Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 1995
An interview with John Goodman. Everyone had input. “Oh, he seems like such a nice guy, just like Dan Conner on ‘Roseanne.'” “I hear he’s a big, warm teddy bear.” “PEOPLE said he hasn’t let success go to his head.” “Esquire said all these high-power women think he’s sexy.”
His response to all this? “I enjoy the work. The rest of it is crap….. I don’t think I’ve gotten into the star mentality. Some people can get in trouble with that. Whatever I have now probably won’t last. I’ve seen it all come and go.”
Right now, he’s riding a crest. He’s had huge successes on the big and little screen. Now he’s coming back to the stage, to play Falstaff at the Old Globe (“Henry IV, Parts I & II combined; through August 5).
If he hasn’t let success go to his head, it’s hard to tell. Before starting rehearsals, he went away on vacation. He needed an escape. Understood. What’s not understood is setting up five different appointments for a phone interview and not honoring any of them. Star mentality, anyone?
Goodman was busy “learnin’ to fish.” He, Annabeth (his wife of six years) and their four year-old daughter Molly have a house on a small lake in Bogalusa, Louisiana. “I’m no good at it,” he says of his fishing. “It’s gonna be like my golf game. It’s something I enjoy that takes a long time to learn, and is frustrating as hell. Kinda like sex.”
Sex is a funny topic for John Goodman these days. Everywhere you turn, you read about his new status as sex symbol. “I think it’s stupid,” the 43 year-old actor says dismissively. And have he and Roseanne brought new nobility or sensuality to the corpulent? “No. We haven’t changed any perceptions.”
You can talk to him about the fat jokes made incessantly about the character Sir John Falstaff, whose colossal body, which “lards the lean earth as he walks along,” houses a colossal personality. You can talk about how Goodman will pad his costume for the role. But you cannot talk about Goodman’s own fluctuating weight. He acknowledges that, when younger, he was buff and studly. And that is all. (“If you’re gonna talk about this, I’m gonna hang up”). End of that section of conversation.
On the subject of Falstaff, he is non-committal. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s greatest comical creations, a braggart soldier, a cynical realist, a fantastic liar, a persuasive rascal. Unlike his extensive preparation for a recent portrayal of Louisiana Sen. Huey Long in the TV movie “Kingfish,” Goodman did very little character work on Falstaff prior to rehearsals. “I’m just approaching the role as blankly as possible. I’m not bringing any preconceived notions. Jack [O’Brien] is a great director. I’ll put myself in his hands. Take input from everyone else. Whatever happens, happens. All I’m doing to prepare is getting up on the play and its historical background. I’m trying to get the political nuances. Then I’ll come in a blank slate.”
He considers Falstaff to be “kind of a leader of a bunch of drunks. The rat pack of the 15th century.” Does he relate to the character? “No.” Hasn’t he been known to drink and carouse (hanging out with fellow actor Bruce Willis and others)? “On occasion. People would hold me down and make me drink beer. I’ve been there, done it. I don’t miss it.”
Through the antics of Falstaff and his mates, comedy and history are joined in the Henry IV plays. At the outset, Prince Hal (Henry, Prince of Wales) is a boisterous youth surrounded by bad companions (Falstaff et al.). When faced with responsibility, he matures rapidly, and when he becomes king, he repudiates his wild companions.
“His rejection of Falstaff is inevitable,” says Goodman. “Elizabethan audiences would understand that better. The King is not a mortal man; he’s touched with divinity. He has to be above all other men, and renounce all those other things. He has an early speech saying he’ll renounce and shine brightly; something like that. And he did. He became one of England’s great kings… It’s all open to interpretation — what Jack wants to do rather than what the actors wanna do.”
What O’Brien wants to do is recreate a Shakespearean experience in this conflated version of the two parts of “Henry IV” (adapted by actor/dramaturge Dakin Matthews). He will start the show in modern-day, casual dress. As he progresses into the story, he will go further back into the period. Performed outdoors on the Festival Stage, the play will begin early (7:30 p.m.), when it’s still light. As the evening gets progressively darker, theatrical elements will be added: lighting, costumes, props, set pieces. By the final coronation of Prince Hal as King Henry V, the cast will be in full 15th century costume.
This will be Goodman’s first time at the Old Globe, but he has a long historical link to San Diego. Fifteen years ago, Jack O’Brien directed him in “Lady of the Diamond” at Buffalo’s Studio Arena. In 1981, he appeared as Sir Walter Blunt in “King Henry IV, Part I” at the New York Shakespeare Festival, directed by Des McAnuff. Also in the cast were Val Kilmer, Kevin Spacey and Mandy Patinkin. “After that experience,” quips Goodman, “I was pretty much ready to die.”
But he lived on to play Pap, Huck Finn’s besotted father, in the Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse production of “Big River”, under the direction of Des McAnuff. He went to Broadway with the show and later on national tour. He also appeared at the Playhouse in “As You Like It”.
It was a Shakespeare production that brought him to “Roseanne.” He was in “Antony and Cleopatra” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, playing Enobarbus, a blunt, outspoken follower of Antony. A woman from the “Cosby” show saw him and called him in to audition for “Roseanne.” The rest, as they say, is television history.
Goodman has earned six Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe Award. As for his co-star, who’s been known to fire everyone in sight, including her husband, Goodman says, “I get along great with her. I’m not empowered to question her, and I don’t. Anyway, 99.9% of the time she’s right. She’s a smart cookie. She didn’t get to where she is by being a patsy. She’s just trying to put on a good show, not following tired-ass old formulas. She’s trying to be as real and as funny as possible.” After eight years, “it’s still fun. We have a ball.”
He’s come a long way from Southwest Missouri State University (he went there to play football, but sat out most of the games and finally got a B.F.A. in theater). When he came to New York in 1975, he worked as a bouncer (one night), and couldn’t get a job as a waiter, but he did land some off Broadway and regional theater roles. Then he moved on to the big screen, making his breakthrough in “Raising Arizona” (1987) and winning a Golden Globe nomination in 1992 for his chilling performance in “Barton Fink.” Other feature films include “King Ralph,” “The Flintstones” and “The Big Easy.”
He recently finished a CBS production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”, playing Mitch to Jessica Lange’s Blanche DuBois and Alec Baldwin’s Stanley Kowalski. “It’s my favorite American play,” Goodman says of the Tennessee Williams classic. “Blanche is like a female Lear. Jessica was brilliant. And Alex is wonderful.”
As for future plans, he admits no professional fantasies. Roles he covets? “I’m gonna do one this summer.” Beyond that, “I just want to keep working. Acting. I’m too lazy to direct.” Is the prospect of Shakespeare daunting, what with little Shakespeare experience and no stage work in the recent past? “It’s scary, but a good kind of scary. Daunting and challenging, but not intimidating. There’s no point in not taking on challenges. It would be a pretty dull life.”
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.