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1:1 with William
Sanderson was born January 10, 1944
in Memphis, Tennessee.
Although he received his JD from MemphisState,
he never practiced law. Going directly into acting he has had memorable
roles, like Larry on Newhart, the one who had two brothers, Daryl and
Daryl. More recently he played E. B. Farmum in all 36 episodes of the
highly-acclaimed HBO series “Deadwood,” for which he received an Emmy
nomination for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series.
I met him at Starbucks in Burbank.
TONYLet me start out by asking
you why you went to law school?
BILLProbably insecurity.I give a different answer
every time. Maybe choosing the right friends as a kid; they became
lawyers and doctors. I could go on and on. Guilt. Like a lot of
teenagers, I got in trouble but got back on good track in high school,
like student government. When I graduated from high school, I said “I’ll
make this up to you,” to my parents. When I was in the army I read a
book by Adlai Stevenson, whom I liked, and he said, “Law is as noble as
any profession.” But I started doing theater late in law school and just
TONYHow did you start doing
BILLThey were doing a
production of “Hair” next door and there were no girls in our law school
class at the time. It looked like they were having a lot of fun, so I
did a play, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Then I went to the local theater
and did Marat/Sade and just fell in love with it.
TONYThis was while you were in
BILLThe last year. The first
two years I barely got through, but I had learned how to study. They
rarely failed you out the third year. It was a hectic year. I went to
class in the morning. A buddy of mine opened a bar and I was the
bartender. So I’d call the bar and tell them to have my breakfast ready,
bartend, and go to rehearse a play, and then try to finish law school.
Did you go to law school?
TONYYes. You’ve had a lot more
fun being an actor than I had being a lawyer, although I was luckier
than most in that what I did was enjoyable.
BILLI took a lot of rejection,
but I have so much respect for great lawyers, and it is a noble thing to
TONYYou never took the bar
BILLNo. I went to New York
to bartend at TGIF Friday’s and O’Neill’s.
TONYSo you went to New York.
How did you break in to the theater?
BILLI would do anything I could
get, showcases and off-Broadway. Somehow after 5 ½ years I got 3-4
independent films in a row, moved out here with the footage at the
suggestion of one of the producers and got in some major film with that
TONYHow did you get those roles
in the independent films? Did you have an agent?
BILLI did finally get an agent
after I did a play called “Insect Comedy.” Two or three agents acted
interested and I got the first film they submitted me for, played the
town crazy; surprise! (laughs). Then I was on a roll.
TONYHow old were you?
BILLI graduated from law school
in ’71 when I was 27, so I was about 32. I was in New York
TONYHow much money could you
BILLNot enough! I worked for
some famous bars. The owners were filthy rich, owning castles in
One of my favorites was Mike O’Neill, who owns O’Neill Brothers by
He hired a lot of struggling actors.
TONYThen you came out here?
BILLI came out here with $1500
and soon ran out of money. Joseph Wambaugh gave me my first job in “The
Onion Field.” It was not much of a role. I love Wambaugh to this day. He
called my agent and said, “This is the most articulate actor I’ve seen
in years. I’ve got to have him play in my movie even if I have to write
him a part.”
TONYHow had he seen you?
BILLHe saw my audition.
TONYDid you get typecast
playing goofy people?
BILLI don’t know. This fits.
TONYLarry in Newhart was pretty
BILLYeah. I didn’t think he
was. I thought he was very sweet. It paid a lot of money. It was nice to
have a regular job. I based him on a bum I met in Manhattan
picking lint off his shirt, saying “I’ll kill the bitch.” And they
thought I was tipping my hat. There’s bums on the bowery who have bands
around their arms and DTs and stuff. But they fascinated me. I love
TONYHow did you get that role?
TONYDid you go in on a cold
cattle call, or did an agent get it?
BILLMy agent got it. But they
put the two brothers in there that they found at the Mark Taper Forum.
They put their careers on hold by not talking. A lot of people asked me
if they minded not talking and I said that they never said anything to
me about it (laughs).
TONYDid you do anything else
during the time you were playing Larry?
BILLOne of the nice things
about that show was that they let me out to do other things. I got to
work with Val Kilmer and Charles Durning on a remake of “I’m a Fugitive
From a Chain Gang.” I did a movie with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds
which didn’t do anything but it was great fun.
TONYHow much time did you have
to put in on the Larry role?
BILLI did around 17 shows a
year. It lasted 8 years. I’d go in on Monday and read it, go home, let
the writers hear it. On Tuesday you’d read it again but put it on its
feet. On Wednesday you’d start trying to get the book out of your hand.
Thursday, you’d finalize it. Friday I’d go in at
and do a dress rehearsal. They’d shoot that, then do it before a live
audience of 200 people on Friday night, which I’m very greatful for.
They applauded when we went off the stage. My buddy said, “Yes,
Sanderson. I’d applaud, too, when you went off the stage.” (laughs) But
for some reason they liked us.
TONYDid they ever use anything
from the dress rehearsal?
BILLIf there was a mess-up. Bob
never liked to stay late at night. He had it down to a science. So we
had a double shot at it, the dress rehearsal and the live audience.
TONYSo even though you didn’t
have a lot of lines, it was a full week’s work?
BILLOh, yeah. I had enough
lines for me and was paid much more money than my parents ever made.
Plus I was a spokesman for the Root Beer Company, and I met ladies. I
did lots of things. I had to turn down an independent film shot in
because they said I had to be here. That week I had one little scene and
when they showed it, they cut it out; the only one ever. But there’s
nothing like a regular job for someone like me.
TONYWhy was “Deadwood”
BILLI can’t answer that. If
you’re familiar with (writer/executive producer) David Milch, he’s kind
of a madman, but I loved working for him and apparently he liked me. He
put me in every show.
TONYDo you get residuals on
TONYThey are rerunning in on
BILLYes, because of the potty
mouth language you can’t put it many places, but I’m getting substantial
residuals. I’m getting ready to go on a handshake tour. They tell me the
soldiers like it.
TONYWhat was it like working
for Ridley Scott on “Bladerunner?”
BILLIt was a tremendous thrill
for me. He had done “Alien,” and I thought I was going to lose this when
he said, “Did you see it?” I said no. Nowadays I look at everything I
can. He said, “Did you read the book?” and I said, “I couldn’t get
through it.” He said, “Me neither.” It was great fun. I would talk with
him one on one. I was thrilled to be working with Harrison Ford. We
thought it would be a big hit. I think it was Pauline Kael who said it
was a fascinating failure.
TONYHow do you deal with being
BILLI’m kind of at peace with
my recognition. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. When you get
recognized all the time, like leaving tips, people say that this guy’s a
jerk and this guy’s a nice guy. What would I do with Eddie Murphy or
Brad Pitt’s problems? I’ve had my own on “Newhart.”
TONYWhat kind of problems?
BILLI was a bit of a target.
People would call. A lady got my number from SAG; she worked there. She
called and said, “I need a job.” I gave her a job. I was so busy. I said
I want these presents sent to Texas
where I’d shot a Movie of the Week. People didn’t get the presents.
Years later she called me and told me she was in AA and she was supposed
to admit what she’d done wrong and said, “I threw those presents away
because I didn’t make as much money as I thought I should.”
TONYNow you’re a regular on
“True Blood” on HBO?
BILLYes. It’s a show with Alan
Ball, who is a great writer. He wrote “American Beauty,” won an Academy
Award, and created “Six Feet Under.” I play a sheriff in Louisiana.
It’s based on a series of books by Charlene Harris. It’s the hardest
thing I’ve done. He’s normal and clean-shaven. I look every time to see
if I’m being killed off. Lots of insecurity. But Deepak Chopra said he
never met a great artist who wasn’t comfortable with his own insecurity.
I consider myself a journeyman, but I’m comfortable with my insecurity.
TONY How did you feel when you
were named one of the 15 funniest people on Television?
BILLMaking people laugh is a
valuable social service and once in awhile I get to do that. But really,
being an actor is just a vanity kick, an adrenaline rush.