Big Man Tries Beckett
Big Man Tries Beckett
IN his dressing room last week John Goodman stood up, emitted a long, blaring foghorn blast and then announced in a loudspeaker voice, “Now docking. ...” He was describing his Act I entrance as Pozzo, his first theatrical role in four years, in the Roundabout Theater Company production of “Waiting for Godot,” which opens April 30 at Studio 54.
Mr. Goodman is a big man — he’s 6 foot 3, and his weight these days hovers around 300 pounds — and in his Pozzo getup he seems even bigger. He wears a derby, boots and a voluminous riding suit with jodhpurs, and when he comes onstage, at the end of a long rope attached to his hapless slave, Lucky (played by John Glover), he does seem a bit like an ocean liner. Vladimir and Estragon (played by Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane) look astonished, and rightly so.
Pozzo is the least sympathetic and in some ways the trickiest character in “Godot.” He cruelly mistreats Lucky, and yet he is as lost and vulnerable as all the others. He is “an insecure gasbag who needs to be listened to and have things done for him,” as Mr. Goodman put it. “He’s like the Macy’s blimp no one wants to look at.” Pozzo spouts a lot of fustian and hot air, and Mr. Goodman said he was still trying to figure out the right voice for it. His Pozzo speaks in a deep, Goodmanesque rumble but with a lordly British accent.
“It’s just a voice I heard in my head,” Mr. Goodman explained, “along with all the other voices there — the barking dogs and the rest. I need to make it more distinctly American, sort of like Bill Buckley. I’m trying to make it more a patrician Yankee voice, but I worry that’s not going to sell. It’s going to sound like a bad English accent. So it’s something I’m still searching for.”
Mr. Goodman is good at voices. In the course of a hour or so he imitated Peter O’Toole, Joe Franklin, a pretentious critic and an aged horse, complete with snuffling and foot stomping. But there were also sighs, long pauses, Beckett-like silences and moments when Mr. Goodman’s inner critic would cut him off midsentence.
Mr. Goodman, as anyone knows who has seen one of his several “Saturday Night Live” performances, can be a very funny man. His huge face is rubbery and expressive, made for comedy. He moves lightly and is a more than decent blues singer.
Over four decades, appearing in roughly three movies a year, he has played a king, a governor, Babe Ruth and a Stone Age caveman, Fred Flintstone. On “The West Wing” he has been a Republican speaker of the House who temporarily takes over for the president. But as is so often the case with actors his size, he is more often the second banana, the comic foil. His most famous role is Dan Conner, the henpecked husband on “Roseanne.”
In person Mr. Goodman is not the stereotypical jolly fat man. For all his success, he remains full of self-doubt. Compliments make him wince, and his conversational default mode is self-deprecation. He sometimes seems to be eyeing himself with suspicion.
Mr. Goodman’s friend Tom Arnold, whom he got to know during the years he starred on “Roseanne,” said: “John is much too hard on himself. He’s got that thing. I have it too. That fat kid thing. No matter what, we look in a mirror, and that’s what we see. It comes out in a lot of different ways. I’ve seen him pounding walls over a line in a sitcom. Probably it wasn’t even a good line, but John thinks he should have done it better.”
Mr. Goodman, who said he quit drinking a year and a half ago, is trying these days not to beat up on himself so much. “I could never please myself,” he explained. “That’s part of what fuels the alcoholic, I guess. You set yourself impossible goals, and then you kick yourself because you’re not good enough. But I can’t do that every night. I don’t have the energy anymore.”
He added: “I don’t know how much the old Jackie Daniels franchise ruined my memory, which is going anyway, because of my advancing decrepitude. I had a 30-year run, and at the end I didn’t care about anything. I was just fed up with myself. I didn’t even want to be an actor anymore.” Indicating his dressing room and the stage, a floor below, he said, “But this is nice. I like this way it is now — now that I’m in my dotage.” (He gave his age as 84, but he is only 56.)
In an e-mail message Mr. Arnold said he thought Mr. Goodman’s blue-collar roots had something to do with his temperament. He’s a “Midwestern boy who comes from a place where accepting praise and accolades is physically painful and even the hint of confidence in one’s talents is sin No. 1,” he wrote.
Mr. Goodman was born and grew up in Affton, Mo., a working-class suburb of St. Louis. His father, a letter carrier, died when Mr. Goodman was 2, and his mother raised him, a younger sister and an older brother while working as a waitress and a drugstore cashier. He played football in high school — badly, he says — and also acted a bit. He went to junior college for a year and then transferred to Southwest Missouri State. He “wasted a year in the keg,” he said, but then discovered Southwest’s unusually good drama program. Among his classmates were Kathleen Turner and Tess Harper.
In 1975, with a modest bankroll from his brother, Mr. Goodman moved to New York and scrounged for acting work. He found an apartment at Ninth Ave and 51st Street, not far, as it happens, from his current digs at Studio 54. He gave up waiting and bartending, he said, because nobody would hire him. Instead he appeared in dinner theater, did voice-overs and commercials. If you needed a beefy, construction-worker type, Mr. Goodman was your man. He was also the guy who slapped himself in a commercial for Mennen Skin Bracer.
“I did anything I could put my hands on,” he said. “I didn’t have any fallback skills. Eventually I got my Equity card and started making enough money to become a full-time alcoholic.”
In 1978 he appeared with Nathan Lane in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that had, he said, shaking his head, a “disco slant.” “I weighed about 178, and I was Oberon,” he added. “I coulda been a contender.”
The film that put Mr. Goodman on the map was probably “Revenge of the Nerds” (he was the football coach), but he began attracting critical attention with the string of movies that he made with the Coen brothers: “Raising Arizona,” “Barton Fink,” “The Big Lebowski” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Walter, the hotheaded, paranoid, buzz-cut Vietnam vet in “Lebowski” remains his favorite part. In all the Coen brothers’ movies, come to think of it, he plays someone who is either menacing or about to erupt. He’s like a tank of volatile, pressurized hydrogen.
And of course Mr. Goodman will forever be associated with Dan Conner, the working stiff he played so memorably on “Roseanne,” giving the part not just size and humor but also an edge of melancholy. Mr. Goodman now looks back fondly on the “Roseanne” years, but for a while, he said, he felt trapped in the show.
“I resented it at the time,” he said. “It’s one of those arrogant things that happen to you when you don’t realize the breaks you’re catching.” He added: “I don’t feel this way anymore, but for a couple of years I put myself above the material. I hate saying it, but it’s true, and I’m ashamed of it.”
Mr. Goodman hadn’t acted onstage since 2005, when he was Big Daddy in an acclaimed Los Angeles production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and he was initially reluctant to appear in this “Godot.” “I was frightened,” he said. “And I wanted to spend my daughter’s last semester of high school with her, whether she wanted it or not.”
When he is not working, Mr. Goodman lives with his wife, Annabeth Hartzog, and daughter, Molly, in New Orleans, where he moved from Los Angeles a dozen years ago because he was fed up with what he called “collateral tabloid damage.” He dreamed of just fishing and watching “SpongeBob,” he said, until he thought: “You’re an idiot. This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. It will never come by again.” He sighed. “The New York exposure, the caliber of the other actors, the play itself, which I’d read but never seen — I didn’t think I was up to it all. I had no confidence in myself. So it’s just a matter of throwing myself under the bus and crawling my way out.”
Anthony Page, the director of the production, said: “ ‘Godot’ is actually a very hard play to learn. Nothing is apparently very logical, and there’s nothing to guide you except the words until you get into it.” As for Pozzo, “It’s a very difficult part to take in if you’re not used to being onstage.”
Talking about the early rehearsals Mr. Goodman said: “I was beating my head against the wall. I was trying to hang myself in the jail cell. I couldn’t learn my lines. I came in with them, but I have to know what I’m doing before I can really say them. So I knew them, but they didn’t want to come out, and I worried about holding everyone else up.”
He stood up, took a long swig of Fiji water and went on: “Right now I feel I need to bring things down a bit. I don’t trust myself to make things clear. It’s just a matter of rocking back and trusting the material and the people I’m with.” He added, talking about the previews: “Pozzo is one of those fortunate roles. It’s not quite actor-proof, but it’s been playing so well. The house is listening. The language is beautiful. You just have to trust it — a lot more than I trust myself.”
Mr. Goodman is “wonderfully game,” Mr. Page said, adding: “He has this large, outsize character, and he keeps trying things. And his size is so amazing. He has a wonderful, odd sense of humor that just takes off, a wonderful gift for spontaneous playing.”
Mr. Page knew Beckett and worked with him on an early revival of the play at the Royal Court Theater in London in 1964. “Beckett was very precise,” he recalled. “He didn’t want theories or any level of intellectualizing. He paid a lot of attention to the tone of voice and to the relationships among the characters. And he cared a great deal about the silences and the pauses.”
Pointing to the set, a barren, rocky mountain pass designed by Santo Loquasto, he added: “I feel a bit guilty. Beckett’s stage directions call for a bare stage. But I felt that in such a big theater, with such a large stage, we had to have a set. I don’t know whether he would have approved.”
About the cast, he said, he felt more secure. “Beckett was very free about actors,” he said. “And these performances — oh yes, I think he would have approved of them.”
Mr. Goodman said: “Right now I’d rather be here than anywhere. I’d rather be here, trying to find the goddamn part, and I hope I never do find it, because I don’t want to slide into complacency. What would I do then? Start cockfights in my dressing room?”