When Paul Dooley is recognized, he tends to get, ‘I know you, but what’s your name?’ That’s an occupational hazard for character actors. Dooley happens to have one of the most familiar and beloved faces in film. Dads are an especial stock-in-trade (his one-man stage show is called Movie Dad). He was Molly Ringwald’s loving, but overwhelmed father in 16 Candles. He was the confounded dad and used car salesman in Breaking Away whose son was obsessed with Italian bicycle racers. But Robert Altman’s grandly stylized musical version of Popeye, a Paramount Home Entertainment release, afforded him one of his most memorable roles as Wimpy, who famously “would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” This line ranks with Dooley’s apoplectic “REFUND” from Breaking Away as the one with which he is most associated. On the occasion of Popeye’s 40th anniversary, Dooley spoke with Redbox about how Hollywood maverick Robert Altman brought E.C. Segar’s classic comic strip to life with Robin Williams in the title role and Shelley Duvall, pitch-perfect as Olive Oyl, and created a community in Malta for the esteemed stock company of actors. We spoke to him the day before Thanksgiving.
Redbox: Happy Thanksgiving. One of the things I’m thankful for is character actors like you who make everything they’re in better just because they are in it.
Paul Dooley: When I was a kid, I never liked the stars of the movie. They had to kiss the girl and had all the boring lines. I loved all the people in the background; I learned their names. And then I became one of them.
RB: There is a misconception that Popeye was a failure, but it made money and has gathered a following over the years.
PD: It ran over budget from $13 million to $20 million because of bad weather. We’d shoot for one day and be off for three, shoot for two and be off four and shoot for four and be off for a week. So, the studio gets mad and blames the director for wasting money, which Altman didn’t do. Over time, they had a mad-on against the movie. They couldn’t get over to Malta to look at what was going on (with the production) because it was half way around the world. The movie did get mixed reviews, but over the years it has gotten many, many more fans, especially young people who are discovering it all the time. It made its money back (it earned roughly $50 million at the box office, more than double its budget).
RB: You made five films with Robert Altman. Popeye was an unexpected project from the director of M*A*S*H, Nashville and Three Women. When he offered it to you, did you think he might be joking?
PD: (Laughs) Any time Bob said he wanted me in his next movie, I said, ‘I’m there.’ I knew Popeye wasn’t usually his kind of movie. But he had made McCabe & Mrs. Miller; this is where Bob went into the woods in Vancouver, found a little narrow valley with a small creek and built eight or ten buildings, a town that never existed. He brought all these characters to life in this place that never was. I think that’s what led (producer) Robert Evans to pick Bob to direct. He thought Bob could bring the community of Sweethaven to life and make audiences believe it really existed.
RB: What was your process for bringing Wimpy, a beloved character from the Max Fleischer cartoons and the comic strip to life?
PD: As I kid, I loved Wimpy. Wimpy is a funny-looking character, but he didn’t have very many amusing lines or big jokes to say. I decided to make it a visual performance in the way I moved. Of course, the costume helped a great deal. I was padded; I looked about 75 pounds bigger than I was. I ate a lot of food over there, first of all because I like food, but I also thought it would make my cheeks puff up a little bit. I tried to make Wimpy have the feeling of Oliver Hardy and Jackie Gleason’s characters. They were fat men, but they moved with grace.
RB: Popeye is such an impeccably cast film. Shelley Duvall was born to play Olive Oyl.
PD: In grade school, they called her Olive Oyl. Isn’t that amazing?
RB: And you also have some of my favorite character actors in Richard Libertini, Ray Walston and Bill Irwin, not to mention Robin Williams.
PD: We were our own stock company, our own family. We didn’t know anybody in Malta, there was no entertainment. One of the closest land masses is Sicily and the other is Libya on the other side of North Africa. So, we didn’t go into town much. We would have 12-hour shooting days and then dailies and three meals together, and pretty soon we didn’t have a life except on the set. We began to feel that we actually lived in Sweethaven. The set, because it’s very charming, drew us together. And each member of the cast was as talented as the other; people like Bill Irwin, who didn’t have a big part, but is a brilliant clown and is now famous in his own right.
RB: You were a member of the legendary Compass Players/Second City improvisational troupe in New York in the 1960s and improvised with such legends as Alan Arkin, Elaine May and Mike Nichols. How did working with Robin Williams compare?
PD: Improvisation is really only one rule: listen and agree. There are no spaces when Robin works. He was inventive in that sense. He was really a juggernaut. I heard a story that on The Bird Cage, he threw in an ad-lib and (director) Mike Nichols said, ‘This script is written by Elaine May. When you write your movie, you can say what you want. In the meantime, do the lines as written.’ And he was wonderful. He did a great job playing it straight.
RB: I assume you can’t go anywhere without someone shouting, ‘Refund’ from Breaking Away at you.
RB: What is the most surprising thing from your near-60-year career you’ve been recognized for? I know there’s a hardcore Strange Brew cult out there.
PD: Sometimes I’m recognized for a thing called Shakes the Clown with Bobcat Goldthwait, and sometimes it’s Strange Brew. I did one day on Slapshot and people tell me they think it’s a great performance. I did one day and I improvised my part. But you’re right; people yell ‘Refund’ at me all the time. That’s my, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’