Actor’s witty, honest songs broaden his patchwork-quilt life

[27 October 2006]

By Geoff Gehman

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

Jeff Daniels is an actor you can trust even when you don’t trust his characters. He’s believably smooth and edgy whether he’s an idiot (“Dumb and Dumber”), a serial killer (“Blood Work”) or a Kansas detective confused and bemused by Truman Capote (“Infamous”).

He projects a likable solidity, which makes sense for someone who lives with his wife and their three children in his hometown of Chelsea, Mich., where he writes plays for a theater company he named after “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” in which he had his first major film role as a matinee idol who walks off the screen into a Depression waitress’ real fantasy.

Daniels, who has performed songs in four films, is even more personable as a composing musician. On “Live and Unplugged,” his fundraising CD for the Purple Rose Theatre Company, he spins self-deflating, truth-pricking stories about his patchwork-quilt life. He separates himself from other singing actors (“If William Shatner Can, I Can Too”) and celebrates his parents’ support of his early stage career in New York (“Momma Never Left Her Oldest Boy Alone”). In “Recreational Vehicle,” a 13-minute shaggy-dog tale, he sings and speaks of forgetting his spouse at a truck stop and being mistaken for Jeff Bridges, yet another musical actor.

Daniels is now on the first leg of his first national tour. The 51-year-old came off as a natural yarner, a friendly gamer, during a phone interview from Michigan, hours after he performed his tune “The Lifelong Tiger Fan Blues” at a rally for his beloved, and suddenly successful, Detroit Tigers.

We began by discussing his passion for baseball, a love affair so strong he got married on Friday the 13th to match the number on his old uniform.

Q: Now that your Tigers have finally made the post-season for the first time since 1987, only three years after losing a major-league record 119 games, are you finally going to put “The Lifelong Tiger Fan Blues” on the bench?

A: (Laughs) Well, yes and no. I kept waiting for them to collapse and they didn’t, so I rewrote it in August. I made it more a celebratory blues song. The local Fox network affiliate picked it up and made a video with me at Comerica Park. It’s been played on Tiger pregame shows. We’re just pulling out all the stops.

Q: I see there’s a baseball play on the Purple Rose’s schedule this season: Steven Dietz’s “Honus & Me,” which time-travels to the 1909 World Series between Honus Wagner’s Pittsburgh Pirates and Ty Cobb’s Tigers. I guess it’s another way that the Purple Rose gives the new American play, in your words, much more than “a cup of coffee.”

A: It’s important to see plays that are not from Ireland and England and whatever New York deems important. Many regional theaters were once dismissed and discarded as secondary theaters. Now the new play lives in theaters mostly west of the Hudson.

The secret is you just can’t do stage readings on stools and send the playwright to develop the play, because that means you don’t have the guts to do it. Our secret to success is that we hold up a mirror to this audience and they recognize themselves. They’re familiar with the characters and the references more often than not.

I really value comedy. The last time I looked, the Greeks were holding up TWO masks. Everyone, particularly in the American theater, has forgotten that. Comedy will build you an audience, because they will have a good time and they will tell their friends what a good time they’ve had.

Q: Al Pacino has said that his most memorable moment in theater was staring into the eyes of a spectator he later learned was a seeing-eye dog. What was your most memorable moment onstage?

A: (Laughs) In 1986, I was at Second Stage (in Manhattan) doing Lanford Wilson’s “Lemon Sky.” I spent a lot of the play talking to the audience in this pretty intimate theater with 100 to 110 seats. It’s opening night, or near opening night, and at the time I was wearing contact lenses. In the previews I could see the audience, and I didn’t want to do that. So I would take the contacts out and I was fairly blind.

So I’m doing the show and I’m picking one guy in particular and I’m tellin’ him, tellin’ him. And then, after the show, they say, you know, (critic) Frank Rich of The New York Times was here tonight and I realized he was the guy I had been tellin’. And I got a wonderful review from Frank, probably because I looked so fearless. Had I known he was there, I probably would have folded like a chair.

Q: Did your Purple Rose fundraiser really begin when your old Circle Repertory Theatre friend Lanford Wilson handed you lyrics and told you to write a song to play for the staff of the theater?

A: Now, I had played bars and people had asked me, “Why don’t you play in a club, a theater?” And I’d say, “Oh, God, no,” and they’d say, “Why not?” and I’d say, “It’s just a hobby. I don’t want to bore people.” So Lanford made me get up in a bar, in front of the theater people. Then he said to me you should do this, you shouldn’t hide yourself, squelch yourself.

(In 2001) we were dark at the Purple Rose between Christmas and New Year’s. And I said what’s the easiest thing we can do to fill the gap? And that was me with a guitar. And I was terrified. You realize there is no band, and when you go to the solo, there is no one to take it but you. There are no special effects, there’s no cut to the car chase. If you’re not sure if that’s F or A minor because you’re having a brain freeze, you need to quickly find it. You think everyone in the audience thinks you’re Eric Clapton and is judging you.

It was fine once I understood that I could mix the comedy with the serious and made sure everyone had a great time and laughed harder than they had in a long time. Once I had played the Purple Rose for the fourth, fifth year, I had it. The actor knows how to inform and entertain people. So does the songwriter. And it’s an easy thing to jump on the bus.

Q: Do you have any performing role models? You’ve mentioned Christine Lavin, who had you on her satellite-radio show and published one of your songs and recipes in her CD/cookbooklet, “One Meat Ball.”

A: About two years ago, Christine got me and my CD out of Michigan. Then she asked me to write a song about food, and I came up with this song about tomato pudding.

I always kind of hovered around Doc Watson, Stevie Goodman, John Hiatt. Leo Kottke is a master; U. Utah Phillips goes out there and talks for 20 minutes. I like the guys who can talk to the audience and hold them. You try to connect with the audience, which is all that the actor or the screenwriter tries to do. And once you connect, to hang onto it. The whole goal is that 90 minutes of playing feels like nine.

Q: Have your writing and your stage act changed significantly since you decided to hit the road, away from the comforts of the Purple Rose?

A: It makes movies even easier, in a way. When you’re playing live, without a net, it certainly makes blowing a line when you’re standing in front of a camera seem less important.

I remember one great turning point. Lyle Lovett is a friend of mine; I first met him on the couch of the Johnny Carson show back in the 1980s. Well, Lyle came through Michigan one year with Joe Ely, Guy Clark and John Hiatt. I had dinner with the band beforehand and Lyle is coming down the hallway looking at these photographs of all these people who have performed at the center. And he tells me: “I see you’re next to Tony Bennett and to the left of Tony Orlando. Do you want to sit in with us tonight?”

I said yes, and now I can die. So I’m onstage and Guy Clark handed me his Martin. I’m sitting next to Joe Ely. John Hiatt is staring at me and Lyle is smiling, saying, “Don’t suck.” I played this song I wrote about road rage (“Have a Good Life, Then Die”). It did great, and Lyle looked like a hero.

Q: “Recreational Vehicle” is an account of your family’s crazy pilgrimage in a 28-foot Winnebago to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. You’ve said it was inspired by Arlo Guthrie’s shaggy-dog tale “Alice’s Restaurant.”

A: You know, the first concert I ever saw was Arlo Guthrie. My parents took me to hear him at the Masonic Temple (in Detroit) when I was 16, 17. I just love the humor of “Alice’s Restaurant.” I love these people who have this comic sensibility they can put to music.

The second year I played the Purple Rose, I literally walked onstage and did “Recreational Vehicle” for the first time. I never had gone through it and I thought: I’m just going to see what happens. Over 10 to 12 shows I just refined it. Every night it got longer. And it’s all true.

Q: OK, here are a couple of movie questions. Was it really, really tense between Deborah Winger and Shirley MacLaine while you guys were shooting “Terms of Endearment”?

A: They definitely worked each other over like any mother and daughter.

Q: Why did you go against your image as a fairly sympathetic actor to play the killer in Clint Eastwood’s “Blood Work”?

A: Clint. He calls and says, “Look, it starts in two weeks. You’re the bad guy. Can you do it?” And you say, “Are you kidding? I’m there.” You get on an airplane and you just play the guy. Meryl (Streep) is the other one who can make me do that.

Q: You’ve said that one of the keys to your character in “Dumb and Dumber” was acting like he had an IQ of exactly eight—not 80 or 88 ...

A: It’s not seven, it’s not nine, it’s eight. He was late to everything; he was never ahead of anything. So I decided to make him specifically that dumb.

Q: So what was the key to the very intelligent, very vain, very nasty writer you played in “The Squid and the Whale”?

A: As a playwright, I’m aware of the writer’s mind and how you can become obsessed with what you’re writing until you’re finished. As one writer told me: “When I’m not talking about myself, I’m thinking about myself.”

Bernard was oblivious to how he was perceived or received. He felt very slighted, very neglected. I’ve worked with a lot of people who have won Oscars or been nominated, and I haven’t. So I looked at someone who feels slighted or neglected and I just poured gasoline on it and lit it, literally.

I think I’ve done a wonderful job of confusing people, on purpose, whether it’s “Dumb or Dumber” or “Gettysburg” or “The Squid.” I love range; I love showing range. If you create an image and stick to it, eventually you’re of no use to them anymore.

I lost my membership in the serious actors club because of “Dumb and Dumber.” I renewed it with “The Squid.” I get to eat at that table again.

Q: Are there any ways you’d like to cross your musical career with your film career? How about placing more of your songs on the soundtracks of your movies? I mean, “Recreational Vehicle” could have surfaced in the closing credits of “RV.”

A: (Laughs) Barry Sonnenfeld (director of “RV”) made a three-month shoot a lot of fun. One day he turned to me and asked me to “Write a song about me.” Barry’s Jewish; he also wears a lot of Western hats. So I wrote “The Ballad of the Kosher Cowboy.” It’s a kind of a loving cowboy song with a lot of inside jokes.

I recorded it and played it on the last day of the set and Barry cried. The song didn’t make it onto the (“RV”) soundtrack, but it made it onto the DVD features. That’s pretty impressive for something that was written as a wrap gift in a Vancouver hotel room on the garage-band program of my laptop.



“Terms of Endearment” (1983): In his first meaty movie role, Daniels was exasperatingly selfish and endearingly exasperated as a philandering English professor constantly outwitted by his spunky wife (Deborah Winger) and his marauding mother-in-law (Shirley MacLaine).

“The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985): In his first major movie role, Daniels was hilariously conceited and heart-breakingly innocent as a handsome actor who creates national chaos when he leaves the screen to cheer up a depressed waitress during the Depression. Daniels named his Michigan theater the Purple Rose because of his fondness for Woody Allen’s bittersweet comedy.

“Gettysburg” (1993): Daniels brought a weary nobility and profound humility to Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who saved Little Round Top from a Confederate takeover. He repeated the character in the 2003 prequel “Gods and Generals.”

“Dumb and Dumber” (1994): Playing Jim Carrey’s sidekick, Daniels inflated a flat career as a shaggy-dog idiot absolutely clueless about hot women and frozen ski poles. The key to being believably dumb, he says, is giving yourself an IQ of exactly 8.

“Fly Away Home” (1996): Daniels gave one of his toughest, most touching performances as an odd-duck inventor who helps his estranged daughter (Anna Paquin) guide lost geese from ultralight planes.

“Blood Work” (2002): After 20 years of likable goofs and solid citizens, Daniels played his first true villain, a deftly calm serial killer. In his song “The Dirty Harry Blues” he describes the wonderfully wacky experience of being killed by a retired FBI profiler played by—who else?—Clint Eastwood.

“The Squid and the Whale” (2005): Daniels renewed his membership in “the serious actors club” with a wounding performance as a narcissistic writer in a divorce war with a more popular author-wife (Laura Linney). He based the character’s literary jealousy on his own disappointment at never being nominated for an Academy Award.

“RV” (2006): Back in a comic groove, Daniels bewilders a rookie cross-country camper (Robin Williams) as an annoyingly friendly self-appointed expert on recreational vehicles. It was a bit of typecasting for the author of a 13-minute song/story about his own family’s RV trip from hell.

“Infamous” (2006): In one of his familiar earthy roles, Daniels plays Alvin Dewey, the Kansas detective who became an indispensable source and an unlikely friend as Truman Capote investigated a family’s mindless murder for his book “In Cold Blood.”

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