The Stacks: John Goodman’s Art of Living Large
A man of appetites, a blend of Falstaff and Santa Claus, the actor John Goodman charmed everyone within earshot—and he could out act anyone in the room.
With major league teams about ready to break camp in spring training and head north to start the season, we’ve got baseball on the brain. Who better to usher in the season than that 20th century marvel, Babe Ruth, who was the subject of what turned out to be a forgettable feature film starring John Goodman back in 1992. But that’s okay, baseball movies are generally awful anyway (unless you’re talking about The Bad News Bears, Long Gone, or Eight Men Out).
However, this was an interesting time in Goodman’s career, as he’d moved beyond the character roles of his early movies (True Stories, Sea of Love), into TV stardom with Roseanne, and briefly, into leading-man territory with King Ralph and The Babe. That’s when Peter Richmond profiled him for GQ magazine as Goodman survived the hot glare of Hollywood stardom. Of course, he continued to be one of our finest, most durable actors, and Richmond’s revealing portrait give us an understanding of the man behind one the most recognizable and comforting faces in show business.
The story was originally published as “John Goodman is Some Babe” in the April 1993 issue of GQ and reprinted here with the author’s permission, please enjoy.
A silver-blue midtown-Manhattan December dusk, the time of day at the time of year when the city is alight with more than Christmas windows and the whole town is buoyed with a singular exuberance in spite of itself—on this day, no one more so than John Goodman, in old jeans and a brown leather jacket worn into submission, sitting at the bar in a well-lit place off Central Park South, trading bourbon with beer while he grabs big chunks of America off the shelves.
“Look at what Perkins did for Fitzgerald!”—a small sip of the bourbon, a big swallow of the beer, a hit on the cigarette—and then, a moment later, “Let’s look at modernism, starting with the early Mr. Mailer!” and then, a second after that, “You really think Hullabaloo was half as good as Shindig?”
It’s no mystery, his heft; the man behemoths his way through the day, reaching for everything, fascinated by all of it. “He’s like a child looking at a mobile,” says his old buddy actress Tess Harper, and it takes about five minutes at his side to see the truth of it: John Goodman regards everything. On this day, it’s Salinger and Mailer, Curly and Moe, Bird and Mulligan, Jackson Pollock and R. Crumb, Ives and Schönberg, the old Star Trek and the new Star Trek. And, yes, Jack Daniel’s bourbon and Budweiser’s beer and Marlboros, flung across the room by random fans.
He exploded into town—“I’m at the ritzy Plaza!” he’d laughed over the phone—and barreled up the sidewalk (“Man, I love this city!”), and now, perched on his stool beneath a canopy of bar buzz, he’s rolling thunder. It’s all you can do to grab it and just hang on.
“I think I missed my time: New York in ’47—those were really amazing times. Especially the arts. Great theater. Abstract expressionism just kicking in. Great jazz. Suicidal cats!”
“The weird thing about John,” confides producer Ethan Coen, who has worked with Goodman on Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, “is that he’s incredibly articulate—really glib—but not like people who believe in their glibness.” And today it’s true: Riffing along on the cultural current, Goodman does not even hear himself talking. In fact, he is trying to impress no one, just enjoying the social ramble, hoping to pass a couple of hours of a pre-Christmas vacation in relative normalcy.
And for the first hour or so, his fellow patrons are willing to oblige him, trying to be as subtle as possible as they nod and poke and nudge one another at the sight of the man who fills their TV screens on Tuesday night. But as the sky darkens to evening, as the hum of the bar grows into a most comfortable sound, they start to close in: for autographs, for group pictures, here’s a guy from St. Louis, here’s a friend of a friend from the set of The Babe.
He greets them all. And the more accommodating he is, the more they keep coming, until finally, a man at the end of the bar pulls a picture out of his wallet, a snapshot of a friend, and says “Here, John, you’d like this guy,” as if he’s known Goodman for years.
Presumptuous, obnoxious—and perfectly understandable. Because that’s what it is, isn’t it? We feel as if we know everything about him. We did know him. In grade school. In high school. From the bar off-campus, in college. And, recently, on screens of all sizes, where we’re renewing the friendship.
Because we’ve needed a big man for a long time. And now we have him. There are no sculpted sinews here, just about 300 pounds of spheres and circles, oversized, overfull. Six feet three and a half inches of filled space.
The appetite is not incidental. It fuels John Goodman, it animates him. And it’s certainly part of what makes him accessible to the rest of us. “He’s Falstaff with some Santa Claus” is film critic Pauline Kael’s off-the-cuff character capsule. “The openness to pleasure we know a fat man has—we identify with that greed, with that wanting of goodies. Inside every skinny person there’s a fat man wanting to come out.”
But there’s more than simple excess at play here, more than John Belushi gone blond; instead of bluster and burlesque, Goodman carries an element of the Everyman, and his ambivalence about his weight is right out there for everyone to see, right next to his flaws and failures and insecurities, all of them thinly veiled by the force field of one-liners. “John’s humor is a protective coat” is what Tess Harper says.
But there’s humor for the sake of humor here, too, because laughing feels good, and he likes things that feel good, the improvisations, the routines he invents out in the parking lot, over a smoke: “Abbott and Costello Meet the Antichrist.” “The Mister Clown Hour on cable access.”
Add an incongruously airy presence—he’s astoundingly fluent in his movements, he wears his weight off the ground—and you have a man who, against the traditional fit, is as credible playing the soft romantic as he is the goofy misfit or the lovable sidekick.
“He has created something fantastic with the sheer force of his personality and talent,” says Taylor Hackford, who directed Goodman in Everybody’s All-American. “He’s proved that you don’t have to be Robert Redford to be a star.”
The numbers agree. At 39, John Goodman can command a million dollars for a season of ABC’s Roseanne, on which he’s had a starring role since the show’s inception five years ago, and he earned a great deal more for his latest film. According to the people who keep track of the Q ratings, Goodman is now as recognizable as Kevin Costner.
Maybe it’s just a matter of the time being right. Maybe the boy babes—the Lowes, the Sheens—overstayed their welcome, until we realized there was nothing behind the perfect profiles; they were the cinematic junk bonds of the Eighties. Maybe we’re attracted to the refreshingly pedestrian side of someone who’s as flattered to have been drawn by Mort Drucker in Mad as by Hirschfeld in The New York Times. Who walks away from a Cubs game with a groundskeeper’s shirt as a souvenir, instead of a star’s jersey.
Or maybe, as Goodman himself suggests, “it’s because I dance like Madonna.”
Whatever. It works. The ascent has been no less dramatic for the absence of the kind of attention that might have accompanied someone of more conventional morph. In 1985, negotiating the fee for his then-anonymous client’s role in True Stories, Goodman’s agent scored what they both considered a major perk when he wangled two coach seats so the actor could spread out on his way down to Texas. Now, seven years later, Goodman has shouldered his way to a position of such prominence that the writer and producer of The Babe, Universal’s lavish deconstruction of the life of Babe Ruth, due for release this month, insists that if Goodman had turned him down, the film simply never would have been made.
In the meantime, by putting a remarkably debonair slant on a role that could otherwise smack of Ralph Kramden, he can claim half of the best sitcom on prime time as rightfully his—without Goodman’s ability to smooth the edges of Roseanne Arnold’s acute brand of abrasiveness, it’s hard to envision America’s continuing fealty to the show—while he sifts through the dozens of scripts that now pile up each month. None goes unconsidered, no matter how off-center. Goodman has a soft spot for the fringe-film set. It was David Byrne who really got him started, and the Coen brothers who sent him on his way. This summer, he will start work on his third Coen feature. Goodman continues to flip from the brightly lit cinematic suburbs of the major studios to the Coens’ cave in the dark American underbelly as effortlessly as he bounces moods, from high comedy to deep funk—off the screen as well as on it.
Because when his old friend Bruce Willis tells you “You like this guy—you love this guy—because he’s interesting,” isn’t that just another way of saying we like this guy because there’s so much to him?
Sure it is. We like him because this is a man with a little meat to him.
And carrying a little baggage.
“I’d just love to get the weight off,” Goodman is saying one morning in his dressing room at a soundstage an hour north of Los Angeles, between takes of The Babe. “Lately, I’ve been having trouble.”
The Santa Susanna Mountains form a quilt that fills the window facing east. Goodman is in a pair of rumpled khakis and a white dress shirt, waiting for wardrobe to fit a suit. He has eaten the catered meal, a slab of prime rib as thick as second base. He is reading the “Arts & Leisure” section of the Sunday New York Times.
Why do you think you can’t lose it?
“I dunno,” he says. “I have no idea. I just figure I probably have an eating disorder. I dunno.”
It has been a long morning, full of countless takes involving a dozen child actors. Now he sits in an easy chair, dead still. When his comedy reflex is kicking in, Goodman moves a lot, all gestures and sound effects and mimicry, a lot of wild expressions, a lot of rhythm. But now he seems shudderingly at rest. These are the times when the dark-man pokes out. “There is a danger to him,” Ethan Coen has said, “a certain kind of volatility.”
Are you depressive?
“Yeah,” Goodman says, turning the pages of the paper. Not looking up. “Yes. I have my little moments.” Not manic-depressive, though. “No. Just normal amount of highs and lows.” Are you pissed off? “Yeah. But don’t ask me about what. I don’t know.”
Is your funniness some sort of reaction to …
“Yeah,” he says, anticipating the question. “Probably.” What? “I dunno. I couldn’t tell you …
“I’ll probably spend a beautiful dollar trying to find out one of these days, but I don’t care. I’m not interested. I’m sure analysis is a wonderful thing for other people. I never felt the need for it. Of course, I weigh 300 pounds, I eat and drink too much, and I smoke cigarettes.”
He stops and smiles.
“And I keep hearing these tones in my head …”
Maybe the time for analysis isn’t until you really have to. Unless there’s nowhere else to go.
“Yeah,” he says with about half a laugh. “And I’ll quit drinking when I have to—after I run over a busload of …”
His voice trails off; a knock on the door. It’s the man from wardrobe with Goodman’s new suit.
Over the course of several days, he has made numerous references to his drinking. When Barbara Walters asked him if he’d had a drinking problem back when he was struggling in New York, he laughed it off and said he’d had “drinking opportunities.” When I ask him “Do you think you drink too much?,” at first he skates around the question—talks about how weird his hangovers have been, how his metabolism must be changing.
Then he says, “I’m probably an alcoholic is what the deal is. I think I broke the bank. I should talk to somebody about it. Or I should drink more moderately. I drink way too much when I drink. But I really do enjoy it, and I want to keep doing it because I like doing it in company. I don’t want to stop doing it [altogether], so I’m trying to back off. I’ll probably wind up in a fucking rehab center. So right now I’m trying to do it on my own. Which is what they call denial.
“I just want to back off for a while. Give the old liver a break.”
He stands up, out of the easy chair, and starts to stalk. He is pushing the Euclidean borders; the air chums behind him. His voice rises and falls, but he is talking loudly.
“That’s why, ultimately, I have got to quit smoking and I have got to get this weight off. This is cornball stuff, but I’m not taking care of my physical instrument. I’m not taking care of my tools. I’m letting them rust. And I’m really letting them rust by not doing theater right now.
“I think I’m fucking stagnating. I just feel like I am.”
This last thought is a recurring theme. The more Goodman reaps praise for the lightweight likes of King Ralph—a film that will not hang in the halls of cinema history—the more the Emmy nominations pile up for Roseanne (three thus far), the more he distrusts the praise.
His self-doubt and skepticism find their direct roots in the standards he set back at Southwest Missouri State, in a drama department that consumed him. His classmates included Kathleen Turner and Tess Harper, all of them taught by a man named Howard Orms. To this day, Orms remains a close friend of Goodman’s—and an artistic conscience.
“I don’t think he’s ever found anything that challenges every bit of creativity in him,” Orms says, “and I wish to God he would.” But when Harper hears what Orms has said, she snaps, “Oh, please—we are grown up! We don’t need the blessing of someone else. In a lot of ways, John is looking for approval from people he doesn’t need approval from anymore. There has to come a time when you say, ‘My power is mine, my success is mine, my ability is mine. Let’s move on to the next phase of adulthood.’ Please, children, take off the baseball cap and the sneakers and grow up.
“This is a man who doesn’t quite understand that he’s earned the success. Now enjoy it!”
Goodman laughs at this: “Tess thinks I’m fucking Hamlet, sitting with a .44 Magnum in one hand and a Bible in the other.”
But when I ask him if he deserves his success, he thinks for a long moment. Then he says, “No, not really.”
John Goodman remembers street football games in a neighborhood in Affton, south and west of St. Louis, and listening to Cardinals games riding the humid night river air as Jack Buck called the game from his neighbor’s porch. His father stayed home from work at the post office one day, felt a pain in his arm, collapsed and died of a heart attack at 36. John was 2, his sister still unborn. Goodman doesn’t remember him. John’s older brother, Les, was 16 when his father died. Les returned home after college and took a job with Sears, where he still works.
Virginia Goodman worked various jobs to make ends meet—at the Globe Drugstore, at Phil and Jack’s Bar-B-Cue. John had to take records out of the library because he couldn’t afford to buy any of his own. He couldn’t afford tickets to the weekly live wrestling card downtown, so he watched a weekly televised card from Oklahoma City featuring Sputnik Monroe.
The tales of poverty weave themselves, free of whining, through a narrative that takes up two days on the set of The Babe: “I was just a nerd who wasn’t a good student,” he says. “I had the taped glasses, wore the same clothes, absorbed Mad cover to cover. Most of the time, I just looked out the windows, pictured myself someplace else, singing with the Temptations. I’d pretend I was James Bond capturing Blofeld. But I was very good at fucking around in front of the class.” He’d try to get the usual summer jobs. And usually failed.
Mostly he read. He thinks he started reading because every time he wouldn’t get one of the references in the Mad parodies, he’d go look it up and end up reading the original. It was a summer in junior high, he remembers, a summer when he stayed home and read, when he first started to gain weight.
He lost it as he grew taller and started playing on the offensive line on the football team. His Aunt Ruth’s boy Norm played cornerback for the University of Missouri, but when John told his adviser of his ambitions to go to the university, the man told him to think about vocational school instead.
“That really pissed me off,” Goodman says.
He spent one year at a community college and then enrolled at Southwest Missouri State, hoping to walk on as a football player. They told him he had to take the SATs to play football, so he turned to the theater department, partly because he was immediately good at acting, partly “because there were a lot more babes in the drama department”—including Harper and Turner, who recalls that Goodman’s considerable talent was matched only by his massive insecurity: “He was very good. But he was so silly. He’d go through all the auditions for a play—he’d do this in New York, too—up to the final audition, where he’d walk onstage and say, ‘Guys, you don’t want me,’ and leave. He did an opera where he was spectacular and amazing—and afraid, every day. His self-confidence was very low.”
He pledged a fraternity but couldn’t afford the dues and dropped out. But he blazed through the theater department, seizing leads, shining in character spots. “You should have seen him, looking like a football player,” Harper says. “Blond curly hair and a beautifully cut jaw, and that deep voice.”
The weight began to return, but it didn’t impede his progress. “There was that tremendous charisma about him, and that inner substance, and that inquisitiveness,” says Orms. “He was always trying to perfect himself. That’s one of the wonderful things and one of the damnable things about him.”
“The focus of it was something I felt good about,” Goodman says now. “Just rehearsing, experimenting, playing with makeup! liked the whole work process. I could never do anything else.”
Auditions for the Rep in St. Louis while he was still in college were fruitless, and in the summer of 1975, he and his girlfriend moved to New York with $1,000, into an apartment on Ninth Avenue and West 51st. If it wasn’t Hell’s Kitchen anymore, it wasn’t Yuptown either—a bathtub in the kitchen, hypodermics in the hallway, a guy across the street who’d masturbate in his open window every night.
But Goodman’s luck grew worse—“I couldn’t even get work as a waiter. How the fuck can you not get hired as a waiter?”—and money was thin. His girlfriend was working, and unemployment insurance, food stamps, and a regular gig with a touring children’s theater group kept him barely afloat. He recalls the day he was making beans and ham hocks to last a couple of days and locked himself out of the apartment. By the time he got in, they were inedible. That same afternoon, a package of tuna and macaroni arrived from a friend and tided him over until twenty bucks showed up in the mail, sent by his mom.
“I never did say, ‘Fuck it,’ though I always wanted to leave the city, get out of town. Anytime I could get over the Hudson, I’d go,” he says.
Again, Goodman brought his weight down—this time by forced diet and an exercise regimen that included running down to the Battery every day.
A few years after hitting town, he toured the country with a musical for several months, and he and his girl grew apart; she moved out. Over the next several years, he says, there were no huge romances. He prefers that the subject not be explored: “I had some girlfriends.”
Eventually, Turner introduced him to her agent at a party. “He was standing alone,” David recalls, “and everybody else was kind of gregarious. Every seven minutes, John would say something under his breath and the entire crowd would stop and laugh hysterically. I walked up and said, ‘Do you have an agent?’ He said no. I said ‘You do now.’”
The jack-o’-lantern face atop the construction worker’s build turned out to be a natural for Madison Avenue, and he began to land commercials. Goodman knew he’d made it when he had to film three in two cities in two days. The money came in—and just as quickly went back out.
This time, it was the appetite and the generous nature. Goodman had relied on buddies in the low times, and when he started getting a little cash, it was Goodman who always bought the drinks. Lots of them.
“I was finally clickin’ on all eights,” he says. “That’s when I got the money to start goin’ out. Closing bars. Every night.”
“Just to be a human being living in New York City and leading the kind of carefree lives we were living in our twenties, it had a mystique,” remembers Willis, a regular at Cafe Central, the West Side clubhouse for a cadre of up-and-coming Manhattan actors. “We were living very dangerously and very close to the edge. Some people made it through that time period, and some people did not.”
“But goddamn, it was fun,” Goodman says. “I mean, that’s what it was. We had a fucking ball. Every night was out. Till four or five or six, find an after-hours joint … There’s times when I’d come in, take a shower and go out again to the auditions.”
The commercials led to small parts on the stage and in films, like C.H.U.D. and Revenge of the Nerds. Finally, in 1985, after ten years in New York, he landed the part of Huck Finn’s pap in Big River, on Broadway. Soon after, David Byrne cast him as a sort of one-man chorus in True Stories. Goodman carried the film, which ended, in prescient fashion, with his rendition of a Byrne song whose chorus rings “People like us / Growing big as a house.”
It was true. The lean years were over, figuratively as well as literally. In a decade in Manhattan, he’d put on a hundred pounds. But he was finally working regularly, touring with good shows. He was in Los Angeles doing Antony & Cleopatra and getting ready to shoot Everybody’s All-American when he was asked to read for Roseanne, in 1987. He signed on for seven years. He was ambivalent at first.
Goodman is beyond ambivalent now. He’s already tried to buy his way out of the contract—unsuccessfully. On the other hand, when he talks about the cast, he does so with unmistakable affection. A mention of “my daughter” in one conversation turns out to refer to Sara Gilbert’s character, Darlene; and Roseanne is invariably “Rosie.” His agent remembers a frantic call from Goodman during the first season, begging him to get the actor out of the show, but insists that it had nothing to do with Arnold.
“Rosie’s always been good to me, and I feel like she has a certain amount of respect for me, which I’ve always admired,” Goodman says. “I am fond of her—she had a shit rain come down after the show was a hit. She’s the fucking champ. She’s Jake LaMotta.”
“Two more years after this one.”
Although Goodman’s career was taking off by ’87, his self-esteem continued to feed on the bottom. At a Halloween party at Tipitina’s, in New Orleans, during the filming of All-American, when a pretty 19-year-old woman walked by and said “Hi,” Goodman was “flabbergasted.”
“I think I said something like ‘Gubba, gubba.’ It was, ‘Why is she talkin’ to me? A schlub like me?’”
Goodman regained his composure and immediately tried to play it cool, whereupon Anna Elizabeth Hartzog, a model and student, was immediately unimpressed and walked away. But Goodman persevered and had a friend set up a meeting. They were married within two years. Their daughter, Molly, is 20 months old.
The success began in earnest with his goofy portrayal of Nicolas Cage’s former cellmate in the Coens’ Raising Arizona, the start of the more substantial roles—and the more substantial fees. No doubt, Goodman’s size has enhanced some of his best character roles, notably in Sea of Love and in Barton Fink—wrestling the rail-thin John Turturro on the floor of Turturro’s infernal hotel room, Goodman seems to be rolling on top of us, and it’s here that his character begins the transformation from Willy Loman to serial killer.
“Physically, John is sort of different from your ordinary leading man,” says director Joel Coen, “but the overriding fact is that he happens to be a really, really good actor who inhabits that huge physicality. I don’t think it’s the most important thing that he expresses. But had he been different physically, he might have had a harder time finding his voice.”
Goodman’s size obviously didn’t hinder his landing the best role he’s ever taken on. The makers of The Babe are paying strict attention to Babe Ruth’s shortcomings as well as his heroic dimensions, and those failings included a career-long struggle to get the weight down and stay off the booze. John Fusco’s script reveals Ruth to be gluttonous in all manners of the flesh—he was said once to have enjoyed the favors of four women simultaneously. Fusco hopes that the script’s success will stem from its forthrightness; it’s not a fairy tale, like The Babe Ruth Story.
“Everybody thinks they know who he was,” Goodman says. “I had to erase that and go with the script.”
If the match wasn’t already perfect enough, there’s an added irony. As a kid, Goodman couldn’t afford the entry fee for the Little League. So he never played organized baseball.
Now he’s playing the man whose name defines the sport.
Wrigley Field, 1927. Out on the street, dirt has replaced the pavement, horse-drawn carriages have replaced the cars. Hundreds of extras in period dress have packed the stands. The producers have spared no expense—even the bats used by the characters of Ruth and Lou Gehrig were manufactured according to the original specifications provided by the makers of the Louisville Slugger.
Behind the home dugout is a twisting tunnel that leads to the clubhouse, a good place to retreat from the heat before director Arthur Hiller films the famed “called shot”—the day Babe Ruth appeared to point to center field before hitting a home run to the same spot. (The incident actually occurred in 1932, but the script takes a few liberties with history.)
Men with press passes stuck in their fedoras and actors in Cubs uniforms amble down the tunnel, and in the dimness the effect is uncanny. Then: The scrape of metal cleats on concrete, quickly, the hurried approach of a ballplayer, and very suddenly he’s around the comer—a huge man in Yankee flannels with a big, flat nose, the cap pulled down low, the girth substantial but the step light and agile—and then he’s past, down into the dugout, and the sensation is so disconcerting as to border on vertigo. It wasn’t a man who looked like Babe Ruth. It was Babe Ruth.
When the two first met, Goodman told Fusco he saw the role as an opportunity to play Zeus. When Goodman went to get more coffee and broke into Ruth’s pitter-patter home-run trot, Fusco knew his man was ready.
Over the next several months, Goodman shed 60 pounds—from 340 to 280—and immersed himself in the man’s life.
“He was so devoted, it was unbelievable,” says Denny Caira, a former minor-leaguer recruited to teach Goodman how to throw like a ballplayer and to bat from the left side. “He’d watch old tapes, he’d practice for hours in front of a mirror to get the swing down.”
“He has every move down—every thought I had about this character, John had already had,” says Hiller. “We had a shot of his feet coming down some dugout steps, and I said, ‘I need your feet to be depressed.’ The next take, his feet were dejected. I’m simply amazed at his range. And I don’t think there’s any question of his dramatic strength.”
It’s Goodman’s first dramatic lead—King Ralph, which he simply refuses to discuss, owed more to television sensibilities—and the actor admits that the entire prospect terrified him at first; he appears, literally, in every scene, including a bed scene with costar Kelly McGillis (“My view was pretty good, but hers wasn’t so great”).
The size of the role, a fee that would make a good major-league pitcher envious, the scope of the prerelease promotion—if Goodman was about to let it go to his head, this would be the time. But instead of swaggering his way through Chicago, showing up in the gossip columns, Goodman has stuck to his favorite neighborhood saloon, O’Rourke’s, down on North Halsted.
“He’d come in by himself—no crowd, no entourage—sit down at the bar, have a few beers and enjoy himself,” says a bartender. “We’d talk about jazz, about books … just a very nice man and a hell of a bar patron.”
Nor, say the cast and crew, have there been any agonies of ego on the set. As stories critical of Goodman the man appear to be virtually nonexistent, not even the usual wisps of rumors—people who usually take weeks to return a call phone within minutes when you leave word that you’re writing about Goodman—there are none critical of Goodman the actor.
“John was great. He doesn’t suffer from bad behavior,” says McGillis, who plays Claire, the Babe’s second wife.
Fusco: “He has a real blue-collar approach. He does the work, he goes home. Shows up focused, gives it all. Doesn’t want hand-holding. With John, you get the feeling he appreciates that you’re giving him the chance.”
Down on the field, Goodman has just popped up a fat batting-practice fastball: “Awww, shit!”
“He was a flesh-and-blood Bunyan,” Fusco is saying in the fourth row, nodding at Goodman, talking about Babe Ruth—at least, you think he’s talking about the Babe, until you realize that he’s talking about both of them.
“He was the perfect man for the time. There was a revolution in morality going on, and he was leading the pack, the king of excess: ‘Let’s eat and drink as much as we can.’”
Dinner, midweek, at Musso & Frank, L.A.’s oldest restaurant, a Leatherette-banquetted haven out of time, all dark wood, furnished in Early Men’s Club. No warm quail salad on the menu. Big martinis. Hedda Hopper should be at a comer table, Benny should be at the bar. Goodman’s in a booth, ordering the sauerbraten and deep-fried potato pancakes and salad with blue cheese, knocking back iced teas.
“Gotta kick this shit,” Goodman says, lighting a cigarette. “I’m getting to that age. ‘John, you’re at that age now.’”
“Heart-attack age,” he says.
On this night, every line in Goodman’s face seems to be heading downward. There are regular visitors to the table, compliments from tables across the room. Goodman is typically skeptical. On this night, he is not enjoying his fame. He seems smaller. When you’re sitting next to him, Goodman loses all his size, he stops displacing space; on this evening, he’s no bigger than anyone else.
“I just wanted the kind of success where if l go into casting offices, they’d know who I was. That’s the kind of success I wanted and worked for. The other stuff is gravy. Except for fame. Which is the down side of it. If I knew this was going to happen, I’d have thought twice about it. It’s kind of fun at first, then the joke wears off. It has a gradual creepiness about it. It gets to you after a while.
“I’m not whining about it. I’m just honestly uncomfortable about it. I’ve gotten a lot of recognition and rewards for things I haven’t worked so hard on—the television show, in some ways. There are my values, and then there’s the values other people are putting on this. Not that mine are any better. Just different.”
Forget their values. What about you? Do you think you’re this good? He thinks for a moment, and then he sighs.
“I really don’t know, to be honest with you. I could give you a glib answer, but it wouldn’t be right. I honestly don’t know. It’s healthy to have a good dose of skepticism, especially in a situation where values are about this deep”—he squeezes his forefinger and thumb within a half-inch of each other—“and your foundations are built on quicksand. Because nothing lasts. Except what you put into it. And nobody gives a shit about that.”
But he has more work than he can handle. Somebody must care.
“The people who write the checks don’t. It’s ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ”
Out in the parking lot, Goodman discovers he’s lost his claim ticket. The valet tells him it’ll cost an extra two bucks. Goodman shrugs and pays. We hang out at my car for a few more minutes.
I ask him if doing films and television is just too much.
“Yeah, I think so,” he says. “But as long as they’re going to dangle all this fucking money in front of me, I’d be sort of foolish not to do it. I don’t think it’s killing me in the long run. I think it’s hurting my acting … The main thing is to take care of the money right now. So I don’t have to worry about it.”
On Hollywood Boulevard, there’s traffic, the way there always is, although there don’t seem to be that many places worth going to.
“Fucking L.A.,” Goodman says. “It’s so fucked-up. Kids hanging out doing the same old thing … The music is nowhere. They don’t even have real junkies out here.” He stops, and he laughs at himself: “The old crank.”
His hand is huge. Shaking his hand is like getting hugged.
He disappears across the darkened parking lot, and, for a moment, he doesn’t seem big at all. The air is not stirring behind him.
He drives off in something large and black and American. He leaves an empty place just as dark.
It seems the wrong note to leave it on.
And it turns out to be. The right note is in your notebook. Literally. Discovered several days later. In handwriting that isn’t yours, a wild, joyous scrawl. Big letters. Big strokes:
“Eat Me Raw WithA Flavor Straw.2 Sweet+2 Bee4Got.”
The last laugh, laughed best.