John Goodman has gone home to to St. Louis again. His name may be in the tabloids, his series "Roseanne" in the Top 10 and his film performances in "Punchline" and "Everybody's All-American" critically acclaimed, but Goodman's idea of a personal appearance is confined to hanging around Numi's Tavern in South St. Louis County, trading insults with men he has known all his life.
At 6-foot-2 and several meals above 250 pounds, the cherubic 36 year-old actor is the first fat man since Jackie Gleason to so completely captivate a television comedy audience. The unshakable links between his character Dan Conner, comedian Roseanne Barr's husband on the hit ABC show, and his own Missouri friends and relations must have something to do with his magic on screen, but he does not dwell on it much in public.Instead, it is enough for John Goodman to say, in very few words, that yes, he has a lot of friends from the neighborhood he still sees, and yes, he knows some struggling independent contractors like Dan Connor, and yes, he appreciates the novelty of "Roseanne" in an era when most television families drink white wine and have advanced degrees and occasionally call in a decorator.
What is clear, pulling answers out of the friendly but taciturn Goodman while he breakfasts on restaurant oatmeal, is that there is an adept and conscientious actor at work here, turning the tricks of two decades in the business into something that seems effortless, almost improvised, on screen.
The executive producers of "Roseanne," Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Matt Williams, have all had experience with "The Cosby Show," and "Roseanne" retains some of that flavor. There is much repartee-some sharp, some soft and warm-over the trivialities of family life. The two central adult characters tease and goad each other in a relationship that goes back to their teens.
But "Roseanne's" characters break new ground by being a film negative of "The Cosby Show"-white while Cosby is black; short on cash while Cosby is gourmet restaurant; unself-consciously obese while the Cosby clan counts calories.
For years some television executives have assumed that American audiences preferred not to watch shows about people too much like themselves, but Barr's adroit mix of earth mother and pixie and Goodman's gentle naturalness have overcome several old electronic conventions. "Roseanne" (Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m.), with much help from Goodman, takes viewers deep into the kind of home that has (except for Gleason's "Honeymooners") usually served as the butt of television jokes.
"I like playing a guy like this without making him a knuckle-dragger," said Goodman. "Plus I love working with Rosy-she makes me laugh so damn much...There's no acknowledgment of the fact that they are anything other than ordinary Joes, but I like to think of them as semiwitty and I like the fact that they enjoy each other's humor, because you will see that we crack up and that's the way it is in life. You make each other laugh."
It is somewhat surprising to learn, seeing how comfortably Goodman fits the role of husband and father of three, that he has never been married and has no children or even a steady girlfriend at the moment.
What he does have is St. Louis, where his 70-year-old mother, his brother, his sister and several friends remind him of the value of family and friendships nurtured over time. Although he still has a beat-up, rent-stabilized apartment in New York, where he spent years as a journeyman actor, it is to his mother's house that he returns five or six times a year, including this Christmas holiday.
"He doesn't burn his bridges and he never forgets his roots," said Ken Kells, a former bartender, now actor, who has known Goodman since both were about 13.
Dick Valleroy, a bill collector, has known Goodman just as long and was impressed from their boyhood at his "wonderful sense of humor" and his eagerness "to go out of his way to put people at ease."
"There is very little artifice about him," said his brother Les Goodman, 50, a Sears appliance salesman.
Goodman's father Leslie was a mail carrier with a dry sense of humor and a fine baritone singing voice he would unlimber on social occasions. He died of a heart attack before John was 2, and it fell to Goodman's mother Virginia to get a job as a drug store clerk to support her two sons and her daughter Betty. She managed to carry it off, for Goodman does not remember feeling particularly deprived as a boy.
He was an indifferent student, ignoring homework in favor of Mad magazine or books and plays he found at the library that had little to do with the week's assignment. Both teachers and classmates quickly labeled him the class humorist. He was an excellent mimic. He recalls doing Shelly Berman in class when he was 7.
Kells remembered when Goodman, Valleroy and he, all husky offensive lineman for the Affton High School football team, struggled through two-a-day workouts in the late summer heat. During breaks they would collapse near the drinking fountain "and John would keep our spirits up by imitating all the coaches and many of the teachers."
The football team lost all but one game. Goodman began to wonder if his talents might be more appreciated on the stage. In high school he played Earthquake McGoon in "Li'l Abner" and Horace Vandergelder in "Hello Dolly!" A clerical error on his Army physical-his height was listed as only six feet- made him too fat to be drafted, so he enrolled at Meramec Community College and then Southwest Missouri State University, with acting becoming more and more of an obsession.
His family was pleased at his success in several student productions, but his brother Les, who had assumed the fatherly role of advising John on what to do with his life, took him aside for a talk. "I said the theater was fine, as an avocation," Les Goodman remembered, "but let's get serious about your career."
To the elder Goodman's astonishment, John "was absolutely convinced he could make it as an actor. He wouldn't listen to any other suggestions." Les had been putting aside a little money for John, and when he graduated from Southwest Missouri State in 1975, Les gave him all of it, $1,000. Impatient with suggestions that he start slow in local theater groups, Goodman got on the Amtrack and went to New York.
Within a month he found a job playing Thomas Jefferson in an Ohio dinner theater production of "1776," but when that ended and he returned to New York, little else came his way. A girlfriend, also an actor, supported both of them for a while with office temporary jobs. After two difficult years, he discovered that his distaste for parts in commercials-the only jobs available to him-seemed to intrigue casting agents.
"I'd show up late. I didn't care, because I hated doing commercials so much," Goodman said. "It wasn't what I had set out to do and it looked like I was going to be trapped. It scared me and I had a little bit of a snotty attitude about it.
The people trying to sell shaving cream, beer and underarm deodorant found this surliness enchanting. "They thought they had to have me," he said.
He spent many leisure hours at the Cafe Central, making friends with other unknown actors like Dennis Quaid and Bruce Willis. He was picked for a road production of "The Robber Bridegroom," and then a few film roles, beginning with "Eddie Macon's Run," began to come in. In 1985 he was cast as Huck Finn's drunken father in the musical "Big River" during an initial tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego. Both the production and Goodman made it to Broadway, and his family began to believe John's regular assurances that he could make a career out of playacting.
A succession of film roles followed, many exploiting Goodman's unusual physique and wide dramatic range, from a goofy escaped convict in "Raising Arizona" to a crooked cop in "The Big Easy." The latter featured his friend Quaid as leading man and his favorite party town, New Orleans, as the backdrop.
He had roles in "C.H.U.D.," "Revenge of the Nerds," "Maria's Lovers," "Sweet Dreams," "True Stories," "Burglar" and "The Wrong Guys." He had television parts in "Mystery of the Morro Castle," "Face of Rage," "Chiefs," "Heart of Steel," "The Equalizer" and "The Paper Chase."
He played Sally Field's husband in the film "Punchline" and Quaid's college football buddy in "Everybody's All-American." Kells, who also had a part in the latter picture, said Goodman was delighted with the film's realistic gridiron clashes and cheering crowds, particularly since he was never able to play football after high school. "You know, Kenny," Goodman said one day, "I'm living my college dream."
Goodman seems less prrepared for the sudden joys and strains of celebrity, made even more uncomfortable by his possession of an extremely familiar face without a familiar name. Kells recalled a man who stopped Goodman and said loudly, "Aren't you that fat woman's husband on television, what is it, 'Rosemary'?
"I hate that," Goodman said quietly, after politely thanking the man for his interest and sending him on his way.
Goodman was picked for "Roseanne" when a producer saw him in a Los Angeles stage production of "Antony and Cleopatra." His videotaped audition with Barr clicked immediately. Before the audition, Goodman said, he had never met Barr, "but I had seen her on commercials and stuff and we had mutual acquaintances."