Confession: I've been a Whit Bissell fan all my life. Who's he? Bissell was an actor who starred in almost 200 films during his career. He turned up in The Manchurian Candidate, Soylent Green, The Time Machine, and even I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Mr. Bissell co-starred with Helen Hayes, Edward G. Robinson, and Rod Taylor. Whit's face is as familiar as Dan Rather or Dick Van Dyke, but it's unlikely anyone watching his movies connected his name to his face.
Perhaps that's a sign of great acting. I mean, do you ever forget that it's Burt Reynolds you're watching when you're watching a Burt Reynolds movie? Is Jerry Lewis's name ever far from his character when you're parked in front of a Jerry Lewis movie? Maybe that distance between name and face allows the viewers a better opportunity to forget the actor and focus on the screen persona.
Just as I'm sure you'd know Whit Bissell's face, I'm sure you'd know Tom Amandes if you saw him on-screen. After more than three dozen screen appearances, he's played opposite everyone from Samuel L. Jackson to the Olsen Twins. He's been the Good Guy, the Bad Guy, and The Bad Guy Who You Thought Was The Good Guy. Right now, Tom is playing the semi-evil foil for Treat Williams's TV Single Dad on The WB's Everwood, Mondays at 9pm Eastern/Pacific. I spoke with Tom as he was in production in Utah...
Question about the shooting schedule in Utah - is the weather holding out for you there?
Tom - Yeah, it's actually calmed down a little bit. When we first got here, it was that stretch of, you know, hundred-and-five degree heat, which ... [laughs] it was a bit absurd, because we shot the pilot in Calgary, right around the first day of spring, and it was the coldest first day of spring they'd ever had up there. It was something like twenty or thirty below zero. So, you know, then we're shooting the next episode, which, when we play them, is supposed to be one week apart! And it goes from thirty-three below zero to one hundred and five degrees.
So, not a lot of pictures of snowy Colorado in the background for that...
Tom - Uhhh - No! No, and in fact, they sort of explain it, in the pilot, that it was an unseasonable first snow, and then the second episode revolves around this quaint custom of the "Thawing Fest" which comes after the first thaw. So, they actually did work it in, but we still had to wear pretty heavy clothes for hundred-degree heat.
It must be brutal. Are you doing the interiors there as well?
Tom - Yeah, we're doing everything here.
So you're camped out for - - what episode are you up to now?
Tom - I think we're working on number five now.
I guess you've been going through dailies and stuff, then? Is it looking good?
Tom - You know, I haven't seen much at all. Actors are sort of regarded as - - slow children, just in terms of being shown anything, or getting the scripts ahead of time. [laughs]; The writers are very - - proprietary! Like, "this is what *we* control!"
"If you want to see it, you can tune in on Mondays..."
Tom - Exactly - yes. I haven't seen anything, but frankly, I've been on series where I've seen the dailies, I go along and *demanded* to see the dailies, and all of that stuff, and - - in the end, I don't know if that helps you all that much. We've been having a great time shooting this and - - that's the number one thing.
I imagine being away from L.A. and being in a sort-of enclave there that you're kind of - - "wagons in a circle" - - you get to interact a lot more with your co-stars.
Tom - Yeah, I think so. And you're further away from the buzz, which gets to be -- like static after a while.
I'm not sure if [your publicist] went over what this site is about - it covers the history of single dads on television. Typically I ask what TV Single Dad shows you watched when you were a kid growing up in Illinois.
Tom - Um, Courtship of Eddie's Father of course. That dates me, doesn't it?
Tom - My World and Welcome To It Do you remember that?
Yeah, William Windom!
Tom - I liked that one. It was sort-of loosely based on James Thurber, who I liked reading as a kid. Hmm, what other single dads did I watch?
Andy Griffith Show? Things like that..
Tom - Well, yeah - - of course, those were on in reruns. When I was a little kid, we never had a TV. We didn't get a TV until I was like in first grade. So, most of those shows, Andy Griffith and stuff like that, I caught in reruns. But in growing up in Chicago, Channel Nine was like - - a mainstay. The Dick Van Dyke Show, Andy Griffith, - - and then after school, it was Gilligan's Island and I Dream of Jeannie...
Of course, I'm picturing you're one of eleven kids, so eleven kids fighting over what to watch - - it must have been intense...
Tom - It's funny: we didn't have that many choices to begin with, so it was - - well, and the other factor was that we grew up right on the Illinois / Wisconsin border so we didn't get many of the Chicago stations very clearly. We ended up watching most of the network stuff out of Milwaukee. So we only had a couple of stations. Channel Nine, by far, came in better than anyone else. So we ended up watching a lot of that. Plus, they broadcast the Cubs. We were big Cubs fans growing up. Sadly.
You're one of eleven - - I've noticed a trait that anyone from a large family can do: they can name all their siblings in one breath.
Tom - Oh - - easily...
And I was wondering if you could do that...
Tom - It was an everyday thing - PeggyMaryLaurieJohnPaulTomEileenJerryLouiseVincentGrace - and in chronological order. Don't ask me to do it backwards.
Oh no, that's great! I appreciate that. Now, talking about the show: you're usually playing the Good Guy in most productions, unless you're a guest star on a crime drama, like NYPD Blue - - then, you're the Bad Guy who's been killing all the high school girls...
Tom - Right.
The character that you're playing right now isn't exactly the "Bad Guy," but he's like the -- foil. He's like the Mr. Wilson of the series. He's like the curmudgeon.
Tom - [laughs] Mr. *Wilson?*
Tom - Okay...
I was wondering - - was this a decision on your part? Did you you try out for the Doc Brown role?
Tom - Yeah, I did, actually. That's what they brought me in for first, and I - you know, I loved the script, so I went in very happily to read for the star of the show. And it's a role that I was pretty familiar with -- in fact, I've done a few pilots that never went anywhere that had very similar setups. I did one a few years back where it was a lawyer who left the big city because his wife died, so he went back to the small town that he grew up in. So, I was like, "okay, this is a very good version of that same idea." I went and read for the lead role on it - did *very* well on it - that was where I first met [executive producers] Mickey [Liddell] and Greg [Berlanti], and we hit it off famously. Then, I didn't hear anything for weeks. It turned out that they were able to get Treat Williams, which was a great thing. And then they called back and said "we would like you to read for the other doctor." And first, I was like, "the other doctor?" So, I pulled out the script and started to go through it, and I was like, "Oh! Well, this guy's the *fun* role!" - - and I remember showing it to my wife and she was saying, "Oh yeah, that's a great role! They would *never* see you as that..."
Casting against type...
Tom - So, I showed *her*... I threw myself into it. I think that they weren't *looking* for my "type" to do that role, but that was one of those things where it just - - I had so much fun doing it, I think they just sort of "re-thunk" it.
When Larry Linville was in M*A*S*H, he left the series because the foil character that he played, Major Burns, was always one-dimensional. I was wondering: how is your character - I mean, I've only seen the pilot, but is your character going to get past the "you're messing with my mom, you're messing with my career" stance? Have you been seeing the writing develop so that you get to play other sides to the character, and do you get to what drives that?
Tom - Yeah, well, in the pilot I got to do that as well, but we ran about twelve minutes over, so they ended up taking out a bunch of scenes -- including the two main scenes where you got to see a little different side of Doctor Abbott. So I was a little, you know, miffed about that because I thought "oh no.." -- but the great thing about a series is that it's ongoing. So, one of the great revelations that my character had in the pilot, which was scrapped, is now coming to play in this episode we're starting to shoot - - and actually I think it's a much better reveal this time around than it would have been in the pilot. So, I *love* throwing myself into being the - - I have to come up with a better word than "asshole," because you just can't use that in a lot of contexts! <laughs> But, being the opposition character, I guess. It's been great because I get to pull out different sides of this guy. I mean, for one thing, he's a *great* father. It may not always show itself, but he definitely has that side of him that loves his kids and works very well with them and stuff. So, there are some other sides of him that you get to see as we go along.
Tom - Now, he's not going to exactly be - - "Mr. Cuddles" -- but yeah, I remember thinking that yeah, it is sort of Frank Burns-y. But I think the other advantage that we have is that it's an hour show; M*A*S*H being a half-hour. They didn't have the time, really, to develop a lot of those characters. And, frankly, it was a half-hour, so it was a different animal.
Right, you get a lot more leg-room in an hour drama.
Tom - Yep.
I have some questions about your career...
Tom - Okay...
You have a very peculiar fame...
Tom - [laughs] I do?
You've co-starred with Mary-Kate and Ashley, and Samuel L. Jackson, and I think you're the only one that if you did a movie database lookup that you'd be the only one who gets hits on both those names. You've done television and stage and film, but if I tell people I'm interviewing Tom Amandes, they say, "who?" but if I show them your picture they say, "oh THAT guy!"
Tom - Yes, I'm one of THOSE... I remember as a kid, growing up, I always had an appreciation for those actors. My mother always did, too. She was always, "You know who that is?"
It's kind of like you're the 21st-Century Whit Bissell. I don't know if you know the actor Whit Bissell but he's guy that, if you watch the movie Airport, he's the guy sitting *next* to Helen Hayes. He's been in a hundred movies, and if you saw his face you'd say, "Oh, Whit Bissell!"...
Tom - Uh-huh...
Is it frustrating, not having that name recognition, or...
Tom - In terms of the name-recognition stuff, I don't know. I've only been doing the TV stuff for ten years, really. So, I consider myself something of a newcomer. I spent the first fifteen years of my acting career doing stage stuff in Chicago, and doing a couple of different ensembles, and that sort of thing. And I've been fortunate enough to have a really decent life doing what I've done, so I kind of feel that, if it's meant to fall into place then it'll fall into place. If not, somehow or other I've seemed to be able to continue doing some really interesting stuff. I've been blessed, in terms of that.
I've seen you in the HBO series From the Earth to the Moon playing Jack Schmitt...
Tom - Uh-huh...
...and the line you had in there was, "it's not like I get stopped in restaurants because of it," I was just wondering -- do you *get* recognized frequently, and -- most actors have a first-recognition story. Do you remember your first somebody coming up and saying "*I KNOW YOU!*" - what was that like?
Tom - Well, it would have been The Untouchables. I'm pretty sure that was it. I don't think I was recognized for anything before that because I just did little things here and there. But that hit like gangbusters - no pun intended! I remember one time going out with my family and just having to sign like *six* autographs at dinner, and I was kinda like, "oh boy, this is *scary*!" And it had a real following in Chicago for a lot of reasons, but especially in the black community. So, for years afterwards, if I was recognized by someone who was African-American, I knew it was "okay- Elliott Ness!" If I was recognized by someone twelve years old and a girl, I knew it was the Olsen twins, and that's still the case.
Right, my daughter recognized you through that: "oh yeah, Billboard Dad!"
Tom - Yeah, exactly! So, it depends. There's a demographic there. And then, in terms of the stuff I've been doing lately, like The Guardian and stuff like that - - I don't get recognized directly, but I've noticed that here, in Utah, people believe that -- people will come up to me and say, "well, we've seen *you* in this store before!" and I've never been in there before in my life. A woman came up to me at the gym and said, "So, how was it at Kevin's?" and I'm like, "I'm sorry?" "How was it at Kevin's? I saw you at that party at Kevin's, remember?" "No, you didn't!" I even had one woman who I said, "No, actually, I'm an actor - that's where you probably recognize me." And she said, "No. No. - - Do you know *me*?" I said, "No, I'm sorry." So, it's sort of a fun level of recognition where people think that they *know* you from something. But it's not, "Oh my God, that's the guy from _____!"
You're on Monday nights at 9 on The WB.
Tom - Yep.
That slot has been a cursed zone - every show that pops in there: Hyperion Bay, Rescue 7-7, and Safe Harbor - they all disappeared -- And every time I see somebody in the Monday night slot at nine, I kind of wonder what's going to happen. Does that ever bother you?
Tom - You know, I'm just here trying to make the best shows possible, and I really have no other understanding of that stuff, and frankly, it doesn't affect what I'm doing. What happens, in terms of that stuff, is out of my control and, well, que sera, sera...
Not something to worry about.
Tom - Not something I worry about.
Okay, I have some reader mailbag stuff. I have a question about your acting style- -
Tom - Okay --
It says, "I've noticed you have a trademark in your acting, like Harrison Ford's finger-pointing in every film. When responding to a question that you're appearing to formulate an answer, you move your head around in such a manner that your chin draws a circle in the air. Do you have a name for that maneuver?"
Tom - [laughs] I've never even thought of that! Hmm - I'd have to think about that. I didn't know about that. I've had other people point out my tic - -
You have a tic?
Tom - Yeah, and I remember it was pretty evident on The Untouchables, and it's not something that I'm even remotely aware of, but I remember the cinematographer pulling me aside and he said, "you know - you have a tic." And I was like, "what?" And he showed it to me on the dailies. It's like a thing where, if I'm sort of caught on something, or trying not to be as angry as I am or something - - my mouth does just a very pronounced sort of little - - chuck over to one side and back. It's not even something that I'm aware of. And I was horrified, and he was like, "No no no! That's *great!* All the Great Ones have some sort of little mannerism." So, I was, "oh, okay!" And so that's the one I'm aware of, but the circle thing - - that's one I'm not aware of.
Yeah, I wasn't sure if I should ask that question because you'll be - when they say, "Action!" you'll be thinking "Am I doing that again?"
Tom - I'll have to watch for that! That's not one I'm aware of. I'm glad there's someone that's watched enough of my stuff to *know* something about that!
It's amazing when I put names up on the site, that I get flashes of mail like that, saying "oh, ask him *this!*" or "ask him *that!*" When I was doing research for this interview, I was surprised to learn you gave a eulogy for Bob Gibson, the folk singer, at his funeral. Are you a folk afficianado? Do you play any musical instruments?
Tom - Well, I don't know that I gave a 'eulogy' - - I know that it happened when we were at The Untouchables, but I don't think I was actually able to attend. I think I did send a note, which maybe somebody read, but yeah, I grew up very - I mean, that was my music - it was folk music and that sort of thing. My older brothers and sisters were - I mean, I was sort of young for the Vietnam War protesting thing, but my oldest sisters were very involved in that, and so that was really - - the *staple,* musically, around our house. When I went to school in the late 70's, when I moved to Chicago from where I grew up, out in the boonies of Illinois, there was still just the last vestiges of the folk scene on Lincoln Avenue, which I caught, you know, Somebody Else's Troubles and those places on Lincoln Avenue. And Bob was making a little bit of a comeback after being away for a while. One of the things he did was a show based on the life of Carl Sandburg. He and Ann Hills did the music, and I played Carl Sandburg. My ex-wife (we were married at the time) - she's always been a folk singer. So we did - she was a singer, originally of *Irish* songs, so - - me and her and my brother, we did a folk/Irish band for years around the west side of Chicago, and then started doing more of our own stuff, and that sort of thing. So, yeah, I was definitely in on that scene: The Old Town School of Folk Music, and that sort of thing. We didn't do a whole lot of touring, especially since we had a whole lot of little kids, but we did, yeah, a bit of that.
Now, in the Real World, you have three kids - -
Tom - Uh-huh --
Of the dads you've played in the past, have any of them come near to your parenting style? Of course, most of the dads that you've played have had some sort of major problem going on.
Tom - [laughs] I know! Hmm - - I think I use a lot of it, and in some ways, frankly, Doctor Abbott's parenting style has some of my - - you know, he's such a different - - a different person. I would say that I'm a pretty "hands-on" dad, and for the most part, most of the characters I've played have been along those lines. But I can't say, "Oh, that's definitely my parenting style." Parenting is a pretty complex thing, and in most of the roles I've played, it's greatly simplified. Of all the skills I've tried to learn over my life, parenting has probably been the most - - difficult, and it really is an ongoing thing. So, it's hard to pull out one role and say, "that's the style of parenting I do." I think I try and base all the roles that I've had where I'm playing a decent parent - - not [laughs] I've done my share of deviant parents over the last few years, ---
Yeah, you get your kid out of a Chinese prison in Brokedown Palace, so I guess there's some elements you can use as takeaways on parenting in there.
Tom - Oh yeah - I remember seeing some web site - there was somebody that was criticizing that scene and saying, "why was he *smiling* and stuff when his daughter's in prison?" and I thought, well, in those situations, what the heck *else* can you do? Not that I've actually gone through that, thank God!
I have one more mailbag question, and then I can let you go - it's about From the Earth to the Moon --
Tom - Oh really? That was a great project. That was absolutely one of the high points for me - -
It plays in my house about once a week - - my son watches it a lot, and I watch it, too. It's amazing, the detailed levels that you had on it.
Tom - Yeah!
Did you get to learn to operate the Lunar Module during that?
Tom - [laughs] I got to *pretend!* It really was like going to Space Camp, and getting paid for it. I was directly in contact with Jack Schmitt as I was shooting that, sometimes on an *hourly* basis! We really wanted to be very specific about that. In the episode that I did, there was this one montage where it just showed me and Danny [Daniel Hugh Kelly], playing Eugene Cernan, getting ready for a moonwalk - - so we literally had to go through all of the steps involved with that. It was really -
Oh right! The "getting dressed" scene...
Tom - Yeah, it took all of fifteen seconds on screen, but it was one of those things that, when we shot it - the research involved with that was extraordinary. I spent a lot of time with Jack on the phone saying, "okay, now what did *you* do?" Because each team dealt with that a little bit differently. But, of course, because it was a matter of life and death, you had to go through this checklist, and just make sure that *everything* was absolutely connected -- and the trust that you put in your partner was *huge* because, one hose, misconnected, could have meant disaster.
Oh yeah! On the surface shots, someone had written in and asked, "I read that stunt doubles got to do the EVA stuff, and main actors were used mostly for the visor-up facial close-ups. Is that how it went? Did you get to do a lot of stuff on the surface? Or was that mostly handled by doubles?
Tom - Yeah, I think that the -- some of the episodes, the stunt guys did all of the surface stuff, but Danny and I actually got to be there for a couple of nights. The one thing that they didn't want the actors to do - because, what they did in terms of the simulating weightlessness stuff, they hooked these pretty-substantial helium balloons up to the actors, or to the *stunt* actors, actually. That's what gave them the appearance of being able to bounce on the Moon's surface.
So they were bobbing about like that.
Tom - Yeah, and it was really amazing because you got to have that feeling. I think Dave Foley got to actually - they hooked him up on that harness thing and all that. It was *really* uncomfortable, from what I heard. So, after Dave, they sort of decided, "you know what? These stunt guys: they're familiar with it, we're not showing their faces for the most part on the Moon,..." But they did do quite a bit, you know, when I was discovering the orange soil, and stuff like that, where we were on the Moon mockup that we made in Tustin. And I'll never forget one moment: I was working on some lunar rocks, where I kind of turned my eye. I saw my partner kind of bouncing across the lunar terrain and really, truly, for an instant I was on the Moon.
Wow - -
Tom - And it was one of those things where I looked and went, "okay!" That's as close as I'll get, but it was fun.
Good career choice, that day.
Tom - Yeah!
With all the different episodes you were in, it must have been interesting with the overlap of the directors.
Tom - I was just in two episodes, but yeah, Jonathan Mostow, and David Carson.
It just seemed interesting having to shoot scenes with the overlap of two directors.
Tom - Well they really did get - - they got some great directors, of course, but each one of them was like a little film. [Jon] Turteltaub's episode was very much along the lines of -- I mean, has the emotional core that's so strong and is part of his films, and likewise, his episode had that real, personal relationships between the men, and that sort of thing. I think each one of the directors -- it was *so* different - but I have to say that everybody that I worked with was into it -- and, other than the fact that the whole thing was completely oversized. One of the great things for me was that really was like the lunar missions, in terms of scale. So, by the time I got to that last episode: I remember bringing up a note, and they were like, " you know, we're just *shooting* this thing! We're trying to get done!" And that's pretty much what they told Jack Schmitt, when he had ideas about how they should alter the actual Moon mission. They were like, "You know what? Just go *up,* and come back *down,* and don't *die* -- and pretty much, that's all we're going for on this."
And that was pretty much the interview. Tom recorded a great ID for the site (posting here shortly) and lamented over his lack of computing power in Utah, making do with an old laptop he lugs around "for sentimental reasons."
I don't know if the series will succeed. Faithful Alert Viewers of this site know my feelings about TV Single Dad Drama Plot #1, and its history as series poison for many shows over the decades. If the show doesn't make the grade, though, it won't be due to Mr. Amandes.