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: A master at playing warped characters, beginning with his breakthrough role as Al Pacino's unraveling law partner in …And Justice For All, Jeffrey Tambor has been the go-to guy for anyone needing an officious boob or exasperated authority figure for nearly 40 years. After two decades of memorable turns in everything from Three's Company to Hill Street Blues, Tambor landed his first Emmy nomination for playing loveably dense (yet obnoxiously self-important) talk-show sidekick Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show; his second nomination followed in 2003 for his work on the similarly cult-beloved Arrested Development, where he played the Bluth family's slyly manipulative patriarch and his spaced-out twin brother. With more than a hundred roles to his credit, Tambor is still one of the busiest character actors working today. His latest is this summer's Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
Arrested Development (2003-2006)—"George Bluth, Sr./Oscar Bluth"
Jeffrey Tambor: I was only cast as a guest for the first show. I wasn't really going to do the series. But I fell in love with it, and thankfully, they asked me to do more.
AVC: That show had such a dense collection of running jokes. Was it a lot of work keeping track of them all?
JT: Not on my part, but I would imagine the writers had a lot of plates to juggle. There was a heavy rewind factor, which was great. But yeah, there were a lot of strands, which I think really separated the viewers: You either got it or you didn't. I once walked into the office and saw Mitch [Hurwitz] breaking down a story with his people, and it was heavy. There were chalk marks on everything. Mitch is one of a kind, and he's also an old friend. He's impeccable. Carlos Castaneda always said, "If you're going to do something, do it impeccably." And he does.
AVC: What can you say about the Arrested Development movie?
JT: There are rumors that it's going to be done, and everyone just seems to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'm ready, and everyone's on board, so I hope it really happens. Everybody I talk to is very excited about it. When I talk to people that decry that we're not on, I say, "You know, there are rumors, heavy rumors going around that there's going to be a movie." And they go crazy. A lot of "hurrahs" going on. But I know it's not written. Right now, it's just pure intention. But I think it will happen if the good people at Fox and everybody else just gets their act together.
The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)—"Hank Kingsley"
JT: Changed my life. I am so thankful that—I mean, go figure. Most people are lucky to get one good series, but I got two groundbreakers. I just knew when I read that "Hey Now" script that something was afoot. Those were seven of the greatest years of my life. I learned so much, and it affirmed everything I thought comedy was. It was really a tremendous experience.
AVC: Do people still ask you to say "Hey now"?
JT: Yes! [Laughs.] Yes, I actually just said it into someone's computer.
AVC: How was the shooting schedule divided between the "real" backstage world and the show-within-the-show?
JT: Every three or four weeks, for episodes one, two, three, and four, we would do the late-night shows all in one night. They were arduous affairs, with quick changes into other suits and back. But they were held in abeyance until about four weeks in, and then we would shoot it all in one night. And they were wonderful nights. They were so much fun. At the beginning, you know, we were grateful to get guests. At the end, it was as if we actually were The Tonight Show. People would come on, and it had the same sort of imprimatur as if we were on the air. I've been on a lot of talk shows during that time and since then, and people would come up in the dressing room or in the corridors and say, "You guys got it exactly right." Or they would say, "We have Larry Sanders moments every day." Those writers—and Garry [Shandling] in particular—really had the concept. He really knew it, and it was done so lovingly. He would go beyond the joke, and sort of go into the character. His "funny" was very different, and I really appreciated it. And I loved Hank Kingsley. He was very real to me. There was just something about that character. I really believed him. I didn't think he was a buffoon. I understood the inner workings of him, so I sort of felt sorry for him, the poor guy. He was very important to me.
AVC: You seemed fairly comfortable in the role of host or pitchman. Have you ever thought about going down that road?
JT: [Laughs.] Oh, I couldn't do it. It's just such an art. No, I haven't. Well no, I'm not being totally honest. I think once I had a little inkling of it. But, you know: Who wants to tune into a 62-year-old bald guy with a beard asking questions? I mean, I wouldn't.
AVC: Well, Dr. Phil…
JT: Yeah, but he doesn't have a beard. [Laughs.] No. I like Dr. Phil. I think he's great. I was just on a show with him. I actually was a surprise guest on his show early on, because we always used to get the thing that we look alike. And we look nothing alike. Except we have a similar hair profile.
Hellboy (2004)/Hellboy II (2008)—"Tom Manning"
JT: Guillermo del Toro. He's in his pure artist's stroke. He's just hitting it out of the park. I would go anywhere to work with him. He's a real artist. And I hear that [Hellboy 2] is going to be a killer—July 11 it's coming out. It's wonderful. I hope I do Hellboy 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…
AVC: Most of your work has been in comedy and character-driven dramas. How does working on a big-budget comic-book movie compare?
JT: It's so funny, because you forget it's a comic book. The actor's job is to make it real. There's no wink in it. You approach it the same way you would Death Of A Salesman. And Ron Perlman is a fabulous actor. That's high standards there. He really does a great character. The fact that he's covered in a body suit and has horns has nothing to do with it; it's a real character turn. So it's tremendous. We worked six months on it in Budapest. It was really hard work, and wonderful work. I thought Pan's Labyrinth was one of the greatest films I've ever seen, just pure artistry. [Del Toro] is just really something, this guy. And he's a real mensch: down-to-earth, funny, huggy, and terrific.
AVC: With Hellboy, you've thrown yourself into the world of "fanboys." Have you attended comic-book conventions, or been exposed to any of that?
JT: No. In fact, I think I will try to do some of those this time, because it's a whole other world out there. I wasn't able to last time, but I will do that. I mean, a fan is a fan is a fan. You know, it's so odd, because we weren't even allowed to have comic books when I was a kid. We had to hide them under the bed. They were just a big no-no, and here I am doing a comic-book movie. That's what's so great about being an actor: You get to do Meet Joe Black, and you get to do Arrested Development, and then you get to do Hellboy and Eloise, and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. It's great. You get to play the field.
Brenda Starr (1989)—"Vladimir"
AVC: Actually, Hellboy was your second comic-book movie, if you count Brenda Starr.
JT: [Laughs.] Oh, Lord. Now that was an experience. I remember it was so hot in Jacksonville, Florida, and I would go running all the time. I think I whittled down to just a reed. You know, I don't know if I've ever seen Brenda Starr. I don't know if I need that experience. There are things that come together, and there are other things that don't—and the people were wonderful, and Robert Ellis Miller is a great director—but that little baby did not come together for some reason.
AVC: More recent movies—specifically 300 and Sin City—have succeeded in capturing that blend of live action and comic-book stylization that Brenda Starr attempted. Do you think maybe it was just ahead of its time?
JT: I don't think that was the problem. [Laughs.] Look, I'm trying to be as charitable as possible. But, you know… We had a good time. By the way, Timothy Dalton was in that! In fact, I remember I was standing next to him, and he turned to me and said, [Affects posh British accent.] "Oh, I think I've just been tagged to play James Bond." [Laughs.] I'll never forget that. I went, "Oh! Okay. Well, good for you." And I love Brooke Shields. She's developed into a wonderful actress and a wonderful person. We were all babies then. That's why when people say, "What did you think of that film?" I can't do what people do and say, "I hated it." I can't speak ill of a film, because it's so hard to make a film. Everybody thinks we're sitting by a pool peeling grapes, and this is not the case. It's hard. It's hard to do this stuff—and getting harder!
Superhero Movie (2008)—"Dr. Whitby"
JT: I didn't see it.
AVC: Really? It just came out very recently.
JT: Ohhh… Yes. You mean the [David] Zucker film? Oh yeah. It was great! I was on a break, and I came back from Budapest to do it. I did my whole role in two days. Those guys are funny. I mean, they are funny. There's a wonderful thing about doing that kind of work: You have to be real, but you also have to get the laugh. There you are, your director and the producers are right there at the monitors, and you either get the laugh or you don't. And so you just do it until you get the laugh. I love David Zucker and… Can you remind me of the director's name?
AVC: Craig Mazin.
JT: Yeah! They were great. I was honored to be with them. I mean, those were the Airplane! guys! Give me a break. That's my second movie with David Zucker. You know, it's that Mad magazine, wonderful sort of… I love zany. Zany's hard to do. Silly is hard. Mel Brooks and David Zucker—there are very few people who know silly, and they're usually hugely intelligent, because you have to be intelligent to get it. Like the Marx brothers. I love it.
AVC: Superhero Movie also marks approximately your 100th "doctor" role.
JT: [Laughs.] Oh really?
AVC: Just looking at your IMDB page, almost every other character is a doctor: Article 99, Malibu's Most Wanted, Dr. Dolittle, The Golden Girls, Empty Nest, Doogie Howser M.D.—it just goes on and on. Why do you think you've always been pegged to play doctors?
JT: [Laughs.] Probably because I'm bald. Don't the bald people always play doctors and principals? Yeah, isn't that funny? And lawyers. A lot of lawyers and judges.
AVC: Yes, you've certainly played your fair share of lawyers and judges.
JT: Oh! Yeah. Don't you think that's the reason?
AVC: That baldness conveys authority?
JT: Yeah! That's interesting. Certainly the principal has to be bald. Certainly the school counselor has to be bald. And the driver's ed teacher. And maybe the wood-shop teacher. Mine was.
Saturday The 14th (1981)—"Waldemar"
AVC: You actually did a "zany" spoof before Superhero Movie, which a lot of people love…
JT: Ah, I know what you're going to say…
AVC: Saturday The 14th.
JT: Yes! Wonderful! I had so much fun. I had a great time. And who knew? That movie is a cult classic. And you know another one like that that I did, is Three O'Clock High. People come up to me about those two all the time. Film schools even study Three O'Clock High. Shot for shot, it's a textbook. But Saturday The 14th, let's see: I worked with Dick Benjamin, and he was just launching his career. And I got to work with Julie Corman—and that was great, because you have to work at least once in your life with the Cormans. That was fun.
Kojak (1977)—"Medical Examiner"
AVC: Getting back to you always playing doctors—and speaking of baldness…
JT: Oh my God. Well, I had five lines. We shot it on arguably the coldest day in New York, by Grant's Tomb. There was a camera malfunction, so we had to stay out in the cold to wait for the camera to be repaired. I didn't have a stand-in, because I didn't have enough gravitas—you know, I was like, five lines. So we stayed out there. And when I said my lines, my mouth had completely frozen. And there was sort of a "whoov-whoov" sound, with my five indistinguishable lines that sounded like they were coming from a sock. And then they said, "Cut! Print!" and drove off to their next location, and that was my debut. And it can be seen still in syndication. Isn't that funny? That was my [Adopts snooty French accent.] debut. [Laughs.] That was it. Isn't that when you should say, "Choose another career"? But oh no!
Girl, Interrupted (1999)—"Dr. Melvin Potts"
JT: Oh, what a wonderful experience. James Mangold has a way of directing that I really respond to. He has a way of talking to actors that you just… He's one of the best. And Angelina Jolie—was that her debut?
AVC: No, but it was one of her first major roles.
JT: She just went off and running with that role. It was inspiring. Who's the other actress?
AVC: Winona Ryder.
JT: I'm a huge fan, and have always been. It was a terrific experience. I just remember when we got to the set, and the patients were all… They had it. It was very real, very wonderful. We just knew we were making something very, very good.
AVC: Living within the verisimilitude of a mental hospital, did you carry that home with you? It seems like it might have been disturbing.
JT: You know, for actors, that's kind of easy. I think when I was a younger actor, I did carry that stuff home. When I did …And Justice For All, I was afraid to drop the character. But when you get older, you learn to go, "Okay, that's it. Let's go have dinner."
Meet Joe Black (1998)—"Quince"
JT: That scene that I have with Brad [Pitt]—that one out by the sea where I confess to him that I really screwed up and I've sort of betrayed them—is one of my favorite scenes that I've ever done. He was just so wonderful. He's great. I mean, this was years ago, but he's very modest. He's a real hardworking actor. I think he was going through something difficult at that time, and he never brought his personal stuff—not once!—on the set. He was a real pro. I remember doing that scene, and as I was acting, I thought, "I understand why this guy's a movie star." Because there was just something that he did when the cameras rolled. There was some kind of energy that was really magnificent, a real aura about him. Those movie stars, they have that "thing."
AVC: Do you feel like there's a difference between "movie stars" and someone like yourself?
JT: That's an interesting question. I've actually never been asked that before. Let me take my time here… No. I think it's the same W-2 form, if you understand what I'm saying. [Laughs.] All roles are character roles. On the other hand, there are those people who have an inner… You know, this is a good question. Let's keep on it until I get it, because I like it. No. I think we all do the same thing. You can't get by on aura alone. That I know. Everyone has to dig in. Everyone has to do the same set of, "What is this about? What is this character doing?" Everybody from Spencer Tracy to Brad Pitt to Jeffrey Tambor.
Everyone has to do the same work—you know, I teach acting. But there are those people who come on, and there's just something about them in and above themselves that has to do with chemistry and electricity—this aura about them. And that's unmistakable. Do I have that? Yeah, I think I have that. Am I a star? That's a different thing. I mean no, I'm not in People magazine. But I must be doing something right, because I've done it for 50 years! And I like doing what I do. I never want to have that on my shoulders—I never want to be number one on the call sheet. That's a life that I don't want. I mean, I'm not ducking the responsibility. But consider what I get to do: Next week, I'm going and laying down a track for WordGirl, which is an important PBS project about teaching kids language. And then I can go be silly.
Never Again (2001)—"Christopher"
AVC: There was this one time where you were first on the call sheet…
JT: I think I was second. [Laughs.] I'm being funny.
AVC: You were the leading man, let's put it that way.
JT: Yes! And I liked that. But that was an independent film, which I think we made for just hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that's it. Maybe $350,000. And that's about two—let me just be kind—"middle-aged" people in love, and it's with the great Jill Clayburgh and I, and Eric [Schaeffer] directed it. That was no onus on me, where I had to deliver and keep my "number one"-ness afloat. It was just saying, "We want to do an independent film about this subject, and maybe two people will come, and maybe a horde will come." And that film has semi-cult status as well. People my age come up to me and thank me in supermarkets for that. So it's all good. There used to be a wonderful thing that we had where we could say, "You know, who's gonna see it?" But now everything you do is going to be out there. There is no "we just made it by our chinny-chin-chins," like with Brenda Starr, where no one has seen that.
AVC: These days, Eric Schaeffer has a reputation as an obnoxious misogynist, thanks to his book, I Can't Believe I'm Still Single. Did you ever get any hint of that?
JT: No. And you know, just through the vagaries of life, I haven't talked to Eric in years. In fact, we just had that one experience together. I didn't even know he had a book. What's the deal with it?
AVC: Well, some of the more controversial passages had to do with his "primordial desire to bash a woman over the head and drag her back to [his] cave," for example.
JT: I don't know if that's misogyny. I could see where that could be seen in one way. I think it also bespeaks that Eric has had probably a tough time settling down. That's sort of his deal. I wouldn't be surprised if in some secret way, he nurtures both sides of it, if you understand what I'm saying. It could also be a fount for creativity. Who knows? But is he a misogynist? I have no idea.
Mr. Mom (1983)—"Jinx"
AVC: Speaking of obnoxious, this was one of your quintessential "jerk" roles.
JT: [Laughs.] Yes, and I loved that role. I remember driving that first day in the car, Michael Keaton and I, and Stan Dragoti was in the camera truck in front of us… No one had any idea it was gonna be a runaway hit. And that's an actor's life. I thought Meet Joe Black was gonna be one of the big changes for me, and it was gonna be a runaway hit—and it wasn't. And with Mr. Mom, I said, "There's just no way." And it turned out to be a huge hit. Huge!
AVC: Did you find that kids were scared of you after that movie?
JT: [Laughs.] No, but I was mean in that. I was very mean. I remember the knockout scene. We did that in one take. I remember we had a guy teaching us how to do it, but I knew how, I guess from my stage days. That was really Michael Keaton's beginning. He was terrific. I'm a big fan of Michael Keaton. I think he's a wonderful actor. And of course, I'd always had a crush on Teri Garr—and still do. I've always adored her. I mean, who doesn't think about Teri in Young Frankenstein? I mean, come on! It makes you talk in that accent for weeks.
Welcome To The Captain (2008)—"Uncle Saul"
JT: That's with the great John Hamburg, whom I love. We shot the pilot, and I liked it, but I wasn't quite sure I wanted to do another series. But I always get enticed by people who are nice. And I like his humor—I loved Meet The Parents and Meet The Fockers. And he was good, so we did it. And lo and behold, it was picked up for six [episodes]! Then the writer's strike happened, so we didn't quite finish it off. I actually don't know how it's faring, if it's doing well or not. You know, half-hour comedies, I've done a lot of them. I mean, I was on The Ropers! I know the area pretty well. It's hard. I was actually talking to my agent the other day, and I said, "You know, it's getting harder and harder to make people laugh in a half-hour segment." I heard somebody say the other day, "Ah, I'm gonna go home, have some dinner, and just turn on YouTube." And I went, "What?!" Oh yeah, that's what's happening. People are going home and turning on YouTube. The whole thing is changing. It's that old cry of [adopts Heather O'Rourke-in-Poltergeist voice.], "They're here." Well, it's here. The revolution is here, and I don't know how it's gonna end up. I do know it's not just going to be the powerful networks. Within the next five years, we won't be able to recognize what this thing is any more.
AVC: One of the odd things about Welcome To The Captain is that you're playing a former writer for Three's Company—which is a show you were actually on.
JT: Yeah, it's so weird. It's circles within circles within circles. The last episode we did, I go out to a disco in my Three's Company jacket. [Laughs.] Because with that jacket, he gets action, or so he thinks. And yeah, I was on Three's Company, I was on The Ropers, and when I first came out, I lived in an enclave very much like El Capitan, which is the setting for the series. And my mentor then, who got me that apartment in that enclave, was Mickey Ross, who was one of the creators of Three's Company! It just doesn't get any weirder than that. Circles within circles. That's what life is all about, I guess.
AVC: So comparing all your traditional sitcom work—and you've also done tons of guest roles on Taxi, Who's The Boss?, Barney Miller, on and on—to the single-camera, no-studio-audience stuff like Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show, and Welcome To The Captain, which format do you prefer?
JT: I like working on one-camera. This is not false modesty, but I don't think I'm very good at three-camera. And it's not that I'm nervous, but I just sort of feel like my collar is too small, or my clothes don't fit. I don't understand what that is. And I don't understand the format: There's an audience in front of you that you're playing to, but there are also these cameras. I've never understood that, and it's always been a mystery to me, from The Ropers on. And I'm really happy I did The Ropers. I got to meet the great Norman Fell, Audra Lindley, Patty McCormack—my goodness. And on Three's Company, there was the wonderful John Ritter. So I don't regret it. I just don't think I'm very good. I think my "stroke"—if that can be said—is better on one-camera. I just look better. On Arrested, I thrived, as I did on Larry Sanders. I really got it, and I understood what we were doing. And I like the writing, because the writing is a little more toned-down for one-camera as well. You can do more shading.
Max Headroom (1987-1988)—"Murray"
AVC: You worked on a lot of cult TV shows, but this may be one of the cultiest.
JT: Mmm, yes. And yet we were wildly expensive, I remember. I think we cost almost $2 million—even back then—a week. We were wildly heralded, and Max's picture was on the cover of Newsweek, and we were still cancelled. That show was ahead of its time. That show would actually flourish right now. That was another show that was layered, where you had to read that script three, four, five times to get it.
Cocaine: One Man's Seduction (1983)—"Mort Broome"
JT: [Laughs.] I remember going to see a man at UCLA who was an expert on addiction, because I wanted to know how to play this role. And I remember him telling me that some addicts, when they talk about cocaine, just talking about it, they can achieve orgasm. And when he said that, I knew how to play the role. Not that I was gonna have orgasms or anything like that, but I understood addiction. By the way, I've got about five more minutes here, because you know—and you should write this down—I forgot my son's lunch for preschool, and now I have to get in the car and go give him his lunch.
Hill Street Blues (1981-1987), "Judge Alan Wachtel"
JT: Oh man. Cross-dressing. Yeah. My back would go out periodically, because of the high heels. But we shot in the summer, and it was in the Valley, and so it's wonderfully freeing to wear a dress. I remember I went to a costume fitting and they showed me these dresses. The script wasn't out yet, and I said, "There must be some mistake, because I usually wear just a nice pinstripe." And they said, "You'll be wearing a dress this week." I was fitted for dresses not knowing what the heck was going on. People still remember that character. Steve Bochco, I mean… That series was so good. It was one of the first gang/ensemble series like that, and it really set the standard… The bar was very high. When [Daniel] Travanti, or Charles Haid—when these guys got through, they would usually watch other people work, which is the mark of a great show, when the acting is that good. I loved it. And that was about the time I was doing …And Justice For All. Man, I've been in a lot of courtrooms. [Laughs.]
…And Justice For All (1979)—"Jay Porter"
JT: I will never forget the moment at the audition meeting when Norman Jewison said, "Are you nervous?" and I said, "I sure am." And he said, "Would you like a cigarette?" And I said, "Sure." And I looked down, and he had a pack of Merits in front of him, and Patrick Palmer had a pack of Lucky Strikes—or Camels, whatever. It was a non-filter. And I said, "Give me the kind that killed Nat King Cole." And I think from that moment on, I was in active contention for that role. They looked at each other like, "What the hell just happened?" But they got it. And I don't know why I said that. I don't know what killed Nat King Cole! But it was something that the character Jay would definitely say, and they said, "Come back Monday and read with Al." And I went, "Al… Al?" And they said, "That would be Al Pacino." [Laughs.] And I went, "Oh!" And I went home and I literally memorized that part, and I came in. I remember there's a scene in the bathroom where I laugh a certain way, this sort of hysterical way. For some reason, I just knew [Jay] was gonna laugh that way. And that Monday, when I did that scene with Al, Al laughed. And when he laughed, I knew I had the role. There was just something there. I just knew I had it.