In recent years, Kurtwood Smith has been best known for his role as Red Foreman on "That ‘70s Show." A quick check of his résumé shows that he's been in more films than you probably even remember: "Robocop," "Dead Poet's Society," "Quick Change," "To Die For," "Broken Arrow," "A Time To Kill," "Deep Impact;" the list really does go on and on. Not long ago, Smith took on an extremely interesting role as an ex-con in the indie film, "Hard Scrambled," now available on DVD. We spoke to him about "going indie," some of the other key roles of his career, and his thoughts on this nasty rumor that Red Foreman was originally supposed to have been played by Chuck Norris.
Kurtwood Smith: Hi, is this Will?
KS: Hi, Will, this is Kurtwood Smith. I had an appointment scheduled for you at 11:30, and I think you even called.
KS: I was talking to the person I was being interviewed by before. Sorry. He took me off onto yakking about things, and I lost track of time. I didn't realize it was that late.
BE: Not a problem.
KS: Is it too late? Do you have time?
BE: No, no, absolutely, you're fine!
KS: OK, good!
BE: Working at home, I have a fairly open schedule.
KS: (laughs) Good.
BE: Do you want me to call you back, or…
KS: No, this is good, if it's all right with you.
BE: Sure! Well, they sent me a screener of "Hard Scrambled," and it's really a great little flick.
KS: Oh, thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
BE: It's a nice, solid blend of drama, a little bit of comedy, and even a bit of a noir feel at times.
BE: I think my only real complaint is that it didn't end with that lost close-up shot of you.
KS: Yeah, me, too. (laughs) But, then, it's not my movie.
BE: How did you come to do the film in the first place?
KS: Well, you know, in the past…it's been quite awhile, but I've done a couple of other low-budget movies for people starting out, because I enjoy them, and I get to play different sorts of roles when I do that. So it wasn't an entirely new thing for me. And they sent me the script, and I read the script, and I thought, well, this is an interesting script, and it certainly is an interesting character, and something unusual for me. I mean, I've played bad guys before, but not quite like this! And, plus, I haven't had the opportunity to do that in a long time. So I called them up and said, "Yeah, sure, I think I would be interested. I'd like to meet the director." So I went and had a meeting with David Hay, the writer/director. We talked. And I thought, well, he seems like a pretty intelligent guy who knows what he wants, so why not give it a try? And that's basically it.
BE: Our site recently did a piece called the Badass Bracket, where we pitted the biggest badasses of movies and TV against each other.
KS: (laughs) Oh, yeah?
BE: In retrospect, I'm thinking your character in "Hard Scrambled," Benno, could've made the cut.
KS: (laughs) Yeah, right! Sure. Yeah, Benno's an interesting guy.
BE: To say the least! And Beth Grant co-stars with you in "Hard Scrambled."
BE: I actually do a weekly blog about "Jericho" for our site, so I recognized her right away. (Writer's note: As you'll soon be able to tell, this interview took place a few months ago, while "Jericho" was still on the air.)
KS: Oh, she's in "Jericho," is she?
BE: Yep. Well, she's not anymore; her character was, well, murdered, actually.
KS: Oh. (Writer's note: I can't possibly do this one syllable justice, but Smith's delivery of it made me have to stifle laughter. With that one small sound, he somehow managed to express the thoughts, "Oh, you don't say. My gosh. Well, that is a shame. I'm very sorry to hear that.") Hey, what's going on with that show these days? I read the pilot, and when I turned it on the other day, or I was flipping around and I came upon it, I didn't realize what it was for a long time, and then, finally, I turned the info part on and it told me it was "Jericho." And I thought, "Wow, what's going on here?" I mean, everything looked kind of normal to me.
BE: You know, it really hasn't progressed as much as I would've hoped it would, given the premise, but this week's episode was pretty good. The town was more or less invaded by the Marines, the first time they'd ever seen anyone from the U.S. government since the bombs had dropped. But, then, it turned out that it wasn't actually Marines, it was just people who'd confiscated some uniforms and tanks.
BE: But, then, after they ran them out of town, the mayor decided not to tell the rest of the townspeople they were fakes because the thought that the government was still out there and working for them gave them hope.
KS: Oh, I see. So the country is still going through hard times outside of town?
BE: Yeah, they're finally letting bits and pieces leak about how many bombs were dropped, where in the country they hit, and slowly but surely piece together the mystery as to how it happened in the first place.
BE: It's interesting. It's just not moving as fast as I would've hoped.
KS: Yeah, right.
BE: Had you known Beth Grant prior to doing "Hard Scrambled?"
KS: Nope! It was the first time I'd met her. She's a terrific actress, and a very, very wonderful person, if you've ever interviewed her or talked to her. She's very sweet, and very nice to talk to. Very funny and charming. But she's just terrific. She was doing a stage play at that time called "The Diary of a White Trash Housewife." Or something like that. Maybe it was "Trailer Trash." Something like that. But she was brilliant in that. (Writer's note: it was actually called "The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife," and, in fact, Grant ended up winning an Ovation Award for Lead Actress in a Play for her performance.) She's terrific. She works all the time.
BE: And Richard Edson He's got one of those faces that I recognized instantly, but I had no idea what his name was.
KS: (chuckles) Yeah, right, exactly. Well, I think that's why David chose…that's the kind of people David was interested in: those of us who've been strong character actors throughout our career, but you don't necessarily know their name right away. Which has pretty much always been the case with me. A little bit…people know my name a little bit more because of the series ("That ‘70s Show"), but… (coughs)
BE: You sound like you've got a cough as bad as mine!
KS: Oh! Well, hopefully, this is towards the end of mine; I've had it for months!
BE: Our entire household has battled the flu for the last week, so I hope I'm on the tail end of mine.
KS: Mine's kind of…from something else. I think it's kind of a post-nasal drip / acid reflux sort of thing. But, anyway…
BE: So I guess the film's more or less still on the festival circuit.
KS: Yeah, I believe it is. It's gone through a lot of changes. I have to really hand it to the producers, to Jim (Mercurio) and Erik (Bauer). They've really stuck with it, and the first cutting of the film…the first time I ever saw a cutting of the film…was a couple of months after we did it, and David showed it to me on a very bad quality video tape, and…it looked dreadful. I just couldn't…I thought, "I might have to kill him and steal this and burn it, so that nobody ever sees this." But then, gradually, it's gotten better and better, and they got hold of a couple of really clever and talented editors, and they did that final cut that I think really helped it a lot. And then there were some things that they did to the quality of the film that improved it as well.
BE: And it looks like the official DVD release is going be packed to the rafters with special features that basically take viewers step by step through the filmmaking process.
KS: Yeah, there is that element to it; there's that bonus DVD. I was looking at it last night, actually, and I think it's something that would be very helpful to young filmmakers. It talks a lot about the process of doing a film like this, the process that you go through to put a film together to begin with, especially a low-budget independent feature. Yeah, quite worth it, I think, if you're a young person in film.
BE: You've been acting for quite awhile, but the first time I really remember seeing you was in "Robocop." Would you consider that to be your first real breakthrough role?
KS: Well, no. I had things…well, I mean, yes, in the sense that it was a breakout role, it was. But I had a lot of stuff that led up to that, including a feature that I had done a couple of years before that, and it was because of that feature, really, that the casting woman on "Robocop" knew who I was, because the film hadn't really done anything.
BE: What film was that?
KS: A film called "Flashpoint." We did that in 1984, and then in 1986, that was when we did "Robocop," Sally Dennison, who had cast…she didn't actually cast me or Kris (Kristofferson) or Treat (Williams) in "Flashpoint," but she cast the rest of the movie, and she was familiar with my work from that, and that's why she brought me in for "Robocop." I thought they were really only interested in me for Dick Jones (the part played by Ronny Cox), but it turned out to be Clarence, which I was quite excited to do. I had a great time. It was a great time, it was a lot of fun to do, and it's done really well for me.
BE: And then, after that, the next really big role I remember was "Dead Poet's Society," where you played Robert Sean Leonard's father.
BE: And, then, just this year, you did a guest spot on "House."
KS: Yeah! It was good to see Bob!
BE: Was that the first time you'd worked with him since then?
KS: Well, I didn't actually work with Bob on this, but I saw him several times. I've run into him over the years and sort of kept track of him. I hadn't seen him for quite awhile, and then I ran into him…no, I made a point of running into him in New York, because I wanted to see a show that he was in, "Long Day's Journey into Night," which was a few years ago. So I went to see the show, and I'd sent him a note that I was coming to see him, so I got to see him afterwards. And then he took that job with "House," which was on the air the last two seasons…uh, its first two seasons were our last two seasons, so I'd run into him at various Fox functions. I always…he's a really talented, really nice young man, and I always look forward to seeing Bob. I'm really pleased to see how his career has gone.
BE: Yeah, I've been a fan of his since back then, so I was really psyched when he got the role on "House."
KS: Yeah, but, y'know, he's had a very established New York career as a Broadway actor. He's done quite well in that regard. He's very well respected. And, of course, he's become a star in his own way.
BE: So is it true that the role of Red Foreman on "That ‘70s Show" was originally intended for Chuck Norris?
BE: I read that today for the first time ever. (Writer's note: according to the Trivia section of Smith's IMDB page [http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001748/], he "won the role of Red Foreman on ‘That ‘70s Show' when the original choice, Chuck Norris, was unavailable due to his commitment to filming ‘Walker, Texas Ranger.'")
KS: That sounds…there's something familiar about that, but I don't think so. Not realistically. At least, I never heard that until…why did I hear that recently? Somebody said something about that. I mean, I suppose it's possible that… (pauses) I don't know. I know from talking to Mark Brazill, and Bonnie and Terry Turner, who created the show, that I think I'm a lot more like their fathers than Chuck Norris was. So I don't know how seriously to take that. I'll have to ask them the next time I see either one of them what the Chuck Norris business is about. But I know they hadn't cast anybody. I actually turned down my initial reading for the role because I was out of town and I didn't really feel like trying to break my neck to get back there. And when I got back, it hadn't been cast yet, so that's what I look at."The fact that the show was set in the ‘70s…that was just a hook. I think that what got you was that it was sort of a universal family show, and I think that element was always there. The ‘70s aspect is only going to get you to watch the show a couple of times; it's the characters that are going to keep you there.
BE: When you first started work on the show, what were your thoughts about the premise? Would you ever have guessed it would've gone on for as long as it did, or could you tell from the get-go that the writing wasn't going to be exclusively revolving around ‘70s-oriented plots?
KS: I knew…well, when you do a pilot, you don't know too much, but it always seemed to me from the pilot on that it was a family show. The fact that it was set in the ‘70s…that was just a hook. I think that what got you was that it was sort of a universal family show, and I think that element was always there; that's what made it a long-lasting show, and I think that comes from the heart of the directors. But what gets the audience there initially is that it's a really clever mind that those three people have…all the little things like that 360-degree camera shot and the wall moving behind people and all that, as well as having really tapped into that teenage mindset. I thought initially that the show had a real good chance of going because Peter Ross at Fox really was a big supporter of the show, and Fox really wanted to be in business with Carsey-Werner and with Bonnie and Terry Turner, so I thought, "Well, I think we have a pretty good chance of getting on the air!" (laughs) And then it's a total crap shoot as to whether the audience is going to like it. But once the audience sort of went for it, once we had an audience the first year, I thought we had a good chance to go for awhile, just because if they stuck with us for a year, they'll probably stick around for awhile. Because there was more there than met the eye. The ‘70s aspect is only going to get you to watch the show a couple of times; it's the characters that are going to keep you there. So when we kept an audience for the first two seasons, I thought, "We're going to go for awhile." And I was happy to see that we were right! But, yeah, I always had a pretty positive feeling about the show.
BE: And you ended up being one of the most memorable TV fathers of all time.
KS: A-ha! Well, thank you, thank you. I have to say, you know, it was based on their father, and then my portrayal of it was based on my stepfather. So it all comes from a real place, and I think that that's why he works.
BE: And just a few rapid-fire comments about some of the other stuff you've done. You've done more voice-overs for animated series than I could begin to count.
BE: I think you've popped up on just about every show that airs on The Disney Channel and The Cartoon Network.
KS: Those are a lot of fun.
BE: So you enjoy doing those?
KS: Oh, yeah. I do enjoy doing those. I especially enjoy it when you get to work with the other cast people. I just did a couple of seasons of a show called "Squirrel Boy," and we just had a hoot. When you go in by yourself, if the schedule doesn't work out and you have to do them by yourself, they're fine, but it's so much more fun to work with the other people. They're just nuts. And there's a freedom to it, that you're all just in there in a booth together. You don't have to worry about how you look or what you're doing, because you're only going to use…they're only going to use what they're going to use, so the sessions become pretty funny.
BE: And I mentioned the Bad Ass Bracket a few minutes ago. You've actually appeared alongside a couple of the characters who made our final cut.
KS: (obviously amused) Oh, really?
BE: Yep. You played against Rambo, in "Rambo III."
BE: And against Casey Ryback, in "Under Siege 2."
KS: Yeah, right, right.
BE: Do you enjoy doing the occasional action flick?
KS: Oh, sure. I always liked action movies, so it's fun to be those. It's fun to be in sci-fi. I kind of like paying my dues in all the different genres. I did a great lawyer show with Jimmy Woods back in, like, 1988 ("True Believer"). I like getting involved in all the different aspects, as far as performing. I just recently did an improv show.
BE: Is that "Insatiable"?
KS: No, no, that wasn't improv. That was a show for Showtime that didn't get picked it up, unfortunately; I'm really disappointed in that, because it was a great, great show. But, no, this was a show called "Thank God You're Here," based on a popular show in Australia. It was great fun to do, and it was great improv, which is not something I'm known for. So that was fun. So I guess the point is, I like trying…I like getting myself involved in all the different parts of acting. I think that show is going to work quite well, because it's such fun. It's fun to watch. They sent me the pilot before I did mine, and I really enjoyed seeing it, so I think it has a really good chance at being a successful show.
BE: You mentioned sci-fi earlier. You've actually been in three different incarnations of "Star Trek."
KS: Uh-huh. Yeah.
BE: Are you actually a "Trek" fan yourself, or were those just gigs that came up?
KS: I have kind of been a "Trek" fan, but I'm not a Trekkie. You know? I keep track of the shows. For example…well, I say "for example," but it's not "Trek," it's just part of that world…but I watch the new "Battlestar Galactica."
BE: Oh, yes.
KS: I watch that pretty regularly, because I think that's a real quality show, led by Eddie Olmos…and Mary McDonnell as well. It's a show that's well worth watching. But I've always enjoyed science fiction shows, and I used to enjoy watching "Star Trek." So, yeah, it was fun to do one. I did one because I'd worked with the director of "Star Trek VI" (Nicholas Meyer) on another project, and when he was doing that, he asked if I wanted to do a part in it. So I did. And then the others came up. But the thing that I like about those shows is that you get to do really interesting characters. Especially the "Voyager" character.
BE: Yeah, I particularly remember that episode.
KS: Yeah, that was a two-parter, and that was really good. I really enjoyed it. A very interesting guy. So that's kind of why do it. It's a little like doing Shakespeare: the characters are a little larger than life.
BE: And, lastly, because it's one of those cult films that I'm proud to say that I saw in the theater when it was originally released, you were in "Boxing Helena."
KS: (laughs slyly) Ah, yes. "Boxing Helena." Yeah, Jennifer Lynch. Yep, again, that was interesting. I…they backed off on that movie, which was disappointing to me. The script was much stranger and much darker. I think that she got nervous and backed off on it, making compromises that kind of lost the impact that the script had initially. But I really think she's talented, and I wish she had done more movies.
BE: I was a huge Sherilyn Fenn fan back in the day, so…
KS: (cackles) Yeah, isn't she great?
KS: Ah, Sherilyn. What's Sherilyn doing?
BE: She had a show on Showtime a couple of years back.
BE: And she did a couple of episodes of "Gilmore Girls" not too long ago.
KS: Oh, OK.
BE: She's kept working. She's keeping busy.
KS: Well, we all do. That's why I ask. There's so much stuff on television that you can't keep up with it, and you ask about somebody, and they'll say, "Oh, yeah, they've been on a series for two years!" And it's just some series that you haven't come across.
BE: So do you have anything else in the pipeline, since I guess "Insatiable" isn't happening?
KS: Yeah, but I actually only ended up doing that as a guest star, although I was supposed to continue with it. But, contractually, there were a number of reasons I didn't want to do that…and one of the reasons is that because of what happened, I'm doing a pilot for Fox about the Supreme Court, called "Supreme Courtships."
BE: Oh, I saw that listed on IMDB.
KS: Yeah, we're shooting that now. We're in the middle of shooting it. And it looks good. I have high hopes for this one as well. Again, the show focuses on the young people – it focuses on the clerks – but there are a couple of us justices who are sort of regulars. Myself and Kate Burton, who's an established New York actress who had quite a run on "Grey's Anatomy" recently. She's terrific. And she and I are two justices who'll be regulars, and probably another one as well…but that's to be dealt with after we get picked up.
BE: All right, well, I've really enjoyed talking to you, and thank you for calling me back.
KS: Oh, glad to! And sorry about the mix-up.
BE: No problem. I look forward to your future projects!
KS: Thank you!