My interview with Jeffrey Tambor for Austin 2001

(This interview was done before he appeared in “Arrested Development.”)

The Stats
Jeffrey Michael Tambor was born in 1944 in San Francisco and received a master’s degree in drama at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Selected Credits
“The Ropers” (TV) 1979-1980;   “And Justice for All” 1979; “Hill Street Blues” (TV) 1981-1987; “Mr. Mom” 1983; “Max Headroom” (TV) 1987; “Life Stinks” 1991; “City Slickers” 1991; “The Larry Sanders Show” (TV) 1992-1998; “Weapons of Mass Distraction” (TV) 1997; “Doctor Doolittle” 1998; “There’s Something About Mary” 1998; “Meet Joe Black” 1998; “Muppets From Space” 1999; “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” 1999; “Pollock” 2000; “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” 2000; “Never Again” 2001.

SXSW Appearance
Jeffrey Tambor is scheduled to be in Austin from March 9 to March 11 to promote “Never Again.” The film will be shown Sunday, March 11 at 5pm at The Paramount, Tuesday, March 13 at 10pm at the Austin Convention Center and Friday, March 16 at 5pm at the Alamo Drafthouse.

Jeffrey Tambor on Jim Carrey
He’s tremendous. You know an actor always wants to be served, to use the tennis analogy, you want a lotta spin on it, and he has just so much talent and inventiveness and generosity and he really works hard. So many people think you turn the camera on and he just goofs around. [But] there’s a wonderful design there. And he’s very giving. All good actors are giving. And he’s wonderfully friendly and collaborative and I’d work with him anytime. He’s a good friend.

… On Norman Fell and Audra Lindley
Norman Fell was somewhat of an intellectual. But I remember one of the great things about him was that we would go to lunch and he could not eat and talk at the same time. He just didn’t like that. It was interesting. I looked up to him so much. He just made me laugh and we goofed around and he was very serious about life. And Audra was a great actress. She wasn’t a good actress; she was a great actress. And, you know, the thing about people who watch these shows, they think that’s only what they can do. Both of them were theater-trained. Heavy theater. That’s why I love to go back to theater any time I can, ‘cause that’s the real trainer of all of us.

… On George C. Scott
Working with him was fabulous! Except for about the first two weeks I couldn’t talk because I was so in awe of him. And I just had so much respect for him. I mean he was so great. Especially to the young actors. I remember the night I went on as an understudy. George was so nice to me, and actually stopped the audience and said, [imitates Scott], ‘You know, this is his first time, so give him a big hand’ It was great. I didn’t sleep for two days after that.   He was a tremendous comedian. He wouldn’t go for the easy laugh; he’d go past it and get the character laugh.

Jeffrey Tambor

You know him best as Hank “Hey, Now” Kingsley, schmooze-master, failed restaurateur, TV legend and neurotic sidekick to Garry Shandling’s talk show host Larry Sanders in HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show.”

Jeffrey Tambor has appeared in a number of other TV shows, including the “Three’s Company” spin-off, “The Ropers,” the futuristic cult classic “Max Headroom” and the ’80s hit, “Hill Street Blues.” He’s co-starred with the likes of Al Pacino, Mel Brooks, Eddie Murphy, Brad Pitt and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Tambor most recently appeared with Jim Carrey in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and Ed Harris in the Oscar-nominated “Pollock.” He is attending the 2001 SXSW Film Festival to promote “Never Again,” a romantic comedy co-starring Jill Clayburgh and directed by Eric Schaeffer. According to Tambor, the release date is still uncertain, but, “We have distributors looking at it now, and keep your fingers crossed, maybe [we’ll find some] by the end of the day. I have high hopes for it and I’m really glad that I’m going down to Austin to be at the Festival.”

Tell me about “Never Again.”
Well, it’s a wonderful, wonderful film. I’m very proud of it. It’s directed by Eric Schaeffer and stars me and Jill Clayburgh, and she’s fabulous in it. It’s a New York romance movie of two middle-aged people who’ve decided to say ‘never again’ about falling in love. It’s very timely. We had a screening the other night and the people responded beautifully and we just hope it does really well at the film festival. I’d love to see it get out there. Eric Schaeffer’s singular. I mean he’s very unique. When we were working, we all did a short-lived television series, he and Jill and I, and we were sitting by the craft service table and he said, ‘You know, if this never works out, we’re gonna do this. I’m writing a movie for you and Jill.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ I mean Hollywood has a million stories like that. But he did it. He invited Jill and I in with our suggestions and our characters and the day after we shot it I got on a plane and I said to myself, ‘Wow, we did something, you know?’ And I like things like that. I just came from a press conference a couple of weeks ago with Ed Harris’ “Pollock.”

What are you working on right now?
Well, right now, besides doing the publicity for “Never Again,” and we just got through with “Pollock,” I have my own series that is going to be done for ABC. It’s called “Man in the Kitchen.” And it’s very good. Jeffrey Tambor enters the Food Network that whole area. I’m now taking cooking lessons and getting ready so when the audience looks at me they’ll believe that I can cook.

Well, that’s very timely because that’s such a hot thing.
Very hot. They are the new celebrities, the chefs. It was so funny because I just was on “Hollywood Squares” with Wolfgang Puck and I told him what I was doing and he graciously invited me backstage at his kitchen, and I was cutting, helping and watching. So I’ve been just eyeballing cooks and all. I’m an absolute devotee of the Food Network. I’m like a groupie…close to being a stalker.

Do you have a season in the can?
No, no, no, no, no. We have to have a pilot for it first. We’re at the script stage now, and I’m one of the producers for it as well and it’s fun. It’s written by a wonderful writer Michael Borkow. He is one of the original creators of “Friends.” So he has his track record and he’s really good. I came from “The Larry Sanders Show” so I want a certain edge to it. I like the backstage of things. I think America does too. They love backstage.

What was so satisfying to me about “The Larry Sanders Show” is that you’ve got the people who watch talk shows, and then you’ve got the junkies who read about and try to follow all the backstage stuff. “The Larry Sanders Show” really delivered for people who were like that. I thought Hank was a great character. I liked how his behavior would fluctuate so dramatically even during one episode.
Well, he was a human being. And we all fluctuate, rather than the standard. I don’t mean to downplay some other work, but sometimes in television it’s only one thing, the character’s only one thing.

How did you flesh him out? How much of it was based on [Ed] McMahon and various others?
I don’t think it was. I mean the prototype has to be Ed McMahon. But I think from then on you cut your own swath. There’s a wonderful adage in acting that says, ‘You’re stuck with the character, but the character’s also stuck with you.’ So your imprint is on it immediately and I never thought of him as a buffoon or as a cardboard character or dopey or anything. There’s a wonderful phrase: ‘People are ridiculous.’ And people can be ridiculous. And he was full of it. I mean he just got into an obsession and he just couldn’t stop.

Let me ask you about “Max Headroom.” It just seemed a little ahead of its time.
It was very ahead of its time and very expensive. [Laughs.] Well, it was great. I mean, it was interesting. We were on the cover of “Newsweek” and the next week we were cancelled. It was the only script that I got where you had to read it three or four times to understand it. Now if I had to read it three or four times, that meant this stuff is   you know? But it didn’t pander, thank God. I’m very proud to have it in my arsenal.

The typical Jeffrey Tambor moment for me is when you’ve got this respectable sort of character who just suddenly flips out and loses it. Where do you draw that from?
Well, I don’t know exactly what you’re talking about, but I like that degree of difficulty. I mean my very first movie was “And Justice For All.” I’m sort of drawn to that. I think everybody underneath [is] interested in the dark side of people. It’s wonderful to be played. I like people who have secrets. And I like sudden turns and things. As you say, Hank comes in and he’s in a good mood and then by 1 o’clock he’s ready to take his life. I like those moves in characters.

Yeah, I like it when you can see the emotional nakedness.
Yes, I like that. I’m very drawn to characters who are struggling to survive. ‘Cause it’s tough, you know?


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