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: Richard Masur started his career in the early 1970s on stage, but quickly became a go-to character actor in movies and TV shows where an unassuming but memorable best friend or lawyer was needed. Norman Lear was the first to bring Masur to the screen, in an episode of All In The Family, and tapped him to be one of the stars of his 1975 sitcom One Day At A Time, playing a suitor to Bonnie Franklin’s character Ann Romano (he left early in the classic sitcom’s second season). After a late-career hiatus from TV and movies to go back to theater, Masur has been in a number of guest spots lately, most notably on Jill Soloway’s Transparent, where he plays a suitor to Maura Pfefferman’s (Jeffrey Tambor) ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light).
Richard Masur: I was approached for the role and I went and met with them. I think they had a pretty good sense they wanted me for it. I’m not sure but it was a very easy meeting. When it was over it was clear that I was doing it.
I know a lot of people who are on the show. I’ve known a lot of them for a long time. Jeffrey and Judith and Gaby [Hoffmann] I’ve known since she was a little tiny girl and Amy [Landecker]. Pretty much everybody I knew except for Jay [Duplass] and Jill. So when I finished, I went to see them on the set. As I was leaving, I saw Jill. I said, “Thanks again. It was a lot of fun.” She said, “But you’re available next week, right? Because we’re shooting next week. I want you to do this. I mean the minute your name came up, everybody said, ‘You’ve got to get him.’”
The A.V. Club: Had you known them all from working with them?
RM: Jeffrey and I never worked together but knew each other. Judith and I did readings for a play together multiple times which then I ended up not being available for and was heartbroken about. We met on a plane originally many years ago when I think she was still doing Who’s The Boss? So ever since we took that plane ride together, we had this kind of long distance mutual admiration society. Whenever we’d see each other it would be like, ”Oh my God, how are you?” That’s how it’s been with her ever since.
AVC: And Amy and Gaby, have you worked with them?
RM: Gaby, yeah. I did a film many years ago called The Man Without A Face that Gaby was in with Mel Gibson. That was his directing debut. He did a great job. This was after Sleepless In Seattle and a couple of other things but she was still a tiny little girl and so good. So really good. Amy and I… she was in New York a long time. We ran into each other many times in various places. She also was doing VO on commercials and my wife does that too so they knew each other pretty well.
AVC: Because of all your different roles, you could do six degrees of separation with you.
RM: I actually did that movie! Yes, I’ve worked with a ginormous number of people over the years. What happens when you’ve been around for a while, when you run into people whose work you’ve seen and liked and they have seen and liked your work, there’s a sense of you kind of know each other even though you don’t. I have to say I was very lucky in this business. I was in the right place at the right time when I first got started. They were looking for people like me a little bit and I had enough to give so that they were happy with what I did.
AVC: With your experience in TV especially, did Transparent feel different to you, because it’s kind of a different style?
RM: Oh, it’s extraordinary. I’ve never had an experience like I’ve had working on this and by the way hope to continue. First of all, like I said the casting process was ridiculous. It was so fun and relaxed and easy. They take the show extremely seriously. Everybody working on it takes it extremely seriously. There are moments where there aren’t a lot of laughs going on; however they also are there to have a good time and they’re all there to create something special. Jill is absolutely the center of that attitude. This all comes from her, the sense of fun, the sense of wanting it to be a family, which it literally is but when someone new comes in they kind of drag you into their insanity in a very real way. The people who’ve been around who are doing recurring roles like Brad Whitford and Cherry Jones, people like that, Carrie Brownstein. Everybody gets swept up into this. Everybody respects the writing really strongly but everybody is also encouraged to contribute, which I haven’t had that experience in this way since working with Norman Lear, to be honest.
RM: One of the first big things I did, the first major feature I was in was a picture called Semi-Tough that Michael Ritchie directed and Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson, Jill Clayburgh, and Robert Preston. They were the leads. I was cast in this role, which was a fairly thankless role, but I was so excited to be in this film.
It turned out I was playing Robert Preston’s gopher. He owned a football team and I was playing his aide. The very first day down in Dallas in the locker room at Texas Stadium, which is where we did the read through for the film because we were going to be shooting there a lot, we’re kind of milling around. There are all these people coming in, crew and a whole bunch of cast people, and Preston comes in. I’ve known him since I’ve been alive. He was a giant star back in the late ’30s already, then kind of had this multilayered career for decades.
So he comes in and I’m really excited to meet him. So Michael goes and says hello to him. He’s the old war horse there. He’s the old Hollywood guy. I had done a show at this point, a couple of shows. Michael calls me over and I get to meet him. He says, “Mr. Preston, is this how you pictured this character?” Preston said the most extraordinary thing. He said, “Well, ever since you told me who was playing him.” It was such a classy thing to say. With that one offhand comment he said, “I know this guy’s work and I like his work and I knew it before he walked in front of me.” It was so sweet.
I’ll tell you one other quick story about him. I’m the front end of the people who worked with the tail end of the people who came out of almost beginnings of movies. Preston being one of them, Eddie Albert being another one. These guys were working in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s and stuff. What I got from him was this incredible sense that we are so fortunate, we need to show up and be professionals. Preston would come in every day and he’d get into makeup, wardrobe, tie tied, all set, shootable the first thing in the morning and then he’d sit there.
Everybody would show up every day pretty much and we’d get dressed and wait and sometimes we’d work and sometimes we didn’t. We weren’t necessarily in the scene but he’d throw us in the background or whatever. This one particular day we were in Long Beach some place and Burt [Reynolds], who was the highest paid movie star in the world at that moment, had this bus that was converted. He’d gotten the idea from Dolly Parton, who was one of the first people to convert a bus and turn it into a motor home. It was extraordinary and opulent and fabulous. Then Jill and Kris each had a big motor home, but nothing compared to Burt’s. Preston was in two rooms that were joined together and combined in a honey wagon. I don’t know if you know what a honey wagon is, but it’s where they put people like me when I was that age. You have this little shelf that you can sit on and a tiny table and the bathroom. You go farther down the honey wagon and there’s a bathroom for everybody who’s in the honey wagon and the crew. Robert Preston was in this and these other people were in these other things. I just kept thinking this is upside down. This is Robert fucking Preston. So he’s sitting out there as he very often was when he was ready, so he’s sitting out there in a director’s chair reading the newspaper. He’s all dressed and made up and ready to go.
We’ve been sitting around for a couple or three hours. I walk over to him. I said, “Pres, can I ask you something?” He said, “Sure, kid.” “Look, maybe I’m crazy but I get this. They bring me in every day. We sit around. Sometimes people work, sometimes we don’t but you’re Robert Preston. I don’t get this.” He says, “Let me tell you something, kid, they’re paying me a lot of money and if they want to pay me to sit here and read the paper, I’m delighted to do it.” I worked with so many people down range of that who were young people, who had this sense of entitlement, to all this special treatment and I did my best not to be that person ever. When they come over and call me in three hours and I still haven’t worked and go, “We’re so sorry.” I go, ”It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” I’d see other people who would rant and rave and scream. When it was appropriate, when I could, I would call them over and say, “They’re paying us a lot of money to sit around here and shoot the shit and read the newspaper. Why are we bitching about it?”
AVC: Your first screen role was All In The Family. How did that happen?
RM: I’ll tell you exactly. I was doing a play in New York, which we had done in New Haven, Connecticut. It was an American premiere of a play called The Changing Room written by a wonderful man named David Story. It was about a rugby team in the North of England. It got just screaming rave reviews. At that time, virtually every major critic went up to the Long Wharf Theater to see a new play like that.
So we all go to Broadway and for most of us it was our first time not only on Broadway but many of us for the first time working in a New York theater. While I’m doing The Changing Room, I’ll never forget, I was sitting and watching the Watergate hearings on a tiny black and white television that I had in my little sublet down in the West Village. I get a call from my agent and she said “I’ve got an appointment for you for tomorrow at 2 o’clock. You’re going to meet with Norman Lear.” I said, “Who’s that?” She said, “Well, he does a couple of shows. Did you ever hear of All In The Family and Sanford And Son?” I said “Yeah. What does he want to meet me about?” She said, “What do you fucking care?”
So I go there and this was absolutely surreal. I walk into this office, which is the casting office for CBS in New York. Mainly what they cast out of this office was the CBS daytime shows. I go in and walk into this room which every seat is filled with young African-American boys and girls and they were in their teens. I went, “I’m in the wrong place. Why am I here? What’s going on?” So I actually say this to the woman at the desk when I check in. She said, “No. I have you. Sit down.” Five minutes later they come out and they call me in.
So I go in and meet Norman. We’re sitting and talking. He said, “Listen, I’m here casting this show that I’m about to do. It’s a thing called Good Times.” Hence, all the African American teenagers, which I didn’t know what he was talking about at the time. Anyway, “Last night or the night before the head of casting here says I’ve got two tickets for The Changing Room tonight. I go and I see the show and I see you and I think oh my God, this guy is so perfect. Have you ever seen All In The Family?” I said yes.
He said, “There are two characters on the show played by Vince Gardenia and Betty Garrett. They’re the neighbors. They’re kind of a role-reverse couple. Vince is into design and cooking and Betty is like a handy person and fixes plumbing and does carpentry and takes the garbage out and stuff like that. I want to spin them off. We’re going to spin them off and we’re going to do a pilot and I want you to play their son.” I said okay. That sounds okay. I don’t know what any of this means at this point. You know, I’m 26 years old and it’s my first Broadway show and I’ve never been on television. He says, “Okay. Great. We’ll talk to your agent. By the way, your voice is different.” I had a very low voice for the character in the show. I said, ”That’s not actually my voice. That’s the character’s voice.” I’m being such an actor. He says, “Could you do that voice?” I said I guess it would depend on the character but sure.
So we make a deal. This is in the summer. It’s going to happen in February. It’s like forever away. Then I get a call in the late fall saying that it’s off. They’re not doing the pilot. Vince decided he didn’t want to do it so there’s not going to be a show. I was disappointed but it was this magical thing I’d never heard of. It was what’s called a pay or play deal, which is that I get paid even if I didn’t show up to do it because I was keeping myself off the market.
So I couldn’t understand that either. So I’m doing stuff. I’m doing the show at The Public for 89 dollars a week and I’m trying to cobble together a living doing commercials and whatever. Then I get a call from my agent saying Norman wants to fly me out to L.A. to do an episode of All In The Family. I said okay, what is it? She said, “It doesn’t matter, you’re going.” I said, “Can I see the script?” “There is no script yet.”
I go out there. I get there and then I call the number for the casting office and I say ”I need a script. I thought there would be a script here.” “No, you’ll get the script tomorrow.” I said, “You don’t understand. I’m from New York, we don’t do that. I need to get the script.”
I didn’t know what the character was, which was the most important thing. I wasn’t going to go in there and do a cold reading in front of Norman Lear and Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton and Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers. No. So anyway, they sneak me a script. It’s a big secret because I was freaking out. I read through it and I’m sitting there thinking this is not very good. It was not very good. I went, ”They know what they’re doing. I don’t. So it doesn’t matter.”
So the next day, I go in, I’m introduced to people. We read through the script and I’m playing a retarded guy, so I was really glad I didn’t walk in and see that cold. So I got to think about it for a few minutes. We finished the reading and Norman’s not there which also flipped me out because nobody there knew me. No one. I was Norman’s idea and I was foisted on them. So I’m really insecure. We finish reading and then Carroll says, “I can’t do this script.” I literally looked at my watch and said I wonder if I can get a plane home. I felt this is it. We’re done.
It was a terrific show. I play a retarded delivery boy and Archie has a whole bunch of misconceptions about retarded people—at the time we weren’t mentally challenged or developmentally challenged. But Archie decided that the boy had done something inappropriate with Gloria, with his daughter, which was not true but he just misread what happened. Anyway, he gets the kid fired and Carroll said, ”You can’t have Archie do this. He can’t hold up as a character if he’s doing these incredibly stupid, cruel things to people all the time.” One of the writers said, “How about if Archie thought he was doing something good for the kid and then this happened?” He said that would be different. Then he talked a little bit more and said, ”You guys go home now and we got to write and we’ll see you tomorrow.” I thought, “Oh my God, we only have five days and we just lost one and they’re going to rewrite the whole script so I can’t even study it.” So they did and they rewrote it and it was much better. They set it up that Archie was trying to encourage the boy to stand up for his rights as a working man because he wanted him to take a break. He said, “I can’t do that, Mr. Bunker.” He said, “Oh, come on. You deserve a break. Sit down and relax.” It ended up being an incredibly collaborative atmosphere.
RM: After we did [All In The Family], that ended up being a real love fest all around. Me and Norman, Norman and me, Rob Reiner, everybody liked everybody. So about six or seven months later I moved out to L.A. and I got a call that Norman wanted to see me. I came in and he said “ABC has given me a property that they just optioned to make into a TV series. It’s from a play called Hot L Baltimore, and I want you to be in it.”
Very interesting show. It’s “Hotel” with the E missing. Hot L Baltimore. It was about a rundown hotel which had become kind of a residential not quite welfare but almost welfare hotel with a very bizarre collection of people. It was a quite old gay couple, two prostitutes, a black power radical—in the original play there was a young lesbian girl but she was changed into just a young girl. Why that I was I don’t know—and the desk clerk who was kind of the central hub of the story. The desk clerk was played by Jamie Cromwell. That was his first big thing. Conchata Ferrell played April, the main of the two prostitutes, and my character didn’t exist in the [stage] show.
Norman said, “What I want is I want a character who will be the way in for the audience because it’s a very weird collection of people.” So he made me the son of the woman who owned the hotel who she had sent to the hotel to learn the business in a place that he couldn’t hurt himself or anybody else. So I was like the straight guy but it turned out I ended up being one of the weirdest characters on the show for a lot of reasons.
They had no lead time. You know, ABC gave [Lear] 13 shows on the air and gave him about a month-and-a-half start prior to air. I mean it was a little more than that. Basically they almost never had scripts ready to go. We were behind all the time. The first show took 14 or 15 days to shoot, which should have been a five-day shoot. It was insane because the set was enormous and very unlike anything that had ever been done on a sitcom before, and nobody knew how to do a show with this many characters. Barney Miller had either just started or was about to start, which was a show with quite a few characters but nothing like the number of regular characters on this show. At first what they tried to do was have some kind of a storyline for all of us. They realized it’s impossible. We have to focus on one or two storylines per episode. So there was a lot of getting used to it. The first three or four shows, it’s not that they weren’t good. We hadn’t found our feet yet and then we started doing some really good stuff.
I moved out to L.A. in July and Hot L Baltimore started in September or October. So I had done a few things. I’d done a Mary [Tyler Moore]. I’d done a Waltons. I hadn’t done a Rhoda yet I don’t think.
AVC: But it was enough to lead you to believe that this is where you needed to be.
RM: Oh, yeah. I knew that this was probably the right place. I did my first movie during that time too. A movie called Whiffs, which very few people ever saw.
So we were making these shows and it was a lot of work but it was a lot of fun, and it really started getting good. We thought okay, this is great. Then we started airing when we had about three shows in the can. So we were really racing to keep going. By the time the fourth show aired, they changed our time slot and they put us up against The Rockford Files, which was horrible. It was the number-one rated show on television. It was a Friday night, number two, where you have a very small audience. Plus our audience was young college students and folks like that who, Friday night, they weren’t sitting home watching TV and nobody had a recorder.
So we had a small but rabidly loyal audience. I don’t know exactly what happened. This was ABC and Norman’s first dance together and ABC just kind of went, “no.” They announced the cancellation after six shows. So then you’re just riding a dead floating body down the river. There’s nothing there.
RM: It was not long after that that I did the Rhoda or maybe I had done Rhoda already. Then Norman came to me. I got a call from his office. Could I come in and have a meeting? Let’s have lunch. So we’re sitting up there eating bad Chinese food and he says to me, while we were shooting Hot L Baltimore, he made a pilot that Lew Stadlen, a friend of mine, was playing a role in. So I went to the taping of the pilot and it was his show called Three To Get Ready with Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, Pat Harrington, Lew, and a woman named Marcia Rodd, who was this kind of talking out of the side of her mouth divorcee pal to Bonnie. Bonnie was a divorced woman with a kid, you know same basic setup as One Day At A Time except a couple of things. She was a registered nurse and a way of making a living and she only had the one kid.
Lew was this doctor she worked with who was this kind of hapless suitor. He had this crush on her and Marsha was this kind of upstairs neighbor who was her pal and who had this really flirty relationship with Schneider, rest in peace, the super.
Norman said to me, “The show didn’t sell but I’m making another pilot and I want you to play a combination of the part that Marsha played and the part that Lew played. So you’re going to be this kind of funny, smart guy, who also has a big crush on her.” I was married to woman at the time who was older than I was and Bonnie was older than I was. I said, “You know what’s interesting to me, we’d be doing something about an older woman and a younger man because I haven’t seen that.” He said, “That’s great. That’s what we’ll do.”
I said, “What’s this guy do, do you think?” He said, “I think he’s a cop.” Biggest mistake of my life: I said, ”What if he was the lawyer who got her her divorce?” which I thought would be interesting. He loved that idea but why it was the biggest mistake is because if I played a cop in that I would have played lots and lots of cops in my career. But instead I played a lawyer and I played a few cops but mostly I played a lot of lawyers. [Laughs.]
AVC: You were one of the stars of the show the first year. Then at some point you were off the show. How did that evolve?
RM: Here’s what happened. We came in to read the pilot and by now I understood how this worked. We read it cold and while we’re reading it, I realized that I’m proposing to her on the pilot episode. We finished and I said to Norman, “If he’s proposing to her she’s never going to say yes. The show is about a woman on her own.” So an unmarried woman raising her kids, unmarried being the key thing. I said, “She’s going to have to refuse him constantly. If she does he’s going to look like an idiot and she’s going to look like an idiot for wanting to keep him around because he’s such a weak simp.” Norman said, “It’s really romantic. It’s wonderful. I love it.” I said, “Wouldn’t it be better if we just had this relationship but I knew she didn’t want to get married again? I just got her a divorce, of course she doesn’t want to get married right away. How stupid am I?” He said, “No. It’ll be great.”
So I propose like five times in the first 13 episodes or six times. I mean every time there was another proposal I’d go, “Oh my God.” So finally one day I said to Norman, “You’re painting this character into a corner. There’s no place to go with this guy. He’s a loser.” So on the seventh or eighth episode, they wrote a show where I have an affair with someone else in the building. A woman that he meets and kind of has a nice thing with him and I end up having an affair with her and Bonnie finds out but the setup up to that point is that she and I have never done anything, not a thing except for kiss. That was made very, very clear repeatedly that I was not getting through the door on that issue. In fact, it was a show where she goes away for a weekend with this pilot that she meets and she’s all telling me about how great it was and I’m looking at her like, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you telling me about this?”
I said to Norman, “Let me understand something,” because in this episode of this show with the affair with the other woman she gets hugely pissed off at me and then in the original script I come back and I beg her forgiveness. I went crazy. “What the fuck is this?” I said, “She won’t have a relationship with him, a grown up, physical relationship with him but she’s entitled to be jealous of him when he has an affair with somebody else? What kind of sense does that make?” Then I said, “Why can’t they just sleep together?” He said, “I don’t think she would do that.” I said, “She slept with a fucking guy she didn’t know.” He said, “Yeah, she would sleep with someone she didn’t know, but David she has real feelings for.“
He and I had a really big fight. We made up but I knew this character was dead from that moment. We rewrote that script and it ended up being kind of good because I came back in and I read her the riot act for being angry with me. I wrote the scene because I was so pissed off. [Chuckles.] I said, “I’m fucking writing it and you guys can throw it out, I don’t care but I want to get it set right once.” I did it and they took it and polished it a little. The best line was, “How can you accuse me of being unfaithful to you when you’ve never given me a chance to be faithful to you in the first place?”
Anyway, we have this big fight and I storm out. Then when Bonnie comes up to my apartment at the end of the episode she knocks on the door and says, “David, let me in.” I said, “No. I don’t want to talk to you.” She says, “Come on. Let me in.” “I don’t want to talk to you.” She says, “David, come on. I know you want to talk.” “No, I really don’t want to talk to you.” She says, “I say you want to talk to me. If I’m wrong will you open the door.” I said, “Yes.” She said, “I’m wrong.” I go, “Oh, fuck.” So I open the door and she comes in and the way we played the scene in the dress taping, Bonnie opens the door, comes in, turns around and locks the door again behind her. Then in the notes session between Norman said we couldn’t lock the door and we went, “What?” He said, “I don’t want to state absolutely that she’s there to have sex with you.” I just threw my hands up in the air and said “Okay.”
For the rest of that season everything was good, but I knew this character was dead in the water. They were starting to have trouble figuring out what to do with me. You know, I started becoming kind of a confidant to the girls. Basically all the juice in my character for the vast majority of the time I was on camera was me and Pat going at each other. That was great stuff but I was screwing Bonnie up. Her character, she couldn’t actually go and do stuff and be with other people or have a life because this schmuck was hanging around.
So we finished the season. I had hurt my back in an accident. I did the last two shows of the season in a back brace. So when the season was over, I was just on bed rest for a couple of weeks. I got a call from Norman’s office, could I come in and talk? I said “I really can’t. Maybe in a couple of weeks.” Then I got call back three minutes later saying, “Norman would like to know if he could stop by your house.” All I was trying to do was make my plan. When I first agreed to do the show, I said to Norman, “I know you can’t put this in the contract, but I want an agreement between us that if I come to you and I say I’m unhappy that you’ll write me off the show.” He promised he would do it.
So I was trying to figure out how to do that with him. We sit down in my living room. Well he sits and I’m lying down on the floor and we’re both drinking scotch and he says, “You were right and I was wrong.” I said, “About what?” He said, “I think we painted you into a corner and I don’t know what to do.” I said, “Write me off the show.” He said, “Well, I don’t really want…” I said, “Yes, you do, Norman. That’s why you’re here. Write me off the show.” He says, “Okay.”
I was fine with it. I figured I’d go back and do a couple of shows so they could write me off. I said, “Norman, don’t worry about that. I’ll give you two shows.” He said, “Ten.” I said, “No way. Two.” He said, “Eight.” I said, “Two.” He said, “Seven.” Then finally he said, “Four. Come on, you’re killing me.” I said, “Okay. Four.” So I went back and did four episodes and I said, “But you have to promise that you’re going to kill him. He has to be dead at the end of the last episode.” He said, “No.”
AVC: And you ended up coming back for an episode.
RM: I did, but that’s exactly what I was afraid of. I said, “Norman, if you don’t, you’re going to ask me to come back at some point. You’re going to offer me a lot of money when I need it and I’m going to end up doing it and I’m going to hate you.” That’s exactly what happened. I did one more show like three years later or something.
AVC: So, no regrets leaving the show?
RM: Oh my God, no. Not at all. Listen, I am so grateful for One Day At A Time, even though for years and years and years people would go, “Oh, you were on One Day At A Time.” I [am on the show] for about seven months and then this haunts me for the rest of my life. No, I had no regrets. I was very grateful. In a very real way Norman godfathered me into my career. He was the best mentor anybody could have ever had. At one point, he asked me to come and work directly with him and stop being an actor because our brains were similar. I wasn’t ready to do it. That I didn’t have a regret about but I certainly thought about it later like what a schmuck I was. But you know, like I said to you early on, I consider anybody who has been able to make a living in this business without having to do something else for a living for any period of time let alone 43 years would be a miracle. I’m one of the handful of survivors of the guys I came up with.
RM: I still to this day maintain that in that million-and-a-half feet of film that we shot, we thought we were making a great American film. I honestly believe that Michael [Cimino] was under a tremendous amount of pressure, and Michael’s response to pressure from what I saw was to double down and to get more aggressive and to get more kind of arrogant, but I don’t think it was real. I think it was the response to pressure.
He’d written this amazing script. The script was fabulous. You only got to read the script after you were hired. We all thought, “Oh my God, this is great.” We were all thrilled to be there. I’m telling you. I don’t think [cinematographer] Vilmos Zsigmond ever did a film that was better shot than this one. He did great stuff that he shot fabulously but nothing that was better than this.
Tremendous performances from a lot of people in this movie. Isabelle Huppert is astonishing. Kris is great though in my opinion Michael didn’t cut him great because Kris is best when he’s doing something. It was his life story by the way. It was a story about a rich kid, as well-educated as you could possibly be, who wants to be a shit kicker. So Kristofferson is basically a rich kid that goes to all these great schools and then ends up enlisting in the Army or Marines, ended up flying helicopters and spends the rest of his life trying to become a shit kicker. He was so connected to this guy; it was a brilliant casting choice. Jeff Bridges was great in this. Mickey Rourke—first great performance from Mickey I think. A lot of people, Geoffrey Lewis. One great performance after another. I’ll stack that performance up against anything I ever did and against a lot of stuff that other people did. I was very proud of that performance.
This is all my observation and opinion: While Michael is prepping the film, he wins the Academy Award [for The Deer Hunter]. It goes from whatever it was initially, like a 15 million dollar budget, to a 35 million dollar budget because he won the Academy Award. Now it’s huge in scope and this and that. It ended up costing over 50 million. Nothing had ever come close to that prior to that. During the course of this, he did a lot of things that were incredibly indulgent. There are 49 takes of Kristofferson cracking a whip over and over.
I’m killed in the movie in this very violent, incredible scene and I get shot to pieces by this guy and so I had like 25 hits on my body and in my head and face, blood bags and hits and explosions all over me. Every time we shot it, it was an hour-and-a-half reset. I had to take all the makeup off, redo the makeup, put all the hits on, redo the makeup over the hits, when we’re an hour-and-a-half from where we’re living up in the mountains of Montana and a 45-minute horseback ride or four-wheel drive ride out into the mountains. I told them the day before when we were out there, “What we doing about where I’m going to do the makeup?” They said, “What do you mean? You’re going to do it in the makeup trailer.” I said, “That’s fucking crazy. It’s 45 minutes back and forth each way. Get a camper and park it out there.” So they found one and I did all these changes. I don’t know what we would have done if that hadn’t have happened. I mean, nobody even thought of that. It was ridiculous.
So I finish. I’d run right back into the camper. They’d strip all the stuff off, clean me up. Meanwhile, they take my jacket and my shirt and they had two sets of those. They’d be rigging the next one. After the third take I said, “How many ears do you have?” Because they blow my ear off as part of the thing. He said seven. I said, “Tell them you have five.” He said, “No. I’ll get fired if I tell them that.”
We did seven fucking takes of this. Now, I did 10 takes of the scene that didn’t end up in the movie that was a great scene. It was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life as an actor, bar none. I know it’s easy to say that because no one ever saw it, but the guys who were there saw it. I had a whole crew crying over and over again through this sequence. It was a solo scene. I play this Irish immigrant guy who was the station master in this little town in Casper, Wyoming. I find out that these bad people are on their way to Johnson County and I’m pretty sure they’re going to kill a whole lot of people there. I don’t want to be involved because I know this is going to be very bad for me if I get involved. I make a decision that I’m going to go and warn them.
So I come into my office and I’m wearing my station master’s outfit and my hat and everything. I come in and I’m talking to myself. The way I played it the first time we rehearsed it, I came in having made my mind up that I was going to go. I’m going, “Fuck it, I don’t want to be involved.” But while I’m saying I don’t want to be involved I’m getting stuff out of drawers, I’m putting stuff away. The last thing I do has to do with the hat. I take one hat off and I put my civilian hat on and I go out the door. Michael says to me, “That was great, but I want to see you make the decision.” So we rehearsed it again. I come in not knowing what I’m going to do. The scene took four minutes of my going, “What am I going to do?” The first version took about 40 seconds. So I did it and he said, “That’s the scene.” I said, “Michael, you’re never going to use this. Thank you but you’re never going to use this. This is so long.” He said, “No, you don’t understand, Richard. You were the first person that we’ve gotten to know well in the film to get killed. I need it to really mean something. This is the scene that’s going to really make it mean something.”
So we shot this 10 times and I’m falling apart just shy of becoming hysterically sobbing but not going all the way there. We cut and he’d go, “Let’s go again.” It was one thing after another. I’m doing this over and over and the crew was just devastated watching this. It was a really touching scene. I rigged the whole thing where I go to take a tobacco pouch out of a drawer and there’s a little feminine rosary tied up in it. That’s a whole backstory that I have but it didn’t matter. You didn’t have to know what it was about. Was it a wife? Was it my mother’s? Was it a sister’s? It doesn’t matter. It was just great stuff.
I go to put my big, black cowboy-looking hat on but I still have my station master’s hat on. I just reached up and slipped the hat out from underneath the other one as I settled it on my head. Again, it was just this wonderful visual moment of a guy giving something up and making a choice. So it was a great scene and Michael knew it was a great scene. After we’d done nine of them he came up to me and he said, “I have this scene. I totally have it. Do you have one more?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll do one more but I can’t do anymore.” So we did 10 takes of this. Then I said, “Can’t we do one where I do it the other way?” He said, “No.”
When I came in to loop the film the first time before the catastrophe, Michael’s first word out of his mouth was “I have tried the scene all over the film. I put it everywhere. I could not figure out how to make it work.” I said, “I knew it. You couldn’t take that much time with him.” He said, “No, I couldn’t.” I said, “Look, I get that. It’s okay. Can you give me just one take, a print of one take just so I can have it so I can put it on my reel?” He said, “No, I can’t because they want me to make a six-hour miniseries out of this and when I do the scene is going back in.” I said, “Michael…” He said, “No, really. I’m telling you.”
So cut to opening night in New York City, here’s what went wrong. He does this four-hour movie and he doesn’t let anybody see it. Not a friend, not a critic. The critics are killing him because [usually] they would see the thing and then they would have a few days before the picture opened so they could get their review written and get it in. He was forcing them to watch this movie until like midnight and then try and make a morning paper. It was stupid. He was so paranoid at that point, I think. That had to do with all the pressure.
It’s still a magnificent failure in my opinion. What happened was the critics, the New York critics especially, destroyed the film. They were so furious with him. There was stuff you could pick on and if you went into it with an attitude of “Prove to me that you deserve to be treated this way, mister hotshot fucking Academy Award winner,” they came out saying “This guy’s a phony. It’s bullshit.” But it’s not. It’s really not. They pulled the film after two days and they made Michael recut it to a two-and-a-half hour nothing. It was horrible. The story couldn’t be told in two-and-a-half hours, the story of all these people at this critical moment in the development of the country in the west and immigration from Europe and all this stuff. It was all swirling together. It was this huge, huge canvas and this huge story.
Karel Reisz saw the movie. He was a wonderful director. I did a film called Who’ll Stop The Rain and he did The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Morgan and a bunch of terrific films. I gave him a piece of film from it. I had a big clip of my stuff. When he saw that clip he said, “Oh my God, I didn’t realize it was a Russian film.” That’s what it is. If you watch it like a Russian film you go, “Ahhh! Genius.” But if you watch it like an American cowboy movie you go, “What the fuck.”
Look, he was paying homage to Peckinpah. He was paying homage to John Ford. He was trying to say we need this as part of our ongoing dialogue about who we are as a people. That’s what the movie was supposed to be. It could have been that. It just went off the rails. Like I said, I think it’s a magnificent mess.
AVC: You did an All My Children episode one year and then got brought back a couple years later. How different is that experience from doing dramas and movies?
RM: I would never ever, ever, ever, ever do it again. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. I have such respect for people who do it, who can do it. What happened was they caught me at a good moment. I could use the money and this came along and it was with Susan and I thought, “Susan Lucci. I have to do this. I can’t pass that up.” It was great and she was great but I never had an experience like that where I felt so… I mean I’ve been doing this shit for a long time. I know how to do it, but I didn’t know how to do that. That was really hard for me.
AVC: They’re shooting quick and changing things on the fly and you’re basically one take or two takes and out.
RM: That’s totally the story. If people don’t actively knock the scenery over and they get the words out in something approximating the right order, you’re moving on. Rehearsal consists of, “Okay, Richard, you come in here. You stand here. Say the line. Then you go over here. Susan, cross behind the desk, say the line. Good. Let’s go.” That’s it. I mean God knows I’ve done tons of schlock during the course of my career and stuff that’s been very low budget and really pressed for time, but I’ve never had an experience like this. I kept saying to people, “How do you do this?” I said to Susan, “How do you do it?” I don’t recall exactly what she answered me but it was something like “Close my eyes and think of England. You just do it.”
She was extraordinary. She wouldn’t look at the scene until you walked in to rehearse it. It was amazing to me. That’s the impression I got anyway. I’m really, really glad I did it. I’m grateful I got the opportunity to do it because I know this now. If anybody ever asked me to do a daytime show again I would go no, no. I can’t do that. Not because it’s beneath me. It’s above me. It’s beyond my resources.
RM: Maybe if I’d gone in younger, I wouldn’t have had that feeling, but I’ve seen an enormous amount of changes since the early-’70s in how this stuff is shot. I did the first TV movie ever shot in 18 days; before this film the normal length of shooting a TV movie was between 21 and 26 days. We shot a full-up, two-hour TV movie in 18 days with Donald Sutherland playing the lead, who had never worked on television before.
People who just wanted to make it work and knew it was going to be a real challenge. We were on the beach the first day and Donald and I are playing best friends our whole lives. We met each other for 10 seconds the night before and we’re sitting on a beach lining up a shot that we shoot a few minutes later, never having had a conversation with each other and then end up going skinny dipping in the Pacific Ocean buck-ass naked, not knowing who the other person is.
Donald said to me, “How do you do this?” I said, “You just do it. If you’re really not happy with how it’s going, blow it up. Don’t let the take get finished.” Sally Struthers told me that. Before we went out to shoot the All In The Family dress taping, I said, “What happens if I make a mistake?” She said, “Oh, just say ‘fuck’ and then they can’t use it.” I said, “Okay,” and I did.
After three days of shooting with Donald, I was the only one he worked with for the first three days of the movie because of the crazy schedule. We [shot] a lot of this stuff, some of it incredibly intense and emotional. We had never had a conversation during that whole time. We didn’t have time. He had a late call the next day and he knew I was leaving. He said, “You want to have dinner?” I said, “Great.” So we went out to dinner. He says, “How did you do this?” I said, “What?” He said, “How were you able to be this guy? How were you able to be my best friend?” I said, “This is what I do, Donald. It’s my job to show up and be the person who I’m supposed to be.”
RM: I used to be the youngest person on the set. Now I’m very often the oldest person on the set. I feel lucky about that, to be honest. Lena [Dunham], by the way is a doll to me. So much fun to work with and really open. She shares this with Jill, in that both of them are really scary great writers who are completely not wedded to a single word they write. They’re just wide open to anything that happens if what happens is interesting. That was my experience with her. I was so thrilled to be on that show. That one I actually auditioned for. I didn’t know who she was and there were these three young women sitting on the couch and the casting director. It’s very rare in New York where you get to be in the room with the actual people. Most of the time you’re doing this to a camera and with a casting director. So that was already good.
Then I’m doing this stuff and I’m doing it so ugly and smarmy and I don’t know that it’s her but one of them is just rolling off the couch laughing. So I figure I’m doing all right. Then I finish and she goes, “Thank you so much for coming in. I have so much respect.” She is an encyclopedia of my work. She doesn’t have to look at IMDB. She knows everything I’ve ever done, it’s terrifying. Then they called me up to do it and I came in and she went, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re here. It’s so great.” It was the first season but the two shows I did were the first two shows that she had not directed. I was amazed how okay she was with that, how she was letting the director do his job. I thought she’s going to be pulling one hat off and putting the other, never did it. She was just great and how game she was. I’m there. I’m feeling her up and she’s like, “Can we do that again?” I go, “Yeah.” It was so great.
So I did that. I did Bored To Death with Jason [Schwartzman] and Zach Galifianakis and those guys. I mean, how lucky can you be that you get to be the old guy? I get to be Robert Preston to them now. That’s what I feel. My job is to pass on what Preston and other people gave to me, which was show up, take the work seriously, don’t take yourself seriously, and have a good time and be of service. Be there to support.