“Dear Mad Man, we have something you might be interested in” was all John Goodman needed to read. It had been 12 years since the actor last appeared in a Coen brothers film. Watching other stars constellate their movies caused pangs of envy. But the email from Ethan Coen brought happiness. “It’s just very smart,” Goodman says of the fraternal directorial duo’s work, “which, being not very smart, appeals to me.”
At least this is what Goodman would like to have us think. “Six foot three and consistently panda-bear sized”, to borrow the line from his character Louis Fyne in True Stories (1986), in person the actor is pithy, humble and polite. On screen, he can be loquacious, bombastic and rude, with an everyman vulnerability that has made him a beloved trouper. Many of the 61-year-old’s famous characters rumble in the chasm between their intentions and the limits set by their smarts or their bodies. After an hour in his company, it seems like the Mad Man views himself in a similar position.
“You need someone you believe is both acquainted with the life of the mind but also, in a deeper sense, isn’t having that life,” Ethan Coen has said of one his regular co-conspirators. Whether playing Dan Conner in the television series Roseanne (1988-97), Gale Snoats in Raising Arizona (1987), Delbert McClintock in Arachnophobia (1990), Ralph Jones in King Ralph (1991), Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998), Sulley in Monsters Inc (2001), even Fred Flintstone (a role that makes him wince on mention), Goodman is a combustible mix of aspiring hero and frustrated ordinariness.
Whatever the origins of his vibe, Goodman is having a heck of a run. In the past three years, he has appeared in 14 films, including Oscar winners The Artist and Argo. Next month sees the release of Inside Llewyn Davis. In his sixth Coen brothers film, Goodman plays Roland Turner, a smack-addled dyspeptic jazzman with whom the title character, an earnest 1960s folk singer and paramour, shares a ride to Chicago.
The cameo is not so much a scene-stealer as cinematic larceny. Goodman admits that the Coens “unlock something in my imagination. I just want to please them so much.” His lines are delivered, as ever, with perfect timing. When Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, says that his bandmate committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, Turner sighs, looks askance, seemingly contemplating sympathy before replying: “George Washington Bridge? Who does that? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge.” Goodman’s character pauses, before adding: “Traditionally.”
This role, as well as his forthcoming spot in George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, based on the true story about a group of Americans who rescued art from the Nazis, looks set to reaffirm Goodman as one of the greatest American character actors of his generation. (He is also one of the greatest actors of American characters.) Although he seems intent on having it otherwise, it is time to take the big funny guy seriously.
Over green tea – one cup, two bags and enough ginger to relieve all the nausea in China – in Soho, London, Goodman recounts the story of how he decided to become an actor. He grew up in 1950s St Louis, Missouri, “lower-middle-class but we never thought about it”.
“We had a roof over our head,” he says, “our house was paid for.” I ask why, presuming that it had something to do with the death of his father Leslie, a postal worker, when Goodman was two years old. Silence ensues. The actor stares out the window, clasping the right side of his kind face in a pose that functions as a polite alternative to requesting an end to the prying personal questions.
His mother Virginia, a waitress and store clerk, and his older brother Leslie junior, a “surrogate father”, brought up Goodman and his younger sister Elisabeth. Although his family was southern Baptist and he attended the local church, “I bowed out early,” Goodman says. “It was very heaven and hell,” he explains. “You’re damned anyway no matter what you do. It looked like a loser’s game to me.”
Instead, the “typical kid” hitchhiked, played football, chased girls, tuned in to soul music on African-American radio stations, and got thrown out of class – a lot. Vanquished, he would retreat to the library and read the texts of Arthur Miller plays.
However, it was not until he went to what is now Missouri State University that Goodman “lost myself in a passion that I didn’t know I had”, as he told graduating students of his alma mater at the college’s 2013 commencement address. His brother had “hammered” into him the importance of education and the Vietnam draft was in operation. “I didn’t particularly want to go to that. And I didn’t believe in the war.” After military recruiters botched one attempt to draft him (they measured him two inches short, making him too heavy for the army at this height), Goodman enrolled at university.
At the Missouri State drama department, his contemporaries included Kathleen Turner and Tess Harper but it was another friend, Dennis Warner, who inspired Goodman. “He was a year older, from Licking, Missouri, and extremely talented and sophisticated in a way that you wouldn’t expect someone from Licking, Missouri to be.” Warner sang French songs and together they read Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. And when Goodman decided to try his luck as an actor in New York, Warner, who had made the journey east a year beforehand, helped to get him started.
Goodman arrived in Penn Station “terrified”, with a $1,000 loan from his brother, which was possibly more than New York then had to its name. In the fall of 1975, the city was broke. Manhattan was no longer the idealistic bohemia portrayed in Inside Llewyn Davis. A week or so after Goodman arrived, the New York Daily News splashed with the famous headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead”. “There was crime everywhere,” Goodman remembers. “Drugs, prostitutes and transvestites on all the corners. It wasn’t safe. I remember the graffiti. It was just disheartening, not an artistic statement. Like somebody pissing on your leg, which probably happened too.”
Goodman appeared in commercials to pay the rent on his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. The first was a silent part in a Burger King advert. “I was ashamed of doing commercials,” he says. The aspiring star believed it betrayed his artistic sensibilities, even if it paid for the beers. Today, he reflects on how this was an example of his “lazy perfectionism” and potential for rage. “It tore me up,” he says, “which is stupid, it was so unnecessary, such a waste of anger.” Not for the first time, he admits, Goodman’s temper became destructive.
At the same time, the future star was picking up off-Broadway gigs. “I was only interested in furthering my theatre education,” he says of the time. Goodman has gone on to appear as Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and, of course, Falstaff in Henry IV parts I and II, among many other canonical roles.
But it was not always Beckett and the Bard. Goodman tells me one story about when, shortly after arriving in New York, he appeared in a production of Terence Rattigan’s public-school comedy The Browning Version. The shows were put on by a husband-wife couple who “were very serious about their craft but they weren’t very good”. The wife, recalls Goodman, “had a scene where she would slap me every night”. I notice that my erstwhile stoic interviewee has become 250 pounds of mirth. “It didn’t matter what you told her, she wouldn’t lighten up.” Whereas Goodman’s speaking voice is low-frequency wavelengths, his laughter is all high-pitch particles. “One night,” he continues between tears, “she knocked me out.”
New York was where Goodman started drinking heavily. Perhaps you would, too, if Bruce Willis were your bartender. Goodman met the future Die Hard star at Café Central, an actors’ bar on 75th and Amsterdam. “He is still probably the best bartender I’ve ever seen,” Goodman recalls. Willis could flare the shakers but he was also a kind guardian of the saloon. “It was his manner more than anything else,” Goodman says. “He took care of everybody. I was there every night,” he continues, running his hands down his red checked shirt, navy pullover and jeans. “I could have gotten my mail there.”
Like Richard Burton, Goodman “romanticised” the bar. He was tearing through Hunter S Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, “and they’re all drunks”. Goodman says: “All the great actors were drunks. So I didn’t think much of it.” He adds: “I didn’t see the bad stuff slipping up on me.”
That bad stuff hurt his acting, Goodman acknowledges. Lines were fluffed, set walls were punched and, again, it made him angrier than he should have been. He drank through the filming of television episodes and appeared drunk on stage. He “was not a nice person”, during this period, and admits to offending colleagues. Goodman’s weight ballooned 100 pounds over what sits relatively trimly in front of me in a still unnecessarily small chair. His memory suffered, he believes.
Seven years ago, Goodman felt so bad he nearly gave up on acting. He describes alcoholism brutally as: “My brain tried to have me whacked.” But then, as he tells it, “wherever it took me it took me to a place where I know I couldn’t do it any more. I was so willing to surrender that it just doesn’t appeal to me any more.” Goodman coughs, eventually adding: “People ask me all the time, don’t you want another drink? Nope. I’ve done it.”
When Goodman was not at the bar he was being noticed for his talent. His break came in 1985, when he starred in the Broadway musical Big River, which ran for three years. During the early part of the run, Goodman received a call from David Byrne, lead singer of the band Talking Heads and a budding director. They worked together on True Stories, a mad romp through something that almost resembles journalism and which Byrne calls “60 Minutes on acid”. Soon after, Goodman met the Coens.
The brothers were casting Raising Arizona. Goodman had watched Blood Simple, their dark debut, and loved it. “They brought in all these literary references into a B-movie horror type of thing that was obviously not made with a lot of money. But it was made very creatively so that you didn’t notice.” At the Raising Arizona session, “I went in to meet with them and we laughed for about an hour.” A friendship was born – only Steve Buscemi has starred in as many Coen brothers films as Goodman.
Unlike other film-makers, Goodman says, the Coens calm him, unless they are after some vintage onscreen rage, such as in his final blazing, murderous scenes in Barton Fink or during Walter Sobchak’s strops in The Big Lebowski. (“I told that kraut a f***ing thousand times that I don’t roll on Shabbos!”) When he works with the Coens, “I get out of my own way more.” He says: “I’m not as nervous about the performance or the role. So it frees me up to be a bit more creative. It relaxes me more.”
Raising Arizona was a critical smash and by the time it came out Goodman “was living out of a suitcase”. In Los Angeles, during a run of Antony and Cleopatra, he was watched by a talent-spotter from the ABC network, which was recruiting for a new sitcom written by Roseanne Barr. Shortly after, Goodman met the comedienne. “I walked in to that audition and I knew I had it. We just got on so well.”
As Dan Conner, Goodman joined the ranks of the great dads in American television, in equal parts Homer Simpson, Cliff Huxtable (The Cosby Show) and Tim Taylor (Home Improvement). Running for 221 episodes over nine seasons from 1988 to 1997, the show was wildly popular: during its second season it was the most watched show in the US. Goodman was nominated for five consecutive Emmys and won one Golden Globe.
In later years, the plot became more far-fetched, and the relationship between Barr and Goodman broke down, in part because of his alcoholism. “He was as hilarious and brilliantly funny as he was difficult and mean,” Barr is reported to have said of that time. (There has since been a rapprochement: Barr and Goodman recently starred together in a pilot episode of Downwardly Mobile, a show pitched to NBC that the network declined to screen.)
Although shows before and after it would portray the “ordinary” American family, few have done it with such deliberate feminist and class-based ideas. (It is also rare in having a larger than average woman in the lead.) “It was a reaction to the popular shows of the day,” Goodman explains. “Shows full of good-looking rich people – Dallas, Dynasty. Basically soap operas at night.” Did you think of it as a political show, I ask. “Yes, as much as for class as for women. The strongest statement she [Barr] ever made to me was: ‘Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean we’re stupid.’”
Goodman initially refuses to discuss his own politics because he “gets angry to the point of rage and I don’t think I could debate anyone because I just get too mad”. Pushing my luck, I ask again, noting that he played a moderate, likeable Republican speaker of the House of Representatives in The West Wing (1999-2006) and that our interview is taking place during the federal government shutdown. His character was garrulous, egomaniacal and yet ultimately statesmanlike; qualities Goodman plays well. And that is all he needs. “I hate the goddamn Tea Party so much. It’s poisoned me and I don’t need that kind of hatred in my life so I try not to dwell on it.” Then in an echo of Walter, comes the punchline, “Although I think they’re f***ing the country up.”
Most of the time, though, Goodman keeps his politics local. Sick of the Hollywood paparazzi, he moved to New Orleans in the 1990s with his wife of more than two decades, Anna Elizabeth, and daughter Molly, now aged 23. After Hurricane Katrina, the actor helped raise funds to revitalise the Big Easy. “It’s a small town but it’s mighty,” he says. Goodman has not completely escaped celebrity, however, remarking that “the irritating part of it is the tourists who treat my home as a zoo”. Goodman no longer walks around the French Quarter but still drives through it, listening out for music.
Life, he says, is “a lot simpler” since he kicked the booze. “I don’t have to lie . . . although I like lying,” he says, with that invincible smirk. At times like this, it can be hard to know where Goodman is in navigating that gap between his ideal of a quiet sober life, working away and reading plays – and the irascibility, on and off screen, which emerges when his demons are on top. At the moment, though, he is on the safe side. He is “much happier” and for the first time in years he is swamped with offers.
The best still come from the Coen brothers, he says. Inside Llewyn Davis, like almost all of their movies, does not so much have one singular theme as a dozen competing ones. However, as we witness the toils of the musicians depicted in the film, the implicit messages seems to be that our individual natures are impossible to shake. As we conclude our interview and Goodman, still calling me “sir” for reasons polite or misguided, sensitively ushers me out of the suite, he stands up. There is more of him than I thought. He pats himself down, grins, and says: “It’s a work in progress.”
John McDermott is an FT columnist. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is released in UK cinemas on January 24 and ‘The Monuments Men’ on February 14