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'Madman' John Goodman on Crazy Career, Collaboration With Coen Brothers (Video)

THR's awards analyst moderated the American Cinematheque's tribute to the great character actor, who could score his first Oscar nom for "Inside Llewyn Davis."

It had been 13 years since John Goodman last worked with the writers-directors Ethan Coen and Joel Coen when he was first approached by them about Inside Llewyn Davis. As the 61-year-old recalled to me a few days ago, when I had the pleasure of moderating a Q&A with him as part of the American Cinematheque's celebration of his career: "I got an email from Ethan one day that said, 'Dear Madman, we have something you might be interested in -- another gasbag.' I said, 'I'm your boy, where do I sign?' They wouldn't even have had to send me the script. I'll do anything for them."

The event held Nov. 21 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica was packed to the gills with Goodman fans who had just seen Llewyn Davis and greeted the reigning god of character actors with a lengthy standing ovation. While some of them may have enjoyed Roseanne (1988-97), the TV show that made Goodman a household name, most of them were cineastes who became Goodman loyalists over the course of his long and legendary collaboration with the Coen brothers, which now encompasses six films over 27 years -- the other five being Raising Arizona (1987), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).

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In their latest film together, Inside Llewyn Davis, Goodman plays Roland Turner, an enigmatic, doped-up, crippled bluesman who spends most of his time in the back of a car driven by a young chauffeur and ragging on the guitar-carrying hitchhiker they picked up. The role, though small, offers Goodman an opportunity to display the full spectrum of what makes him one of the most talented and popular character actors of his time: incomparable comedic timing, delivery and physicality, as well as an indefinable aura that makes audiences love him even when he is playing revolting people. The performance has earned him his usual great notices and placed him in serious contention for a best supporting actor Oscar nomination -- which would, rather unbelievably, be the first Academy recognition he has ever received.

During our conversation -- video of which you can watch at the top of this post (headphone use advised for best audio) -- the St. Louis native recalled that he acted for the first time in a one-act play at Southwest Missouri State University, after which he became heavily involved in the college's drama department and its various productions. "It awakened something I really didn't know I had, which was a passion for acting. It felt like a calling at the time." After college, using money set aside for him by his older brother, who had become a father figure to him after the premature death of their father, Goodman headed east for New York to pursue a career as an actor.

There, he worked odd jobs to pay the bills and eventually landed acting gigs off-Broadway, then on Broadway (he originated the part of Pap Finn in Big River) and eventually in the movies. He played mostly small parts on the big screen during his first few years in the business -- including a head football coach in Revenge of the Nerds (1984) -- until he got a call to meet with the Coen brothers about Raising Arizona (1987), which he described as "the greatest audition I ever had, because it keeps paying off!" The trio hit it off immediately, he says, perhaps because they are "three Midwestern wiseguys, Mad magazine readers, back-sassers, guys who used to sit in the back of the room -- except that Ethan's a genius, and so is Joel and I'm not."

Not long after Raising Arizona, Goodman was appearing in an L.A. theater production of Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Tony Richardson, in the audience of which sat, one night, Caryn Mandabach, a producer at Carsey-Werner Productions who quickly brought him to the attention of a young comedienne named Roseanne Barr. At her suggestion, he wound up being cast as her blue-collar husband, Dan Conner, on the ABC sitcom Roseanne, which was the highest-rated TV show in America from 1989 to 1990, remained among the top four for six of its nine seasons and made him a household name.

Throughout Roseanne's run and after it ended, he continued to appear in films of varying quality. He played key supporting parts in Steven Spielberg's Always and Sea of Love opposite Al Pacino (both 1989). He played leads in King Ralph (1991), The Babe (1992) and The Flintstones (1994). He voiced animated characters in Monsters, Inc. (2001), Cars (2006), Bee Movie (2007), The Princess and the Frog (2009) and ParaNorman (2012). And he continued his work with the Coen brothers, most memorably as Walter Sobchak, an unhinged and endlessly quotable Vietnam vet, in the outlandish comedy The Big Lebowski. ("I'm a fan of the movie so I don't mind when people scream [quotes] at me on the streets," he said, before facetiously adding, "Maybe a little.")

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Over the past two years, Goodman has had a remarkable run -- he played key supporting roles in both of the last two films to win the best picture Oscar: The Artist (2011), which he enjoyed because it was in black-and-white, silent (meaning he didn't have to learn any lines) and actually shot in and around Hollywood; and Argo (2012), which offered him the opportunity to work closely with another actor he greatly admires, Alan Arkin. He also starred in the best picture Oscar-nominated Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011); the Oscar contenders Trouble With the Curve (2011) and Flight (2012); and the purely fun The Campaign (2012). And this year, in addition to Inside Llewyn Davis, he voiced a principal character in one of the top contenders for the best animated feature Oscar, Monsters University; popped up in The Hangover, Part III and The Internship; and is now starring as a U.S. senator -- one of four who share a house -- in the first original TV show ever produced by Amazon, the dramedy Alpha House.

Talk about prolific -- and funny.

As for his work in Llewyn Davis, he said, "Roland's voice came to me kind of organically." He credited the Coen brothers for providing him with "wonderful dialogue," as always (i.e. "George Washington Bridge? Who does that? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally"), and he added, "I made him up a little backstory, just so I wouldn't totally hate him." Armed with those tools, he was fully equipped to be "gassing along in the back of that car," just as the Coens had requested of him.

"The best feeling I've ever had in my life was laughter," Goodman told me with a smile. "I just love to laugh, and I love to make people laugh." 

 

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg