Interview with film and television star Jeffrey Tambor

Jeffrey Tambor
  • Jeffrey Tambor

Jeffrey Tambor has been a fixture on movie and television screens for the past 40 years, so it’s safe to assume that by now he has become somewhat of an authority on the subject of performing. We all recognize Tambor from his consummate work on The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development, ...And Justice For All, The Hangover trilogy, and countless other performances.

San Diegans will soon have the good fortune of seeing him up close and personal when he performs his one-man show, What Keeping You? on December 10 as part of Congregation Beth Am’s second annual Inspiring Minds Speaker Series. (Visit jeffreytamborcba.ticketleap.com for more information.)

We spoke in two parts, just before and during his ride to the airport. In most interview situations critics are lucky to get 15 minutes. During that time one basically waits for their subject to finishing answering a question before pitching a new one. Such was not the case with Jeffrey Tambor. The ease and dexterity in his voice as he answered my during our 30 minutes together compelled me to go off list and simply talk.

Tambor won’t be the only celebrity superstar in attendance on December 10. His old friend, Richard Dreyfuss, will be on hand to introduce the star speaker. All 1300 seats for last year’s event in honor of Gloria Steinem were filled, so I suggest that you act quickly.

Scott Marks: I caught you about to leave for LAX where you'll hop a plane to New York. Anything going on there career wise we should know about?

Jeffrey Tambor: Well, I live there.

SM: Oh. Okay. I knew that you were born in San Francisco, so I just assumed that you were Southern Californian.

JT: We moved to Long Island about two years ago and now we live about an hour north of the city and we love it. My wife is a New Yorker and my daughter teaches there. She's a professor of European history. And my grandson is there. So it's good.

SM: Growing up were you the tummler? Were you the funny, noisy kid on the block?

JT: No. No. I didn't learn that until very late. I had a bilateral lisp and I was overweight. I was the kid who played with the flowers on the ground in the outfield during baseball. I was that kid. And I was Bar Mitzvahed at gunpoint.

SM: Did you dread having a party?

JT: I don't know…uhh…it was just…I was very good. I was very moving. I actually got thrown into my Bar Mitzvah because my teacher, my Cantor, did not tell me that they would all say amen at the end of each, for want of a better word, paragraph. And that threw me completely. I almost went into an Ella Fitzgerald sort of scat. Did you know that I did theatre in San Diego at The Old Globe Theatre?

SM: No I did not.

JT: I worked at The Old Globe Theater under the great baton of Craig Noel. One of the great theater heroes that we have. He was so great and so inspirational. I think I did Antony and Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew. I lived in Ocean Beach and my rent was $140 a month.

SM: $140 a month!? You must have done this when you were twelve.

JT: No. I was just turning six. My father loved coming to see the performances because he was a golfer. He loved San Diego. San Diego is great.

SM: You are coming to San Diego now what is basically an inspirational performance. You have been fortunate enough to work with a lot of big name actors and during the course of the interview I want to talk about some of them and ask how they inspired you. Do you remember the first time an entertainer made you laugh?

JT: Oh sure. You never forget. But, uhh…

SM: (Laughing): I had that coming. That really was a stupid question, wasn't it?

JT: (Laughing): I think most of my heroes are not the traditional types. A guy I was fascinated with was Buster Keaton. I just love what he did. I love that mug. Another one of my loves was Jack Benny. He was a great inspiration and someone who made me scream. And I just have to say, because I love him so much, Lou Costello.

SM: So far you're batting a thousand. Sadly, not enough people remember Jack Benny and recognize him as the comedic genius he was.

JT: Oh, Jack Benny was one of the funniest people; his sense of timing, his sense of self. Easy does it. His mix of grace and humor was so generous and so loving. Another one of my heroes was Peter Sellers. Being There. It's funny, I was just talking about it last night. Being There was one of my all-time favorites and Hal Ashby was one of my gods.

SM: Speaking of gods, you made your Broadway debut in the 1976 comedy Sly Fox opposite someone who is one of my gods, George C. Scott.

JT: Yeah. He was my mentor. He was my guy.

SM: Please regale me with tales.

JT: I don't know if he knew that he was my mentor, but I've been and still do always ask myself what would George do. Arthur Penn , by the way, directed that, speaking of gods. And Larry Gelbart. I couldn't speak. I was in some highfalutin company. And I knew it. That 'little' trio was my launch, if you can believe it. George was great and I learned so much from him. He was a great technician. He loved the theater and had such great passion.

SM: Long before it became fashionable you were one of the first to lampoon O. J. Simpson. I remember that commercial you did for Hertz Rent-A-Car.

JT: WOW! I thought you were going to talk about Hank Kingsley because he made a reference.

SM: Hank Kingsley will come in part two.

JT: You are sharp, sir. Yeah, I do remember. I think we were at the Newark Airport when we did it. I had no idea…did I run through the airport or walk through the airport?

SM: It's not on YouTube, but if I remember correctly you walk because O. J.'s thing was running through the airport.

JT: That's hysterical.

Laughing on the outside, terrified on the inside. Tambor makes his movie debut in ...And Justice For All.

Laughing on the outside, terrified on the inside. Tambor makes his movie debut in ...And Justice For All.

SM: After three appearances on television you make the leap to the big screen in ...And Justice for All and receive fifth-billing after Al Pacino, Jack Warden, John Forsythe, and some duffer named Lee Strasberg who founded The Actor’s Studio.

JT: Yeah, just some guys.

SM: Were these men accessible to you?

JT: Oh, yeah. On the day I got cast I got a phone call from Al and we started going off to the courts to do research. I had never done a film before. I didn't know what mark was. When it hit me that I was starring with Al Pacino, and John Forsythe, and Strasberg with Norman Jewison directing, I sort of ruined that whole project with worry. I gave one of the best auditions I've ever done in my life, and once I got it, I ruined it with worry , which I talk about in my show. I almost ruined it. I'm glad I did it. Al took great care of me as did Norman as did all of them. I remember going out of frame on the very first shot. There's this thing that you stand on calling an apple box and the cameraman asked if I needed an apple or a half-apple. The whole crew was listening and I said, "no thanks, I'll wait for lunch." That is how green I was. I'll never forget the look on the cruise face. They must've thought they were going to be there all night with this new guy. I knew nothing and it actually turned out to be a great thing that I knew nothing because ignorance is bliss. I'm very proud of that performance. I loved him. I knew him.

SM: While we're on the subject of heavyweights I hear that Richard Dreyfuss will be there on December 10 to introduce you.

JT: I know. I just heard about it. I didn't know that he lived in San Diego. I'm honored. I love Richard. We go way back. We were in a wonderful play together, The Hands of its Enemy by Mark Medoff. I can't imagine what Richard will think of what I do. He is truly one of our greatest actors. He should talk, rather than me. I'm honored. It will be a great reunion.

With Norman Fell in The Ropers.

With Norman Fell in The Ropers.

SM: To the best of my limited knowledge of TV trivia, you are one of the few actors to begin on a spin-off and then make your way into the original series. I am referring of course to The Ropers and Three’s Company.

JT: Yes. That was a big crossover for me. I had a very nice time. There I was at Television City. Right next-door to us was "All in the Family" and down the hall, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was very new to me; it was the first time I got paid a lot of money for doing very little. I couldn't quite get used to it. But I loved Norman and I loved Audra and I loved loved loved loved ad infinitum John Ritter. Not many people know it, but Norman Fell was a bit of intellectual. With that mug he didn't look it, but he was a reader and we had many fine, fine talks. And Audra was a kind of "take no prisoners actress." It was great.

Even the great Lee Strassberg couldn't prepare Tambor for The Love Boat turn.

Even the great Lee Strassberg couldn't prepare Tambor for The Love Boat turn.

SM: One more question about your illustrious television past and then we'll move on: you have the distinction of twice setting sail on The Love Boat.

JT: Honestly, it's an interesting story. I loved doing it. (Pause.) No. That's not the truth. I was so embarrassed that I had taken The Love Boat. You've have to understand, I thought it was a big deal, a Shakespearean actor from New York and here I am on The Love Boat. There was this thing you had to do during the opening credits. (Singing) "Love, exciting and new…" You had to turn your head when they said, "Turn!" and I couldn't do it. It is truly one of the most interesting turns of a head. It was uncoordinated and hysterical. It took them forever to film that.

SM: I watched it last night. I'll go tonight back and revisit it in an altogether different light.

JT: I don't regret anything. I actually learned a very, very good lesson on that thing. These are nice people. Look I learned a lesson. You go, give it your best shot, and when you see it on your W-2 form your fall in love. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor. I never knew anything else. My inspirations were guys like Charles Laughton and Ralph Richardson. Your readers won't even know who I'm talking about.

SM: I'll include pictures.

Charles Laughton (left) and Ralph Richardson.

Charles Laughton (left) and Ralph Richardson.

JT: These were guys that hit to all fields. They'd walk on and do this, they'd walk on and do that. You're talking to an actor who, ahem, the same year I'm doing Phil Spector I'm doing Bubble Guppies and Dr. McStuffing's Untangled. I love it. This is all I ever wanted to do; put on a different coat every day and do a different task.

SM: It must be a kick doing cartoon voices.

JT: Not easy, by the way. These are masters. The first time I did -- I think it was Spongebob -- and I played King Neptune (Scarlett Johansson was my daughter). During the breaks these guys would imitate doors opening and windows slamming and things like that and I was in the presence of masters. People don't know how amazing these voice artists are. It's very humbling and I'm having great fun with it.

Hey, NOW!

Hey, NOW!

SM: Let's talk Hank Kingsley. There is a recent clip of you discussing Hank on Jimmy Kimmel that I purposely didn't watch knowing that I'd be talking to you. Have you ever appeared on The Howard Stern Show?

JT: Yes. That where I laid down the track. The track that you hear me saying "Hey, NOW!"…Howard used to come to L.A. once a year. It was about 4 o'clock in the morning and I was the first guest. After about 15 minutes of talking with Howard and Robin and the gang, he asked if I would lay down a "Hey, NOW!" That's what you hear.

SM: I'm assuming that for years after it became a catchphrase people would greet you on the street with a hearty, "Hey, NOW!"

JT: I have two incarnations. For Hank Kingsley there's, "Hey, NOW," which is now being said by young people, something I find very interesting. And "There's always money in the banana stand," which is another phrase said by George Bluth on Arrested Development.

SM: Was There's Always Money in a Banana Stand the original title of Performing Your Life?

JT: No. Some overzealous promoter put that in. I'm apt to do promotional things but I'm not that apt.

SM: (Laughing.) How did Performing Your Life come to be?

JT: I've been a teacher of acting for many many years. I think if you total it up we're talking 40 years. I had my own workshop for a while, I taught at the Beverly Hills Playhouse the tutorship of Milton Katselas, a great, great teacher. I taught on my own and then I started doing this lecture at SXSW. I work with actors and directors and writers and then all sorts of Internet people started coming and it took off. (This is going to be my eighth year.) People saw it and told me that I needed to move around with the show. I tried it out at Pepperdine about five years ago and it was pretty good. This wonderful group named APB out of Boston represents me. I just came back from Kingston where I talked to a mental health group and now I'm coming to San Diego. I did a commencement speech at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, so I'm moving it around and having the time of my life. Years and years ago I was on a plane with Hal Holbrook. He would go out every weekend to do his one-man show and I remember thinking someday I want to do that. And here I am doing it. Teaching, as you know, is one of the highest callings. It's like…it's me talking and as far away from Wayne Dyer as you can get.

SM: (Laughing.) That alone is worth the price of admission.

JT: It's a very personal evening about my trials and travails. I'm not speaking from any Parnassus or Parthenon. I'm not speaking from any place, I'm just telling people how it is. I am very interested in what keeps people. I have taught over the years and I'm so curious as to why people don't get their stuff done. Using words like purpose, dreams, imagination, people automatically put you in a box. It's not like that. I think people get a little hope out of it and a little kick in the pants. The real title -- the more germain title is What's Keeping You? I'm writing a book right now and going through the same trials and travails that I talk about. What's keeping me? It's honest and down to earth. I have overcome a lot of things in my life. I get very personal. So there it is.

SM: And you will also field questions from the audience?

JT: Yes! I actually love that more than anything. I love to think on my feet. I love to be thrown. The fact that I can go into one group and talk to them…this weekend I am actually talking to a multi-generational family that gets together every year. It's great. I'm a schmendrick from San Francisco who talks. I'm pretty funny. And it has nothing to do with happiness. I'm Russian, Hungarian, and Jewish; there's not a speck of happiness.

SM: Sadly, you have a plane to catch. It's been a genuine thrill talking to you. The character you have created, and that I love so much, is this consummately arrogant prick. After speaking with such a mensch, I realize all the more just how good of an actor you are.

JT: Really? Thanks. You made my day!

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