Perhaps most recognizable for his role as despicable but lovable lawyer Dan Fielding on Night Court, John Larroquette has recently taken to the stage. He earned a Tony Award for his role in the 2011 production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Now, Larroquette has returned to Broadway, starring as William Russell in a revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man. When he was offered the role, he tells NPR's Neal Conan, he worried that an earnest take on his character, once played by Henry Fonda, would be "treacherous." So he decided a tongue-in-cheek strategy would work best, to make "the audience as comfortable as possible by making them laugh as often as possible." His idea worked, and he has been nominated in the category of distinguished performance for the Drama League Awards — an awards ceremony he'll be co-hosting.
Larroquette talks with NPR's Neal Conan about his latest leading role, and his long acting career.
On getting his start as an actor
"Having no experience, I moved to L.A., collected unemployment and on the bus one day saw a sign on a building that literally said, 'Acting lessons $10 a week.'
"And I walked into that room and sat there for two months, and a fellow in that room who became a friend of mine said he had read there was auditioning for a play. I went to audition for this play, The Crucible, [and] got a role. The people in that play said, 'We're going to do a comedy. Would you like to do it?' It was called Enter Laughing. I did that, got a decent review, got an agent, met my wife and started working."
On an early gig, doing the voice-over for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
"I met the director in Colorado in 1969. And when I went to L.A., he contacted me, because we had spent some time together in Colorado, and said, 'I directed this movie, and I need a favor. I don't have any money.' And so I went into the studio and I did this narration as a favor for him, and that was it. I've never seen the movie, and I never spoke to the director again, Tobe Hooper, but I did this as a favor because he was, you know, a head from Colorado, like I was, and he was directing a movie, and I had moved to L.A., you know. So that's how it happened.
"And ... to show how some things that you do come around again and help you 30 years later, or however long it was when I did the redux ... I was hired again by the new director, and I actually got paid to do the narration this time.
"So you never know. ... A favor can come back and actually be good for you."
On playing flawed characters as he ages
"Characters with great defects ... are more interesting to play, to me anyway. There's more handles to grab for comedy. ...
"But when you look at [Night Court character] Dan Fielding — and that was, what, 25 years ago now? — or however long, maybe longer — to play those kind of characters at my age now turns you into the perverted range, which probably isn't the best for a 64-year-old man to play. It becomes sort of sickly and, I think, not funny. Certainly, characters with bends like that of mental and unsociable and misanthropic tendencies are fun to play and can still be played, but it takes a different color when you're 40 as opposed to when you're 60 playing those."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
A couple of months ago, it seemed at least possible that we might see the drama of a brokered convention this year - two or maybe three candidates struggling to win delegates as the presidential nomination goes ballot after ballot. But while that will not happen in Tampa or Charlotte, that drama plays out every night on Broadway, in a revival of Gore Vidal's "The Best Man." Set in 1960, the play features James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury and Candice Bergen in supporting roles and stars Eric McCormack and John Larroquette as rivals grasping for the brass ring of the nomination.
John Larroquette, of course best known for "Night Court" and other TV series, but also the winner of a Tony Award for "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," he joins us in a moment. If you have questions about the intersection of theater, TV and politics, the phone number is 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. John Larroquette has been nominated for his role as William Russell in the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal's "The Best Man," the category of distinguished performance for the Drama League Awards. He joins us now for - from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.
JOHN LARROQUETTE: Good afternoon. It's very nice to be here with you.
CONAN: Congratulations on the nomination.
CONAN: You're also co-hosting that award ceremony.
LARROQUETTE: Yes, I am. So I would love to be able to open an envelope and read my own name.
CONAN: That would be interesting. There is a line in the play where your rival, Eric McCormack, tells you after he wins the nomination, you should get your own TV show.
CONAN: And you reply: I'm sure you meant that as a compliment, and it gets a laugh, but maybe not exactly for the reason that Gore Vidal intended.
LARROQUETTE: Well, I don't know. I think maybe - I think, you know, in 1960, when you think about it, television was still relatively new, I suppose, and it started seeping into our lives during those years. And I think Gore Vidal had a bit of distain for the medium, perhaps, or at least Bill Russell, my character, does. So I think that perhaps there's more laughs in this play than I originally thought, although I thought when I first read it that comedy was important to find in it because sometimes it has a tendency to be a little - not pedantic, certainly, but it talks about philosophy and it talks about morals. And sometimes it's difficult to act, so I wanted to make the audience as comfortable as possible by making them laugh as often as possible.
CONAN: And your character, well, it could be played another way, towards the pompous.
LARROQUETTE: Yes. I'm - yes, it could. But I think that would be deadly. And, you know, I didn't see the movie. I didn't - and when I thought when I was offered the role, thinking to step in any shoes that Henry Fonda may have occupied might be really treacherous if I try to play it truly earnestly, but with tongue and cheek I thought I could probably pull it off.
CONAN: And when you were offered the part, did you know that you would have to swap lines with James Earl Jones?
LARROQUETTE: Yes, absolutely, because James had signed on, I think, either first or second and then Angela in that - or maybe not in that order, perhaps reversed. But when Jeffrey Richards, the producer, who came to see "How to Succeed" several times, which I was very complimented by, and he would talk to me after the show, that's what he said - James Earl Jones is doing this, and I basically said yes before I even read the play.
CONAN: That's a little intimidating, though, isn't it?
LARROQUETTE: Absolutely. You know, I told my wife, particularly. I said I'm sort of known perhaps for having a sort of stentorial(ph) voice with some depth to it. And I thought, I'm going to have to do this one - I don't know - like Mr. Peepers. You know, I can't even compete with James on the stage in that play.
CONAN: There's an old rule in radio: You never have any guest on who's got a better voice than yours.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Same thing in - in fact, I read that you are, in fact, a radio refugee yourself.
LARROQUETTE: I am. Yes. I was sitting here in this studio in New York and listening to you in the background. One question I wanted to ask, and I didn't know if you guys print it anywhere. I'd love to know what that interstitial music was - you were playing the piano stuff before. I don't even know if you hear it. But you guys pick great music. I must say that it's a pleasure talking to you because I listen to you a lot. But I spent my youth in small crowded rooms where actually in those days you could smoke cigarettes and other things.
And in New Orleans - and I loved it - had radio stayed the way it was between '67 and '69, at least in my world, I don't think I would have left it. But it started to get commercialized, and so you had less time to play music and more commercials on your log. And so it was more difficult to be sort of free form.
CONAN: The tune was "Are We There Yet?" - the Chad Lawson Trio. It was picked by Gwen Outen, our director. I have nothing to do with it.
LARROQUETTE: Thank you. I'm glad to know that.
LARROQUETTE: I'll take a note of that.
CONAN: OK. And you were a music producer when you first went to L.A. And I, again, read that you walked into a performance of a play and said, wow, that's what I want to do.
LARROQUETTE: That is correct, although not producer. I was a promotion director for a record company, although I did the only - the actual, only product that ever came out of that relationship, which was three years long, a radio - a record company that was started by a gentleman who inherited a great deal of money, didn't know much about the business, and I tried to help set up distribution. But the only thing that was made was a children's album called "Hubert the Rainmaking Hippopotamus," which I don't take much credit for. I don't even think it exists anymore, but I did that.
But during that time, I walked into a theater in Old Town in San Diego, saw some actors sitting around this table, reading a play and something happened, you know? I'd not acted before, once in high school, but I'd acted on a radio, as I said, you know, the free formats that we had in the '60s, where each director - each DJ, excuse me, was his own program director. I bring in T.S. Eliot poetry or Korean wedding gongs and played it over Jimi Hendrix. And so I was acting with...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LARROQUETTE: I was acting...
CONAN: And you wonder why you're not working in radio today.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: But a lot of us can walk, you know, I sure walked into Yankee stadium and saw Mickey Mantle play centerfield and...
CONAN: ...I said I wanted to do that. It didn't work out that way.
LARROQUETTE: Yeah. Well, did you try?
CONAN: Yes, I did but, you know...
CONAN: ...the curve ball proved to be a deterrence, so did the fast ball and the slider.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: But as it turns out, when was there a moment when you said, you know, I can do this?
LARROQUETTE: Boy, I didn't - I never doubted I could do it. I just didn't know how to. I mean, having no experience, I moved to L.A., collected unemployment and on the bus one day saw a sign in the building that literally said, acting lessons $10 a week. And I walked into that room and sat there for two months, and a fellow in that room who became a friend of mine said he had read there was auditioning for a play. I went to audition for this play, "The Crucible," got role. The people in that play said, we're going to do a comedy. Would you like to do it? It was called "Enter Laughing." I did that, got a decent review, got an agent, met my wife and started working.
CONAN: Did you play a bad guy in "The Crucible"?
LARROQUETTE: I guess you might call Reverend Hale, the exorcist - certainly misguided.
CONAN: Yeah. Well, yeah. You played a sequence of people who are, at least partly in their lives, misguided.
LARROQUETTE: Yes. Yes. I'm not sure that reflects well on my soul, but it has been that I have played - I wouldn't say deviants, but certainly those who do not necessarily run along the same tract as most of the population.
CONAN: In this play...
LARROQUETTE: It's also funny to play those, you know. It's much funnier to play those.
CONAN: I would think so. And you star in "The Best Man" as William Russell, and you are not a perfect character, but a man of integrity. There's a scene we want to play from the play, where you meet with your rival, Joseph Cantwell, played by Eric McCormack, as we mentioned earlier. And you both have a political dynamite that you could use against each other, and here's part of the confrontation.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE BEST MAN")
LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) Come off it, Joe. I came down here to convince you to drop that nonsense against me, as I mean to drop this nonsense against you. These things are irrelevant, dishonest, not to mention, untrue. They cancel each other out. So yes, please, I wish you would join me in not indulging in personalities. I will tear this up. I will send Sheldon Marcus back to where he came from if you drop that nonsense against me.
ERIC MCCORMACK: (as Joe Cantwell) I see. You came here to make a deal with me.
LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) No, Joe. I don't make...
MCCORMACK: (as Joe Cantwell) That makes perfect sense, what you're doing. And I have no hard feelings, really, I mean it, so don't be apologetic.
LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) You have no feelings, I would say.
CONAN: Which is a man of - well, struggling with his integrity because the prize is so great.
LARROQUETTE: Mm-hmm. You know, my first question in my mind and, actually, I vicariously asked it directly to Gore Vidal, through the director, that at the end of the play, which I won't give away. I always thought it a great mystery, or it's not something that will...
CONAN: The best man wins, let's just put it that way.
LARROQUETTE: Correct. That by the action that William Russell takes at the end of the play, does it, in any way, indicate that he has either no balls or huge balls? Because I wasn't sure, after reading the play it several times and starting to rehearse it, which of those answers was correct because it had to be one or the other. As an actor, obviously, I have to think that my character does the right thing, at least that he thinks it's the right thing. So I sort of answered it for myself, but Gore Vidal did answer me.
And so I used that, his answer, to look at how William Russell actually removes himself from this. Because when you think about it, if you know the play, there are other routes he could take in order to ostracize Cantwell without himself sacrificing his presidency. But he doesn't take them, this obvious one, which is to go to the governor John Merwin character, and say, come on. Let's join forces and beat the hell of this guy. So it had to be - it has to come to point where Russell cannot be part of the system at all, secondarily. If he can't be, he's got to stop Cantwell from being.
CONAN: Because Cantwell is so egregious, but in a...
LARROQUETTE: And it's that, you know, that's, again, a personal and subjective thing, I supposed, although that's what William Russell thinks. Although even James Earl Jones' character has, you know, he vacillates about whether or not that's a good thing to be or not.
CONAN: As a president. One of the questions that has come up about this play is the casting of James Earl Jones, not that anybody wouldn't cast James Earl Jones as, you know, "Heidi," but...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LARROQUETTE: I like to see the ringlets. It would be a very nice sight.
CONAN: He could do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: But he is playing a former president of the United States. Of course, he's got complete de gravitas, but a black former president in 1960?
LARROQUETTE: Yes. You know, it's interesting also when you read the play a bit and, you know, I think not that James Earl Jones transcends race. I don't think any of us do. We are what we are. But I don't think, you know, and I don't read reviews and that's not - I'm not being facetious when I say that I hate them, the good ones and the bad ones. Because, as Richard Burton said, the bad ones kill and the good ones are never good enough. So I don't read them and - but - that I know of. No one has brought that up. No one has brought that out as, wow, how could they do that?
It's just - and if you noticed, the play - if one reads the play and sees the play - there's not one mention of race, I mean, even forgetting, you know, looking at Gore Vidal's original text, that does not come out as an issue in the play, and the communists and homosexuality and promiscuity do. But there's never an issue of race. In 1960, you'd have think that have been somewhat - you know, it certainly is part of my life, growing up in New Orleans - but it's not in this play. So I think James playing it is just not - I think it's a, you know, there's no problem with that.
CONAN: Here's an email question from Hank in Fernandina Beach in Florida: How did you end up doing the voiceover at the beginning of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," the greatest movie of all the time? He adds parenthetically...
LARROQUETTE: You know, it's funny how things come around. I was - I met the director in Colorado in 1969. And when I went to L.A., he contacted me because we had spent some time together in Colorado and said, I directed this movie, and I need a favor. I don't have any money. And so I went into the studio and I did this narration as a favor for him, and that was it. I've never seen the movie, and I never spoke to the director again, Tobe Hooper, but I did this a favor because he was, you know, a head from Colorado, like I was, and he was directing a movie, and I had moved to L.A., you know. So that's how it happened.
And to, you know, to show how some things that you do come around again and helped you 30 years later, or however long it was when I did the redux, I supposed they'd call it, or whatever, I was hired again by the new director and I actually got paid to do the narration this time.
So you never know. A favor...
LARROQUETTE: No, a little more than that.
CONAN: A little more than that.
LARROQUETTE: A favor can come back and actually be good for you.
CONAN: We're talking with John Larroquette, currently starring in the revival of Gore Vidal's "The Best Man" on Broadway. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here's another email question. This is from Phil in Huntersville, North Carolina: Do you feel your TV, "The John Larroquette Show," which ran on NBC from 1993 to 1996 was decade ahead of its time? The dark series, where you played an alcoholic, who's the night manager at a bus terminal, was very original and groundbreaking in the first season, but NBC felt it was too dark and traded your dingy boardinghouse with bright apartment. They gave you a clean-cut girlfriend. Suddenly, the show was just like every other sitcom and was canceled.
LARROQUETTE: No, it wasn't like every other sitcom. It was worse than every other sitcom.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Yes. Now, networks are clamoring for dark shows and love giving their stars flaws and addictions. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
LARROQUETTE: I agree with the first comment in that I think the first 12 or 13 episodes of that television show written by Don Reo and other staff members and whatever contributions I made to it myself were some of the - I think some of the best sitcom television that has ever been on television. And if I had not been in it, I will say that. But it was - I blame myself as a good Catholic boy should for being able...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LARROQUETTE: ...too aggressive in pushing the whole dark alcoholic, you know, the first 12 episodes are based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, that anonymous group that some people join in order to learn how to live sober.
CONAN: Not that you would know anything about that.
LARROQUETTE: Nothing. And I should have - we should have spread that over a couple of seasons and found other stories that certainly were - there are multiple stories that you could do from dingy bus stations in St. Louis. But I have a feeling I was bit egotistical and - not acting out of hubris, but I just come off a very successful nine-year run. I had an open-ended deal at NBC, and I should have been - we - Don Reo and I should have been a little more conservative in pushing that dark element. I mean, as it, you know - but the first 12 or 13 episodes were wonderful.
And my greed factor then came in by the end of the first season, when I went into the studio - into the network and talked to Warren and Donald, my other president, and convinced them to pick it up for a second season. And I thought I could make it funny with moving away a little bit from the dark side and that was a mistake.
CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. This is Taylor. Taylor with us from August, Georgia.
TAYLOR: Yes. Augusta, Georgia.
CONAN: Augusta, yeah.
TAYLOR: I'm a huge fan. I was just wondering - you did a smarmy character, very sleazy character so well on "Night Court." I was wondering if you find those types of characters appealing, and would we probably see anything else like that from you in the future? And I'll take my answer off the air.
CONAN: Thanks, Taylor.
LARROQUETTE: As I said earlier, you know, for characters with great defects like that are more interesting to play, to me anyway. There's more handles to grab for comedy. But when I - yes, and I like playing them. But when you look at Dan Fielding - and that was, what, 25 years ago now - or however long, maybe longer - that to play those kind of characters at my age now, turns you into the perverted range, which probably isn't the best for a 64-year-old man to play. It becomes sort of sickly, and I think, not funny. Certainly, characters with bends like that of mental and unsociable and misanthropic tendencies are fun to play and can still be played, but it takes a - it's a different color when you're 40 as opposed to when you're 60 playing those.
CONAN: Let's see. We got one more caller in, Joe. Joe with us from Lansing. Just a few seconds left, Joe.
JOE: Yeah. Just real quick. What happen to your character on "The West Wing"? How come that was slashed? You're great and Aaron Sorkin would be great writer for you.
LARROQUETTE: That's very nice of you to say. And quite frankly, they wanted me to come back on a - and we call it as as-available-basis, not as a series regular, and I did not want to sit around waiting for someone to call and, by chance, have to turn something else down because they wanted me to come back. I enjoyed, very much, working with Aaron, and I thought - I think he's a great writer. And had I been able to be more of a regular in that show, I'd been there, driving every morning, waiting to go to work with Martin Sheen.
CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Well, at least, you get to serve as a - at least a former secretary of state. You've done any number of public service jobs, at least fictionally.
LARROQUETTE: Indeed. That's absolutely true. And people outside theater, some nights, say, we'd vote for you, and I'd go, you know, there are far too many people still alive for me to ever run for public office. So too many stories to be told that that I don't want to hear on your television - on your radio show or on Nancy Grace's television show.
CONAN: And the last thing you want to hear is your name out of Ken Rudin's mouth. Yes, exactly.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: John Larroquette, thanks very much for the time today. Good luck with "The Best Man."
LARROQUETTE: What a pleasure talking with you. Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: John Larroquette stars in the revival of "The Best Man," Gore Vidal's play from 1960. It's showing on Broadway until July. He was kind enough to join us today in our bureau in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.