Robert Carradine: Keeping it Real!

by Kees Boer

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Not to long ago, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Robert Carradine, who probably has got one of the largest resumes in Hollywood. Carradine is best known for his role as Sam McGuire, the father of Lizzie McGuire in the Lizzie McGuire show and movie.

I found Robert Carradine to be a very laid back down to earth and easy going. He is actually from a well known acting family in Hollywood. His father was John Carradine played in many films and television show, including the Hollywood blockbuster, the Ten Commandments, where he played Aaron. His brothers David and Keith are also well established and recognized actors.

We started talking about his background. “My ancestry is Danish. I was born in Hollywood. (lineage, see web). Being the son of John Carradine and the brother of David and Keith Carradine. So, I’m born into an acting family.”

His first acting gig was in Jacksonville, Florida. “I had done a play with my father called Tobacco Road. I was only supposed to be the understudy. They were heading down to Florida for the end of the summer stock season and took me along as the understudy and my dad and I drove his 1965 Cadillac across country to Jacksonville, Florida. It was a dinner theater production. I didn’t even know what an understudy was. I thought it was pretty swell that I could go to the dinner theater any time that I wanted to and help myself to the kitchen. Basically just to hang out. The run started and Keith got a job in the film (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. I had a week of rehearsal and then I did the show for a week. It was really great. This was 1971 and I made $125/week. Two weeks guaranteed and I made a fortune for a kid my age. It was really great! I thought I was rich! Acting didn’t seem like such a bad choice”

Even though acting wasn’t that bad of a choice, Robert’s real passion was somewhere else. “My earliest memory is that I wanted to be a race car driver. I had a significant career subsequently as a racing car driver, but that and playing the guitar, that’s all I really wanted to do. So, we went back to California and I started living with David and attending Hollywood High School.”

He couldn’t get away from acting though. “They were casting ‘The Cowboys,’ a John Wayne movie and they had offered David the role of the bad guy. David didn’t want to play the guy that shot John Wayne, so they wound up hiring Bruce Dern.” They were looking to cast the role of one of the kids. “They virtually had to drag me in there kicking and screaming, because I really had no interest. They shoved it down my throat. I didn’t even want it. My feeling was that they got John, they got David, they got Keith, what do they need me for? Even Keith said to David when the opportunity came up for The Cowboys: ‘Why does he have to be an actor?’ He was in agreement, but it all happens for a reason. It might have saved my life, because the Seventies was definitely one of the most fatal era in International Road racing, that there ever was and I definitely had the dream to go to Formula 1. There’s a very good chance that maybe I would have been killed. I wanted to be a race car driver and that was it, but David said to me: ‘You should go in. You have everything to gain and nothing to loose.’ So, I went in and did the audition. The scene that they choose was the scene where these cowboys kids were introduced to his local rancher, played by John Wayne and they are supposed to be very timid and shy with him. It wasn’t hard to fake that, because I wasn’t very comfortable in the audition process anyway, so I got the part. So, right out of the gate, I’m costarring with John Wayne in a Western for 15 weeks. Then the acting profession is looking really good, but it didn’t really quench my thirst for wanting to be a race car driver. It just gave me the means to start to pursue that a little bit, because I couldn’t get any help from my father. He just simply refuse to finance the possible destruction of one of his sons.”

That’s not to say that every role was just handed down to Robert Carradine on a silver plate. “So, after I did “The Cowboys,” the reality of the motion picture profession sat in. I don’t think, I worked again for another 18 months and my next job was a three day guest spot on Bonanza. That’s how I started.”

We started talking about Robert’s role as Sam McGuire on the Lizzie McGuire show and movie. It is not always easy to be a part of a huge show like that. “I’m paying a high price. I can’t go to the supermarket anymore; I can’t go to the hardware store; I can’t go any place where there is a child between the ages of 8 and 18 without being starred at and often approached. It’s a pretty high price, but it is worth it, if you’re still getting paid to do it. But now that the show is over, it gets challenging on occasion. I understand that in my profession, it goes with it. The exposure that you get on television is so extensive that it’s much bigger than being a movie actor. You can hide out being a movie actor. Once you’re on a TV show, everybody knows you. And this is even happening in Europe now, because it is all over Europe.”

The big mystery about Sam McGuire’s character is always: ‘What does he do for a living?’ He has an office some where and if you watch the show, you’ll notice that they live quite well in a huge beautiful two story home. Robert Carradine had this to say about Sam’s job. “It’s been asked many times and it is kind of a need to know thing. I’ve toyed with it a lot. The witness protection program was discussed. A covert operative was discussed. A trustfunder was discussed. He has an office somewhere, but we don’t know where it is. We never see it. He’s driving a new car. Obviously, he’s doing something for money. That was a very nice home. We will never reveal what Sam did for a living.”

We started talking about how the show ended. “I loved it! I wish we were still shooting it! I kind of thought the idea of an animated Lizzie was a mistake. I didn’t like it, but it sure turned out to be a great gimmick. As the cartooning got better, it really worked with the show. It actually turned out to be a great concept. I definitely didn’t know what I was talking about, because that really worked. But in turns of whether I thought the thing was going to be a go or not, because Disney Channel was looking for a show that they could really get behind, we had a good shot, because at that point in the Disney Channel, it was still a pretty young network. They needed a show, so they were going to give it a good shot and it didn’t happen to have the scrutiny that the network cables would give it, so they just put it out there and boy, it really took off!

“At the time that the show stopped being shot and we were setting up to do the feature, there was a great momentum building to do a second feature, which already had a green light from the studio and to move the show to the ABC network. It was all in the works and I think everything was down to final negotiations and the negotiations broke down between the Duff family and the Disney people. That was the end of the hit show. It’s a shame.”

They could have even had a third season. “There was even talk about having a third season, because Disney Channel kind of has a mandate that 65 shows is all they need to realize whatever their business model dictates for their television shows. That’s when the talks came up about moving it to ABC, because it could have really carried a lot of commercials and been very profitable for the studio. In fact, when the contract negotiations broke down between the Duff family and the studio I called up the head of the Disney Channel and said: ‘Just recast her. Do a talent search in the United States. I’m sure you can find a minimum of a 100 girls that look exactly like Hilary Duff and you just pick the one, who can act the best and stick her in there and after 2 or 3 episodes, everyone is going to forget that it is not Lizzie, like James Bond.’ And they wouldn’t go for it. If you have that one character surrounded by everyone else that was in the show, who are perfectly thrilled to be in a hit show, I think it would still be on the air. Look at Bewitched. They recast Darren. It didn’t kill the show. The show went on. And I think it is the reason that they had the big shakeup in their executive core, because in many occasions, it turned out that the head of Disney either lost opportunities, or strongly suggested that they didn’t pursue shows like Lost, which is one of their biggest hits and a whole bunch of other stuff, which the head guy there just didn’t think would work. So, anyway, I don’t want to sound like sour grapes, but it sure seems logical to me that if you have something that is working as well as that show is working that they easily could have replaced that character and gone on, but it didn’t happen and here we are today.”

Another role that Robert Carradine is well known for is the lead role in the Revenge of the Nerds films. We spoke about how he approaches comedy. “I just try to make it real, because if it is written well, real is funny. If you go for the laughs, personally as an audience, I don’t find that very funny. If you can really believe in the moment, it’s hilarious. You push a little bit, because sometimes, you need that. But my approach is to keep it real and if it is well written, it will work. If you look at Revenge of the Nerds, we did it absolutely for real. It was not caricatures. And it is very funny, because we are not kidding. We’re serious and a serious nerd is pretty funny!”

We spoke about how he approaches acting in general and the whole world of landing jobs in Hollywood. “My father used to say that acting was an art about which a great deal can be learned, but nothing can be taught. I think it is kind of true, because I try to be diligent and attend an acting class, so that I can actually study my craft but I never get from that what I get from the challenge of trying to be real. That’s my only criteria for the art of acting and that is to try to be real. That’s what I strive for, every time, I work. Every time, I do a take. I just want it to be a real person. I tend to create my characters from the outside in. Like if I’m playing a police officer, I get the uniform, I get permission from the police department to ride with one of their deputies and I try to become that person and that’s how I approach film acting. It is not unique. Other actors have done that. That’s my way and it got me this far.”

“I just don’t know that it is something that you can get a degree in and then go out in the world and wave your degree in front of people and get the job, because standing right behind you, there will be somebody that has never been in front of the camera their entire life, but they look exactly like the person should look according to the director and the writer and they got the job. It’s a very subjective profession. As Clint Eastwood said in: ‘The Unforgiven’ to Gene Hackman right before he dispatches him: ‘Deserves got nothing to do with it.’ So, even though I think in many occasions that I deserve to be considered for a part or should have gotten a part, it’s got nothing to do with it. I don’t want to be too discouraging to future budding actors and actresses in the world. You’re talking to somebody that is 51 years old and I’ve been doing it since I was 16. I must have been in 50 movies and I still have to audition. It’s insane. I think it more points toward the insecurity of the people doing the hiring than it does to the talent of the people they are considering. Almost all of these decisions are made by a committee. Everyone is afraid to say ‘yes,’ because if they say ‘yes’ and they’ve made a mistake, they could lose their job and being a studio executive is a very cushy job and you put that job in danger when you say ‘yes.’ As long as you say ‘no,’ you’re okay. As long as you don’t say ‘no’ to a movie like Star Wars, which every studio executive in town did until it wound up at 20th Century Fox and became the phenomena that it is today. It ain’t easy being a movie actor, but it is good work if you can get it. Once you get a lot of it, the pay is good. When I auditioned for Lizzie, I walked out of the audition and I threw the script away. I said to my wife ‘That’s not going anywhere,’ and they offered it to me. So, it shows that I certainly don’t know, what they are looking for. All I can do when I present myself for a role is to try to be as real as possible. I can’t try to anticipate what they want, because they really don’t know what they want till they see it. And if what they want is me than great. If not, they get the next guy. So, that’s sort of the day to day life of a motion picture actor. If you can’t be yourself take after take, they are going to hire somebody, who can.”

We spoke about the difference between an audition and the actual performance. “One of the reasons that some of television is leaving something to be desired is they are hiring people that are very good at auditioning. But auditioning is not the same as the actual on the job requirements. When you are on the job, you have to do maybe thirty or forty takes of the same scene and the fortieth take has got to be just as sizzling as the first take, because they keep changing the angle and you have to keep doing it over and over again. And it is actually and artform. And if can’t do that, you can’t do it. But if you’re good at auditioning, you get the job. So, it’s almost like parallel professions, there is the auditioning aspect of being an actor and there is the on the job requirements of being able to hit your marks (the little marks that they put on the ground, where you’re supposed to stand without looking at them, all those little things.) They are two different jobs. As a director, I want to hire professional actors, who can do that.

We also spoke some about his future goals: “I’m getting ready to direct a movie and I’ve pretty much almost got the cast figured out, if I can get them and I know that they do it for me, what I need them to do, because they are pros. I’m not going to subject a bunch of people that I don’t want to audition for me. I’ve been through that ringer and I don’t like it and I don’t want to do it to other actors. It’s just too hard a job. Why put them through that?....