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: John Goodman attended Southwest Missouri State University on a football scholarship, but he quickly fell in love with acting instead. The St. Louis, Missouri native, now 61, moved to New York City after college and kicked off a career as one of the hardest-working actors in show business. Refusing to be pigeonholed after his most famous role, Dan Connor on the hit ABC sitcom Roseanne, he now ping-pongs effortlessly between TV and film, drama and comedy. In the past year alone, Goodman has appeared in Monsters University, The Hangover Part III, Inside Llewyn Davis (his sixth collaboration with the Coen brothers), the new Amazon sitcom Alpha House, and now, George Clooney’s World War II comedy-drama The Monuments Men. Why does Goodman say yes to so many roles? “They were just too good to pass up,” he tells The A.V. Club. “Or, they seemed that way at the time!”
The Monuments Men (2014) — “Walter Garfield”
The A.V. Club: Is it true that George Clooney pitched you this at a party for Argo?
John Goodman: Yeah, at the New York premiere of Argo, he sidled up to me and said he had a script for me to read, and he had me at “hello.”
AVC: This was your first time working with him since O Brother, Where Art Thou?
JG: Yes. Probably the first time I’ve seen him since then, too.
AVC: In the film, it’s emphasized that you’re not exactly “solider age.” How tough was it for you to meet the physical requirements for that role?
JG: Well, there wasn’t much required of us. I mean, I didn’t have to go through the actors’ boot camp or any of that stuff. It was light duty.
AVC: What is Clooney like as a director?
JG: He’s fantastic. He’s a great storyteller, for one thing. He’s got that Irish thing going for him, I guess. He knows exactly what he wants. He knows what he sees; he’s got a great vision, he knows how to get it, and he knows how to get it with no friction. It was just a wonderful set. Everybody got along and we had a lot of fun. It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a film.
AVC: Why was that?
JG: I think it all came from George. There’s that goodwill that he generates anyway, but just the fact that he knows what he wants, he knows the tools of his craft, and there was not a lot of wasted time. We were all there to do a job, we all did it, and we all had fun doing it.
AVC: You’ve talked before about how you don’t love being far away from home, so how difficult was shooting in Germany for you?
JG: It wasn’t bad. I was geared up for it. I had shot there before seven years ago and was kind of used to Berlin. I like Berlin a lot. The first time I was there it reminded me of New York in the ’70s. But they’ve cleaned it up an amazing amount in seven years. It’s an interesting city.
Speed Racer (2008) — “Pops Racer”
AVC: What project had you done in Germany the first time?
JG: A film version of Speed Racer. Go, Speed Racer, go!
AVC: You were basically surrounded by green screens for that one, right?
JG: Yeah. I compared it at the time to doing community theater in a church basement, where you have to imagine all the props. You don’t have anything, so you just imagine everything, and that’s what it felt like to me.
AVC: Were they able to show you what the backgrounds were going to look like during filming?
JG: In a couple of instances they showed me, but most of the time I didn’t know what was going on. I was just kind of fascinated by the Wachowskis. They’re brilliant.
Alpha House (2013-present) — “Gil John Biggs”
JG: The great draw was Garry Trudeau, his dialogue and his ability to spin a story. It worked, and it was shot in New York, which I always enjoy.
AVC: This was Amazon’s first original series. Was there any hesitation on your part about diving into this brave new digital world?
JG: No. I didn’t think of it like that. It just looked like a good story with good writing. That’s all I thought about.
The Mystery Of The Morro Castle (1980) — “George Rogers”
The Face Of Rage (1983) — “Fred”
AVC: IMDB says your first credit was something called Jailbait Babysitter in 1977. Is that correct?
JG: No, it’s not.
AVC: So that would mean your first role was actually The Face Of Rage, a 1983 TV movie…
JG: You know what, I think I did something before that. The first thing I ever did was for HBO, and it was called The Mystery Of The Morro Castle
AVC: Wow, you’ve actually stumped IMDB. What do you remember about that?
JG: Not that much. A bunch of people I was hanging out with at the time were in it. We shot it in New York; it was on a ship near Throggs Neck. I remember Mary McDonnell was in it.
AVC: Were you excited about your first role?
JG: Yeah. I was thrilled to death. Outside of commercials, I’d never done anything on-camera before. It was based on a true story of a ship that sank off the Jersey Shore in the ’30s. I was a telegraph operator, and for some reason or another I sabotaged it and sank it. I don’t remember how. I’ve never seen it.
[The Mystery Of The Morro Castle aired on HBO as part of a docudrama series called Flashback. —Ed.]
Eddie Macon’s Run (1983) — “Hebert”
Sea Of Love (1989) — “Det. Sherman”
AVC: What are your memories of your first movie, Eddie Macon’s Run?
JG: Just trying to remember my lines. John Schneider had to punch me. I only worked one day. I think it was the first time I ever went to Mexico, because we shot it in Nuevo Laredo.
AVC: How were you at taking a fake punch?
JG: It was great. I’m still pretty good at it. A guy named Marty Bregman produced it, and he saw a play that I was in with J.T. Walsh, and Danny Florek from Law & Order directed it. I was in it with a lot of friends of mine. I remember that. We all had a very good time, but that was only on for a couple days. Then Marty later cast me in Sea Of Love with Al Pacino.
Revenge Of The Nerds (1984) — “Coach Harris”
AVC: Did you feel like you were revisiting your sports background?
JG: I don’t have much of a sports background, but I probably lied and said I did. I played high school football. Everybody played high school football.
AVC: Well, not a lot of people in the Revenge Of The Nerds cast did!
JG: Yeah, that’s true. Let’s see… who had the party room? Timothy Busfield, I think, had the room where everybody used to hang out at the hotel in Tucson. I just remember having a great time with those guys. We had a lot of fun.
AVC: Off-camera, did the jocks and nerds still keep their distance?
JG: No, everybody hung out together.
True Stories (1986) — “Louis Fyne”
JG: Doing True Stories for David Byrne came out of nowhere. I had a lot of access backstage, I mean to go to dailies every night, and that hasn’t really happened since. It was just a very free atmosphere. He was very creative and generous. I learned quite a bit from doing that.
AVC: You were also in the Talking Heads’ “Wild Wild Life” video, which was taken from that movie.
JG: Yeah. I’d never met David, and I’ve only seen him once since.
The Big Easy (1986) — “Det. Andre DeSoto”
AVC: Was this the movie where you first fell in love with New Orleans, where you’ve now lived for years?
JG: Oh no, I’d been down here a few times before. That movie The Face Of Rage that you talked about, we shot that in Dallas. Then I put my suitcases on a plane for New York and cashed my ticket in for New Orleans and went to Mardi Gras. 1981 was the first time I’d ever been. I tried to get down there every year afterward. I was doing a show on Broadway, and I quit that to do the David Byrne film. Then when I was doing the David Byrne film, I got The Big Easy, and when I was doing that, I got Raising Arizona, so there were three films in a row right there. “Well, I’m on a roll here!”
Raising Arizona (1987) — “Gale Snoats”
Barton Fink (1991) — “Charlie Meadows”
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) — “Newsreel Announcer”
The Big Lebowski (1998) — “Walter Sobchak”
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) — “Daniel ‘Big Dan’ Teague”
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) — “Roland Turner”
AVC: You’ve now done six films with the Coen brothers. How did you cross paths with them initially?
JG: My agent sent me in to an audition for Raising Arizona in ’85. It was the most fun I’ve done in an audition. We just goofed around for a while.
AVC: So you guys clicked immediately?
JG: It felt like it. I didn’t know if I got the role or not, but I knew I’d never have a better audition than that! I didn’t want to say I didn’t care whether I got the role, but it was all of a sudden incidental for the good time that I had with those guys.
AVC: Why do you think your relationship has been so fruitful?
JG: I have no idea. Similar sense of humor. We tried not to look like idiots; we were idiots, but we were very secure in our idiocy.
AVC: After Raising Arizona, were the subsequent roles written specifically for you?
JG: Yeah. Everything after Raising Arizona was written for me.
AVC: That has to feel rather nice.
JG: Well, I don’t want to say it’s very flattering. That can go to my head real easily. I just don’t think in those terms. But it is very flattering.
AVC: Out of your six movies together, do you have a favorite?
JG: They jump around. I used to automatically say The Big Lebowski, because I had a lot of fun doing it, and that’s the one that people jump on every time they see me in the street. But I like all of them. Barton Fink was a favorite of mine. I was crazy about the script.
AVC: Inside Llewyn Davis was your first film with them in 13 years. Did you settle back into your old dynamic, or did it feel different this time around?
JG: For me, I didn’t miss a beat. It felt just like old times, yeah. I was very comfortable, really loose, and I want very much to please them.
Moonlighting (1987) — “Donald Chase”
AVC: The year Raising Arizona came out, you also popped up on Moonlighting.
JG: I did an episode of Moonlighting with Kay Lenz. I was a multimillionaire hitman.
AVC: What do you remember about that?
JG: Not much. I rarely saw Bruce [Willis]. I was probably staying at his house at the time.
AVC: You guys were friends?
JG: Oh yeah. He used to put me up when I was in L.A.
AVC: Is that how you got the part?
JG: I don’t think so. I don’t know. He never cast me in anything else, so I’m probably going to say no!
Roseanne (1988-1997) — “Dan Conner”
JG: I’ve tried to find situations like that to match it as far as the feeling of family. When you go to work every day with the cast and crew, it just feels like home, where everything’s very relaxed and natural. There are few secrets between anyone. It’s like a family, and that’s what I remember most about it is that I made a lot of good friends and how impossible that feeling has been to recapture. That’s a once in a lifetime deal.
AVC: Unlike many sitcom marriages and families, that one always felt real.
JG: Yeah. Everybody knew a family like that, or characters like that.
The Babe (1992) — “George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth”
JG: There was never enough time to get it right. I didn’t have enough time to get the athleticism and the acting proper down. I think I only did one movie that year. I used to do two movies every summer, when I was on Roseanne, for a while anyway. I just… it felt like it didn’t work out. There just wasn’t enough time to do it properly.
AVC: So you wish you had a do-over on that one?
JG: Oh yeah, I sure do. I wish I could do that one again.
The Flintstones (1994) — “Fred Flintstone”
JG: I did a few movies around that time that Spielberg [who executive-produced The Flintstones] was involved in. I remember how much at home I felt being with that Amblin group and what a pleasure it was to be a part of that. Steven was just a great joy to be around. He formulates such joy. He truly loved what he did. He still does.
Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) — “Mighty Mack McTeer”
JG: I just loved being with the band. Yeah, Danny [Aykroyd] and I did that movie for nothing just to help get it made. Nobody wanted to make it, and the studios had their own idea of how to do it and Danny’s a very agreeable guy. He just went along with them to get to the movie made. It was a lot of fun recording it. [Paul] Shaffer was the engineer and producer on the music; it was a blast. I liked working in Toronto too. I haven’t been up there for a while.
Monsters Inc. (2001) / Monsters University (2013) — “James P. ‘Sulley’ Sullivan”
AVC: This was a rare occasion where you and Billy Crystal actually did most of your recording together for both films, which is usually not the way those movies go, correct?
JG: Yeah. That was Billy’s idea and he was right, because we were recording separately before and once we got together the energy just exploded. Then Billy would take off on these improvs, and I would just follow him around. It was a lot of fun.
AVC: Did the dynamic change at all for the sequel when you guys were back together again?
JG: No, it was great being back with him again. It was the same feeling.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of voiceover work. Why do you think these films have resonated so much more than some of the others?
JG: Because of the story. The animation’s so clever. It’s Pixar; their storytelling ability is second to none. They’re great craftsmen and artists and a joy to work for. We got most of the way through Monsters Inc., and then they scrapped the whole damn thing and we did it over again, because it wasn’t right, it wasn’t true. It’s just that kind of meticulous care and craftsmanship—and they’re great guys to work for too.
The West Wing (2003-2004) — “Glen Allen Walken”
AVC: You could be the answer to a good West Wing trivia question, because a lot of people forget that you were briefly the president. Your character was introduced right as Aaron Sorkin was leaving the show and your storyline carried over when the new regime took over. Did you have any sense of what was going on behind the scenes at the time?
JG: I didn’t know anything about it. There was so much going on. That show [had] so many characters, so many people to meet, and I had a lot of very meticulous dialogue to learn. I didn’t get to it until about 4:00 in the morning. So it was basically me trying to stay focused on the lines and little else. I knew Johnny Spencer [who portrayed Leo McGarry] for years and years, but I didn’t really know anybody else there. I was just trying to stay focused to get the lines out right.
Treme (2010-2011) — “Creighton Bernette”
AVC: Beyond being able to shoot it in your hometown, what else drew you to Treme?
JG: The people still coping with the storm a couple of years after it went down, and people trying to make sense of this disaster and trying to get on with their lives, or trying to establish new lives.
AVC: Your character kills himself in season two. Was that your decision to leave the show, because you had other projects to do?
JG: No, they told me before they cast me what was going to happen with the guy. I was based on a real guy [Ashley Morris] who blogged like that.
[Though Goodman's character commits suicide, Morris died in his sleep in 2008. —Ed.]
Damages (2011) — “Howard T. Erickson”
AVC: Had you been a fan of the earlier seasons?
JG: No, I didn’t know much about it. It sounded like an interesting job, and the writing was good. It just sounded right.
AVC: Each season of that show took many unexpected twists and turns. Did they tell you what his arc was going to be?
JG: No, I didn’t know what was going to happen with him. I didn’t know anything. And it was more fun that way.
JG: They asked me and I was happy to do it, because it was pretty dry before that. I think right before that I might have done Red State for Kevin Smith, which is I think how I got Argo, because Kevin Smith and Ben [Affleck] are pretty tight. It was right before I got my knee surgery so things had been dry. There wasn’t much going on.
Argo (2012) — “John Chambers”
AVC: That must have been a blast with so many great character actors working together.
JG: Well, getting to work with Alan Arkin was the primary thing there.
AVC: Had you worked together before?
JG: I’d never met him before! I was always a huge fan of his when I was a kid. I could see what a great actor he was when I was a lot younger, and so I’d always followed him and he’s never done a false thing. He’s just really true and honest, and is funnier than hell. He’s a wonderful man.
AVC: Was working with him everything you hoped it would be?
JG: Yeah. He whipped me in Scrabble every day.
AVC: Old-school Scrabble, or Words With Friends?
JG: I had an iPad and handed it over to him when it was his turn. And he’d pull more words out then I could.
Flight (2012) — “Harling Mays”
JG: It was pretty well written. In cases like that, I don’t have to do a lot of work. I wanted a ponytail. Well, that turned into something else entirely; a whole hair re-weaving that I had to carry on my head for two and a half months, while they were busy shooting other things. I had to live with this damn thing and the beard, and it was terrible. I’d have to go and get it blown out at a blowout bar.
AVC: What did your wife think of that?
JG: She was glad when it was done so I could stop whining about it.
Community (2011-2012) — “Vice Dean Robert Laybourne”
JG: I did that while I was doing Flight, so all of a sudden one day I turned up with this hair and a goatee. Somebody asked me about it and they wrote me a line that says, “I’m going through some stuff.”
AVC: Beyond being stuck with the Flight hair, it always seemed as if they had intended to do more with your character than they ended up doing.
JG: That’s what I felt like, because toward the end, the last couple ones they just kind of threw me in. I don’t think they knew what they wanted to do with me. Then they finally killed me off, but it never really went anywhere. I just didn’t feel like I contributed very much.
AVC: How had you ended up on the show?
JG: They asked me, and I’d seen a couple of shows and I thought it was charming.
It’s A SpongeBob Christmas! (2012) — “Santa Claus”
JG: I never saw it. I was a really huge SpongeBob fan. I used to watch it with my daughter all the time. I never got to see it. It was so much fun to do. I went over there, met the people, and recorded my stuff and I never wound up seeing it.
AVC: We’ve barely scratched the surface of your filmography. Do you feel like you work as much as everyone else thinks you do, especially in this past year?
JG: It felt busy for me only because I was away from home so much. When I wasn’t actually working, I have to go out and sell the movies, which required a lot of time away from home. That’s the toughest part of the job.