Interview date: 12/15/2009
Run date: 12/21/2009
Although it’s possibly fair to say that Alan Thicke may never fully escape his performance as the patriarch of the Seaver family on “Growing Pains,” you won’t catch him saying a bad thing about the show. Indeed, during his chat with Bullz-Eye, he acknowledged without hesitation, “It gave me a life.”
It did more than that: it made him into a pop culture icon of sorts, a lofty position which has allowed him to make regular appearances as himself on “How I Met Your Mother.” Plus, since he’s known both for playing a father and for being a father (one of his sons is singer Robin Thicke), it’s also allowed him to write a few books on the subject, including “How to Raise Kids Who Won't Hate You: Bringing Up Rockstars and Other Forms of Children,” which hit paperback earlier this year.
Rest assured, Thicke still remains very much an actor. Not only did he turn up as Jim Jarlewski in the Canadian TV series based on Douglas Coupland’s “jPod,” but he also appeared within the ensemble of “The Goods,” which has just hit DVD. Since it was the latter project which led to our conversation, it also served as our initial topic of conversation. First, however, he felt obliged to explain his tardiness.
Alan Thicke: Hello, Will!
Bullz-Eye: Hello, Alan! How are you?
AT: Well, I’m better now. My apologies for being late…and for being in my car! Cecilia (the publicist for Paramount) probably already told you, but I had a dental emergency, and I just got out of the chair.
BE: Not a problem. Especially not since you and I were actually supposed to chat last week, but I had to take my daughter over to her sitter, and by the time I got back, I’d missed our window to talk.
AT: That happens. Yeah, I have this one hockey tooth from an injury about five years ago. I had five of them knocked out, and they’ve been putting them in one at a time with implants. The last one is causing me some problems, but I’m doing okay.
BE: Good to hear. So, Alan, in “The Goods,” you play a guy whose son is a pop singer. Let me just say what was a very impressive stretch that was for you.
AT: (Laughs) Not only that, but coincidentally…today, in spite of my tooth injury, is an exciting day. Not only is “The Goods” out, but my son Robin’s CD is officially released today, and my daughter-in-law (Paula Patton) is in the movie “Precious,” which this morning got a Golden Globe nomination as Best Picture. So other than the tooth, it’s a big day! (Laughs)
BE: Congratulations across the board. Well, I talked to Adam McKay a couple of months ago, and he gave all credit for your casting to Neal Brennan. He said that he hadn’t been 100% certain about casting you, but after screening the film, he turned to Neal and said, “Thank God you cast Alan Thicke.”
AT: Oh, isn’t that nice?
BE: It is, indeed. So how did Neal approach you? Did he give you the script, or did he just say, “I’ve got a little part I’d like you to play, if you’re up for it”?
AT: Well, it came through the protocol of the agency, but with a note that Neal had grown up on “Growing Pains,” if you will, so he had some kind of iconic vision of me, which was very flattering. So when I heard the description of the character and, mostly, when I heard who else was involved in the film, I wanted to do it. I’m a big fan of Will (Ferrell) and Adam and Chris (Henchy), and (Jeremy) Piven and all of those guys, so I knew it would be somewhat improvisational and a living by the seat of your pants kind of experience, but those guys know how to do the fratboy comedies better than anybody. I knew that it would probably have material that my 12-year-old wouldn’t see until we were all much older. I’m not even sure if Robin and Brennan are mature enough to see it! (Laughs) But it was fun to do.
BE: So how long were you actually on the shoot?
AT: Well, it was spread out over about a ten day period.
BE: And given your comment about the improvisational nature of the film, how much of your part was ad-libbed and how much was scripted?
AT: Almost all scripted. You know, they always encouraged us to do a little improvisation. One of the things that happened…I had improvised or ad-libbed a couple of things, and I kept hearing through the editing process how fabulous and brilliant they were, but then I saw the movie and they weren’t in there. (Laughs) My feelings were hurt until I heard the explanation, which was that, in an ensemble piece like this, you’re not seeing what the other actors are doing. Some of the actors you don’t even meet, because you’re all kind of fragmented in your scheduling. And sure enough, some of the stuff that I had ad-libbed kind of encroached on one of the other characters. If you recall, Charles (Napier), who is so hilarious in that military kind of role, talked about the ‘Nam and exposing his prejudice against the Asians. Well, I had adlibbed a couple of lines about what I learned about car sales from being in the ‘Nam, not knowing that was an integral part of his character. So in the interest of keeping the delineation of the character traits, mine bit the dust, so we’ll never see them, but you’ll just have to take my word for it that they were brilliant. (Laughs)
BE: Did you ever imagine that you’d end up playing the anti-Brolin? Because, basically, that’s who you play in the film: he’s the good guy, you’re the bad guy.
AT: Yeah, and I so enjoyed his character when I finally saw the movie. You know, he and I showed essentially just to have a hair-off. (Laughs) He brings a lot of hair to the table, and I had to get up early in the morning to get my hair game on.
BE: So who do you think won that battle?
AT: Well, it’s hard to ever top the Brolin hair extravaganza. He’s an awful good looking guy, and he keeps it going. But it was interesting and flattering even to be his antagonist.
BE: A lot of people might think of your role in “The Goods” as being against type for you, but between this and “jPod,” it’s beginning to be in your wheelhouse a bit.
AT: Yes, it is. The interesting roles for me to play are the ones that are counter to my well-crafted image, if you will… (Laughs) …and I think that’s also part of the reason that they cast me in things like that. For people who know me, it turns out to be a bit of a surprise. Yes, you sort of buy into the character at the beginning as being the family guy, but then you show them a little bit of a twist as the plot progresses. So it’s fun for me to play against type a little bit and surprise people who expect me to do something else.
BE: I hadn’t realized until I was doing my research for our chat today that your writing career extended as far back as it does. I had no idea that you’d been a writer for “Fernwood 2-Night.”
AT: Well, that was my first career. I did that for about ten years, and I was very happy with that. I completely enjoyed it and had no aspirations beyond my writing career. I just kind of stumbled into the on-camera work, at first as a host, then as an actor. I consider writing to be my craft, though. I’ve had seven Emmy nominations, and five of them were for writing. Only two of them were for acting. It’s something I’ve always been proud of, and when I go and do a banquet – I do a lot of personal appearances – I still enjoy writing for those things and getting the odd laugh. It keeps me on my toes.
BE: Given that it was such a formative period for you, are you still tight with Fred Willard, Martin Mull, and all those guys?
AT: Oh, yeah. I’ll be at Fred’s annual Christmas party next week. We see the Willards quite regularly, and I’m still in touch with Norman Lear occasionally. That was a great period of my life, and I’m terribly proud of that show. But I wrote for Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby…a lot of the big variety shows of the ‘70s. So I’ll always consider that a big part of my life.
BE: Actually, I was going to ask you about the experience of writing for Richard Pryor, because I understand that he was pretty particular about what he’d accept and what he wouldn’t.
AT: Absolutely true. (Laughs) The key to writing for Richard was to just push his buttons and then know when to push the buttons on your cassette recorder. You’d get him started, then surreptitiously start recording when he got inspired and started walking around the room and improvising in character. Then you’d get it all transcribed and take credit for it. (Laughs)
BE: Growing up in Ontario, did you ever imagine that you’d grow up and have your name associated with the phrase “Canadian sex acts”?
AT: (Laughs) Well, those are just the kind of things that you aspire to as a young man. Sometimes they happen, sometimes they don’t.
BE: You seem to get along pretty well with the producers of “How I Met Your Mother.”
AT: Yeah, I’ve become kind of an annual recurring guest role on that show, which I quite enjoy. It impresses my 12-year-old a lot. He loves the show. I love the cast, and the director (Pamela Fryman) is a friend of mine. And it’s the role I was born to play: Alan Thicke. (Laughs) It’s lots of fun to do.
BE: I know they made a reference in an episode this season about how you and Robin Sparkles had a failed variety show. Have there been any discussions about actually bringing that to fruition?
AT: Yes! You can expect to see that next year.
BE: Not to get too specific, but your TV theme song royalties…do you get enough from them to make a car payment, or can you buy a car each month?
AT: You know, it’s so painful every time I get one of those little checks, because I realize that I should’ve negotiated with Norman Lear a little harder. Those songs, like “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Facts of Life,” make a substantial revenue every year, and I had to give away…in my naiveté in my youth, my leverage was such that I had to give away most of the publishing. If I had that to do over again, I’d fight for a bigger piece! Those shows continue to run around the world, and they’re playing everywhere sometime or another. Nowadays, we even get royalties on ringtones! What happens is that college kids are in a bar on a Friday night, and in the middle of a round of Beer Pong, they apparently start betting each other who can remember the most lyrics to dumb old ‘80s sitcom themes. So they download the ringtones, and I get 11 cents!
BE: So what’s your favorite of the theme songs that you wrote?
AT: Well, you know, “The Facts of Life,” everybody kinds of knows it, and it’s always flattering when they sing it back at you. That had a pretty tight internal rhyme scheme, and I actually used more than four chords, which was my norm… (Laughs) …so I guess that’s my favorite one.
BE: So what is your musical background, anyway?
AT: I was in bar bands after college. Well, I was in a band in college, then I played in a bar band for about a year after college. That’s when I noticed that people were talking while I was singing, and they would be quiet while I was talking. The music wasn’t knocking anybody out, but when I started to do the patter in between songs, that was kind of working out, so after about a year, I knew where my future was going to be.
BE: One of my friends was wondering how much kick-ass R&B you were playing when Robin was growing up.
AT: You know, very little. He is a self-made musician, self-taught. I can take credit for very little other than teaching him how to fill out the publisher forms… (Laughs) …and making sure that he maximizes his potential in that area. But what I did do, I took him to a lot of concerts, I exposed him to a lot of music, and I tried to impress on him the importance of lyrical poetry as well as the beats. So what he ended up with was a wonderful and original amalgam, I think, of a lot of musical genres. I would take him to see anybody from Run-DMC to Gordon Lightfoot to Prince to Bruce Springsteen, the Eagles, Bob Seger, Anne Murray…
AT: Guys like Springsteen and Lightfoot, I would make a point of encouraging him to listen to what they had to say in addition to the beats that somebody like Prince would have, for instance. And he ended up forging his own dynamic, musically.
BE: One of the websites that I write for, Popdose.com, actually listed “Lost Without U” within their best 100 songs of the decade.
AT: Oh, fabulous. Glad to hear it!
BE: In fact, they mentioned it in the same breath as “Let’s Get It On” and said, “If you’re making a get-in-her-pants mix tape, this song is a must-add.”
AT: (Laughs) Well, you know, his new release is called Sex Therapy. I don’t know if he got the sex gene from me, but he’s certainly working it!
BE: I was curious about your experience working on the movie “Copper Mountain,” with Jim Carrey. He was pretty young at the time.
AT: That was one of those movies that was made…well, I brought Jim into it. I hooked him up with these people who wanted to make a skiing movie, a downhill-race movie. The movie turned out to be so lousy even with Jim Carrey in it that it was unreleaseable. They went back and shot a bunch of footage with naked ski bunny in a hot tub, so at least that got them a DVD release, but then they had the nerve, the balls after that, once Jim got big and famous, they put his picture on the DVD and tried to make it sound like a Jim Carrey movie. All he really did was kind of a cameo. I went on “The Tonight Show” one night and said, “If you’re a Jim Carrey fan, don’t buy this movie!” (Laughs) As I recall, they never even paid their bills, these crooks.
BE: So would you say it was more fun to play an egomaniacal talk show host on “Hope & Gloria” than it was playing Jason Seaver for seven years on “Growing Pains”? Because you seemed to have a lot of fun playing Dennis Dupree.
AT: Yeah, that one’s kind of a toss-up. That show only ran for two years, but I did have an awful lot of fun on it, and it was fun to play that character that was kind of a dummy. It was kind of my tribute to Ted Knight. Somebody does that every couple of years, so it was my turn. But I could never disparage “Growing Pains” in any way. It gave me a life. And it was great fun, and I’m still friendly and in touch with those people. It paved the way for all the things that I…and, for that matter, Robin and the rest of us…have been able to do. It gave us a life.
BE: I saw you on “The Today Show” talking about your new book. Have you enjoyed being able to expand your opportunities into that field?
AT: Yeah, it’s sort of a callback to that old career I was talking about, being a writer. Nowadays, because of the advent of technology, you can pretty much write from anywhere and stay active in that, so I’ve really enjoyed combining my family image with my interest in writing and trying to be amusing and humorous in a book like that. And it also served, in a way, as a diary, if you will, to my kids. I mean, one of the reasons that I wrote that book – How To Raise Kids Who Won’t Hate You – is that I knew that grandfatherhood was pending. And, sure enough, Robin and Paula are expecting, so that’ll be one of my Christmas gifts. (Laughs)
BE: So what do you have on your plate for the near future?
AT: Well, again in keeping with the theme of writing more and enjoying that aspect of my life, partly because it gives me some elective scheduling, I’m producing three pilots in the new year. I’ll still act when they call me…I love to do that…but in the meantime, being pro-active with my scheduling and the things that I like to do, I’m happy to say we’ll start shooting in January and have three pilots done probably by April.
BE: Well, Alan, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. I’m hoping to be able to find myself a copy of “jPod.” I’ve read about it, but it’s only available on DVD in Canada at the moment.
AT: It’s worth seeing. It really should’ve had a sale down here. My big critique of it was simply that it should’ve been a half-hour show, not an hour. An hour is pretty tough to sustain, and I think that most of the quirky comedies that we’re enjoying these days – “Entourage,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” – are best at a half-hour. They’re best paced at a half hour. For some reason, though, networks and studios get greedy and say, “Well, we’re there for a half-hour, so why don’t we do a whole hour?” And I don’t think we have that attention span in this broadcast universe.
BE: Were you at all a Douglas Coupland fan going into the show?
AT: I wasn’t familiar with his work at all, but I was delighted to start reading him and get familiar once we started shooting. I made that part of my homework. I thought the show had some terrific moments and was very quirky and amusing and outrageous, and it absolutely would’ve had a shot down here, but, again, the pace. I’d love to see the half-hour version, I really would.
BE: Thanks again, Alan!AT: And, again, I’m sorry to have delayed you this morning, Will, but better to be doing a print-medium interview than being recorded live with all of my sibilance. (Laughs) Thanks, Will!