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: Saul Rubinek began his acting career in Canada, starting out in the theater and occasionally picking up on-camera jobs to supplement his income, but he shifted gears over time and eventually began securing more movies and TV work. The ’80s had barely begun when he secured his first feature film as a leading man (Soup For One), but Rubinek truly found his footing and began to shine as a character actor, gaining fame from performances in such critically acclaimed motion pictures as Wall Street, Unforgiven, and True Romance. In more recent years, Rubinek has been a small-screen staple, most notably as Artie Nielsen on the Syfy series Warehouse 13, and he can currently be found hunting Nazis next to Carol Kane and Al Pacino on Amazon’s Hunters.
A.V. Club: How did you find your way into this series? Did they come looking for you, or was it an audition situation?
Saul Rubinek: Yeah, there was an audition situation. One where I kind of felt I was born to play this role, and so did they. [Laughs.]
AVC: So there really were people hunting Nazis in the ’70s?
SR: I don’t know about how much there were Nazi hunters during that period. But people may not be aware that there was such a thing called Operation Paperclip, where the CIA and the American government did look for the best brains out of the Nazi regime that might help them with the coming Cold War against the Russians. And they “paper-clipped,” so to speak, the Nazi backgrounds of many of the people that they recruited, paid, and introduced to NASA and many other aspects of the American war effort against the Russians.
AVC: So there are elements of truth to Hunters, then?
SR: Well, it isn’t a documentary series. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s based on and inspired by true events. There were certain people that could go after Nazis in a legitimate way, like Simon Wiesenthal did. But these are vigilantes, and we’re dealing with a revenge scenario in this series, where the consequences of using violence for revenge visit the vigilantes. As violent as the series is—and occasionally and provocatively humorous—the underlying themes are the cost and consequences of revenge. And my character, Murray, is a Holocaust survivor who, because of this tragedy, is now an atheist and who goes to the precipice of where revenge can take him.
AVC: We try to go back as far in an actor’s on-camera career as possible, and based on IMDb at least, it seems to have been a program called Red Emma.
SR: I was a founder of a theater called the Toronto Free Theater, where a wonderful playwright named Carol Bolt wrote a play called Red Emma. I had a very small role in it. It was directed by a man who was a documentary filmmaker who was making what I think was his first drama. But his name was Allan King. With two L’s. So not the comedian, but the Canadian director. But there was a filming of it, and if I worked on it for a full day, that would’ve been a lot! [Laughs.] But that was one of the first original Canadian plays that was filmed in that period of the early 1970s. I was very young.
AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?
SR: I was an immigrant kid. I was born in a refugee camp. I didn’t speak English until I was around six or so. I grew up on the streets of Montreal, speaking Yiddish and kind of street French. While in Montreal, I got into a lot of fights because I was a street kid. My father had been an actor in Yiddish theater until Hitler stopped all that, and now he came to a new country, and he had to work different jobs because he didn’t speak English very well and couldn’t be an actor anymore. But he always had this love of theater, and when he coincidentally met somebody who was involved in children’s theater when I was about 7 or 8… Now that we were living in a new town, my propensity for getting into brawls even at that young age had to be stopped, so just to get me away from the kind of street kid I’d become, I ended up in the children’s theater classes with other kids. And my metaphor for it would be that somebody threw me into water, and I didn’t know I was a fish until then. [Laughs.] And I never left that environment. It was something that I fell in love with pretty quickly, telling stories. And I’ve done it ever since then.
AVC: There are a couple of other early roles that are particularly fascinating because of your co-stars, the first being The Rimshots.
SR: Wow. That brings back memories. Before there was SCTV, and before Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas, and Andrea Martin became household names, they were part of Second City, doing improv. I was not part of Second City. I was part of another theater group that was also doing improv, but different kinds, not necessarily comedy stuff. We knew each other, and I was an admirer of theirs. Somewhere in the middle of the 1970s, a sitcom pilot was created about a traveling comedy troupe that was made up of us, that amazing cast. We shot the pilot, and then it was—for all kinds of reasons—recast, and they did it as a series with a different title. But I have a copy of The Rimshots. It’s a very early half-hour single-camera sitcom which they eventually turned into a four-camera show.
One of the reasons we didn’t want to do it at the time was because they wanted to do two shows a week on four-camera, and we thought the quality would go down, It was very weird that the CBC in those days was unsophisticated when it came to actors. We read in the paper that the show had been picked up for series, and they had no option on our contract. Usually a network will have an option on an actor’s participation before shooting a pilot. In that case, they did not. So we were able to get out of it and do other things. But I loved doing the pilot. In fact, the director of that pilot was a man named George Bloomfield, who went on to direct the majority of SCTV.
AVC: The details are a little sketchy, but it looks like you worked with another future-SCTV connection right around the same time: You and Martin Short co-starred in an episode of Peep Show.
SR: It was actually called “So Who’s Goldberg?” It was a one-act play written by a guy called Louis Del Grande that I had performed onstage. CBC was doing an anthology series called Peep Show—a young David Cronenberg was one of the people who was doing the series—and this play, which they adapted for the series, was about one character who’s gay who picks up another character who’s gay, and they’re kind of denying that they’re gay. And then I did another episode of Peep Show. But that was a very funny Pinter-esque comedy that’s since disappeared. I mean, CBC used to wipe tapes out for inventory reasons. It’s extraordinary the history that they lost in those days because of some bureaucratic idiocy. So much original stuff… like, say, one of the first pieces of television that Marty Short ever made! It may be gone.
But later that year, I was in another episode of Peep Show that was probably the first time a character who’s gay—who I played—had to come out, and the only problem the character had was that he needed to come out. That was 1977 or so, and that… was not the usual fare for Canadian television. Or anywhere else, actually, in those days. So I was very proud of that series. But it made sense, because the head of drama at that time was a guy called John Hirsch, who was one of the founders of many Canadian theaters, and he was gay himself, and also a Holocaust survivor. He opened up the doors to all of us in those days, including the actors from The Rimshots and all those actors and directors who were on Peep Show. The mid- to late 1970s was a very interesting time in Canadian television. Certainly more interesting than what was going on in feature films in Canada.
SR: Interestingly, I just met Quentin Tarantino for the first time. Even though I was in True Romance—directed by Tony Scott and written by Tarantino—28 years ago, I’d never met him before! But I went to a screening of Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood and met him, and he knew who I was immediately...and he brought up Soup For One! Because he worked in a video store, of course, Quentin probably watched the entire inventory of that store. [Laughs.] Which may be one of the secrets of his brilliance. But he brought that up. I hadn’t thought about it in years.
It was the first major leading role for me, but very few people saw it. It was a Warner Brothers film written and directed by a young man named Jonathan Kaufer. It starred me and the late Marcia Strassman, shot in New York, about a lonely guy looking for love… It was a very funny premise: He eventually goes to the police department and says there’s a missing person and gets a sketch artist to draw her, and they think there’s really a missing person, but he’s just drawing a fantasy, the missing person in his life. Once he has that drawing, they kick him out, but eventually he runs into this woman—Marcia Strassman—and it follows their love affair in New York. It’s very Woody Allen-ish, and it’s a quite a funny movie that I did that no one saw. [Laughs.] It was made very cheaply, but it was made for Warner Brothers, and it was really the beginning of my film career in the United States after being a Canadian actor for years and years.
SR: We called it Death Shit when we were shooting it. [Laughs.] Starring a theater friend of mine, Nick Mancuso. Great cast. George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Kate Reid… wonderful people. [Starts to laugh.] I mean, it’s a horror movie, a Nazi ghost ship thing, and I’m the ship’s comic. I’m killed right away. I think it’s within the first ten minutes that I’m dead. But I remember we were shooting it in Alabama, in the gulf, and I went to the office, which was some trailer, where I had to sign some papers, releases and stuff, and nobody else was there. And I’m reading the document, but right out the window of the trailer I could see the five major cast members in the water… and the report on the desk said, “Under no circumstances should any of the cast be in these polluted waters.” And yet there they all were, that information having been kept from them!
SR: My very first movie was Agency, with Robert Mitchum and Lee Majors. That was pretty cool. And that was a very funny thing. I was offered that role. I didn’t audition for it. It was a terrific role. Not a very good movie, but a good role. And I was really thrilled to meet Robert Mitchum, as you can imagine. I remember meeting him and him saying, “Oh, you’re playing Goldstein.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You’re the best-written role in this fucking movie. You better be the best fucking thing in the movie!” And I said, “Don’t worry, Mr. Mitchum: I will be!” [Laughs.] He liked that. He liked me saying that.
Then I watched him working on the script, and I thought, “Isn’t that interesting? This guy, even though it’s not a great-written script as thrillers go, he’s still going over it with a fine-toothed comb.” And then I noticed he was writing “N.A.R.,” turning the page, and then writing “N.A.R.” again. I said, “What is that?” He said [Growling.] “No acting required.”
SR: You’ve got to remember that there was no Tarantino movie out when I auditioned for that, because Reservoir Dogs hadn’t come out yet. That was two or three months away. So nobody had read that kind of strange mixture of humor and brutality and violence and humor in a script before. And I was really uncertain about it.
I also had an incident at the audition with Tony Scott—and I’ve told this story before, but it’s very funny—because he stopped me in the middle of the audition, and with his cockney accident, he told me that I’d really nailed “Joel.” And the character’s name was Lee. So I said, “Joel?” And he said, “Joel Silver was who the character’s based on. I just worked with Joel on The Last Boy Scout,” And I said, “Well, I don’t know who Joel Silver is. I’m not trying to nail him. I don’t know who he is, and I’ve certainly never heard him or seen him.” He said, “Oh, well, that doesn’t matter. But I’ll give you a couple of pointers about him.” I said, “Oooookay…”
And then he started doing an imitation of somebody I’d never met, asking me to copy him copying somebody. And I said, “Maybe you’re looking for a different kind of actor, because there are a lot of actors who are great at impressions and who are much better at it than me, and with all due respect, I don’t know how to do that.” And he turned to the casting director—and I didn’t know Tony Scott’s sense of humor at the time to know he was kidding, so I took him seriously—and he said, “I thought you said he wanted this part.” And I just saw red. I said, “Hey, Tony, not at any fucking price.” And I got up to leave, and he said, “Well, that’s him. That’s the character.” And he cancelled all the other auditions, and I ended up with the role. Because I told Tony Scott to fuck off. Which is something I don’t recommend to actors at auditions to try! [Laughs.] It only worked because I didn’t do it on purpose. I was angry!
SR: The person casting Wall Street was a wonderful woman named Risa Bramon; Risa was a casting director, but she was also directing me in a play in New York at the time, and she brought me in. I don’t remember if Oliver Stone had won an Oscar for Platoon yet, or if the film had just come out, but I know it was right around that time, and everybody wanted to be in Wall Street, I do remember that. But you couldn’t get a script when you were auditioning. You would only get Scene 5. But first you had to meet him.
So I met him, and he seemed to know some of my work, and he said, “Do you have anything against small roles?” I said, “Not really. It depends on the role.” He said, “Well, you can play a number of things in this. Here’s a bunch of different characters. Go and take a look at them.” And I actually got a script to read! But I couldn’t take it away. So I had to go to another room. And when I read the script, I came back, and I said, “Okay, this is the character I want to play. He’s Gordon Gecko’s lawyer.” And he said, “Oh, no, no, no. You look like you’re in your early thirties. I’m looking for somebody who’s 60 for that.” And I said, “Well, that’s the role I want.”
And I’d kind of already sussed out the kind of personality he had, and I wasn’t particularly deferential, because I didn’t think that would suit me, and I wouldn’t get anything from. So I said, “That’s the role I want to play.” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “Well, I’ve just come back from Poland, where I brought my parents—together with the CBC—to have a reunion with the farmers who hid them during the Holocaust. I shot that documentary and co-produced it, and I’m now I’m going to be doing a bit of editing on my own version, because the CBC’s got the right to do their own version and I’ve got the right to do mine, and I’ve somehow got to finance the whole post-production of this. And this character, the lawyer character, he works in a lot of different locations. It’s the role that’s going to pay me the most.” He liked that answer, and he cast me. And I was able to help finance the post-production because of how many weeks I worked on Wall Street. That’s pretty funny, right? And pretty mercenary. [Laughs.] But being mercenary is what got me the role!
SR: I don’t remember much about Nixon. The role I really wanted, oddly, I ended up playing in Dick, but I didn’t end up getting it for Nixon. Although [Stone] first considered me for Kissinger. But then he decided he wanted Paul Sorvino instead of me, so I said, “Fine.” But I ended up playing a small role in that. It wasn’t a very memorable experience for me, though, because I didn’t have much to do.
Dick was a different story, because working with Dan Hedaya was one of the highlights of my career. I mean, I saw an outtake of the two of us praying in the Oval Office where he and I could not stop laughing. He was a great Nixon. And look at the cast in there! You’ve got 18-year-old Kirsten Dunst, 18-year-old Michelle Williams, Will Ferrell, and God knows who else. Everybody’s in that fucking movie! It’s a brilliant cast. But at the time, it wasn’t that successful. It kind of fell between, because the people who would know about Watergate and would appreciate it were older and wouldn’t watch this teen comedy, and the teens didn’t know anything about Watergate, so they didn’t want to see it. But it’s kind of become a cult movie, and it’s really terrific. A very funny film.
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (2018)—“Frenchman”
SR: Well, that’s a highlight of memory. In fact, I’m about to go do a play—well, it’s five one-act plays—called A Play Is A Poem written by Ethan Coen which I did in the fall here in Los Angeles, and I’m going to be doing it at the Atlantic Theater in New York starting at the end of May. I’d auditioned for the Coen brothers a few times over my career and never gotten cast, and it just so happens that my first language—as I told you—was a combination of Yiddish and French, for me to do a French accent is nothing. I’m pretty fluent in French.
I had really brilliant costars in that stagecoach, but our particular piece was done like a one-act play, because in most of it we were just sitting opposite each other or sitting with each other. And, of course, we were the ones who got to rehearse it. We rehearsed it for a few days before production started, then went away, and then came back a few days before we started shooting. So it was a really interesting experience to shoot, and it was beautifully written material. And to watch how Ethan and Joel work so symbiotically together as co-writers and co-directors… That was really a great, great experience. I’ve only done two westerns in my life, and both of them were extraordinary.
SR: I was working with Jack Nicholson on a movie called Man Trouble. It was right before my daughter was born. My daughter Hannah, who plays my daughter in Hunters, was born in the middle of shooting Man Trouble. Jack and I became friendly, and he heard I was going to go audition for a film by Clint Eastwood—it wasn’t called Unforgiven yet—and he said, “If you’re gonna audition…” And he gave me some advice. And I took that advice. It was to do something that actors now do as a matter of routine but which was not done in 1991. He recommended that I do my own tape and not to go through a casting office.
Now, I know Jack Nicholson hadn’t auditioned in years, but he knew Clint, and he told me something really interesting. He said, “You’re not gonna meet him.” I said, “Why not?” I mean, I had enough of a reputation at that point where I didn’t have to be screened by a casting director, so I could go right to meeting the director. But sometimes, for whatever reason, if the director wasn’t available, you had to go into a casting office and get put on tape, and then the tapes are sent in. It was not a great process. But it’s never a great process, because you don’t have a chance to do it more than once, maybe twice, and you get a couple of notes. And it’s not beautifully lit, although it might be different now. But now it’s commonplace, obviously, for actors to self-tape themselves because the equipment’s really easy to get. You can do on your iPhone, and it’s probably much better equipment that they had in those days. But in 1991, that was not common.
I said, “Why won’t I meet him?” He said, “Well, I don’t think he meets actors.” But I later found out why he doesn’t meet actors and why he only auditions based on tapes. I did what Jack suggested. I made my own tape of the scene that did more than was required, more than the scenes that they asked for, which was another suggestion from Jack. So partly I owe Jack Nicholson for my getting that role in Unforgiven, because of his advice. It was really great advice! [Laughs.]
I got cast pretty quickly, and when I asked Clint why, he told me, “Your tape stood out.” I told him the Jack Nicholson story. And he said, “Yeah, well, it’s true! All the others looked alike. Yours stood out.” I said, “Great! But why don’t you meet actors? You’re an actor yourself!” And he said, “For that very reason. I can’t say no to people! I’d want to say ‘yes’ to everybody. I know what it’s like to be nervous in an audition. I spent so much of my life auditioning and not getting parts, so I really feel for actors, and I need a distance.” It was really interesting.
AVC: And how was the experience of actually working with him as a director?
SR: If he wasn’t a famous face… If you came to the set and knew the sociology of what people do on movie sets, it would take you probably a long time to figure out who the director was. [Laughs.] He has a crew that’s worked with him for many years, so it’s a very quiet, collaborative set. And it’s funny that it was very similar to that only other western I’ve done, which was also a very quiet, collaborative set. But the Coen brothers also work with a crew that they’ve worked with for years. When you trust people and you work with the same professionals over and over again, there’s a shorthand that’s created, and a way of working that operates not only in the field of making movies but also other professions that require collaboration between people and where conflict is kept to a minimum.
So the shooting of that was wonderful, although I have to tell you that… [Hesitates.] We all loved doing it, that’s for sure, but we knew we were doing a movie where Clint was going to end up shooting and killing an unarmed teenage kid. So our favorite phrase was “five people in France.” That’s what we said: “That’s who’s going to end up seeing this movie: five people in France.” [Laughs.] “That should be the title of the film.” Who knew that it was going to be as successful as it was? Of course, we all loved it, but we thought, “I dunno if the public in America is gonna be ready for their hero, Clint Eastwood, to be a bounty hunter who kills an unarmed kid?”
It was such a brilliant script. What I remember about it is that almost nothing was changed. Scripts would end up going out in rainbow colors, each color with a different rewrite date. But our script was all-white pages when we started, and it was all white pages when we finished, meaning that nothing was changed. I got to meet David Peoples, who’d written it in the late ’70s on spec. It was originally bought by Francis Ford Coppola as a project for Francis to direct, but then he didn’t make it for whatever reason, and sold it outright to Clint, who waited himself 10 years until he felt he was old enough to play the role. And when I got to meet David Peoples a couple of years after filming, he told me that he ain’t never had that experience. [Laughs.] Where something that he’d written was just what was onscreen. You can imagine how emotional and amazing that experience was for a screenwriter.
AVC: And how was Gene Hackman? People say he’s very intense, but that he’s a nice guy if you don’t get on his bad side.
SR: He’s a great artist. I mean, actually a painter. And he draws. He drew a sketch of me as my character that I have framed here. He was not particularly talkative off-screen. He’s quite a private person, I found. But as soon as the cameras were rolling, he was so present that you immediately had to come up. The bar got raised right away, in terms of your having to be in the moment with him. That’s one of the reasons that I think he won an Oscar. He was hugely prepared.
I’ll give you a Gene Hackman story. A very simple one. The huge dialogue scene that he had to do in the jail scene with me and Richard Harris… That was a weather-cover day. He wasn’t supposed to shoot that scene that day. He was supposed to shoot something else, and then the weather changed, so he couldn’t shoot outside. So everything moved to the jail cell… and Gene had all that stuff ready. That was pretty cool. I mean, he had way more dialogue than me or Richard in the scene. It wasn’t as hard for us to learn our lines one the fly. But he couldn’t have done it on the fly. He had prepared. And he was great. I got to spend some time with him, and eventually I got to hear some great stories, like about how he was Dustin Hoffman’s roommate back in the Pasadena Playhouse days when they were young, struggling actors. So, yeah, it was an honor to work with him. He was great.
AVC: And you’d worked with Richard Harris before.
SR: I’d worked with Richard twice before. Yeah, I’ve seen Richard sober, not sober… [Laughs.] But that was the third time I’d worked with him, and he was hilarious to work with. Really fucking funny. I’ll tell you this Richard Harris story. He’d practice his lines, and he’d go, “What do you think, Saul? Should I do it this way? Or should I do it that way? No, listen to this!” And he’d do his lines, and then he’d want some feedback from me. I said, “Richard, you’ve forgotten that I worked with you twice before. I’m going to help you with your lines for the next hour, and by the time we shoot, I’m going to be completely lost, and no one will be able to take their eyes off you. So go fuck yourself. Figure it out all by yourself. I’m not helping you.” [Laughs.] I said, “I know all your tricks!” He just laughed, and he said, “Ah, I should’ve remembered. All right, I’ll go try this on somebody else then!” He was hilarious. And very generous. A great storyteller. A great guy.
Frasier (1999-2002)—“Donny Douglas”
AVC: When you got the role of Donny on Frasier, was it originally intended to be a long plot arc?
SR: No, it was initially just three episodes. But what was interesting about it was that because Daphne had had hunky boyfriends before that, their idea was to really create a threat for Niles, who was secretly love with Daphne. Maybe if they didn’t have a hunky guy, then the relationship between Daphne and Donny would be taken more seriously. And it worked so well that they realized they could continue that arc into a marriage and see what would happen. So that’s why it lasted as long as it did: It was a very successful idea on their part to have this mismatch of me, the character actor, and the very beautiful Daphne, because it was a relationship that was obviously not just based on superficial things. It was more serious, which really made it a threat to Niles, and created a really interesting tension and great humor on the series that the audience loved.
It was one of those shows where it was kind of like lightning in the bottle. Now, you’ve got to remember, of course, that Kelsey [Grammer’s] character had come from Cheers, so there was already a built-in audience, but… it was weird. We, the cast, didn’t have a long work week, because much of that show was spontaneous. Also, a lot of sitcoms of the day, like Seinfeld or Friends, they’d shoot almost three or four days out of the five. We really shot our little one-act play in front of an audience, did each scene a couple of times, and moved on. We were out of there in time to go and have a drink, we never stayed into the wee hours of the morning, and our rehearsal days—except for tech day—were never more than six-hour days. That was only three days a week. One day was a read-through, and then we could leave after the read-through. So the writers worked their asses off, and we as a cast were very spontaneous, so it had a real feeling of in-the-moment stuff because it wasn’t overworked, and also because the writing was so, so brilliant. It was a very special, once-in-a-lifetime experience to do that show.
You know, we were doing it for 300 people in the studio audience. But I remember going on a trip with a buddy of mine, getting away from my young kids at the time, just for a couple of days. We drove to Vegas so I could shoot craps, play some poker, and just get away. And I couldn’t cross the lobby of the hotel because of the people that recognized me! [Laughs.] I hadn’t really had that experience. It had just slipped my mind that millions and millions and millions of people were watching. Because the audiences for that show were huge. 10, 15, 20 million people were watching that every week! So I remember that. I went, “Oh, shit! Wake up, Saul! You’re on a big show!” But when you’re doing it front of a studio audience, you don’t think about it, you know?
SR: Warehouse 13 was one of the great experiences of my career. I was given a great role, and I had the great good fortune to have as my “sorcerer’s apprentice” Allison Scagliotti, who was only 18 when she started and did all the years with me and was so great to work with. In fact, she was just here the other day, doing a reading of a new play I’ve just written. So that was great. But what was really extraordinary about that show was that the Sci-Fi Network re-branded itself in the summer that Warehouse 13 premiered, calling themselves Syfy, which they took a little ribbing about. But I’m sure they laughed all the way to the bank. [Laughs.] The show was monumentally successful. It really changed a lot of things. And I was really proud of it because it was a family show. We’d go to conventions and meet fans who were really from the age of 6 through the age of 86, because it had something for everybody, on different levels. It was never too violent, but it was very funny. It had a great sense of humor.
Jack Kenny, who was the show runner for almost all of its life, is still my friend, and he was a great father figure for the show. Not only for the writers’ room, which was a very great group of people that he was able to nurture and bring along collaboratively, but he was also on the set most of the time, because they’d written the scripts early enough. This was a very unusual situation for me, in regards to people doing a television series. What I mean by that is, very often the writers are in a different city, and sometimes they’re in a different time zone, where the writers are in Los Angeles and you’re in New York or Toronto shooting on the set with a director who’s been given orders to “shoot it as written.” And you can’t get hold of people if something happens on the set, and if you need to make changes, then compromises are made, and all this stuff to do with the show.
Well, Jack and Syfy/NBC-Universal, for whatever reason, they had the money to start early enough so that they were far enough ahead on the scripts that Jack was able to be in Toronto with us, which meant that—as a head writer on a show—he was able to see things in rehearsal that happened spontaneously and immediately incorporate it into the writing of the show. Actors who came on the show as guests commented on it right away, because actors are used to not having that luxury and not having that ability to be spontaneous. But here they were able to, because of the culture that Jack Kenny created, along with the studio and the network. They created a culture where that kind of magic could happen. And that’s one of the reasons that the show was so successful: because of the spontaneity on the set.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1990)—“Kivas Fajo”
SR: Brent Spiner and I worked together on stage in 1979 at the Public Theater in New York. But we hadn’t worked together since, and there had been one season of Star Trek: The Next Generation at this point, which I’d watched and liked a lot.
I was on a plane, going to L.A. to visit a friend of mine. And on the plane I met another friend, Tim Bond, who I’d worked with in Ottawa years earlier in children’s theater. And he was coming to L.A. to direct his second episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And I said, “Wow! You know, I’m a friend of Brent Spiner’s, and I love the show. I would love to visit the set. Where are you shooting?” He said, “The Paramount lot.” I said, “Great!” He said, “I’ll tell Brent, and I’m sure he’ll be fine with it.”
So I went up to my friend’s house, where I was staying, and in those days there weren’t cell phones, really. Well, at 2 o’clock in the morning, the phone rang. My friends weren’t too happy about getting the phone call. [Laughs.] But it was an urgent call from Tim Bond. And I remember him saying, “How badly do you want to visit the set?” I said, “What the hell? Why, what happened?” He said, “My guest star”… he couldn’t work anymore… And Brent said, “Saul’s in town, so maybe?” So there was no audition process. I had some reputation at that time, so I was approved pretty quickly. And at two or three in the morning, I had to drive from wherever I was—Santa Monica or Malibu—and get costume-fitted and all that stuff, so I could start work. So that was an amazing experience for me. The whole show was almost a two-hander between Brent and I.
Several years later, we got to recapitulate that experience when he was cast for an entire season of Warehouse 13 as a dark character, a nemesis for me. So he and I got work together again, and that was great, too.
AVC: You were in the pilot for a TV version of Driving Miss Daisy.
SR: I was! I worked with Joan Plowright, who had already worked with my mother and father in a movie called Avalon. I was the first Jewish Boolie. [Laughs.]
What I remember about that pilot was that it was written by Alfred Uhry, it starred Robert Guillaume as Hoke, and it was the Zanucks who produced it, the same people who did the Oscar-winning movie. It was a high-quality script because it went back to the one-act play format, because we were doing it as a four-camera. A great script, a great story. But… Now, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there was a tremendous reaction against Driving Miss Daisy, the movie version, because it was about a servant in a house. There were a lot of objections to the content of that, even though it was a highly honored Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
It was a very well-done sitcom, really well-written. It should’ve been picked up. But it was shot on the night of the L.A. Riots. We went into the studio in the day, and by the time we came out from shooting it, L.A. was on fire that night because of the riots. Which was a harbinger of what was going to happen to the show. There was no way a show like Driving Miss Daisy, with that content, in a racially divided city, was going to get a pickup order. There was a coalition that came out against it: The NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League… A coalition of people had statements saying that the show should not be on the air. So it wasn’t on the air.
SR: When I met [director] Roger Spottiswoode, I was going to audition for two different roles. One was a Jewish guy who was in the CDC, and the other was a non-Jewish guy who was also in the CDC, kind of a bean-counter and an antagonist guy, who I much preferred. I said, “I really don’t want to audition for two roles, because my experience is that you end up with neither. My instincts are to go with the non-Jewish character. Do you have any objection with someone who looks like me playing this guy?” He said, “Not at all! Why are you interested in that one?” I said, “Well, he’s not a good guy. I like playing bad guys. They’re usually the more interesting roles. And this guy, he’s very bottom-line, he’s very resistant to change, he’s like, ‘Do you know how much this is gonna cost?’ And I think that’s an interesting character, given what’s happening in the AIDS epidemic.”
SR: Ticket To Heaven was based on a true story in a series of articles written in the newspaper by the guy my character was based on. It was about a guy who had gone into a Unification church retreat in order to rescue a friend who had already been caught up in the Moonies and then eventually kidnapped by his family and deprogrammers to get him out of that world.
It was made up of a lot of actors who were part of the alternative theater scene in Toronto. So it was a cast of actor who were really a theater troupe. We all knew each other from the theater. It was one of the first films that Kim Cattrall was ever in, the great actor Robert Joy was in it, Nick Mancuso was in it, who I was in Death Ship with. [Laughs.] In fact, that’s who I was visiting in L.A. when the Star Trek: The Next Generation thing happened!
But it was a group who knew each other from the theater world. It won the Best Picture award at the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars, and I won Best Supporting Actor. It was the beginning of a lot of our careers, in that way. It was a really well-done movie about that subject. You’d find that it holds up in many ways, that movie, if you saw it now. In fact, my wife Elinor told me that when she was at the University Of Toronto, it was kind of required viewing for undergraduates or freshmen, because there were a lot of Moonies recruiting people, and you wanted to understand something about how that worked. I actually went undercover at one point in prep for the role, to a Unification Church seminar, in order to see what it was like. It was a really intense experience.
What was really done in detail was that it showed the indoctrination techniques, which were prisoner-of-war techniques used by North Koreans to recruit people very quickly without using violence or torture: using lack of sleep, no protein, and not being alone, singing together, providing a feeling of community… It was called “snapping,” I believe was the phrase used by psychologists, about what happens to people when there’s a moment where they’re very vulnerable to suggestion. A physiological change can happen to people when they’re vulnerable, and they can actually be recruited and indoctrinated. It’s not an intellectual process alone. You need people who are ready for it. They were always looking for recruits who were educated but directionless and looking for purpose in life. People they could make use of. It was insidious. And the film showed not only how the recruitment could happen to a very bright guy, but it showed in detail what the programming was like, and the deprogramming sequence is extraordinary and will hold up today. It’s really just extraordinarily well done.