JG: When I was going to Bishop Fallon High School in Buffalo, I never knew what a play was. I never went to a theatre. I grew up working class, real blue collar. My father worked at Chevrolet for 42 years. So I’m going to this Catholic school…there was nothing fancy about it. I was causing a lot of trouble in class by always trying to entertain the troops. I had this wonderful priest who had me read this piece…we were studying a play, and he had me read a piece of it. I was a little baffled as to why he had me read, but it came out sort of okay.
He said, “I’m going to give you a part (in the play) where you can get a hundred people to laugh at you. But you’ve got to let me get some teaching done.” My first part was Dr. Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace. After three performances I said to him, “Father Letty, I guess I’m never going to play a lead role. I’m just going to play these character parts.” “Listen to me,” he said, “character actors always eat.” (Laughing.)
SM: Has there been a time over the last 40 years when you weren’t working?
JG: I stepped into something. I thought I would just do theatre all my life. I didn’t even know what an agent was. I worked my first two years without one. I started getting calls after The Deer Hunter. In my first two or three years in movies, I had five parts back-to-back. All character roles.
SM: And these weren’t small films like On the Yard. We’re talking major releases like Still of the Night, Splash, The Pope of Greenwich Village…
JG: It was weird. I did play some bigger roles in films that never did squat. Somehow I ended up in a lot of “A” films. It was a studio thing. For about 20 years easily, maybe a little longer than that, I was averaging two films a year and a play. I still wanted to do theatre. There was a period of about 20 years, up to 1995, where I had a movie in theatres or one in the can. It was like an ongoing poker game. A lot of them weren’t great parts, but overall I like the roles I play.
Bruce McGill, who is a great character actor friend of mine, was appearing in a TV movie directed by another friend and great character actor, Brian Dennehy. We were flying back to L.A. and I said to Bruce, “That role of yours…that one scene you played was terrific.” He turned to me and said, “You know that old saying about no small parts, only small actors? I hate that saying. There are no small parts, only shitty ones!” (Laughing.) And he was right!
SM: I was going to ask you to name the greatest piece of career advice you’ve ever received and the worst, but I think you covered the first with Father Letty’s guidance. What was the worst?
JG: Wow. Nothing’s coming to mind. I know someone else who got terrible career advice. As a result of it, I did something that I’ll never regret doing. I was doing On the Yard. It was a friend of one of the actors…maybe it was John Heard. They had a young actor friend who had just scored a big role in a movie…a big name film. I can’t remember the title of it. His agent told him not to take any other roles. This was the part that was going to do it for him.
He gave up everything that came his way. While I was hearing this story, I was offered a part to go back to repertory theatre. While we were shooting, the film that was supposed to be this guy’s big break came out. It died and I haven’t heard from him since. I told myself that I was going to do the first thing that came my way when I get off this movie. If you sit there believing that it really means anything…what it taught me was it’s just not an actor’s medium. It’s not even a director’s medium. I think it’s an editor’s medium in the long run.
SM: You played a part in what I consider to be the greatest television show in the history of the medium, SCTV. You appeared on the show after it had moved from NBC to Cinemax. You played Tommy LaSorda!
JG: SCTV came about…when I got out of Yale, there were two guys who were Canadian whom I worked with writing new material. We went to Toronto to work on a show and while we were there, SCTV had just formed. That company was a great company, better that the Chicago company. It had John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd…they were just kids. They invited me to improvise the free set and I was terrible at it.
Years later my friend John, one of the Canadian writers, became good friends with Dave Thomas. When they were putting the Second City writing team together, they hired John. I knew them all and they said they’d find me a role. Joe Flaherty and his brother Paul were both big baseball nuts. They wrote a thing for Ed Grimley which was brilliant. Paul’s biggest idols were Charles Dickens and David Lean. He thought that Ed Grimley would make a great Oliver Twist character. He shot the whole thing on location around Toronto as if it was 19th-century London. Because of his love of baseball, they cast me as the Artful Dodger, but made me up to look like Tommy LaSorda. I’m wearing a Dodger’s uniform with gloves with no fingers and a crappy vest.
Most of it got cut. Most everything I’ve done got cut. For the record, my autobiography, which has yet to be penned, will be called, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor.