Writers are warned never to give away the ending of a movie or play. But beginnings are fair game. This is how Paul Dooley opens his one-man show, Movie Dad:
‘I am a character actor. That’s the definition of me. For the past 60 years, I’ve been pretending to be other people. Tonight, I’m going to pretend to be myself. The character actor is never the star of the movie or the TV show. The audience may feel his face is familiar, but have no idea what his name is. Some of us kind of look alike too. Still, I was surprised recently when someone thought I was Paul… Sorvino. When, obviously, I’m Ned Beatty.’
I’m no character actor, but as someone who’s routinely been mistaken for Steven Spielberg or Richard Dreyfuss (not at the same time), I feel Dooley’s pain. On the other hand, I don’t have a one-man show, which Dooley does, and which he’s reprising, beginning tonight for two weeks at West L.A.’s Theater West. One of the things Dooley talks about in the show is a character actor’s chief perk (besides regular paychecks): Observing great directors and actors at work over the long haul. Dooley’s film and television credits number nearly 200, dating from George C. Scott’s legendary TV series East Side/West Side in 1963, right up through Cars 3 (animated features being a longtime and extremely lucrative side gig for character actors with character voices).
The highlights include working on Broadway with Mike Nichols, when he started out as a poker player in The Odd Couple and then took over for Art Carney as Felix Ungar opposite Walter Matthau’s Oscar Madison, and a bona fide member of the semi-permanent acting companies rotating in and out of films by Robert Altman (Popeye, A Wedding) and Christopher Guest (Waiting For Guffman, A Mighty Wind). More often than not, he’s cast as some star’s father, hence the title of his show.
In a telephone conversation a few days back, I asked him about the perils of doing an autobiographical one-man show. We couldn’t find any.
“It was really easy,” he said, “because it’s almost like me talking to friends or people who just met me.” The show is peppered with media displays from his C.V., which presents its own set of problems. “The biggest challenge,” he said, “is keeping pace with the 50 or 60 times we cut to a still or clip if I give the wrong cue. My co-star is the screens.”
‘Robert Altman said, “I picked you to be you.” He encouraged actors to try things and let you put things in, saying ‘I can always cut it out if I don’t like it.’ And he hired every actor for the whole movie, not just the role in the script.”
Having worked, notably, with Nichols and Altman, he might have been challenged by the different styles of the countless helmers who’ve employed him across six decades. I was hoping for an exegesis, but his response was typically concise, illuminating – and, perhaps, a caution to younger talent on both sides of the camera.
“My experience is, the bigger director, the less he told you what to do,” Dooley said. “Robert Altman always said that half the battle, or 75 per cent, is casting, and let the actors do their work. He told the actors almost nothing, gave us a lot of freedom. He said, ‘I picked you to be you.’ He encouraged actors to try things and let you put things in, saying ‘I can always cut it out if I don’t like it.’ And he hired every actor for the whole movie, not just the role in the script. He said, ‘How do I know I won’t want you for another scene?’ ”
As for Nichols – who made his name on Broadway as Neil Simon’s early director before Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate made him one of Hollywood’s first ’60s auteurs – Dooley recalled that “with The Odd Couple, Mike would work quietly with Art Carney, but he would not push so hard. He had a very simple, very clear approach.”
Dooley’s non-acting credits are equally estimable. He co-created and wrote public television’s The Electric Company and acted on ABC’s game-changing series My So-Called Life, which launched the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto. That show, as it happens, was created by Dooley’s wife, writer Winnie Holzman, whose credits include the Broadway musical Wicked, one of the biggest hits of all time.
Dooley, a product of the Great Depression who spent his salad days in New York working off-Broadway in shows such as The Threepenny Opera, takes such changes of fortune in stride. That seems to be a quality shared by the breed thespis characteris, sub-species comicus. – and, I supposed, their spouses. I asked Dooley if Wicked had changed their lives.
“Well,” he said, with a brief pause to give it some thought – or perhaps just a knowing beat for comic timing. “We bought new furniture.”
Movie Dad runs through July 23 at Theatre West: theatrewest.org.