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Tuesday, June 18, 2013
I Ain't Afraid Of No Ghosts!: TV STORE ONLINE talks with actor Ernie Hudson about Ghostbusters, Weeds and his thirty year career
Actor Ernie Hudson from such films as GHOSTBUSTERS, THE CROW, THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, CONGO, and WEEDS talks about his incredible career as well as his early days growing up in Michigan.
TV STORE ONLINE: Hi Ernie...Thanks for your time today. I know that you were born and raised in Michigan. Could you tell me about growing up in Michigan and the types of things you experienced that made you want to become an actor?
HUDSON: I'm from Benton Harbor, Michigan originally. I'm sure that most people know that Benton Harbor was and still is one of the most economically depressed areas in Michigan. When I was growing up there in the 1950's the city was doing well and thriving for some people. I grew up in the projects, and we didn't have any money. Benton Harbor also was very much a segregated city. There wasn't really anyone around to sort of inspire you then. Hollywood was like Mt. Olympus and even thinking about being in the movies was a million miles away for me. When I was a kid I always loved playing good guys and bad guys with my cousins and my friends. We loved westerns, and we'd act those out. Then we had Easter plays and Christmas plays in church. I was one of those boys that went to church consistently so I was always cast in those too. I was raised by my Grandmother and she was very involved in the church. We would go to church six or seven times a week.
I also had four uncles who were all very different from each other. They all had their own unique weaknesses and strengths and I really loved to hear their stories. I really liked the idea of telling stories too. And I think that's were my interest in story telling and acting comes from.
TV STORE ONLINE: You left and went into the military didn't you?
TV STORE ONLINE: Once you got back from the military you decided to move to Detroit, Michigan?
HUDSON: Right. I had managed to get into college. I went first to Highland Park for a semester. I wanted to go to Wayne State University. The deal with the counselor was that if I got good grades in Highland Park I'd be admitted into Wayne State. The idea that I could be in college was so amazing to me. I graduated high school with a 1.87 grade point average. It wasn't because I couldn't do the work in high school it was because I was working in that foundry at the time. My Grandmother who raised me was born in 1895, and she used to tell me that if I finished high school I could have a great life. While that may have been true in 1895, it wasn't true in 1964. I wanted to go to college, and by the time I moved to Detroit I was already married and my wife was pregnant. We got this little place off of Gratiot and Sylvester that was forty dollars a month. I took some jobs. I tried to sell insurance, I worked in a couple factories and everything I tried, I failed at. When I got into college I was allowed to take one elective and I chose an acting class. Once I got up on a stage I felt like I was at home.
TV STORE ONLINE: What happened when you went out to California?
TV STORE ONLINE: Going back to your short stint in the military...When you enlisted were you concerned about the possibilities of maybe having to go off to Vietnam?
HUDSON: It was 1964 and that whole thing was just heating up. There was no mention of it until I first got off the bus in San Diego for training. But you could see that things were moving quickly in that direction. They were cutting training times for guys down from twelve weeks to nine weeks, and after I was discharged my entire platoon was sent off to Vietnam. I can still remember the day I got back to Michigan. The bus had dropped me off, and I hadn't told anyone that I was coming back, not even my Grandmother. There was a big field behind the projects where we lived and once the bus had dropped me off I had to walk through the field. When I got closer I saw my Grandmother outside and she was hanging up some clothes. I walked up to her and told her that I was home, and she told me that she'd had a feeling that I would be back and that I should go inside and get myself some food. I asked her how she knew that I'd be back and she said that she had prayed to God.
HUDSON: Thanks for that. I don't hear a lot of people talk about WEEDS. The movie never really got a decent release. WEEDS came to me after a lot of frustration. I had done the first GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) film and where I thought that GHOSTBUSTERS was going to give me that big career bump it did the opposite for me. I couldn't get hired on a movie after GHOSTBUSTERS. I couldn't even get arrested. I did a bunch of television after that. It was the way I found to make a living. When WEEDS came along, I had just signed on to do a television series with Stephen J. Cannell. When I went in to meet with the director of WEEDS John Hancock and Nick Nolte, I knew it was something I had to do. So I had to go to NBC and Stephen J. Cannell and ask to be let out of the series I had just signed on too and Cannell being the nice guy that he was let me out of it. He was a wonderful guy and a good friend. WEEDS never got seen really because Dino de Laurentiis and his production company who put the film together were on the verge of declaring bankruptcy and packing it all up in North Carolina and moving off to Australia.
TV STORE ONLINE: For me WEEDS is all about your performance and that of William Forsythe. Because of your background in the theatre....Was WEEDS a bit of art imitating life for you?
HUDSON: Yeah it was great to be part of the company. Actors in movies don't usually get the opportunity to be part of a company like they do in the theatre. In movies, you meet another actor and you do a scene with them and then they are gone and you may never seen them again, whereas in the theatre you spend six weeks with the other actors rehearsing. I've always found love in theatre. With WEEDS we had a lot of rehearsal time, and we shot it at various locations in North Carolina and then also at the Maximum security prison in Joliet, Illinois. I'm still very close with many of the guys that I worked on WEEDS with. I just saw Bill Forsythe recently, and we've worked together quite a few times since WEEDS. I run into Nick Nolte occasionally, and one of my very best friends today is Joe Mantegna, who of course was in the film as well.
TV STORE ONLINE: Then where did that "Baghdad" character come from inside of you?
HUDSON: Whats interesting about that....I can remember Roger Ebert's review of WEEDS in the Chicago Sun-Times. I remember he wrote about an "inmate" in the film that comes out and delivers this wonderful song....I was like, "I'm not an inmate...I'm an actor, at least you can mention my friggin' name!" I wasn't that character, I was the actor who played him. He was based on a actual person. I never met the real guy but the director John Hancock did. We had some similarities between us though. At the age I went off to college, he had went to prison. So I started to think about that. I asked myself, "What if I had spent the previous fifteen years developing in prison instead of going off to college? How would I be today? What would my mindset be today?" I think that's the way characters are. I think that any character an actor plays is really just a variation on themselves. I think it's the actor in a different situation, different environment or different set of circumstances. I can remember when I did the character in THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (1992)....
HUDSON: Thanks...I can remember when I was younger and I'd be out picking fruit I used to latch onto these older men because I didn't have a father growing up and I wanted a father figure. One guy, who I used to help out sometimes....I was picking some Cantaloupe and this guy who was a drunk was standing around and he was making some jokes and he kicked me and I fell backward onto the ground and was knocked unconscious for a moment. When I woke up... The guy was standing over me concerned. I was so angry that I ended up getting up and walking home. It was like thirty miles home. But I thought about that when I was doing THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE. Because what would've happened to me in that moment if I was more seriously injured? What if I would've hit my head harder than I did and it left me mentally disabled? Because if that happens you're still perfectly normal but you're stuck at the age in which that happened.
TV STORE ONLINE: With that character in WEEDS though...There is just such a particular intensity to him. I mean he becomes completely unhinged and unraveled through the course of the film.....
After about five years he got out and came back to town. He was always a little odd and he never really fit in. He tried really hard though, but he just couldn't connect. There was a girl that he really liked. He started going to her church, and he did something and she ended up yelling at him and he just unraveled and unloaded. He did exactly what that character in WEEDS did and he ended up going back to prison. He's been in prison his entire life now. He gets out and goes to rob a liquor store and then waits for the police to come and arrest him and goes back into prison. He didn't know how to act in society. That is Baghdad in WEEDS. He meets this fantasy girl and she understands him and accepts him but he doesn't understand how to act because he's never known that type of life. There's something very vulnerable about him but he just couldn't cope with not knowing what to do in society.
TV STORE ONLINE: Going back quickly to that character that you played in THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE "Solomon".....I've read where you've said that you thought that he was a better person than you were in life....So leaving a character like that behind as the actor at the end of shooting...Does it improve you after you've finished playing him?
HUDSON: Yeah for sure. But I also think there is an element of each character that an actor plays within themselves. No matter how dark the subject is...Its always there inside of yourself. As an actor, you have to find that place that's already in you and magnify it. Solomon had a certain innocence and a genuine concern for that family and of course we strive to all be good people like that. I can remember when I was first starting out....I was playing Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope on stage in Minneapolis. I did it for a couple years firstly in Minneapolis then later on in Los Angeles.
TV STORE ONLINE: When a character leaves you do you find that they can return and come out of you when you are least expecting it?
HUDSON: Of course. Yeah they do come out at times. Also, you find out things about yourself that you didn't know before you played the character in the first place. I mean, I'm capable myself of all types of things. I did this character in this film called BUTTER (1998)...and I was being very pushy and rude to people and I was cutting people off in mid sentence because I could, and that's not really me, but yet I'm capable of doing that.
HUDSON: Oh man....I had a real hard time working with the director on that. I saw that character in a particular way and the director [Rodman Flender] saw him a different way.
HUDSON: (Laughing) The character in the script was originally supposed to be this 350 pound white guy with an eating disorder. It opened up with this 350 pound guy cooking all of this food and eating it in a very gross way. So when they cast me....I'm not a white guy and I'm not 350 pounds. The make-up was weird. It wasn't really a clown make-up it was more Zulu like. I wanted to go further in certain ways but the director saw the character going someplace else. But he was a very fascinating character.
TV STORE ONLINE: I still love your cameo as the "The Tennis Captain" the angry police chief on The Ben Stiller Show (1992-93) too...
HUDSON: I can remember doing that...But I've never seen it. Ben [Stiller] was fun to work with. I remember at the time that my agent was telling me how hot this television show was going to be...laughing I run into Ben every now and again but he yet has to cast me in one of his movies...laughing
HUDSON: Thanks! I really enjoyed working on both of those films. For EVERYTHING'S JAKE...I got that script sent to me from two kids who had just graduated from Syracuse University. I really thought that they had ripped some poor guy's story off. But they had actually wrote it, and I really liked that character. Growing up poor myself...I didn't see my situation that way. That is how the character of Jake sees his situation. He's a guy who is homeless and living on the streets of New York City but he doesn't see his situation as a bad one. When I was researching the character I went to New York City and I had decided to leave all of my money and identification at home and I decided that I'd live on the streets myself for three or four days but I only lasted for like ten hours. It was cold out there. I did end up talking to a bunch of people and I went and visited some homeless shelters. We have a misconception that life stops for someone who is homeless, but it doesn't. The guys who made the film were really fun to work with but I don't think they really understood the business behind releasing a film. I don't think they understood how to market the film either because it ended up slipping through the cracks.
With A STRANGER IN THE KINGDOM....I just thought the director [Jay Craven] had too many stories he was trying to tell. I did like that character though. It was based on a true story as well. He was a African American minister in the 1950's that moved his family from South Central Los Angeles to Vermont to make a better life for them. Of course, because he was an outsider and because of the color of his skin, someone accused him of having sex with his white maid and they ended up putting him in jail and running him out of town. There's now a plaque in the town where it actually happened telling the story of this guy.
TV STORE ONLINE: I don't want to spend too much time talking about it, because I know you've been asked so much about it in the past....But I'm a huge fan of THE CROW (1994)....
HUDSON: Me too.
TV STORE ONLINE: I went back and took a look at the film recently and I noticed so much hurt and sadness in the eyes of your character...How did you find that "Sgt. Albrecht" character?
It's funny... Because Father's Day was a few days ago...I was thinking back to when my kids were little and I used to tuck them in at bedtime. Now they're grown up and because I didn't have a father myself or that type of role model... I don't know this part of it now, and I don't understand this stage. I think that Albrecht was like that too. He's a cop that's lost his wife and he hasn't been promoted because he's always trying to do the right thing. So he doesn't know what to do next. He was a sad character, but sometimes life just feels that way. I have to be careful myself, because sometimes I'll indulge in that type of thinking as well. When I think back at my own career, or when I get on a show now and they don't want anything from me other than to deliver the lines in the script....I don't understand that. It's frustrating, because I can give so much more to the project. I want to bring so much more to the characters that I'm playing. It's frustrating as an actor because you want to be creative but yet you want to stay busy so you really can't turn anything down. So you have to turn to writing to be creative.
HUDSON: You know I did The Great White Hope on stage over thirty years ago. It was such a life changing experience for me. I think it was the best thing I've ever done. Even when I was researching it I was totally fascinated with Jack Johnson, the real guy. When I was researching it I realized that the play was a fictionalized account of his life. His real life is much more interesting than the play. I have always wanted to tell his life story. Over the years I have thought about it, but as I've gotten older... I can't really play Jack Jones the young boxer. So I started writing a one man show that takes place at the end of Jones life. He died in a car crash at age 68. He was only a year older than I am when he died. We've taken this out and tested it but it's on hold for now. We've done it here in Los Angeles and we've done it in Colorado and Pennsylvania as well.
TV STORE ONLINE: What else do you have in the works?
TV STORE ONLINE: Is there any chance you'd be interested in developing a musical version of SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (1983) with me?
HUDSON: (Laughing)... You know that movie has such a following! It is an odd movie.
TV STORE ONLINE: If you added in Michael Jackson you'd have a long form CAPTAIN EO (1986)...
HUDSON: (Laughing)...I don't think Peter Strauss is happy to be in that movie either...
HUDSON: That's right....Ivan acquired the film from Director/Producer/Writer Jean LaFleur. He had been fired off the show by Columbia Pictures and Ivan came on board to finish it. Harold Ramis is in SPACEHUNTER too. It was funny, because working on SPACEHUNTER almost cost me my role in GHOSTBUSTERS because Ivan couldn't see me as anything else but that larger than life character from SPACEHUNTER...
TV STORE ONLINE: That sounds like what probably happened to you in that Chuck Norris film, THE OCTAGON (1980)...
HUDSON: Yeah, right. There was a lot of my character that was cut out of THE OCTAGON. Working with Chuck was really great though..
TV STORE ONLINE: Maybe you should refer to the film THE OCTAGON going forward as THE HUDSON GONE...
HUDSON: (Laughing)...Right, yeah...That's funny. I had the same thing happen to me on a film I did with Robert Downey Jr. called HEART AND SOULS (1993). I was completely cut out of that! The director Ron Underwood called me up before it was released to apologize to me. I still get residual checks for that though so I guess that's a consolation.
HUDSON: Of course...I'm at a very good place with GHOSTBUSTERS. I'm very flattered that the fans care so much about that movie. If someone would've told me thirty years ago that people that have seen the film would be turning their cars into The Ectomobile and that they'd be building their own Proton Packs, I wouldn't believe it. With other followings for movies like STAR WARS or STAR TREK...Those movies have such a following because they are supported by their studio. GHOSTBUSTERS has no support at all from the studio. Plus, fans that grew up with the movie are introducing the film to their kids now. I'm so honored to be apart of that. Growing up in Michigan, and then moving to Detroit to do theatre...To have had the opportunity to be in movies, and then to have had the opportunity to be in such a big movie was a life changing experience.
TV STORE ONLINE: There has been so much written about the character of "Winston" too. It's been mentioned that the role was originally conceived as a vehicle for Eddie Murphy but when he declined to take part, the character went from being in the script at Page 6 to first appearing in the script at Page 67...Why do you think Reitman and the others decided to cut down that character's part in the film?
TV STORE ONLINE: I always thought it was because your character was positioned in the film as the straight man....
HUDSON: For sure, and that was fine. But I just couldn't understand why he had to be dropped out of so many scenes. Of course, we couldn't discuss it either. Ivan, I think, felt really awkward about the situation. I don't know if I could've gotten through it if it wasn't for Harold Ramis, because he was the one that really helped me by talking me through it.
TV STORE ONLINE: Silly fan question...How much did the Proton Pack weigh? Was it difficult to maneuver around in it?
HUDSON: There were two packs actually. The first one was made out of metal, and then the other was made out of foam rubber. We would wear the foam rubber ones when there was a scene where we had to run around or something. The metal ones were really heavy, and after you had it on for a while it would start to dig into your side. It was very uncomfortable.
TV STORE ONLINE: No doubt you've been asked to try on a fan made Proton Pack at one of these movie conventions?
HUDSON: Of course...In fact, the only prop I kept from the original GHOSTBUSTERS was my jumpsuit. I used to take it around to these movie conventions with me in fact. I was in New Jersey at one of these shows and someone broke into my hotel room and stole it. I told this story somewhere and this prop maker made me a replica jumpsuit that is identical to the one I wore in the movie and a Proton Pack. I don't get the chance to wear the pack that much because I'm always traveling or working. I tried to take it to a few of these conventions but the people at the airport freak out about it. I would tell them, "Look, didn't you see GHOSTBUSTERS? This isn't a bomb!"
HUDSON: (Laughing)....Oh No. It might be fun though...But I think if I showed up wearing that I might be sleeping someplace else...laughing
TV STORE ONLINE: Last Question....Getting your start in Detroit as an actor and having this thirty year plus career...Has Ernie Hudson mastered his craft? How have you grown as an actor since your days in Detroit?
HUDSON: Well, I think if anything...I'm just easier about it all. Have you heard the story about Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda? Jane Fonda was working on a character and she was stressing out about it, and Henry just stopped her and said, "What are you doing? Just act. It's not that deep..." I think I've learned to rely more on my instincts and not worry so much about researching a character. Back in the old days, I would need a couple days to get into a character. Or I would try to get a character's vibe off of the costume I was going to be wearing. I would worry about what the favorite color of the character I was playing was. I think I'm just more relaxed about it today. I'll still do my homework and my research for a character but I'm taking that information and relying on my instincts much more often. Now I can be on a set playing an intense character and when the director yells "Cut!" I can walk around and joke with people, but back in the old days I couldn't do that...I'd have to go off by myself and stay focused on the character. I ate a lot of lunches by myself in those days.
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Thursday, June 13, 2013
TV STORE ONLINE: Hi Oscar... We're really excited to talk to you about THE HANGOVER PART 3. What was the whole shooting experience like?
TORRE: It was a lot of fun. Whenever you get the opportunity to be part of a proven franchise, like THE HANGOVER films... It is a good day! It was a real pleasure working with those guys and Todd Phillips, the director. He creates an environment on the set where you feel like you're playing...You're also not afraid of trying things or making mistakes.
TV STORE ONLINE: Had you been a fan of the previous HANGOVER films prior to becoming part of this new HANGOVER film?
TORRE: Just like you guys...I'm a big fan of THE HANGOVER films. I've seen the first HANGOVER about three or four times, so when I was invited to be part of the third film, I was thrilled!
TV STORE ONLINE: I'm sure you've got a funny story or two from working with those HANGOVER guys...Can you share anything with us?
TORRE: As you can imagine, there was a lot of laughter on the set. I do know that a moment that might make the blooper reel is when I'm outside the police station and I'm trying to light a cigarette. The wind was blowing hard and on my cue...I was supposed to be lighting this cigarette and a limo appears in front of the police station to pick up the guys and there are a ton of background actors walking by the street and take after take, I couldn't light this cigarette! In one of the takes, I was so frustrated and determined to light the cigarette, that I forgot about the scene and didn't answer Bradley Cooper's character when he asks me, "What is this?"He is referring to the limo picking them up outside the police station in the scene. So Bradley Cooper says a second time, "Excuse me, what is this?" And I looked at him very intensely and said, "This is me trying to light a fucking cigarette!" Then, I proceeded to throw the cigarette on the ground in frustration...laughing It was the first scene I shot in the film, and I was having a horrible time shooting it because of that stupid cigarette! Luckily my other scenes were a lot more fun.
TV STORE ONLINE: What are you watching on television these days? What are your favorite shows and why?
TORRE: I have a few shows that I'm hooked on, but I'm currently watching Orphan Black. It's a BBC America show and I must say it's terrific. The lead actress, Tatiana Maslany, plays about eight different characters. She's really amazing to watch and as an actor and is very inspiring.
TV STORE ONLINE: Many fans were disappointed with THE HANGOVER 2. For those that haven't yet seen Part 3 that may be reading this, what can fans of the franchise expect with this final installment?
TORRE: This third installment stands on it's own. You don't need to have seen the first two films to enjoy this one. Although, if you have seen them, you'll find that the third one ties loose ends up that you might have not even noticed while watching the first two. Obviously, I'm a little biased, but as a fan of the first two films, I really enjoyed the third one. It is a good ending to the trilogy.
TV STORE ONLINE: So I've just watched the trailer online for PRETTY ROSEBUD (2013). How did this project come about for you?
TORRE: This is a film that was written by my wife, Chuti Tiu, who also stars in it. I remember first reading the script and thinking that it was very well written but it might never get made because the lead character was very flawed, and her actions could make her unlikable if not handled correctly. It's the story of a woman in an unhappy marriage, and in the process of finding herself and her happiness, she makes unconventional choices and breaks societal taboos.
We decided to produce the film ourselves, so we began looking for a director, and the more we talked about it, my wife felt that I'd be the best person for the job. She trusted me to tell this story, because I realized that even though it's a story written about a woman, it could be about anyone who doesn't have the freedom to be themselves.
TV STORE ONLINE: Growing up with an interest in acting and I'm sure directing, what were some of the films that may have influenced you and who were some of the directors that may have influenced you?
TORRE: I became involved in acting while attending college. I took an acting class as an elective and was soon hooked. At the time, the directors that I became attracted to the most were Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, and Arthur Penn. Their films were edgy and the actors seemed real, as if they weren't acting. I also loved that the characters in these films seemed like roles I could play.
TV STORE ONLINE: It's become so easy to gain access to digital film equipment these days and to find an outlet for your film too.. But how much of a challenge is to get your film actually seen? Great films slip through the cracks often...What steps are you taking to make sure that PRETTY ROSEBUD gets seen by it's real audience?
TORRE: We started by identifying who our target audience is. In our case, women or anyone who feels trapped in their lives because of family, cultural or religious pressures. Then with social media, we start targeting these groups. This is just one of many steps we're taking to get the film seen. We just started submitting to film festivals. Obviously, we'll also be seeking distribution, but if that doesn't happen, with the internet we have many options for self-distribution. We're just starting this process, so we'll see where this road takes us, but the one thing that I'm confident of is that the film will be seen.
TV STORE ONLINE: PRETTY ROSEBUD'S subject matter isn't something that we normally see in the US mainstream in the multiplex in 2013. When I watched the film's trailer, it reminded me of some of the wonderful and important work that Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono is producing in terms of subject matter. Do you think that there is a different cultural aesthetic in regards to certain films subject matter? Sono tells these brilliant stories about females and we don't see that here in the US....
TORRE: Sono is a terrific filmmaker I have to say. It's really just a different aesthetic between mainstream Hollywood films and independent films. Hollywood films are driven by commerce. The first question a studio asks when green lighting a film is, "Can it make money?" And this makes a lot of sense, because they're investing a lot of money in making them. Independent films, for the most part, are motivated by story first. It starts with a filmmaker wanting/needing to tell a specific story, despite knowing it might not make a penny or ever get distribution. There's also a certain freedom in that, because you're more willing to take chances. The downside is that you might be limited by budget, but this also forces you to be creative and tell your story in a entertaining and interesting way.
Two of my favorite directors are Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar Wai. I love the realism in Soderbergh's films and the poetic visuals in Wong Kar Wai's. You'll find that in PRETTY ROSEBUD. I try to incorporate both. I tried telling the story as simply as I could. Many times throughout the story I found myself getting rid of dialogue and using an image to replace the words.
While shooting PRETTY ROSEBUD (since it's the story of a woman), I made it a point to have as many women as possible be part of our team. My producer, assistant director, line producer, director of photography, editor, production designer, costume designer, make-up and many PA's were all women. This brought an energy to the set that I wanted. I wanted the lead actress (Chuti Tiu) to be able to be as vulnerable as she needed to be, without shame or judgement.
TV STORE ONLINE: What's next for you? Any plans on directing another feature?
TORRE: I'm attached to several films that are scheduled to shoot this year, as well as a film entitled LUNARTICKING that I co-wrote with a friend and my wife, Chuti. I'll play the lead role in that one. As for directing, I have a few projects in mind. This is something that I will definitely do more of. I enjoyed the experience a great deal. I love the challenge of telling a story in a creative and entertaining way.
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Tuesday, June 11, 2013
When you first start to talk with Joe Piscopo, you get a sense right away of just how talented and special he is. He's very engaging, a Jersey guy at heart. He's warm, friendly, polite, and he's one of those guys that reminds you of your oldest friends. Piscopo chats with you like he's known you his entire life.
Immediately, he makes it very clear that family is everything to him. He loves radio, he loves music. He plays a few different instruments. Piscopo is also quick to point out and pay tribute to those that are also legends, beside himself. When I first talk to him I immediately bring up one of my all time favorite comedy sketches in the history of comedy, his Jerry Lewis Thriller parody from his '84 HBO special. He's grateful, and we spend about ten minutes talking about Jerry Lewis, even sinking down into discussing Jerry's infamous unreleased film from 1974, THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED.
Being who Piscopo is... He asks some questions about me. I tell him where I grew up. He gets excited. He tells me he's played "my home turf'" often under several circumstances, and loves it. He tells me my birthplace has great people, good food, fun places and beautiful women.
Piscopo is a freakin' legend. Starting out in radio and moving into improvisation comedy in his early 20's, he's been around the block. He with others, came up the ranks to become contemporary comedy juggernauts. Two generations later, and today everyone understands these guys are now the definition of comedy. Piscopo quite possibly had the most difficult job in television history when in 1980 he was hired for America's favorite television show, Saturday Night Live. He, alongside his friend and comic icon Eddie Murphy and others were brought on board to replace a cast that included Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Chevy Chase. It didn't go so well. NBC canned everyone but Piscopo and Murphy. It was up to Piscopo and Murphy to save the show. Ever since that day Piscopo has been the stuff of legends.
Piscopo left SNL in 1984 to pursue film work. He went on to star in several comedy and cult film classics such as WISE GUYS (1986), JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY (1984), and DEAD HEAT (1988). A proud Italian at heart, he's got the Italian New Jersey mannerisms you'd expect. But what makes Piscopo so great, is that after a few minutes of speaking with him, you're in his world feeling very comfortable, and it makes you wish you yourself were Italian, and able to get away with saying "Forget about it" as he does. Piscopo suggests that he'd rather be considered an entertainer over a comedian. The three heroes of his life: His father [a lawyer], Jerry Lewis, and the old man, Francis Albert Sinatra. Piscopo would become known for his dazzling and hilariously on-the-money impressions of Lewis and Sinatra. The later of which Piscopo continues to impersonate to this very day on stage all over the good ole' USA.
There's a famous story about the first time Piscopo met Frank Sinatra. It was during one of the Friars' Club Roasts in New York City in the mid '80s. Piscopo walked up on stage at the Friars' Club. On one side sat Frank Sinatra. Piscopo confronted Sinatra in front of the audience. He expressed his admiration and impersonated him. Sinatra told the audience and Piscopo, "That's pretty good." Piscopo then got brave and asked Sinatra, " Mr. Sinatra... Can I call you Frank?" Sinatra responded, "No." The audience exploded with laughter, and the moment has become the highlight of a now famous night of comedy. From here, Sinatra would dub Piscopo the "Vice-Chairman Of The Board". TV Store Online spoke to Piscopo and here's how it went:
TV STORE ONLINE: Mr. Piscopo, can I call you Joe?
TV STORE ONLINE: One thing I noticed immediately on your website was your bio. It reads and I'm paraphrasing here..."After a stint as a disc jockey and dinner-theater performer, Joe Piscopo turned to comedy?" I was curious to see how one turns to comedy? Weren't you born a comedian?
PISCOPO: No...I was a born wiseguy. I was a kid that was causing trouble. I was annoying the teachers. Back then, I wanted to really just be a blue collar entertainer, being up on stage and sweating it out, making money, and having fun! I had to figure out how to do that though. So I went to college down in Florida, and got a degree in radio. I love radio. I'm a junky for radio. Then I went up to Pennsylvania and got involved in dinner theater. I was doing four shows for fifteen dollars a weekend. Then I got a job in New Jersey on the radio, and I got involved in New York City improv. It was so exciting. I cut my chops in New York City doing stuff at the improv comedy club.
TV STORE ONLINE: You being a comedy legend yourself... Didn't you come up the ranks with a bunch of others?
PISCOPO: Larry David was hanging around, Jerry Seinfeld was hanging out. Robert Klein was there. Robin Williams was just breaking. Rodney Dangerfield was getting really huge. They need to make a movie about this time. It was the stuff of legends, let me tell you. Richard Pryor was coming in and checking it out. Andy Kaufman was around. Kaufman was a genius. Bette Midler, man.. I got to play piano for her once. It was really really wild. I mean I'm a kid, twenty-four years old, trying to get a break. It was crazy. It was rock n' roll.
TV STORE ONLINE: How did you get interested in playing music?
PISCOPO: My mother. She really pushed me to play the piano when I was a kid. I gave her a hard time. I was kid, and all I wanted to do was be out at Yankee Stadium watching baseball. But I stuck with it, and I'm really thankful to my mom for it.
TV STORE ONLINE: Growing up did you have any musical influences as you progressed in music?
PISCOPO: Frank Sinatra of course. That comes from my dad. At a young age, I knew who Frank was, and Tony Bennett. I had no problems telling the difference between the voices of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett on the radio. You can't mistake the old man's voice. But I loved rock n' roll as well. For me it was Jimi Hendrix all the way. What a genius. I loved the Animals, and The Beatles, and a lot of those hardcore male blues voices as well.
TV STORE ONLINE: Do you remember your very first film role?
PISCOPO: Well...I'm not sure what you're getting at! Are you talking about that really really bad movie I did up in upstate New York...What was that called again?
TV STORE ONLINE: Well, I was trying to steer you towards your walk on role in the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis produced KING KONG...
PISCOPO: Yeah I know...laughing...Oh my god! I can't believe we're talking about this... Let me just say, that I love the 1933 KING KONG. I had heard a rumor from a friend about it. So my friend and I decided to go upstate for it. It was funny. Cause for a little while I was putting it on my resume. People would ask me, "What did you do in KING KONG?", and I'd say, "Well I had just a small role...." laughing...I just ran down the street in one scene...laughing...I don't think you can even see me...laughing
TV STORE ONLINE: Moving onto SNL.... I was curious to see if you or the cast coming in with you had any concerns that you wouldn't be as good as the cast you were replacing? I mean you guys were replacing Aykroyd, Belushi, and Radner.
PISCOPO: I had this friend who was working on SNL as a lighting grip or something. He got me a audition for the show. I was cocky back then man. I mean, I was doing pretty good. I was a working actor acting in commercials. So I auditioned and got it on the spot. It was wild man. I was so cocky. So when I found out how much money they wanted to pay me, I lost interest. And then I started thinking, how do you replace someone like Gilda Radner? You can't. I mean, I was already making more money than what they were offering me, just by doing commercials. But after a few discussions with my friend, he convinced me to just do the show.
And let me just tell you, those first ten freakin' shows were just brutal. I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone. The cast, including myself, well we all thought we were killing America's favorite TV show! And then, they stopped the show. They fired everyone, but myself and Eddie Murphy! The show got some restructure. Michael O'Donoghue came in to shake it up. Bill Murray came in, and we started to battle our way back little by little.
TV STORE ONLINE: What's your writing process? How do you write a sketch or joke for Saturday Night Live?
PISCOPO: I have to find something that intrigues me. But I'll tell you what...I tried to take ideas from television and exaggerate them. I understood television. I used to write a lot with Eddie Murphy. We would riff our ideas off of each other. Eddie is a genius. So we used to flush a lot of stuff out, sometimes it was like starting from a blank canvas, and that's hard to do. But we'd come up with something, and then start bouncing it off of other in the office. You learn it as you go.
PISCOPO: Yeah, totally. I came from improv. I'd been improving on my feet for a while by then. When I first started...I can remember being on stage for a room of half sleeping drunks. So it wasn't a difficult process to handle. I actually live for it. You do it last minute. Do or die. A sketch you think that isn't gonna be included in the show during the rehearsal, all of sudden is now gonna be in the live show, and you just have to get through it. It's all last minute, on your feet stuff. I live for that type of stuff. My whole life is like that too. My children... My ex-wives...laughing...It's all been last minute and spur of the moment.
TV STORE ONLINE: Of all the characters you did on Saturday Night Live do you have a favorite?
PISCOPO: The sports guy. I'm a sports fan, so it was just fun. I also loved doing the music with the band, as Frank Sinatra. I mean, C'mon... I'm like twenty-four years old and playing with the Saturday Night Live band, doing the music of the old man.
TV STORE ONLINE: In your Saturday Night Live days... Who was the best guest host you ever worked with?
PISCOPO: That's easy. I'm a television baby you know. So when Jerry Lewis hosted, that was it. Robin Williams was great too. Especially great. Robin Williams, even Eddie Murphy would do this... These guys would open up for you, and let you do your thing. Those guys are comic geniuses. Robin and Eddie. Working with Jerry Lewis was wonderful. All week he was there with Eddie and I, it was a love fest.
TV STORE ONLINE: Doing Sinatra...Can you remember the first time you heard that he was a fan? What goes through your mind when you find something out like that?
PISCOPO: Well, I had been doing little bits of the old man at the improv. Saturday Night Live asked me to do the character and I told them, '"No Thanks." But they started to bug me about it . I just didn't wanna do it, out of respect to him. He was my father's hero. So I got offered to do this comedy type music album as Frank. So I did that. Then I sent him a copy of the album, and wrote him a big letter expressing my admiration. But I never heard back on it.
A little while after that, I got invited to the Friars' Club for a roast. I was so nervous. I've got the old man on my left, Dean Martin on the right. Milton Berle was there. Dick Cavett did the introduction. I'm just a kid up there. So I'm up there, and I said to the old man on stage in front of everyone, "My favorite song of yours is "I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You..." So I started to sing it to the old man in his voice. After I get through the line, Sinatra says to everyone "That's pretty good." So into the mic I said "Mr. Sinatra, can I call you Frank?" He looks at me and says, "No." I swear to god the room erupted. It got the biggest laugh of the whole night. You can't mess with the master. It was just amazing.
Then his people would call me up randomly. And they'd say to me, " Mr. Sinatra needs you to go here or there." So they'd pick you up and in luxury too...You'd go to promote whatever it was for him because you wanted to be in his presence.
We'd talk sometimes too. But I was always just really in awe and scared of him. So I ended up usually, just telling him how great he was, or thanking him for whatever. And he always just said "Don't mention it pal-eee." I heard from friends of his, that he considered me the Vice-Chairman of the Board. I swear to god.
Another friend of his told me once, and this was before I had met him...Sinatra was playing at Caesars. He was sitting in his dressing room, and Saturday Night Live comes on the television, and Sinatra saw me doing him on television. So his friend says to him, "What do you think Captain?" Sinatra turns to him and says, "He's pretty good...the little prick." I swear to god, true story...laughing....
I met Sammy Davis Jr. through Frank too. I loved talking to him. He was a performer. All those guys were amazing. I could never figure out how they got their energy. I mean, C'mon, those guys would stay up all night smoking, boozing and partying with broads. I asked Sammy once. I said, "Sammy how do you get the energy to do it all?" He just said, "I just do it man." It was amazing.
TV STORE ONLINE: What's your favorite Sinatra album?
PISCOPO: Sinatra At The Sands (1966). I love it. I always go back to it for reference.
TV STORE ONLINE: Whose Sinatra character/impression was better... Yours or Phil Hartman?
PISCOPO: For the record? I never knew Phil Hartman. I am really protective of the Sinatra character. So I will say this...Asking Phil Hartman to do the Sinatra character is like someone asking me to do Eddie's Buckwheat character...laughing...God rest his soul though...Phil Hartman... I just didn't think his version was respectful of the old man.
PISCOPO: Well, when Belushi passed away, that killed all of that. Everyone realized that if a great force like John Belushi could be taken away, any one of us could. So that was that. Our cast was really clean too. I've said on the record before...Eddie and I never touched anything, but, and I won't give you a name, because I'm Italian, and I don't talk... But there was this mid level producer at SNL... You'd go in to pitch your material, he'd pull out a little baggie and snort lines of coke during your pitch. At NBC! Then, after that, he'd smoke a joint in front of you. You'd be pitching an idea, and he'd be trying to inhale, going " THHHHATTT'S NOT FUNNY MANNNN!"
PISCOPO: Well, I had film offers. I was burned out. My friend Eddie Murphy was leaving. The show really didn't need me any more. Lorne Michaels was bringing in new cast members: Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Martin Short. What was I gonna do with those guys coming in? So I just decided to move on. But let me tell you this. I am so indebted to that show. I say this with the greatest humility because I'm not sure that I really belonged there.
For me, being on that show was a once in a lifetime opportunity... Like the same thing as playing baseball for the New York Yankees. I knew by the grace of God, that I was lucky to be there. It was Lorne Michaels. I owe everything to him. He's allowed so many to just do what they wanted to do, come in, and have fun and work. I never wanted to be star, I just wanted to work. So you make your mark, and then you move on. Things have come full circle. I'm currently working on a pilot show for NBC, called After Dark with Joe Piscopo that I'm hoping to get Lorne Michael's to produce.
TV STORE ONLINE: Do you currently watch Saturday Night Live? Do you think the show is still funny?
PISCOPO: Over the years I've watched for sure. There have been some amazing performers on that show. I loved Dana Carvey. What a talent. Then Michael Myers. Wow. That guy. He was one of those scary good guys, that makes you ask yourself "Where are you from, brother?" He was the first to transition something from the show into a commercial success. I loved Kristen Wiig on the show. She was just as good as anyone thats ever worked on that show. And Fred Armisen. When he does "Governor David Paterson", that's it...That's the one. The funniest thing with Fred doing that...He nails it... As he floats in front of the camera. But what amazes me most about Fred is how he can read the cue cards with his eyes sealed...laughing...Some people in my generation have said that the show isn't what it used to be. But C'mon, it's still great. I mean there are some truly genuine funny moments going on there yet.
My favorite of all time though is, Dan Aykroyd. He's the captain of the SNL star ship. He did characters with no make-up, no prosthetic He just had that mustache. He'd go out there and do Nixon, Jimmy Carter and The Blues Brothers. I've always been in awe of his execution of character. And if you talk to him...He's like a SNL expert. He knows every single SNL cast member from every season. It's like a fraternity or sorority. Just an amazing mind and a super smart guy on all fronts.
TV STORE ONLINE: You're a cancer survivor? Can you share what was going through your head during that time? Did it change your life perspective?
PISCOPO: Yep, it was during Saturday Night Live. It was in 1981. I found out about it and then went through with the show. In fact... I still remember the show. Bill Murray hosted. It was the first show that we convinced Eddie Murphy to do Muhammad Ali in full make-up. Ali had just had this huge fight. So we did the "Weekend Update", where I was the sports guy, and Eddie came out as Ali in full prosthetic. I wrote that whole sketch alone. And Eddie knocked it out of the ball park man. It was just genius. It was a great show. Sunday morning I woke up and went to the hospital for surgery. It was a tumor in my thyroid. It was a pretty aggressive form of cancer, but we caught it early. So I was really grateful for that. I actually didn't get a full remission until 1991. It changes your life. After that, all I cared about was my family. You realize that when you die, no one cares really about your work. All that is important is your family.
Funny thing... I never told anyone at Saturday Night Live that I had cancer except the producer Dick Ebersol, and Eddie Murphy. So after my surgery, the phone rings while I'm in the hospital, and I pick it up, all bruised and swollen, I've got these stitches, and it's Eddie. And he immediately starts going into these jokes, and I swear to god I was laughing so hard the stitches were coming out.
TV STORE ONLINE: One of my very favorite films of all time is JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY. How did you get involved in that project, and what was the experience like for you?
PISCOPO: It was great. The funny thing about that film. It opened up OK. But over the years it's become this cult thing. Young kids, like 20 year olds are coming up to me telling me how much they like it. It was an amazing experience. They're turning it into a Broadway show actually. I mean, C'mon... I'm working with Danny Devito, Michael Keaton, Peter Boyle, and Dom DeLuise. Amy Heckerling directed it. She did it brilliantly too. It was the very first time I got to stay for an extended period of time out in California. The production was smooth. It was fun and easy. Norman Steinberg... The writer...He is working with me now on my new movie, JOEY BENEFIT. Michael Keaton was a joy to work with. He drove that whole picture. He was just hilarious. Overall it was just a super fun and super amazing time.
TV STORE ONLINE: Were you allowed to improv on JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY?
PISCOPO: Yeah, totally. It was hard though because we all had a very difficult time not busting up during takes. The script was actually funny too. My whole "Once" thing was improvisation. That scene where Keaton hangs me on the hook? We decided we needed to do the "Once" thing in threes. So myself, Amy Heckerling, and Michael Keaton just sat down and figured out where we'd place those and then we decided we'd recall the gag near the end. It was just a blast.
TV STORE ONLINE: One of my favorite lines in the film is where you pull out that giant gun, and say "This is an 88 magnum. It shoots through schools!" Script or improv?
PISCOPO: You know what? That was just so unbelievable. It was in the script. You gotta think... I mean... I've got kids! Then now with the whole school shooting thing..Back then we're endorsing guns in a movie that kids are gonna see...laughing...
TV STORE ONLINE: Growing up as an HBO kid I got exposed to your HBO comedy specials as well. One of my all time favorite moments...And this has got be in the Top Five comedy sketches of all time I think...Its your Jerry Lewis / Michael Jackson Thriller parody from 1984. How in the hell did you come up with that concept?
PISCOPO: Oh thanks, man! That means a lot. What's funny about that. I had pitched that idea when I was at Saturday Night Live right before I left. They hated it. So when I got to do the HBO special, I made it the centerpiece. SNL didn't get it, and I won all sorts of awards for it. I was kinda grateful that SNL passed on it. The best thing about it... We shot it in the exact same location Michael Jackson shot Thriller. We used some of his same dancers even. It was a blast.
I came up with it just cause I admired Jerry. And Thriller was huge at the time. So I was thinking about it and making myself laugh about it...laughing...I mean...I turn into Jerry and we have this collection of Jerry Lewis character's dancing. These people were Broadway caliber dancers too. I had to teach the dancers the Lewis moves, the Lewis steps...laughing...Jerry actually saw it, and he LOVED it!
TV STORE ONLINE: Did you have any creative input into the writing of those Miller Lite Beer Commercials you did that were so huge in the mid 80's?
PISCOPO: That's a good question. I did not actually. They were all tightly scripted. They were really well written. They were great concepts and I loved doing them. They were super funny. I was kinda wowed. Those commercials actually turned out to be the most watched spots in the country that year. We really had fun doing those. And we shot like two commercials in one day. I am so proud of those because those gave me a ton of exposure, and they helped fill more movie theaters for me than anything I've done.
PISCOPO: Oh my god! Thanks! Listen, when we shot that film...First off, Treat Williams is amazing. Treat and I thought we were making a comedy or a parody of bad Sci-fi films. And we were excited because it was just so cool to work with Vincent Price. Ultimately, just like how the character in the film died and came back to life...In that sense the film tanked but it has this following now. I really didn't see it's impact until I was overseas doing something in Japan, and I've got all these fans coming up to me, and they just won't stop talking about DEAD HEAT.
Forget about it! They knew the film inside and out. Then I experienced more of that when I did this thing down in Mexico, and then Canada as well. It may be a bigger film in Canada than it is here in the United States. Canada loves DEAD HEAT. But even more, they love that episode of Star Trek I did. So you never know who's watching this stuff.
TV STORE ONLINE: Working with Vincent Price.. Was he a giving actor to work with?
PISCOPO: He was just a sweetheart. He's the master of Sci-fi and of the theater. I didn't get to spend too much time with him actually, but I was in my glory in his presence. When I was a kid, I saw THE FLY (1958) and THE TINGLER (1959) in the theater. And THE TINGLER scared me when I was a kid. So I was really thinking about that, and I was totally in my glory working with Vincent Price. Vincent Price was THE guy.
TV STORE ONLINE: How did the production of the film go for you?
PISCOPO: Well, I was in a different frame of mind in those days. It was the late 80's. I was really into working out. I was doing the bodybuilding thing. I got interested in that because of my cancer. I was having fun. I had my motorcycle. I was working out, getting bigger, and having fun with Treat Williams. The shoot went completely on schedule. I was outta my mind some just from having fun. I didn't realize what I was doing then or the impact the film would have now. I'd just go workout, hop on my motorcycle, then go onto the set and shoot up monsters.
TV STORE ONLINE: Were you disappointed when you didn't get nominated for an Academy Award for your performance in SIDEKICKS (1992)?
PISCOPO: laughing...I was so proud to be working with Chuck Norris! To be trained by Chuck Norris... Man, C'mon. I'd proud of that film. It's a film that my kids can watch today. It was fun to do. We did it down in Texas. I loved it because I could be bigger than life. It did pretty well at the box office too. I was so sad when the kid, Jonathan Brandis, took his own life. He was a sweetheart. It was senseless and a shame.
TV STORE ONLINE: You've been labeled a conservative Democrat. How do you think Obama is doing?
PISCOPO: I'm a Kennedy Democrat. They call me a blue dog. That means that I'm strong on people's rights, but at the same time if someone messes with you, you kick their ass. I think Kennedy understood that. So I'm what they call a blue dog Democrat. I'm very disappointed in Obama. It seems like someone forgot to tell him that people don't have jobs. Someone forgot to tell him or he's not listening. Things are not easy. We need to become isolationists. We need to manufacturer everything within. Celebrities with big money are making these clothing lines in countries that we can't pronounce the names of. Why can't those celebrities bring those manufacturing jobs to the United States? I'll tell you what... You bring those jobs to Newark, New Jersey, or to Detroit, or to Little Rock, Arkansas... You'll see a decrease in gangs, violence, and crime.
Turning this country around is all about jobs. Why doesn't Obama get this? Why not do something simple, like bring jobs back. Why can't Americans manufacturer something as simple as the case that an Ipod or Iphone comes in? A couple years of that and this country will be back big time.
No more cutting teachers pensions, or police or fire fighters pensions. Those people are essential to community. If the government is gonna cut someone's pay...Cut the pay of the guys who are counting the votes! Don't get me started on this!
TV STORE ONLINE: Being from New Jersey.... What's the best Jersey joke you've ever heard?
PISCOPO: Well, the catch phrase is (and I wrote it) "What Exit?" In a nutshell, we're a series of exits. The road system is...and I'm being kind...not the greatest. The phrase, "You can't get there from here", comes from New Jersey. I do actually get insulted when I hear people or see people on television making jokes about Italians, or Italian stereotypes, or jokes about how dirty New Jersey is and they aren't from New Jersey. That upsets me. If you're from New Jersey or Italian its OK though.
TV STORE ONLINE: What are you working on now?
PISCOPO: Avellino Productions, my production company. We just started it. We're doing the pilot for NBC, After Dark with Joe Piscopo. It looks great. It's in the spirit of the old television show Playboy After Dark. A late night jazz comedy show. It's so hip man. We got Dan Aykroyd, Father Guido Sarducci himself Don Novello is involved too... What a funny cat!
Then we're doing a new film, JOEY BENEFIT. Which is a comedy written and directed by Norman Steinberg. It's about one of those charity guys... You know... You got a charity, I got a tuxedo. I come early, I stay late... You know? It's about ONE of those guys. It probably won't be out until next year, we're shooting it soon.
Then we've got another film we're working on, BLOOMFIELD AVENUE. I've been pushing it. Queen Latifah is co-producing it with us. We're really excited about that.
And of course, check out the live show on the road, coming to a town near you. I mean, this is all stuff I should've been doing 20 years ago. I'm a slow learner. I had to make sure my kids were OK. Family comes first. I'm really focused right now on this stuff. But I'll probably keep having kids! I'll probably have a few more...laughing... Maybe one at every exit...laughing
Please visit his official website at www.joepiscopo.com
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