating something very sour. His face started to go, and he started to twitch a little bit. And she’d read another line, and she’d go, “Oh! Oh! This reminds me of another story!” Finally he went [Gruffly.] “Okay! All right! Enough of the stories! You can tell your stories later! Let’s read the script!”
That’s about all I remember. I played Charo’s manager, but I don’t think we ever spoke! She had a young assistant who was very nice. Charo seemed nice. She was certainly bubbly. But, you know, you’re asking me for my memories of something that was pretty insignificant. I do remember that I got the job, because my big idea was that I would eat Tums while talking to her, because her character was so irritating. So I took out a Tums from a little package, and, oh my God, the room exploded in laughter. So that’s how I got the job, and that was my downfall. That’s when the shtick began, and I had to get over that, but the shtick worked for a long time!
Psych (2009–2014)—“Coroner Woody Strode”
KF: Well, now you’ve really hit a sweet spot here. There are two roles I’ve done that got me much more attention than I ever realized or ever thought I’d get. One was Zachariah. I actually loved playing that role, because to me he had a great sense of humor. He was really funny, even though he was an incredibly evil person trying to bring on the apocalypse. But, you know, everybody needs a day job. [Laughs.] And that was his!
I would go to these Supernatural conventions because, well, one, it’s like going to your own version of Disneyland. You’re adored for an hour or whatever, and then you walk out and you’re nobody again, but, boy, when you’re there, it must be what it’s like to be Brad Pitt all day, you know? You’re the best thing going. And it pays pretty well, too! But I was concurrently loved and hated by everybody, because the suspension of disbelief is, uh, pretty high among Supernatural fans. [Laughs.] They have trouble remembering that you’re just acting, some of them. They’re rabid and eager fans, God bless them. But I enjoyed playing it, and I always liked to go to Vancouver to shoot, because I think Vancouver’s a beautiful city.
The other role, and probably my favorite job that I’ve ever had and probably will have—although I’m reserving judgment on Manhattan Love Story, Tuesday nights at 8:30 on ABC, because it’s pretty fun so far—is Psych, which I did for four or five years. I was going to do it for one day, and I ended up doing a ton of ’em, playing the coroner. Again, I thought it was going to be a nothing thing, but it’s one of those things that just sort of caught on and built the most tremendous following. I imagine all of those actors right now, now that the show’s ended, are going, “My God, what happened?” Because they were in Disneyland. Everybody got along, they did great work, they were in Vancouver, and it was pixelating, I tell you. So right about now, they’re probably going, “Oh, my God, show business sucks!” [Laughs.] Because nothing will ever match that experience, I guarantee it, for anybody who worked on that show. That was a real high point. That was the most fun I’ve ever had, and I’m friends with every one of ’em. So I know they’re all going, “What the fuck happened?”
AVC: Is there a favorite Woody episode for you?
KF: There is… and thank you for even knowing the character’s name! [Laughs.] It was called “Last Night Gus,” and it’s everybody’s favorite Woody episode, so it’s no secret among people who like that show. It was basically a takeoff on The Hangover. The first one. The good movie. We go on an adventure, and then we figure out what happened afterward. That was a silly show. Psych was an hour of fun for seven years, but that episode was actually truly funny. I defy anybody, whether they like Psych or not, to not enjoy that hour of television.
AVC: I think a lot of people have a favorite episode of Psych who weren’t necessarily regular fans of the show, due to its tribute episodes. I wasn’t a regular viewer, but I’ve watched the Twin Peaks episode (“Dual Spires”) three or four times now.
KF: Yes! Right, and they did what they did very well. James Roday is a close friend, and I think he is underrated. You can’t rate him high enough in terms of talent and ability and intelligence. I just think he’s a superb person and a super talent. I say that also because he could hire me in the future. [Laughs.] So please add that!
No Holds Barred (1989)—“Brell”
KF: See, now you’re trying to hurt me. [Starts to laugh.] Okay, I’ll start from now backward: They just re-released No Holds Barred on Blu-ray, and I don’t know that they did it for all of it, but a lot of the way it was marketed was as one of the worst movies of all time. But it’s one of those that’s so bad it’s good.
Again, an early job, and I still knew nothing about acting. I was a terrible actor, and that’s why I got the job: I would allow myself to be so bad that I lowered and got down to WWF standards. [Laughs.] I’m sort of this insane Donald Trump-like head of the network, and I was working with Hulk Hogan. I have nothing bad to say about Hulk Hogan. In fact, compared to what I have seen in the press and all the high jinks of his life, I didn’t see any of that coming, man. He was just a businessman who worked out, you know?
But there was a scene where I offer him money to go to my network, and he’s supposed to shove a check down my throat, and his line is, “I won’t be around when this check clears.” But nobody told him that, on movies, you fake it. In wrestling, they really do a lot of the stuff. But he shoved a check down… my… throat. And I couldn’t stop him. I literally thought I was going to die. We finished the scene, and I coughed it up, and he said [Does a spot-on Hulk Hogan impression.] “Oh, sorry, brother, I didn’t know we were supposed to fake it!”
At one point I said to the director, “You know, I’m being really loud. Is this too big?” And he said, “Kurt, you’re standing next to a guy who’s 6-foot-9 and wearing red spandex. You can’t be too big.” I said, “Well, I guess you’re right.” But he was wrong: you could be too big, and I was! [Laughs.] You know, there are some things you can’t unsee, and there are some movies you can’t get off IMDB no matter how hard you try. That’s all I’m going to say.
The Jack Bull (1999)—“Conrad”
Pushing Tin (1999)—“Ed Clabes”
The Frozen Ground (2013)—“D.A. Pat Clives”
AVC: You worked with John Cusack twice in rapid succession, in The Jack Bull and in Pushing Tin.
KF: And I just recently worked with him in The Frozen Ground, which came and went. [Laughs.] As a lot of movies do. The Jack Bull was written by his father, who has since passed away. But I really got to know him during Pushing Tin, which was just one of the biggest disappointments, because if you look at the cast, it’s John Cusack at his height, Billy Bob Thornton at close to his height, Angelina Jolie at the beginning, and Cate Blanchett. I played Boggle with her on the set all the time. Now you tell me that’s not a great cast. And the director was Mike Newell, who’d directed Four Weddings And A Funeral and who’d just directed Donnie Brasco. So this was a can’t-miss movie, right?
Well, it only made seven million dollars. But I had a great time, and everybody was working at the top of their game. It seemed like everybody was putting everything into it. We worked super hard, and yet… we built it, and nobody came. It’s really too bad, I think. I don’t know: Why aren’t people fascinated by air traffic controllers? I don’t get it! [Laughs.] But it’s that mystery of why things work and why they don’t. It’s just hit and miss. You just don’t know.
But I did get to know John Cusack during that time, and we both shared a love of sports, and I thought he was a super-talented, really smart, good guy, and he asked me to do The Jack Bull. [Sighs.] Okay, you know, John Badham directed that, and I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s a really good movie and well worth watching for anybody. But here’s another guy: He directed WarGames, he directed Saturday Night Fever, and now, the way things have changed. Where is he now? He directed some episodes of Psych, and he was delightful and good, but it’s such a strange business. I’m sure he couldn’t get a movie now if he was the last director available. I mean, I don’t know for sure that he’s not directing movies, I don’t get his newsletter, but I’m just saying he really knows his stuff. I understand that actors lose their looks, they change over time, but people don’t lose their talent. I think that, as people get older and the people who make the decisions get older, they don’t like hiring people much older than them because it reminds them of their fathers, and they don’t like telling people older than them what to do. It makes them uncomfortable. I think that happens a lot.
AVC: How was it working with Nicolas Cage on The Frozen Ground?
KF: You know, I read TMZ just like anybody else. [Laughs.] And I had never met Nicolas Cage, but, man, he came in focused, friendly, knowing his stuff, ready to take whatever you had to give. He was a lot like Jack Nicholson on Anger Management, actually. These are real actors, they’re there to mix it up, and there’s no “I’m too good for this,” no “I’m too” anything. When real actors are approaching their work, we could be on a little stage somewhere, doing community theater. It’s all the same. They’re just trying to make the scene work. They’re just trying to do the best they can and figure it out.
And that’s the way Nicolas Cage was, that’s the way Nicholson was, that’s the way really good actors are. Some of them are stars and some of them are not, but one common thing they all share is that, when you get in front of the camera, we’re all just trying to figure it out. And sometimes it’s really hard, and nobody can really unlock the key. Except maybe Robert Downey Jr., who I’ve never worked with. He seems to know everything. And he’s said something like, “Yeah, I figured out the secret, and ever since I figured out the secret, everything’s been really easy.” I want to find him and go, “What the fuck is the secret?” [Laughs.] Man, I wish I knew. But that’s the way it is with everybody: When you’re working, nobody’s a star. We’re all just actors trying to figure it out.
Anger Management (2003)—“Frank Head”
AVC: Do you have a definitive Jack Nicholson story from working with him on Anger Management?
KF: [Laughs, then sighs.] Yeah. He couldn’t remember my name. But he couldn’t remember a lot of people’s names. He was delightful. By the way, the play I did that Harold Ramis came to see, Jack Nicholson also came to see, and he sent me a note afterward, along with a bottle of champagne. I was selling real estate at the time, in Pacific Palisades, California, so imagine that: getting a note and a bottle of champagne from Jack Nicholson when I’d barely made a dime as an actor. It really kept me going, you know? Things like that keep you going. I actually reminded him of it, and he said, “Well, I don’t remember that!” [Laughs.] And because he couldn’t remember my name, he would call me “keed.” Not “kid,” but “keed,” like we were in some Western somewhere. “Hey, keed! Try the crumb cake, it’s really good!” Just like that!
When we would do a scene, what I loved about him—and though I’ve never worked with him, I’ve read this about Dustin Hoffman, too—is that he’s one of those people who, when they see a scene, they can say, “This is about power,” or, “This is about love.” They can figure out the essential thing it’s about, and then once you know the essential thing it’s about, everybody’s working in the same way. He could break down scenes like that. He had that sort of mental acuity to do that. It’s a gift. And it’s why his stuff, when he’s really good, is so clear and you can relate to it. It’s one of those things where you don’t know why, but he knows exactly what he’s doing and what it’s about and why he’s saying what he’s saying on a deep, sort of essential level. I couldn’t learn it from him—it’s just one of those gifts, like some guy who can hit a golf ball 330 yards—but I admired it very much. And it sort of made me feel a little helpless. [Laughs.] But he was delightful to work with.
I also remember that Snoop Dogg visited the set in New York, with a joint in his mouth that looked like a cigar. There’s your anger management. [Laughs.] I thought, “Isn’t he going to get arrested?” It was like he lived on another planet. God bless him, he was very nice. Who wouldn’t be nice when you’re that stoned?
Most of my experiences have been positive. I know I live a very good life. I’m severely overpaid, but there are people who are much more overpaid than I am. I’ve been very lucky, and I know that, because I see guys all the time who are struggling and can’t make a dime, and they’re much better actors than me. I think it’s why a lot of actors are more insecure, and when they get successful, they sort of freak out because they realize that a lot of it has nothing to do with them. It has to do with the way they look, the timeliness, if they’re a particular type, and luck. Because, believe me, I’m not kidding: All the time I see people and I’m jealous… and they can’t get an agent. It’s the weirdest business in the world.
Ghostbusters II (1989)—“Hardemeyer”
Stuart Saves His Family (1995)—“Von Arks”
KF: Harold Ramis really got my career going and was a friend for a long time. I was doing a play in L.A., and he came to see it a few times and recommended me to Ivan Reitman for Ghostbusters 2. Six months later, I quit real estate and was acting for good, and it was really because Harold took an interest in me and made a phone call and did stuff that people don’t usually do, even if they like somebody.
When I did Stuart Saves His Family, I was a big Saturday Night Live fan at the time, and a big Al Franken fan and a big Stuart Smalley fan, so the best thing I remember was talking to Al Franken between shots, because he was so great. And he was so funny, so delightful, and so smart that, if you’d told me then that he was going to be a senator from Minnesota, I would’ve said, “You’re out of your mind!” But look what’s happened! So that was really more fun for just the people. You know, acting in many ways can be very boring, but if you’re with interesting people and good people or sometimes with really bad, horrible people… [Laughs.] They don’t always have to be good, y’know? Sometimes it’s very interesting when they’re just all screwed up. But this time, when I got to know Al Franken… I mean, he wouldn’t be able to pick me out of a lineup now, I’m sure, but he was delightful to work with, as was Harold.
AVC: It sounds like you’re prone to geeking out when you’re working with someone you’re a fan of.
KF: Oh-ho-ho, yes. I didn’t watch the Emmys because—well, for one, I have been to awards shows, and I understand how it works. For another, sour grapes. Actually, that’s probably number one. [Laughs.] But it’s also that I just don’t feel like—I’ve never felt like—part of the entertainment industry. I still just feel like I’m trying to work my way in. And that’s weird. I mean, I’ve done nine on-the-air television series, 50 movies. Maybe it’s because some of ’em were small roles, but they haven’t all been that way. It’s weird. I suppose there are a lot of people who’d kill to have my career, but I still feel like a fan.
I just don’t feel like part of the fraternity of actors. I do geek out. All the time. And I’ve worked with a lot of great people. I mean, I’ve worked with Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro and Tom Hanks. I’ve worked with some really good directors: Woody Allen, Paul Schrader… My God, I’ve really worked with a lot of people. But I’m intimidated by them, and I’m always thinking, “Oh, my God, he’s not going to like me, and I’m going to get fired,” or, “She’s not going to like me, and I’m going to get fired.” I don’t know why. To be an actor, a lot of times it’s a strange combination of high confidence and low self-esteem. Which is a weird combination to have, but I think it’s sort of very common among actors.
AVC: There may not be an easy answer to this question, but if this play was good enough to earn you praise from Jack Nicholson, and it clearly got you Ghostbusters 2, then why was it so hard for you to transition to working in front of the camera?
KF: Part of it was that my head was spinning! I was selling real estate, and I got a call that I was supposed to go to New York, because they were already shooting Ghostbusters 2 and they had written in this bad-guy character and wanted me to come. They made a deal for me—I think I probably thought I was going to have to pay them, but it turned out that they paid me—but what I didn’t realize was that the first day was an audition. I was going to work with Bill Murray, it was this scene where I confront him, and if it didn’t go well, or if he or someone else didn’t like me, I’d be on a plane the next day going back to L.A., probably so depressed that I’d be out of show business. I would’ve gone, “Okay, that’s it. I’m done!” Thank God I didn’t know, because I would’ve blown it. I would’ve been so nervous that I would’ve thrown up on Bill’s shoes, I’m sure. But it went okay. Well, they stuck with me, anyway.
But when you’re onstage, you find the audience. The camera, though, finds you and I was playing past the camera. I was too big, I was overdoing it, I was making faces. Ivan Reitman kept having to say, “Kurt, do less. No, less. Do less. Less. Less! LESS!” He couldn’t beat the overacting out of me, but finally I did get the overacting beaten out of me. I’ll give myself credit for that. I’ve gotten better. I haven’t gotten great, but I have gotten better.
Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark (1988)—“Harold Glotter”
AVC: I won’t torture you with anything else from the ’80s, except—
KF: I hardly remember the ‘80s!
AVC: Well, in that case, don’t feel pressured to say anything about Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark.
KF: Oh, wow. Actually, Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark is another one where I had a nice gimmick at my audition. [Laughs.] I was playing this sort of horny realtor, Harry Glotter. I can’t believe I remember his name, but I do! And in my audition, I was going to meet a client who I thought was attractive, and I had a little spray bottle of Binaca… I had rigged up this thing where I had taped Binaca to my belt, as if I had a little holster for Binaca, and I pulled out the bottle and sprayed it and put it back in my holster. Again, the room cracked up. They went wild! It was my Charo-Tums moment all over again… and I think that’s how I got the role!
When I saw Cassandra Peterson, who plays Elvira, she came up and she says, “Oh, thanks for doing the movie, and thanks for being with us! I saw your tape, and I’m really looking forward to working with you!” And she left, and then I turned to whoever I was with, and I said, “Who the hell was that?” Because she looked like this very attractive San Fernando housewife. [Laughs.] Then she goes into her trailer, and she comes out as Elvira. I mean, I’m telling you, even if I told you, “One of these women in this group of five is actually Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark,” you wouldn’t be able to tell me who it was—if they all had great bodies and large breasts.
Again, that was a lot of fun, very silly, but that script was full of double entendres, some of which I didn’t even think they could get away with! But it was hilarious! I mean, that’s another movie where, if you look back it, it’s sneaky funny. There’s jokes layered in jokes, jokes on top of jokes, and it was written and directed by James Signorelli, who was a Saturday Night Live director. He did a lot of the Saturday Night Live spoof commercials. It’s really campy, and there’s a lot of fun in there. I recommend it. If you haven’t seen it in a while, you should revisit it.
The Tick (2002)—“Destroyo”
KF: Fantastic. Fantastic! [Laughs.] And let me tell you something. First of all, for people who don’t know, The Tick—played by another good friend of mine, Patrick Warburton—is like a big, blue superhero. And Patrick Warburton had to wear a blue rubber suit in the heat of summer in Los Angeles. And he wasn’t an astronaut. They didn’t have air-conditioning tubes in his suit. It was so tight that he couldn’t sit down. So for 12 hours, his body heat index was probably 110 degrees, but then he always had to be leaning against a board, because he could never sit down. But he never, ever complained, and he was happy the whole time.
Playing Destroyo, who was sort of a Silence Of The Lambs type character, I’d say I was wearing about 50 pounds of rubber and foam rubber and makeup. But I had no idea who The Tick was. I’m not a big graphic-novel guy. I don’t even know if The Tick was a graphic novel! [Laughs.] I’m guessing! But it was a lot of fun, and, again, it was a show where I wonder, “Why? Why didn’t that go?” One was The Tick, which I thought was really well done, and That’s My Bush! was another one. Now if Trey Parker and Matt Stone did it, it’d probably still be running, just because they’re Trey Parker and Matt Stone! But I just can’t figure it out. I can’t figure out why things go or don’t go. The Tick is one of those. It had a fantastic cast, and it was really funny and interesting and different and… gone. Gone in one season.
I guess show business is a lot like baseball: “Wait until next year!” You just never know. Some of the shittiest shows I’ve ever seen run forever, and some of the best things never get a chance. I can’t figure it out. All I know is, you just keep going. You keep going. You fail upward. Show business is a great place to fail upward… and I guess that’s what I’ve done. [Laughs.]
The Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990)—“Pollard Browning”
KF: Actually, the great thing about The Bonfire Of The Vanities for me was that, again, it was early on, and it was a huge movie. Yes, Melanie Griffith, during the break, did get her breasts enlarged. In the middle of the movie! [Laughs.] I think they worked around it. But the greatest thing for me was, we were working very late at night, and [cinematographer] Vilmos Zsigmond took, I think, 10 hours to light a two-minute scene. That’s the way movies were done in those days. And during that time, I get a knock on the trailer door, and one of the P.A.s says, “Hey, Tom’s trying to stay awake. Do you want to go in? He wants to just hang out.” And I said [In a high-pitched voice.] “Tom Hanks wants me?” And I went into his trailer—which was, you know, larger than my parents’ home that I grew up in—and we just talked. He was the most delightful person, and he was just so great that it was one of the highlights of my early career.
I have since stayed in touch with him. He was doing a play on Broadway earlier this year, and I went, and he saw that I was in the crowd and had somebody come and ask me to come backstage. After all these years! Although I had worked with his wife [Rita Wilson] in Auto Focus, I hadn’t seen him. But backstage, he was like [Roars.] “Kurt! How are ya?” I hadn’t seen him since Bonfire Of The Vanities! And he said, “Tell me: Midnight In Paris. Best job ever, right? Tell me, how many days a week did you work?” I said, “Like, two.” He said, “Exactly! And how many weeks were you there?” “A month.” “Fantastic! It’s the best!” All he wanted to know was my schedule on Midnight In Paris! But it’s little moments like that that make show business a lot of fun. I am not a member of the chamber of commerce for show business, believe me, but there are some really good people in the business, and Hanks has this everyman decency onscreen, but he actually is that guy.
Midnight In Paris (2011)—“John”
KF: I was at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, hitting golf balls, when I got a call from my agent saying, “Woody Allen’s people called, there’s interest in you for a movie.” And I said, “Come on, don’t bullshit me.” [Laughs.] He said, “No, they called! I think it’s going to be offered to you!” I said, “Is there some other Kurt Fuller? Did he mean Kurt Russell? You’ve got to check this out. It can’t be me.” But sure enough, I’m told that somebody is going to come to my door with some material, I’m going to read it, and then I have to give it back to them.
So I go home and I’m told to wait, and at a certain time someone knocks at my door. There’s a manila envelope, I go, “Thanks,” and they just stand there. And they say, “I’ll be here. When you’re done reading, please give it back to me.” I pull it out of the envelope—it’s about 30 pages—and there’s a note: “Kurt: thought you might have fun with this. If not, maybe something else down the road. Woody.” A letter to me, signed by Woody Allen. It’s not auto-signed. It’s real ink. And then there’s the script pages, with everything but my lines blacked out, so it’s like a Guantanamo Bay confession that’s been redacted. [Laughs.] So I read it, and I really couldn’t make sense of it at the time, because everything was blacked out! I had no idea what was going on, but, of course I went, “Are you kidding me? I love it! It would be so great!” And I wrote that back, I gave the guy his stuff back, and I had the job!
The next thing I know, I’m in Paris, working with Woody Allen. It was like, “What just happened?” But he’s really very easy to work with… if he likes you. If he doesn’t like you, that’s not so good. But he’s very easy to work with when he likes you. I mean, we got paid nothing—it cost me money to be in the movie, basically—but I don’t think I’ve auditioned since I did that movie. I think everything’s been an offer. That’s what it does for you. And you know how I hate to audition, so… [Trails off into laughter.]