A chat with William Sanderson, William Sanderson interview, Bar Karma, True Blood, Deadwood
William Sanderson

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William Sanderson describes himself as a journeyman actor, and that’s not entirely inaccurate, but whatever way you choose to describe him, you can’t say he isn’t a success on the small screen. He first came to prominence through his role as Larry on “Newhart” – you know, with his brother Darryl and his other brother Darryl – and in recent years has come to be recognized for his work on “Deadwood” and “True Blood.” Although Sheriff Bud Dearborne has since retired from his post, Sanderson continues to work steadily, having just picked up a position on Current TV’s new series, “Bar Karma.” Bullz-Eye caught up with a very tired Sanderson, and after bonding with him over a mutual friend – Larry Floyd, one of the organizers of the Williamsburg Film Festival, in Williamsburg, VA – we talked about the new series as well as some of his previous performances.

Bullz-Eye: How are you doing, sir?

William Sanderson: All right, sir! How are you?

BE: I am well. And I’m supposed to tell you that my friend Larry Floyd says “hello.”

WS: Oh, he is such a nice man. Give my regards to him! Two or three times, he was kind enough to call in L.A., and I was in town but working, and I said, “This guy is going to think that I’m avoiding him!” We had a lunch together, and I think he’s a classy guy.

BE: So you’ve got this new gig, working on “Bar Karma” for Current TV.

"I told a friend, “I’m playing a guy (on 'Bar Karma') who’s 20,000 years old and he’s been reincarnated 500 times,' and my friend said, 'You’re really too young for the part.'"

WS: I do, and…this is something new: they had two publicists there yesterday when I did an interview. I’m wondering if they think I’m going to come in drunk or badmouth the company! They patched us through, though. And they’re very good publicists, very experienced, and they do more than I do! But I’ve done this for years, and the writer usually calls me, and I fumble through with my awkward answers… (Trails off) But before I forget, thank you…it’s Will, right?

BE: It it, yes.

WS: Thank you, Will, for helping us promote this show.

BE: Oh, my pleasure!

WS: It’s really a lot of fun.

BE: It certainly is. I watched the first episode, in fact, and…you’ve obviously got a background in sci-fi, but it takes more than just that to be able to get through some of the mind-bending concepts going on in this show!

WS: Oh, well, you’ve seen it and I haven’t! They won’t show it to me! It’s a need-to-know basis, I guess. I usually make a joke and say, “I can lie about it…” But I don’t mean I lie to other people. I mean I lie to myself. All I know is that Albie Hechts and Will Wright, the creators of the show, are genius types. That’s Hollywood-speak. But I mean, if you look at their track record… (Trails off) And for me, to go right from “Deadwood” right to “True Blood” and right into this new one…? They’re the creators, we’re the innovators. (Laughs) But thank you for watching, Will! See, I remembered your name. That’s one I can’t forget!

BE: With a show like this, where they’re taking viewer input, how does that affect your job as an actor? Or does it, really?

William SandersonWS: Well, it makes it more terrifying. (Laughs) I mean, the whole process is terrifying. Suppose they don’t like you. Suppose they say, “Well, you know, let’s see…I only want to see a beautiful young lady and a handsome young man.” I’m not Oscar Wilde, but it’s really about youth. That’s how it affects me. But it’s really exciting. As I told my friend in Singapore who’s a writer, it’s cutting edge. And it’s such a thrill to live in New York, shoot in Newark, and with all of these wonderful people that I’m working for. And before I get carried away with my own anger, a lot of ‘em are working harder than I am. A lot of ‘em.

BE: You’re playing a 20,000 year old bartender. You don’t look a day over 15,000.

WS: Well, that’s no problem to play an old guy. But thank you for saying that. (Laughs) I told a friend who just opened on Broadway, “I’m playing a guy who’s 20,000 years old and he’s been reincarnated 500 times,” and my friend said, “You’re really too young for the part.” He’s a sweetheart, Brian Cox. But I’ve got to tell you, we have a great director, Jonathan Judge. I have lived in Hollywood for 30 years, so forgive me, but I don’t want to leave out the guy who directed the pilot. I’ll sleep better.

BE: I understand that this is also not your first bartending gig, either.

WS: Oh, how did you know that? Yeah, I’ve bartended in some of the most famous places in New York. I’d take off to do a play, or I’d go to upstate New York to shoot a no-budget film, and I asked my old pal one time, “Why’d you fire me?” And he said, “I couldn’t keep replacing you!” But as my wife Sharon said…and I think Larry met Sharon…somebody has always helped me. I don’t want to forget that. And they helped me, those bar owners. But bartending was fun. And I also went to law school. I’m staying in one of my classmates’ apartments. It’s not cheap! I knew there was a reason I went to law school. I just discovered it this last year. (Laughs) By the way, the next time you see Larry, after you give him my regards, tell him that when we talked, I was sober and didn’t need to have my wife prop me up.

BE: (Laughs) I’ll definitely tell him that. Of course, he says that you need to hurry up and retire, so that you can finally be a guest at the Williamsburg Film Festival.

WS: Well, that’s not a problem. Hollywood will retire me, because I’m a curmudgeon. I’m not really one…

BE: …but you play one on TV, right?

"They didn’t kill me (on 'True Blood.') The writer, Charlaine Harris, was so sweet, and to press and the newspapers, she put out there, 'I wish they’d give him more to do.' But I saw in the books that he didn’t do much. But that could be divine intervention. You make good money, you show up once in awhile, you spend a little more time with your family and pay your mortgage. But I’m thinking that when the horse dies, dismount and move on."

WS: Well, the character is described as offbeat, quirky, wise, and cynical. He’s even pessimistic. And I thought, “Gosh, I was born to play this part…” Did you know that Al Gore, from my home state, is one of the founders of Current TV? Maybe he’ll remember me from Tennessee. I don’t get into politics, but he’s a good man. And, you know, my co-stars Matthew (Humphreys) and Cassie (Howarth), they’re younger and newer, but you would not believe their credits. When you have time, let me know and I’ll tell you about them. (Laughs) They were a lot of fun to work with. I’m speaking of the London Academy of Dramatic Arts, Yale. He also went to Emerson College. I told Cassie, “Do you know what the difference between you and Julia Roberts is?” She looked at me like I was a buffoon. And I said, “Age. That’s the only difference.” You’ll be seeing them when I’m sitting on the couch, twiddling my thumbs, wondering if Larry will have me at the film festival. (Pauses) I’m sorry. I’m really, really wired and didn’t sleep much.

BE: (Laughs) That’s okay! By the way, you mentioned being from Tennessee, and I was just going to tell you that your Wikipedia page suggests that people still speak in hushed tones of your performance as Bob Ewell in “To Kill A Mockingbird” at Memphis State.

WS: Oh, my God. I didn’t know that was on there. I was so green and so new. But there’s some better lies on my own website, WilliamSanderson.net. (Laughs) It’s really not lies. It’s just vanity. But I thank you for looking that up, though. I loved that college. My mother graduated from there, and as you may know – though it’s irrelevant – I got my law degree from there, but I never took the bar. But I got to go back to Memphis and shoot “The Client,” and I was going to put my classmates in the movie, but they changed the docket. They came down, but they said, “We can’t use them in the scene, we’ve got to put the mayor in there.” But, anyway. I met the mayor here, too. Mr. Booker. We meet some fancy people, yessir. He’s doing a great job, I hear.

BE: Speaking of mayors, you’ve given me the perfect segue into playing Farnham on “Deadwood.”

WS: Oh, thank you for asking about that! Hey, it was another gift, you know? David Milch taught English Literature at Yale. Farnham was a real life character, and he was a lot of fun. Some of the most fun was the actors who I worked with, who were from all over the world. Surely I’ve learned something from them. But, you know, I’m just trying to keep uphere. (Hesitates) I’ll bet you the woman who patched you through is probably listening to the call, thinking, “He’s not talking enough about the show! He’s talking to much about himself!” But I loved playing Farnham…and I love Current TV! I love everybody! (Laughs)

BE: Right before I got on the phone with you, I had just finished watching your film “Stanley’s Gig.”

WS: Oh, you did? You sure know how to make a guy feel good. You watched the whole thing?

BE: I did. It’s a lovely little film.

William SandersonWS: Oh, thank you! It was fun making that. If a bigger studio had bought the script for a lot of money, they’d say, “Use Robin Williams or something,” but we shot it in half the time, I lost 12 pounds, and Faye Dunaway went to the Cannes Film Festival and then threatened to come back unless they gave her some money. You know, it’s the people I worked with if I have any claim to fame. But back to Current TV… (Laughs) I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity, and if the public will forgive me, I’ll try to be calmer.

(Writer’s note: I wasn’t quite sure what Sanderson meant with his comments about Ms. Dunaway, so I dropped a line to Marc Lazard, who directed the film. “I think the story was that we had to buy her a new plane ticket back,” he said. “She was hemming and hawing about something she had to be there for, and that she needed a new ticket to come on the time we agreed upon. We knew there would be some kind of issue that would come up during her Cannes visit, as the trip lay right in the middle of our shooting schedule. We were just happy she got her tail back…and it (only) cost us a one way first class ticket. Bill and Faye came from different schools. This was felt on the set and may have enhanced their relationship on screen.”)

BE: Well, I’ll certainly be playing up the sci-fi aspects of “Bar Karma,” because, as I say, it’s really some mind-bending stuff. But I mean that as a compliment. I loved it.

WS: Well, I thank you, Will. That’s the pilot, of course, and we shot it on a limited budget in Brooklyn, and Albie is building a studio along with the owners in Newark. Just bear with us. I might not survive. It’s like Martin Luther King: I might not get there with you… (Laughs) …but we’ll get there. And they’ll continue whether I’m with them or not. But I hope I am.

BE: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

WS: Well, I don’t want to be a smart aleck, but it could be this one. (Laughs) You know, I think “Stanley’s Gig,” with a little more money and a little more promotion, could’ve been bigger. But they didn’t really even try to promote it. I just had fun playing a Jeffrey Dahmer type, in a new “Criminal Minds” spinoff starring Forest Whitaker. I basically become Dahmer, and…it was kind of fun! I didn’t just play a passive, weeping type. He’s got several sides. And I got to work with Forest and a producer of “True Blood.” It premieres in the middle of February, but I did the sixth episode. Haven’t seen it yet, so I can lie about it. (Laughs)

BE: Well, actually, I was fortunate enough to visit the set of the show a few weeks back, so I’m excited to see it premiere.

WS: It was a lot of fun…and that’s the key. If you’re not having fun, I don’t think the audience will enjoy it. But, you know, I’m just a journeyman actor. And terribly vain and narcissistic. (Laughs) But when you mentioned Larry Floyd, I said, “I don’t want to mess this up!” He’s a real gentleman…and he keeps calling, even though I haven’t been able to connect! That’s what you call a friend.

BE: Oh, absolutely. And he’s a real fan of your work, too. If you ever get the opening, he’ll be glad to have you at the festival.

WS: Hey, you know what? Tell Larry, so he doesn’t swell my head, that for every 30 people that don’t like me, there’s 50 that never heard of me.

BE: (Laughs) I’ll pass that on.

WS: It’s true, though. I’m a journeyman actor. One of the writers said, “You don’t usually get these sorts of roles.” And, no, I don’t, do I? At this point in my career, it’s a very good part.

BE: When you were bartending, was there any drink that was your specialty?

WS: Well, I used to make a mean Long Island Iced Tea that made people crazy. (Laughs) But these days…? Anything that anyone asks for, I’ll try to come up with it. They’ve got some drinks in the next episode that are so amazing. Drinks from South America and so forth. But the little girl…I call her “little” ‘cause she so young, but Cassie’s a wonderful actress, and she’s a bartender in town at one of the hippest joints, so she knows ten times what I know. If you talk to her and Matthew, just tell them, “Oh, he really badmouthed you. Said you weren’t professional.” See how they like that. (Laughs) I’m kidding. You’ll be seeing a lot of them. Matthew, he starred in a movie with Beyonce called “Obsession,” where he played a gay guy. Both of them…look, they can play it all.

BE: A quick “True Blood” question for you. You were great as Sheriff Bud, but is there a possibility that you might return? Or have you done your part and now you’re gone?

William SandersonWS: You know, if you saw it, they didn’t kill me, but…I don’t know. The writer, Charlaine Harris, was so sweet, and to press and the newspapers, she put out there, “I wish they’d give him more to do.” But I saw in the books that he didn’t do much. But that could be divine intervention. You make good money, you show up once in awhile, you spend a little more time with your family and pay your mortgage. But I’m thinking that when the horse dies, dismount and move on. (Laughs) But Alan Ball is a great writer, very organized, gets the scripts to you early, and I’m grateful to him, ‘cause I can buy toys for my grandson and my wife. You always want more, but… (Trails off)

BE: I guess that horse metaphor would apply to “Deadwood” as well, given that they kept threatening to do those wrap-up movies but never did.

WS: You know, maybe I’m a jinx! (Laughs) Hey, I just practice self-deception. I think I’m one of the luckiest actors in the world.

BE: I’d say so, based on your credits. You’ve got a nice run going.

WS: Yeah, and, you know, every day’s a gift. I know this: we’re all going to the same place. (Laughs) I don’t know how long I’ve got. I try not to get testy with people who are new in the business. You’re playing a part. If you’re playing a character who’s wise, you get to thinking you’re wise. But it’s like they say: The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool. (Hesitates) I think Current TV has got me on probation now .

BE: Well, I know you’ve got other interviews to do…

WS: Well, we’ve got to go to rehearsal. But I’m overjoyed that you took the time to talk. And Current TV is great to work for, and Albie Hecht…I mean, you know, he’s been nominated for an Academy Award, and with Nickelodeon, he had a hand in “Rugrats” and “Spongebob Squarepants.” And he helped start Spike TV. He’s a gentleman.

BE: Well, hopefully, when you do finally get around to that retirement thing, you will make it to the Williamsburg Film Festival. My father wants to meet you, too. He helps Larry out with the festival when he can.

WS: Your dad does?

BE: Oh, yeah. He and Larry went to high school together. Larry was actually my Cub Scouts leader.

WS: Oh, my God. Oh, I’ll have to watch my P’s and Q’s down there! (Laughs) Well, look, Will, I really thank you. I’m just a little tired, and the fatigue makes me not listen to questions, and in one ear I don’t hear. But I’ve enjoyed talking to you!

BE: Same here. And good luck with the series!

WS: Thank you! Take care, and have a nice weekend!

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