Living Large A Little Threatening, A Little Tender, John Goodman Thrives On Big-Guy Roles
John Goodman cradles the make-believe bowling ball in his hands as if contemplating Yorick’s skull.
Standing in the middle of a midtown Manhattan intersection, he takes four careful steps, curls the ball behind him and flapjacks it down 55th Street. With Goodman’s goading, the ball bellies out precariously toward the taxi on the right, then grips the asphalt and shimmies back toward the center of the street.
The burly Goodman stops at the make-believe foul line and poises nimbly on his left foot like a ballet dancer. When the make-believe pins go down, he does a little jitterbug cakewalk.
On this cold morning, the actor, a nonbowler who has surely portrayed more bowlers than anyone in motion-picture history, is cakewalking around his past, revisiting old haunts and reviving memories of a time before his eight-year run as Roseanne’s television husband, a time when he was just one more unemployed actor.
Despite dark glasses — or possibly because of them — he is quickly recognized and accosted for autographs. Goodman, who now lives outside New Orleans with his wife and his 7-year-old daughter, is unfailingly friendly, charming, courtly, even kind to his fans.
“Are you John Goodman?” shouts one woman as he crosses 54th Street. “Usually,” he says in a voice that’s surprisingly soft coming from a man the size of a tobacco warehouse. A small boy’s smile creases the 45-year-old’s puddinglike face.
Goodman always seems to have a smile, a nice combination of the innocent and the diabolical. Over the last few months he has worn it while helping Denzel Washington bottle a serial killer’s evil spirit in “Fallen,” while affecting an air of deadpan hipsterism in “Blues Brothers 2000,” while squeezing palm-size people in his fist in “The Borrowers.” He wears it again in “The Big Lebowski,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s kidnap-‘n’-bowling caper grown from seeds planted in “The Big Sleep,” the 1946 Howard Hawks classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Goodman is cast in the Bacall role, as Walter Sobchak, a bowling brute with a lighted fuse. “Walter’s whacked, a real piece of cake,” he says. “He’s not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.”
The Coens (Joel directs, Ethan produces, and they both write) tend to populate their intricate, unnerving fables with boldly outlined cartoon characters. Their style demands vivid acting, and Goodman — in his third Coen brothers film (he was also in “Raising Arizona” and “Barton Fink”) plays Sobchak exuberantly, with warmth and a kind of uncontained innocence.
“There’s something utterly guileless about John,” says Joel Coen. “He’s an incredibly versatile actor who often gets typecast in uninteresting parts.”
Do Goodman’s big guys have anything in common? He offers a wry half-smile with a kind of frank diffidence. “Yeah,” he says. “They’re all overweight.”
Moving briskly across Madison Avenue, he passes the offices of Mad, the magazine that formed his boyhood consciousness. In the backwater of Affton, Mo., Mad was the only cultural event of the month.
“I got my education from Mad,” Goodman says. “If I didn’t get a joke, I’d consult the encyclopedia.” From Mad, he learned smart-aleck skepticism, suspicion of authority figures and Yiddishisms like furshlugginer and potrzebie.
Goodman’s mother, a waitress at Jack and Phil’s Bar-B-Cue who raised him from the age of 2, indulged his Mad-ness but drew the line at James Bond novels. “Her boyfriend thought they were smutty,” he explains.
At Ninth Avenue, Goodman hangs left and bellows, “There’s my first apartment!”
He opens the front door of the building and scans the mailbox for familiar names. “I used to call this my hunting lodge,” he says. “It had cable and a great brick view. The bathroom was in the hall, and the bathtub was in the kitchen. The stains on the tub’s porcelain seemed to indicate that at one time gin had been brewed in there.”
Goodman signed a lease on this distillery in 1976, a year after he had hopped a train for New York. He had arrived at Penn Station with a cardboard suitcase, a degree in theater from Southwest Missouri State and a $1,000 stake from his older brother. “I’d never been in New York before,” he says. “I felt like a hick in a straw hat.”
He remembers taking a taxi to a friend’s digs on the Upper West Side. “I overtipped the cabby 10 bucks,” he says. “I had no idea what to give him. My whole idea of tipping came from watching ‘The Danny Thomas Show.”’
He made the rounds at audition halls, and within a month he found work in a dinner-theater production of “1776.”
“We opened and closed in Springboro, Ohio,” he recalls. “That’s five miles from Ridgeville, which is four miles from Waynesville, which is one mile from Corwin, which is three miles from Harveysburg.”
His most memorable line? “When do we get to go back to New York?” deadpans Goodman, who played Thomas Jefferson. “I did a lot of preparation for the part. I actually kept slaves for a while and grew my own hemp.”
The research went largely unappreciated: “One of the critics indicated I was a little too antic to be one of the founding fathers.”
Goodman’s career was not an unfettered ascent. “That first winter in Manhattan I thought about giving up,” he says. “It was day after day of nothing. I got to the point where I wasn’t doing much of anything except the Sunday crossword puzzles.”
He patched together a slender living doing television commercials. He sold jeans, root beer, antacid. He got slapped around in ads for Mennen Skin Bracer. It was Goodman who said, “Thanks, I needed that!”
Goodman flags down a cab and instructs the driver to drive to 103rd and Riverside. It was there in 1978, at the Equity Library Theater, that he made his New York stage debut (the theater closed in 1989). “I was Oberon in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”’ he says. “People didn’t seem to like the play too much, maybe because we did a disco version.”
With New York’s dailies on strike, the lone review appeared in the German-language paper Aufbau. “One of the cast members translated it for us,” Goodman says. “The highlight: ‘Puck is a good leaper.”’
Speeding southward, Goodman spots various landmarks: the actors’ joint where he and Bruce Willis used to nurse Budweisers and leave dollar tips; the pinball arcade where he discovered Pac-Man. Turning down 45th Street, Goodman points out the Plymouth Theater. “I tried out for ‘Equus’ here,” he says. “I thought I had a good shot at being one of the horses.”
The taxi pulls up at 505 Eighth Ave., home of WBAI-FM. For three years in the mid-1980s, Goodman and a couple of pals performed sketches on a monthly radio show called “Citizen Kafka.” His most inspired creation was Farmer Bob, a lecherous hayseed who harvested Cabbage Patch love dolls. “Kafka was trashy, deranged, disgusting,” Goodman says. “It played right into my Mad sensibility.”
The Coen brothers, onetime Mad enthusiasts themselves, say it was that very sensibility that got Goodman a part in “Raising Arizona.” His escaped convict, a “criminal mastermind with a two-digit IQ,” literally proved to be his breakout movie role. The ticking-bomb performance so impressed the Coens that they later asked him to appear in “Barton Fink,” their post-modernist Faustian comedy. “What’s it about?” asked Goodman.
“Well,” said Ethan Coen. “You really have to read the script.”
Goodman read it, liked it and played Charlie the insurance salesman with such sunny menace that he was nominated for a Golden Globe. “Only later did I find out what part I’d played in ‘Barton Fink’s‘ genesis,” Goodman says. “According to Joel and Ethan, the film sprang from a mental picture they had of me and John Turturro sitting on the edge of a bed in our underwear.”
The Coens based Lebowski’s combustible Sobchak on a softball player they knew in Los Angeles. “We made the film out of a perverse desire to see John on screen blowing hard and pontificating,” says Joel Coen.
“In a Norman Schwarzkopf haircut,” says Ethan Coen.
“And a Ulysses beard.”
“And yellow glasses.”
“It’s a powerful image.”
The afternoon sun has begun to cut lengthening shadows across the theater district as Goodman spies the facade of the Eugene O’Neill. Thirteen years ago he made a showy splash here as Huck Finn’s father, Pap, in the musical “Big River.”
Good notices landed Goodman in a 1987 production of “Antony and Cleopatra” in Los Angeles, where he was spotted by an ABC talent scout. The network needed a mate for Roseanne. “Somebody furshlugginer,” Goodman says. “And that somebody was me.”
The rest is current events.