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Incapable of Watching Himself Objectively

June 19th, 2009 · 3 Comments

John Goodman

John Goodman was born June 20, 1952 in Afton, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. His father — a mail carrier — died shortly before Goodman turned two, leaving his mother to raise him and two siblings with whatever she could earn working as a cashier at Globe Drug, a waitress at Jack and Phil’s Bar-B-Cue and taking on babysitting or ironing chores. Goodman recalled his entrance into acting. “The first moment was in eighth grade. Doing a play. I forgot my lines. I couldn’t look down and say I forgot my lines. So I got up from the dinner table, walked around, improvising, until I got the thread back. It just seemed natural. We had a good-looking acting teacher, and she gave me a big hug and a kiss.” Attending a local community college, Goodman transferred to Southwest Missouri State on a football scholarship.

When a knee injury landed him on the DL, Goodman gravitated toward Missouri State’s noted drama program, which counted Kathleen Turner and Tess Harper as students. Harper recalled, ”You could see even then that there was an intense struggle going on in his characters. And he was very handsome. He looked like the star football player cast in the lead for the school play.” Graduating in 1975 with a BFA in theatre, he borrowed $1,000 from his brother and lit out for New York. Within a month, Goodman had a job: the role of Thomas Jefferson in a touring dinner theater production of 1776. His New York theater debut came in 1978 alongside another struggling actor named Nathan Lane. Goodman recalled, ”I was Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. People didn’t seem to like the play too much, maybe because we did a disco version.”

John Goodman, True Stories, 1986

At 6’3” and more than 200 pounds, Goodman won work in commercials; including a popular spot for Mennen Skin Bracer. “The people were nice, the money was nice, but I just kept telling myself, ‘I’m drowning here. This is not what I want.’ I started to develop this snotty attitude so I wouldn’t get cast. Sometimes I’d show up hung over. I was drinking a lot back then.” Goodman made his Broadway debut in 1979 in Michael Weller’s Loose Ends, starring Kevin Kline. More regional theater would follow before Goodman landed bit parts in a feature film (Eddie Macon’s Run, 1982) and a TV movie (The Face of Rage, 1983). His break came in 1985, when Goodman was cast as Pap Finn in the Broadway musical Big River.

In search of a big man who could belt out a tune, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne tapped Goodman for his directorial debut, True Stories (1986). More film work followed: an escaped convict in the Coen brothers comedy Raising Arizona (1987) and a crooked New Orleans cop in The Big Easy (1987). Goodman returned to the stage for a Los Angeles production of Antony and Cleopatra in 1987. In the audience was an ABC talent scout searching for someone to play Roseanne Barr’s husband on the sitcom Roseanne. Goodman’s role as Dan Conner would run 10 seasons. During hiatuses, he played Sally Field’s homely hubby in Punchline (1988) and an NYPD detective opposite Al Pacino in Sea of Love (1989). A pair of starring roles — in the comedy King Ralph (1991) and Babe Ruth in The Babe (1992) – were not well received, but Goodman found a fan in Steven Spielberg.

John Goodman, Always, 1989

Interviewed for Inside the Actor’s Studio in 2003, Goodman recalled, “I did a movie called Always with Steven Spielberg and the first meeting, the first reading, got the whole cast together, and the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Ladies and gentleman, I have found my Fred Flintstone.’ … I tried to talk myself out of it. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to hear ‘Yabba dabba do’ for the rest of my life. Then I lightened up and decided to have a little fun with it and we had a great time.” Goodman’s starring role in The Flintstones (1994) was eclipsed by 13 stints as the host of Saturday Night Live from 1989 to 2001. Buck Henry would later remark, “There were people outside the cast that I look at and say, ‘They could have been cast members’ — Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, John Goodman and Steve Martin. Those four people were essentially cast members, because they really fit into the format and they understood their work, and they were really great guest hosts.”

John Goodman’s natural affability and the apparent ease with which he improvises with other actors has extended from theater (he returned to Broadway in 2009 opposite Nathan Lane in Waiting For Godot), to TV (Goodman finally won an Emmy Award in 2006, for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series on Studio 60 at the Sunset Strip) to his voice work for Monsters, Inc (2001) and Bee Movie (2007). The Coen brothers wrote the part of the volcanic Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink (1992) for Goodman, as well as the role that remains the actor’s favorite: bitter Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998). Goodman commented, “When I look at myself on film, I just see shit I should’ve done. I’m incapable of watching myself objectively. Unless it’s The Big Lebowski. The writing is so goddamned good, you can just enjoy it, go along for the ride like everybody else.”

© Joe Valdez

John Goodman, The Big Lebowski, 1998

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“Being the Big Guy; Actor John Goodman: Funny and Formidable” By Peter de Jonge. New York Magazine, 10 February 1991

“Bat Man” By Allen Barra. Entertainment Weekly, 1 May 1992

“Down Mean Alleys with John Goodman” By Franz Lidz. The New York Times, 8 March 1998

“Big Man Tries Beckett” By Charles McGrath. The New York Times, 16 April 2009

Photo courtesy Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

United Federation of Character Actors

Tags: United Federation of Character Actors

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AR // Jun 19, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Great profile. John Goodman is still one of my favorite character actors, especially in the roles he’s done for the Coens.

  • 2 moviezzz // Jun 19, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    I always like John Goodman, although I have to wonder if he needs a better financial manager or something. I just saw him in a nothing supporting role in CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC that was essentially the same part that he played in another Bruckheimer production COYOTE UGLY, the father who gives advice.

    He was terrific on ROSEANNE and especially BARTON FINK and BIG LEBOWSKI. He should be getting better roles than he does.

    But a great choice for this series.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jun 19, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    Amanda: It says a lot about you as a performer when filmmakers like the Coens — who can cast any hot comedian or actor they want — write roles specifically for John Goodman. The Big LebowskiRaising Arizona as well.

    Jim: Thanks! In one of the interviews linked above, Goodman alludes to not being offered the film work he once would have expected. I’m inclined to believe this means lots of generic dad roles, which pays the rent, but is far from artistically rewarding.

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