John Goodman displays serious intent
John Goodman is known and loved for his jocular, larger-than-life performances, but he also does a mean line in menace, as the hapless journalist in the room before DONALD CLARKEfound out
JOHN GOODMAN has just endured a particularly gruelling interview. It seems as if the previous journalist decided to wheel out the couch and attempt a talking cure.
“I wasn’t paying for a therapy session,” he says with a weary, bass laugh. “But I shelled up pretty quick. I think I’m waking up now.”
I’ll watch myself then.
“Oh God. Don’t watch yourself. That’s too fucking boring.”
For much of his career, this most empathetic of character actors has played the sort of personalities who don’t go in much for analysis. Since registering with Rosanne – the defining American sitcom of the 1990s – he has cornered the market in bluff, blue-colour giants with a taste for unpretentious monosyllables. He was the disturbingly right-wing Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. He was Fred Flintstone in the unfortunate movie version of that TV series. This week, he turns up as John Chambers, Hollywood make-up wizard, in Ben Affleck’s excellent Argo.
One would not be surprised to hear him dismiss any overly intrusive question with a percussive burp. He speaks very slowly. He seems to take life very seriously. But, despite his protestations, Goodman turns out to be perfectly open to self-analysis.
Tell us about his upbringing. John Stephen Goodman was born 60 years ago in St Louis, Missouri. It must have been a tough life. His dad died of a heart attack when John was just two, leaving his mom with three kids to raise alone.
“It was very hard. She took in laundry when I was a kid,” he says. “She babysat kids. Nowadays, we’d call it a day centre. She just called it looking after the neighbours’ kids. She had a hard time of it. It was a miracle I went to college and I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain there very much.”
John had the build for American football and his talent for the game brought him to Southwest Missouri State University. He now says that “was too lazy” and that he didn’t have sufficient “heart” to exploit a football scholarship. Happily, he encountered a teacher who edged him towards the university’s drama programme. In 1975, he set out for New York City with theatrical ambitions.
“I was unfocused. Looking back, I was wildly immature until I got into drama. Then I found my way. My mom was happy that I was happy. To be honest, I think she was more worried about me going to New York than about me being an actor.”
It was more than a decade before Goodman became a household name. But he claims that – carrying mountains of charisma on his mighty shoulders – he was rarely out of work for any lengthy period.
“I tended to earn enough to get me to the next job,” he says. “I was frightened all the time. Where is the rent going to come from? It took me a year to get into the union, but then I started getting commercials. That meant I didn’t have to work for a living. I could now support my drinking habit.”
He sounds mildly jocular. But Goodman has, indeed, undergone a serious struggle with the booze. Towards the end of the last decade, he owned up to being an alcoholic.
“I still have it. I am an alcoholic. I know that for sure. But I’ve been sober for five years.”
What’s the trick?
“Well, Alcoholics Anonymous helps. But it’s really about showing up every day and not drinking.”
Goodman’s career shifted into overdrive with the launch of Rosanne in 1988. Until its bizarre decline into wish fulfilment in the mid-1990s, the series offered the most pungent analysis of (by the American definition) middle-class life on network television. Emerging just in time for the election of the first George Bush to the White House, it felt like a sly commentary on the folk that had been left behind by the Reagan revolution. Rosanne Barr was the salty housewife. Goodman played her longsuffering husband.
“I look back on it fondly,” he says. “I was having so much fun that it seemed like a natural step when it became a hit show. Well, that’s great. It was just nice to turn up and work and have a good time. I can’t say I cared when it became a hit.”
Did he see it as a political show?
“I divorced myself from that. That was all for Rose. She believed in what she believed in. That character was a strong woman – as woman are who head a family. The core of the thing was: just because we are poor, that doesn’t make us stupid. That was the political side to it. But it was more fun for me and more political for her.”
By the time you read this, we will know whether Rosanne – nominee for the Peace and Freedom Party – has been elected President of the United States. Will John be voting for her?
“Ha ha! No, I don’t think so. But we’ve always got on really well.”
If Rosanne hadn’t become a smash, John Goodman would, no doubt, have gone on to become one of those great character actors whose faces you know, but whose names remain annoyingly elusive. Things worked out very differently. Does he recall when fame kicked in?
“It eased its way in – like a tumour growing,” he says. “People reacted to me differently and I think I developed a sense of entitlement. I got used to first-class air tickets. I got used to the deference of people. I tried to keep it in check.
“But at the same time the drinking was getting worse and that was an escape. That’s how I dealt with that.”
Really? Goodman doesn’t strike me as the sort of guy who would fly into a rage if the loo roll wasn’t folded down or his mineral water was from the wrong volcanic island.
“I wasn’t quite like that,” he says. “I wouldn’t have gone that far. But there was a sense of entitlement going on there. I had a feeIing that I deserved to be treated a certain way. I tried to keep that in check. But I think everybody goes through that when they get what they want.”
At any rate, Goodman continued to attract work in a great variety of projects. The one constant has been involvement with the Coen brothers. He has collaborated with the dual-headed auteurs on such projects as Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, O Brother Where Art Thou and – most famously – The Big Lebowski.
His performance as (no, really) lovable fascist Walter Sobchak in that last film gifted Lebowski nuts a host of quotable lines. The bowling Vietnam veteran is an immovable part of late 20th-century popular culture.
“I noticed it when people on the street began screaming out lines to me,” he says. “Then if I quoted something back, I’d get it wrong and they’d correct me. It became gradually clear that they knew more about the film than I did. I think I had more fun working on that than on any other picture. The success was just gravy.”
What of the much-discussed theory that Walter is based on macho director and screenwriter John Milius? It’s not such an absurd notion. They have the same beard and the same bluff manor.
“I never met John Milius. But I have heard that he might be based on him and a couple of other guys. I have never even seen what he looks like. As far as I am aware, there was never any response from the Millius camp. If there was I might not be speaking to you right now. I might be in a box. Ha ha!”
Goodman is irresistible in Argo. Affleck’s film details a bizarre incident from the aftermath of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis: a CIA team posed as a visiting film crew in order to help six diplomats, then sheltering in the Canadian embassy, make their way home to the US. John Chambers, the man who designed the make-up for Planet of the Apes, was involved in putting together the fake science fiction film that the crew claimed to be shooting.
“I didn’t know a goddamn thing about it until I read the script. That’s how sick and self-serving I am,” Goodman says.
To be fair, the story was kept secret by the authorities for close to 20 years. Towards the close, we hear archive footage of Jimmy Carter regretting that he was unable to credit the officials at the time.
“Yes, I met some of the house guests. There was a marine who was from my neck of he woods – from Saint Louis, Missouri – and we got on fine. You know what? I was so tickled by meeting them, I forgot to ask them much about the experience. But they did say it was lot more boring than it looked in the film. That makes sense.”
Again and again, when discussing his most admired projects, John says how much fun he had on set. This, perhaps, explains why he continues to work quite so hard. Early next year we will see him opposite Denzel Washington in the much-heralded Flight. Later in the spring, he pops up in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. He stars opposite Clint Eastwood in the upcoming Trouble with the Curve. Good grief! Does the man ever sleep?
“I guess I have been doing a lot recently,” he says. “I did have some downtime in the summer and I enjoyed it. I didn’t have the fear that creeps in.”
Quite so. He deserves a break. He’s off the booze. He lives happily in New Orleans with his wife of 23 years. His daughter is now at the University of Southern California. There’s no need to appear in every decent film in our cinemas.
“Hang on. You are right. I am going to change my ways. Work sucks! Fuck work!”
Argo opens today