One-On-One with William Sanderson
William Sanderson was born January 10, 1944 in Memphis, Tennessee. Although he received his JD from Memphis State, he never practiced law. Going directly into acting he has had memorable roles, like Larry on “Newhart”, the one who had two brothers, Daryl and Daryl. More recently he played E. B. Farmum in all 36 episodes of the highly-acclaimed HBO series “Deadwood,” for which he received an Emmy nomination for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series. I met him at Starbucks in Burbank.
Tony: Let me start out by asking you why you went to law school?
Bill: Probably insecurity. I give a different answer every time. Maybe choosing the right friends as a kid; they became lawyers and doctors. I could go on and on. Guilt. Like a lot of teenagers, I got in trouble but got back on good track in high school, like student government. When I graduated from high school, I said “I’ll make this up to you,” to my parents. When I was in the army I read a book by Adlai Stevenson, whom I liked, and he said, “Law is as noble as any profession.” But I started doing theater late in law school and just loved it.
Tony: How did you start doing theater?
Bill: They were doing a production of “Hair” next door and there were no girls in our law school class at the time. It looked like they were having a lot of fun, so I did a play, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Then I went to the local theater and did Marat/Sade and just fell in love with it.
Tony: This was while you were in Law School?
Bill: The last year. The first two years I barely got through, but I had learned how to study. They rarely failed you out the third year. It was a hectic year. I went to class in the morning. A buddy of mine opened a bar and I was the bartender. So I’d call the bar and tell them to have my breakfast ready, bartend, and go to rehearse a play, and then try to finish law school. Did you go to law school?
Tony: Yes. You’ve had a lot more fun being an actor than I had being a lawyer; although I was luckier than most in that what I did was enjoyable.
Bill: I took a lot of rejection, but I have so much respect for great lawyers, and it is a noble thing to help people.
Tony: You never took the bar exam?
Bill: No. I went to New York to bartend at TGIF Friday’s and O’Neill’s.
Tony: So you went to New York. How did you break in to the theater?
Bill: I would do anything I could get, showcases and off-Broadway. Somehow after 5 ½ years I got 3-4 independent films in a row, moved out here with the footage at the suggestion of one of the producers and got in some major film with that footage.
Tony: How did you get those roles in the independent films? Did you have an agent?
Bill: I did finally get an agent after I did a play called “Insect Comedy.” Two or three agents acted interested and I got the first film they submitted me for, played the town crazy; surprise! (laughs). Then I was on a roll.
Tony: How old were you?
Bill: I graduated from law school in ’71 when I was 27, so I was about 32. I was in New York from 72-76.
Tony: How much money could you make bartending?
Bill: Not enough! I worked for some famous bars. The owners were filthy rich, owning castles in Europe. One of my favorites was Mike O’Neill, who owns O’Neill Brothers by Lincoln Center. He hired a lot of struggling actors.
Tony: Then you came out here?
Bill: I came out here with $1500 and soon ran out of money. Joseph Wambaugh gave me my first job in “The Onion Field.” It was not much of a role. I love Wambaugh to this day. He called my agent and said, “This is the most articulate actor I’ve seen in years. I’ve got to have him play in my movie even if I have to write him a part.”
Tony: How had he seen you?
Bill: He saw my audition.
Tony: Did you get typecast playing goofy people?
Bill: I don’t know. This fits.
Tony: Larry in Newhart was pretty goofy.
Bill: Yeah. I didn’t think he was. I thought he was very sweet. It paid a lot of money. It was nice to have a regular job. I based him on a bum I met in Manhattan picking lint off his shirt, saying “I’ll kill the bitch.” And they thought I was tipping my hat. There’s bums on the bowery who have bands around their arms and DTs and stuff. But they fascinated me. I love tramps.
Tony: How did you get that role?
Tony: Did you go in on a cold cattle call, or did an agent get it?
Bill: My agent got it. But they put the two brothers in there that they found at the Mark Taper Forum. They put their careers on hold by not talking. A lot of people asked me if they minded not talking and I said that they never said anything to me about it (laughs).
Tony: Did you do anything else during the time you were playing Larry?
Bill: One of the nice things about that show was that they let me out to do other things. I got to work with Val Kilmer and Charles Durning on a remake of “I’m a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.” I did a movie with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds which didn’t do anything but it was great fun.
Tony: How much time did you have to put in on the Larry role?
Bill: I did around 17 shows a year. It lasted 8 years. I’d go in on Monday and read it, go home, let the writers hear it. On Tuesday you’d read it again but put it on its feet. On Wednesday you’d start trying to get the book out of your hand. Thursday, you’d finalize it. Friday I’d go in at noon and do a dress rehearsal. They’d shoot that, then do it before a live audience of 200 people on Friday night, which I’m very grateful for. They applauded when we went off the stage. My buddy said, “Yes, Sanderson. I’d applaud, too, when you went off the stage.” (laughs) But for some reason they liked us.
Tony: Did they ever use anything from the dress rehearsal?
Bill: If there was a mess-up. Bob never liked to stay late at night. He had it down to a science. So we had a double shot at it, the dress rehearsal and the live audience.
Tony: So even though you didn’t have a lot of lines, it was a full week’s work?
Bill: Oh, yeah. I had enough lines for me and was paid much more money than my parents ever made. Plus I was a spokesman for the Root Beer Company, and I met ladies. I did lots of things. I had to turn down an independent film shot in Belize because they said I had to be here. That week I had one little scene and when they showed it, they cut it out; the only one ever. But there’s nothing like a regular job for someone like me.
Tony: Why was “Deadwood” cancelled?
Bill: I can’t answer that. If you’re familiar with (writer/executive producer) David Milch, he’s kind of a madman, but I loved working for him and apparently he liked me. He put me in every show.
Tony: Do you get residuals on that?
Tony: They are rerunning in on DirecTV?
Bill: Yes, because of the potty mouth language you can’t put it many places, but I’m getting substantial residuals. I’m getting ready to go on a handshake tour. They tell me the soldiers like it.
Tony: What was it like working for Ridley Scott on “Bladerunner?”
Bill: It was a tremendous thrill for me. He had done “Alien,” and I thought I was going to lose this when he said, “Did you see it?” I said no. Nowadays I look at everything I can. He said, “Did you read the book?” and I said, “I couldn’t get through it.” He said, “Me neither.” It was great fun. I would talk with him one on one. I was thrilled to be working with Harrison Ford. We thought it would be a big hit. I think it was Pauline Kael who said it was a fascinating failure.
Tony: How do you deal with being a celebrity?
Bill: I’m kind of at peace with my recognition. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. When you get recognized all the time, like leaving tips, people say that this guy’s a jerk and this guy’s a nice guy. What would I do with Eddie Murphy or Brad Pitt’s problems? I’ve had my own on “Newhart.”
Tony: What kind of problems?
Bill: I was a bit of a target. People would call. A lady got my number from SAG; she worked there. She called and said, “I need a job.” I gave her a job. I was so busy. I said I want these presents sent to Texas where I’d shot a Movie of the Week. People didn’t get the presents. Years later she called me and told me she was in AA and she was supposed to admit what she’d done wrong and said, “I threw those presents away because I didn’t make as much money as I thought I should.”
Tony: Now you’re a regular on “True Blood” on HBO?
Bill: Yes. It’s a show with Alan Ball, who is a great writer. He wrote “American Beauty,” won an Academy Award, and created “Six Feet Under.” I play a sheriff in Louisiana. It’s based on a series of books by Charlaine Harris. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done. He’s normal and clean-shaven. I look every time to see if I’m being killed off. Lots of insecurity. But Deepak Chopra said he never met a great artist who wasn’t comfortable with his own insecurity. I consider myself a journeyman, but I’m comfortable with my insecurity.
Tony: How did you feel when you were named one of the 15 funniest people on Television?
Bill: Making people laugh is a valuable social service and once in awhile I get to do that. But really, being an actor is just a vanity kick, an adrenaline rush.