Richard Masur Interview: One Role at a Time, a Character Actor's Tale
Image attributed to Richard Masur
Character actor Richard Masur is best known as Nick Lobo in Rhoda (1974-1977), David Kane on One Day at a Time (1975-1981), Stanley Uris in the television miniseries It (1990) and Edward L.L. Moore in Younger (2016-2018). Other TV appearances are All in the Family, Hot l Baltimore, Empire, Picket Fences, Transparent and Orange is the New Black. He served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild.
He has appeared in more than 80 films including Bittersweet Love, Semi-Tough, Hanover Street, Heaven’s Gate, The Mean Season, License to Drive, The Man Without a Face and Tumbledown. Masur can currently be seen in the award-winning feature film Hudson, also starring Gregory Lay, David Neal Levin and Mary Catherine Greenawalt. The road trip dramedy tells the story of a reclusive and timid man who encounters unexpected friendships on a journey to scatter his mother’s ashes and finds a way to start living his life. It was recently released on Amazon, Apple TV and On Demand.
"That’s when I moved to LA and lived there until 2000. The day I arrived, I rented a car from Bundy Rent-a-Wreck, and they were literally old beaters that this guy had in his business of renting cheap cars to largely actors coming out from New York."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Richard, I thought Hudson was a very enjoyable film. How did you become involved?
Richard Masur: Greg Lay and I had done a couple of independent films together with a mutual friend of ours named Daniel Simon. One of the pictures was called Lonely Boys, and that was one that Greg and Dan co-wrote. Dan directed, and they both acted in it. Another was one that was released a long time ago. They did really terrific work. I really liked Dan, and that’s why I was happy to do these films with him.
Greg called me up one day and said, “Listen. I’m working on this film that I wrote with the director, and I’d love to have you play this role. Can I send you the role?” I said, “Sure. Send me the script also.” He sent me both and said the script really wasn’t worth reading because it was a kind of a scenario where they describe the scene and the interaction between people, but there’s no dialogue really, and any dialogue is just meant to be a suggestion. So that’s what he sent me. I saw that the character was Jerry, Hudson’s father, and Hudson was this weird young man or not so young, and I said, “Sure.”
You know, I’ve been at this for about 50 years in acting in film and television. Since I started, anytime somebody’s trying to get something new going, I’m in. There was the women’s directing workshop at AFI in Los Angeles many years ago because there were no women film directors or virtually none, and they were trying to support women making films. I did three shorts for them, and all three of the women ended up having really nice directing careers, which was great. It makes you feel good. In one of them, my character’s son was played by Lukas Haas who was about five years old, and off that film, he was cast in Witness.Do you remember Witness with Harrison Ford?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, also starring Kelly McGillis and Danny Glover. It won two Academy Awards.
Richard Masur: Right. Again, just doing things like that and seeing people get their careers started always made me feel connected. So when people come along who have a passion project, and they ask me, I’m always open to it. Unless there’s some really pressing reason not to do it, I do it. So I’m in a lot of shorts and a lot of first time independent films, and I’m happy to be.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell me about Hudson.
Richard Masur: I’ll tell you that I worked one day on Hudson. It was just this small group of people who were just trying to make a movie. They were all so sweet and earnest and really wanted to do a great thing. The director and Greg, who was kind of the creative second, just basically cut me loose, and I said, “Okay. Here’s what I would do.” They had written some stuff that didn’t make any sense, not so much the dialogue but the actions.
I play the doctor and Hudson’s father. Hudson had a bad arm, so I started moving his arm around. I said, “Does this hurt?” He goes, “No.” I said, “Does this hurt?” He goes, “No.” I said, “Does this hurt?” He goes, “Yes!” That’s how we started the scene.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I liked the braids.
Richard Masur: I’d had really long hair for a while at this point because I’d been working on a couple of different series. I had grown my hair a little bit long when I did the first Orange is the New Black, and they said, “We’d really like to bring you back at some point.” I said, “Okay. Do you want me to try and keep the hair?” They said, “Oh, yeah. We love that.” So then I did go back to do another episode, and they told me that there would probably be some more, but it wasn’t definite. So when I went to the audition for Transparent, I just happened to be out on the west coast, so I actually got to go and hook up with everybody on the set. They were shooting on location not far from where I was in a meeting.
Anyway, by now my hair was pretty long in a ponytail, and we were all talking after I read with Judith Light, who played Shelly in Transparent, which was a joy. Judith and I had loved each other from afar for many years. We’d met a few times, but we’d never worked together. So it was a big incentive for me to do that. Once I got into the show, it just knocked me out. I thought it was one of the greatest, most extraordinary pieces of work I had ever been involved with. So near the end, I said, “If you don’t want the hair, I’d really love to do this.” They said, “No! Definitely keep it.” So I ended up doing that, and it stretched out over two or three years.
So I had this really long hair for a long time, and it was always in a braid down my back or in a ponytail. I wore it down in very few situations, and one was in one of the films I did with Dan Simon. The night before I did Hudson, I said to my wife, “Could you braid my hair in two braids?” So she did. I really liked the way it looked, so that morning, she braided it again, and I went over there.
I brought with me this turtle shell I’m wearing around my neck. I thought it would be cool with this guy in the way I was imagining him with the braids and everything. So when I got there, I showed them the hair and said, “Is this okay? I can change it if you want me to.” They said, “No. It’s great.” Then I took out the turtle shell, and they said, “Oh, my God, what is that?”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Where did you get it?
Richard Masur: That was actually given to me by a Northern Cheyenne medicine woman. I had known her from some other places but met her in New York after 9/11. I was working downtown at Ground Zero at the respite centers just trying to make people feel more relaxed and sitting down to talk with them. A lot of them recognized me, which is why I was doing it. This medicine woman called me and said she was in town. Her name was Henrietta Mankiller. I asked her if she’d like to come down to Ground Zero because there were a lot of Native Americans working there with the iron workers. I told her that I thought they’d really appreciate it. Everybody on the planet came down there to pray for the people and to help. She said that she would.
So I ran over to the Red Cross, as I was there under their auspices, and I said, “Can you get me a pass for this woman and her daughter that are coming to do a ceremony at Ground Zero?” They worked it out through the clergy folks, and so Henrietta and I met. I took her to the edge of the pit right under one of the huge cranes that was working on the pit. They stopped the crane, and I put the word out to several different unions that we were going to be there at a certain time. About 25 people showed up, and she did this beautiful ceremony. She was wearing this tortoise shell medicine bag. I admired it, and she took it off and said, “I want you to have this.” I said, “No. I can’t do that.” She said, “It’s really important to me.” So I took some of the dirt from Ground Zero and something else she used in the ceremony, and we put it in the bag, and I’ve had it ever since.
I tell this story because Mary Catharine (Greenawalt), when I first showed up with it on set, said, “Oh, I love that.” I told her to ask me about it in the scene. So she did. She said, “I love your necklace. Where did you get it?” In character, I said, “This was given to me by a Northern Cheyenne medicine woman one cold night … but that’s another story.” (laughs) I said that just to weave a kind of weird sexual wonderment in it.
Anyway, the whole job on the film was like that. It was like, “How do we play with this? How do we have fun?” I tried to pick up on David’s rhythm so the audience could understand that we were related, and I think it really worked. I loved this movie. I think the movie is almost perfect, and I say “almost” because saying it’s perfect would be outrageous. But it’s so sweet and so funny and so kind in its intentions. In this gentle, quiet way, I think you fall in love with everybody except for possibly me (laughs). But even me, in that second scene, you go, “Oh, okay. His father invited him over, so he’s not that bad.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. I’m sure the audience wanted to believe that Hudson and his dad would finally spend some time together being “mellow with some really good shit” as your character tells him (laughs).
Richard Masur: Yeah. The reason I went there was because he was so sweet and open and was clearly hurting about a whole range of things, not the least of which was that my character, his father, kind of left his life. It was apparent that the only time he ever saw me was when he had an ailment, which I suspected was more often than he needed to see me. Anyway, I just loved this film. I had no idea how terrific it was until I saw the first screening, and it just blew me away. I was weeping. I was laughing, and the audience went crazy. Every time that this has been in front of an audience, they’ve just ripped the seats up. I really hope people get to see this film.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve already mentioned that you are nearing 50 years in the entertainment industry. What made you want to begin on this journey so long ago?
Richard Masur: Oh, well, that’s really a long story, but I will try and shorten it up (laughs). Basically, it was never my intention to do this. I’m not somebody who always wanted to be an actor or on stage since I was a little kid. I’m not someone who always wanted to do this since I was a teenager or in college. I was headed down a totally different track. I was either going to be in medicine or I was going to be an anthropologist.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What changed your mind?
Richard Masur: In the 60s, when I was in school, it just completely happened by accident. I happened to get cast in a production of Our Town they were doing, and I played a little role in that and got to know some of the people who were working in the theater and around the theater department. I’d fooled around with stuff previously, but it was never anything I was interested in. Then I started doing some backstage stuff to help out and got cast for something else.
For a student, I was big. I had a deep voice, I grew a beard pretty quickly and had kind of long hair. I ended up being very castable to play old men and people’s grandfathers and other things, too. So I started doing that in college to some extent. Then I changed my major ultimately from pre-med to anthropology and then finally to theater. When I changed my major to theater, I said to my advisor, “You know, there’s no place for me to go but out now. There’s nothing lower in the food chain in academia than a theater major.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Little did you know (laughs).
Richard Masur: (laughs) And I was talking to the guy who’s a department person in the theater department. But he knew exactly what I meant. Anyway, I did a couple of things where something happened where I really felt like, “Oh wait, I kind of became this guy for a moment.” It didn’t happen all the time, but every once in a while, I really would feel like I was inhabiting this character for real. That was a really satisfying experience for a lot of reasons.
So a friend of mine, who was a year or two ahead of me in school, had played my wife in something, and she’d gone off to New York to become an actress. She came back to visit, and I was at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The theater department was two people. It was really not on the radar screen of that particular institution at that time, but since that time, they have had quite the operation. So when she came back to visit, she told me she was taking class at HB Studio, which is a very famous theater acting school started by a man named Herbert Berghof. She was taking classes there, and she was selling rug shampoo at Gimbels in New York to make a few bucks because that was her day job.
I grew up in Yonkers, which is 20 minutes outside of the city, so I was in and out of the city all the time. I’d say, “I’m never going to the city to try to be an actor until I have a job. I am not going to go there, take a class at HB Studio and sell rug shampoo.” That was this weird turning point for me where I thought, “Before I make a decision about this, I need to go and see what real actors’ lives are like.”
So again, quite by accident, this guy I’d known from something I’d done in class had gone away for a while and come back. I said, “Hey, where have you been?” He said, “I went home. I was in Buffalo for six months. I decided to take six months off.” I asked what he was doing, and he told me he was working in a theater up there doing production assistant work at a student regional theater in Buffalo. I said, “Are you coming back to school now?” He said that he was. So I said, “Does anybody have your job?” He said, “No.” So I said, “Can you ask them if they would hire me?” He said that he would and told me to call a guy who’d set it up with me and that I had the job.
So I quit college and packed my car. Luckily, some idiot kid had slammed into the side of my car in a parking lot one day and smashed in the passenger side because his father gave me $350 not to report it. I took the money and ate off that money the entire time I was in Buffalo because they were paying me $65 a week. But the point is I got to watch real actors to see what their lives were like, which was not much, by the way, but I also got to watch the professional process of mounting a show and putting it on its feet. I also got to make some contributions in terms of building sound units for shows, and I was able to be creative that way.
One of the people there was a girlfriend of a man who ran a theater in Massachusetts, a summer theater, and he came up. They had all talked to me about the place because I didn’t know what I was going to do when the season was over in Buffalo in May or June. They said that I should go to Williamstown, which is the name of the theatre. The man who ran it said, “They’re all singing your praises and say you’re really good. Write me a letter, and we’ll find you a job.” So I did. This was 1969. He said to call him, and I did. He told me that somebody else had been hired for the job I was thinking about. I said I was going to shorten this story, but I always go down this rabbit hole (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sometimes, it’s just not possible to stay out of the rabbit hole (laughs).
Richard Masur: Anyway, I went to Williamstown for a while, and I met people from the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale in New Haven. I was building setups in Williamstown, and I asked the guy in New Haven if there were any jobs available, and he told me to call a guy. I did, and the guy said, “My boss tells me he loves you. We have a prop master job open. Would you like to do that?” I said, “That would be great.” One of the people said, “If you can get yourself to New Haven, you’ll get used in drama school productions because there’s nobody like you at Yale.” So I moved to New Haven, and when I got there, the prop master changed her mind, and there was no job. So I’m hauling beer and burgers at a place called Hungry Charlie’s in New Haven.
But again, an unbelievable moment happens. This woman I’d worked with at Williamstown who’s a student at Yale, happened into Hungry Charlie’s and said to me,“What are you doing here?” I told her my sad story. She said, “Let me talk to the tech director over at the drama school. I’m sure he would love to have you work there.” So I got a job at Yale building sets but mostly doing lighting, which I’d never done before. I did this job, and while I was doing it, sure enough, I auditioned for and got cast in one play and then another play at the drama school.
The head of the Drama School, Robert Brustein, saw me in the first play where I was really good in this kind of a weird, showy role with only four people in the play. He asked me who I was, and I told him. He said, “You’re a really good actor, so you should probably think about that.” I said, “That’s what I really want to do.” Then he saw me in the second play, came up to me afterward and said, “Do you want to come to school here next year as an acting student?” I said, “I don’t have the money. I can’t afford it.” He said, “We’ll figure that out. Do you want to come?” So I went to Yale School of Drama as an acting student. Again, none of this was planned.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It really seems to be serendipity.
Richard Masur: None of it was planned. I didn’t go after any of this. Then while I was at Yale, I was really just scraping by financially, and I couldn’t really afford to stay there. I got an offer to be the technical director, which is the head of building the sets at this wonderful theater in Hartford, Connecticut called Hartford Stage. The job was for a lot more money than what I was making at Yale.
So I went to Robert Brustein at Yale and said, “Bob, I want to talk about next year.” He said, “What do you mean? Will you come back?” I said, “As what?” He said, “As a student.” I said, “I can’t afford it. I’ve got to make some money.” He said, “Well, what do you want to do?” I said, “I want you to hire me for the repertory company.” He said, “No. You’re not ready.” I said, “Okay. I can’t stay then. I’m really sorry, but I have to take the job at Hartford."
So I went to Hartford. By the end of that year of building sets, I worked with a lot of the same designers I’d worked with at Williamstown also building sets. I was getting a real reputation because people would say to me, “I talked to this guy, and they think you’re great.” I knew I was doing a really great job, and I kind of really liked it. I thought, “If I don’t make a move right now, I’m going to end up doing this for the rest of my life.” That wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world, but I wouldn’t have ever tried the acting thing.
So I asked him if he’d let me audition for the company next year, and he wouldn’t do it. I said, “Why?” He said, “Because you’re the best tech director I’ve ever had, and I don’t want to lose you.” I said, “I’m not going to do this next year. Let me audition.” He wouldn’t do it. He thought I’d stay if he didn’t let me. Instead, I called the guy that I met from Williamstown, went down to New Haven and auditioned for him. He said, “I’m not sure what the season is yet, but that was really good.” So I was in Williamstown again and had a really nice role in a play, which he came to see because his wife was in it. He said, “When are you coming back to New Haven?” I said, “I’ll be back at the end of August.” He said, “I think I’ve got something for you. I want you to come read for me in a north British accent.”
I found an actor friend of mine who lived with a woman who coached accents. She was brilliant. I went to see her and she gave me a scene and taught me syllable by syllable. I read for him at his office, and he said, “Oh, my God, that was great. Here’s the script. These four parts are still available. Pick the one you want.” We were doing two pieces back to back to back. One of them was a play from the 30s called What Price Glory, a great old play about World War I. It was all men.
The other was a brand new show, an American premiere of a show that had just won awards in London called The Changing Room, which was about a rugby team in the north of England. So that was the show we did in New Haven. At that point, all the shows in New Haven got reviewed by every critic in New York City, which was all the major critics in the county at that point. So it was like five daily papers in New York plus Time magazine plus Newsweek. It was just all these publications, and we got across-the-board rave reviews.
Everybody loved the show. So one day, they asked us to come in early before the show, and we met with these three producers from New York who said they were going to move the show to Broadway. They wanted to take the entire cast, the set, everything. We went to Broadway in this show. So I did what I said I was going to do. I came in working.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And that’s how you got into New York.
Richard Masur: That’s how I got into New York. A final little piece of unbelievable kismet. While I was in The Changing Room, my agent sent tickets to the head of casting at CBS Television in New York because she represented four of the people in this play. She was sending them tickets to see the other three, not me because it was for soaps, and I was not soap material in anybody’s view.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Except when you did ABC’s All My Children in 2006.
Richard Masur: Yeah, but that’s another story. Anyway, so she’s going to the theater, and she turns to the guy she’s casting for and says, “Do you want to come with me? I have an extra ticket.” He said that he’d love to come. So the next morning, I got a call from my agent, and I’ll never forget this as long as I live. I’m now in a one-room apartment with a tiny kitchen and a tiny bathroom but otherwise one room. I’m sitting on the end of my foldout couch, which is folded out, and I have one of these little tiny portable TVs sitting on a coffee table in front of me.
I’m sitting there watching the Watergate hearings, and the phone rings. It’s my agent. She says, “You have an appointment tomorrow. You’re going in at 10:30 AM.” I said, “Oh, no. That’s way too early.” She said, “You’re going in at 10:30 AM to meet Norman Lear.” I said, “Who’s Norman Lear?” She said, “Have you ever heard of a show called All in the Family?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Did you ever hear of a show called Sanford and Son?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “That’s Norman Lear. He does those shows.” I said, “What does he want to see me about?” She said, “I don’t know. Go see him!”
So I go there, and this was madness. I have a sports jacket on because that’s what everybody had to wear in the early 70s. I walk in to the waiting room, and I’m not exaggerating. In the waiting room, there were 15 African American teenagers, both male and female, and me. I go up to the desk and say, “I think I’m in the wrong place. I’m sorry.” They asked, “Who are you?” I said, “My name’s Richard Masur.” They said, “No. They’re expecting you.” She got on the telephone for a second, and then said, “Go right in." I said, “No. All those people are waiting. They are all ahead of me.” She said, “No. Just go in.”
So in I go, and there’s the head of casting at CBS and Norman. They introduce themselves, and Norman starts talking. He says, “Have you ever seen All in the Family?” I had seen it a couple of times, I think. He said, “Do you know the neighbors played by Vince Gardenia and Betty Garrett?” I said, “Oh, yeah! I love Betty. I’ve had such a crush on her my whole life.” Norman said, “Well, I’m going to spin them off into their own show, and I want you to play their son.” I said, “Oh, my God! Okay.” Then he said, “What’s wrong with your voice? You have this really deep booming voice.” I said, “Oh, yeah. That was for a character.” He said, “Well, could you do it again?” I said, “If it was right for the character, I could.”
Norman was sweet and wonderful and so was the head of casting at CBS. My agent called me after I left and said they made an offer. She said that it’s a pilot and a pay or play deal, which meant whether they do it or not, you get paid for it. I thought that was crazy. This was in the summer, and it was for the following February. So I go on about my business, and we close the show. I do some other stuff. I’m doing commercials and trying to keep body and soul together. I was waiting for February, so I could actually get a payday because I was going to make more money for one week than my father had ever made in a year on this deal. I mean, it wasn’t that much money because my father didn’t make much money.
In December, my agent calls and says they told her the pilot’s cancelled. I said, “What happened?” What do I know? I’m 25 years old. Anyway, they call up again right after the new year, and Norman wants me to come out to California to do an episode of All in the Family. I asked my agent if I could see the script, and she said, “Not yet.” I said, “So, I’m just going out there blind? What am I playing?” She said, “I have no idea, but you’re going.” They flew me out. They took me to the Farmer’s Daughter Hotel across the street from the Famer’s Market, which was also right next door to CBS Television City. That’s where they stored all their people who came in from New York to work on shows.
When I checked in, I asked if there was a package for me. They said there was no package. I called my agent and told her that there’s no script. She calls back and tells me that I would get the script tomorrow. I told her that I’m not doing that. I wasn’t going to walk in to a cold read to one of the most famous people in the world. So they snuck me in a script on the proviso that I tear it up and do not bring it with me, so it seems that I’m coming in cold. I read it, and it was about (I’m using the terms from that time) a retarded delivery boy who works at the local market, which is me, and its kind of not a really good script.
I’m really disappointed, but the hell with it. I’m doing my first show. I’m making what is for me a huge amount of money, $1,000 for the week. So I go in the next day. I meet them all. We sit down and read through the script. At least, I know who the guy is and what I’m supposed to be thinking about. We finish. What you did on Norman’s shows was, the minute you finished the first read of the script at the table, comments are solicited from everybody. So they said, “Anyone want to start?” Carroll O’Connor said, “I can’t do this script.” I literally looked at my watch because I wanted to run and see if I could get a flight home. I figured it was over if Carroll wasn’t going to do the script.
Norman said, “What’s the problem?” Carroll said, “You have this man getting this poor boy fired on purpose, calling up and telling his boss that he wants him fired. You can’t bounce every prejudice in the world off this guy’s head and expect him to hold up as a character.” Of course, Carroll was talking about Archie Bunker. Carroll was totally right, and they knew it the minute he said it. So they started brainstorming and said, “What if he gets him fired because he does something that prevents him from going back to work? What if he says, You deserve a break. You’re a working man. Sit down and have a cookie. Have some milk.” Carroll said, “That could work.” So they said, “Everybody go home. We’ll see you tomorrow. We’re going to totally rip this apart.” We came back the next day and had what was basically the script.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So that experience was the beginning of your relationship with Norman Lear.
Richard Masur: That experience was just a fantasy. It was a dream. I made some absolutely critical contributions to the show not just from an acting point of view but in figuring out a couple of really important moments. Again, I’m rambling on way too long. But I was constantly being spoiled by this extraordinary luck that I had, and this extraordinary series of fortunate events that occurred. So whenever anybody asks me, “How did you get into the business?” I don’t know how to say it except to tell you because it’s unbelievable. It’s crazy. How many things went right in the right order? And, by the way, I went home after we did the All in the Family episode, which went beautifully.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What came next for you?
Richard Masur: So I did All in the Family and went back to New York. That spring, my agent in New York, who was a wonderful woman named Susan Smith, who was my agent for over 40 years until she passed away, had opened an office in LA. She kept telling me that I should come out because of the episode I did in All in the Family. She said, “I think there’s work for you out here.” Finally, one day, I decided I would go. I flew out on July 4, 1974, which was 7474, and I did that specifically on that date, so I would never forget it. That’s when I moved to LA and lived there until 2000. The day I arrived, I rented a car from Bundy Rent-a-Wreck, and they were literally old beaters that this guy had in his business of renting cheap cars to largely actors coming out from New York.
I drove to her office on the fringes of Beverly Hills, and I walked in the door. Susan said, “Oh, good. Come.” Then she grabbed me, and we walked a few blocks into Beverly Hills to the offices of two casting directors, Mike Fenton and Jane Feinberg, who would go on to do a lot of famous movies. As I walked in the door with Susan, Mike was on the phone. He looked up and said, “Oh, wait, he just walked in” I had no idea what was going on. So I got in there, and he said, “Okay. So they’re going to be screen testing some women to play opposite Elliott Gould in this movie. They need somebody to play Elliott Gould’s part for the screen test, and I told him I had a guy. You’re the guy. Are you willing to do it?” It was a freebie. I didn’t know that at the time, but that was okay. It didn’t matter.
I looked at Susan, and she said, “At the very least, you’ll get a piece of film out of it.” Which was not true, by the way. In 1974, for a screen test, there was no video tape that anybody would ever do a screen test on. So screen tests were shot on film lots on soundstages with crew, lights and real film in the camera with a director. That’s the thing you’ve seen lots of times when they show a screen test from old famous movies. Anyway, I went over that afternoon. I rehearsed with two women just cold. We were walking around with scripts in our hands. There was a set, and it was a kind of a sex scene also. It was really weird, but it was comedy, so I felt more comfortable. I rehearsed with the two women. Then I rehearsed with the third woman when she got there.
They said, “Okay. Be back at six AM.” This was at Warner Bros. on the lot. I had never been on that film lot in my life because when we shot All in the Family, it was at Television City, which was a broadcast facility. It wasn’t a movie lot. This was a famous movie lot. Off I go, and I came back the next morning, got into makeup and got into underwear and a bathrobe (laughs). I did the test with the first woman I rehearsed with, and it went great. She was wonderful. She was sexy as hell and really funny. I thought, “This woman is going to be great.”
The last woman I rehearsed with was coming in, and I was in the dressing room, which was over on the other side of the soundstage. They said, “Listen. We’re going to hold off on this. She brought a scene partner from her acting class.” Now this woman was the girlfriend of a big agent, which is why they set this whole screen test up. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were always going to cast Jennifer O’Neill in this role because she and Elliott Gould were living together at the time, they were both big names, and it was a really good fit. The executive producer had promised the agent to test his girlfriend, but she was not comfortable with me. She was really stiff. Anyway, I was in the dressing room and was rehearsing with someone else they brought in at the last minute.
They came in and said, “You guys can go. It’s okay. We’re going to wrap it up. Sorry to take your time.” I said, “No. That’s great.” The other woman said, “Yeah. I don’t even know why I’m supposed to be here.” So off we went. Then what happened was the executive producer, director and the crew liked me so much that they wrote a role in for me. Eddie Albert played this army colonel, and I was his aide-de-camp. I was his gopher. It was my first feature.
We shot on location in Utah out in the heat and the dust. Everything I’d ever done had been on the stage, so you had to make believe you were hot and make believe it was dusty. But you didn’t have to do any of that here because you were actually hot and dusty. It was really a blast. I rode back and forth in the town we were shooting outside of Salt Lake with Eddie Albert every day in the car. It was Eddie and this guy named Don “Red” Barry who played the first Red Ryder in a 1940 film. Don was a sergeant, and he drove us. Every time they’d cut a tape, Don would do these accents and would go, “Goddamn! That’s good acting!” (laughs) Every time. I mean, if he had done it once, it would’ve been okay.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was the name of the film?
Richard Masur: It was called Whiffs. Elliott Gould was the lead, and it was not a hit. It was a romantic comedy about chemical warfare, and so you can imagine. It was supposed to be kind of M*A*S*H-like and a dark comedy, but it didn’t totally work. Elliott was really good, and so was Jennifer. I didn’t work with her, but I worked with Elliott. I mostly worked with Eddie. I grew up watching him not on television but in films. I especially remembered him from The Longest Day. He was so good in that.
I skipped over one thing. Before I went to do this movie Whiffs in Utah, the afternoon when I was doing the screen test, I called my agent and told her we were wrapping up early. She said, “I want you to go over to CBS and see the casting assistant there. Have you ever seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show?” I said, “Yeah!” She said, “They’re casting for a role, so go over there.” I went there, and they gave me basically one page. It’s a speech this character makes, and I have no idea what’s going on. The casting director, who is Pam Dixon, kind of tells me what it’s about, but I’m exhausted. I had barely slept since I got up in New York the day before. I’m just totally out of my mind.
So I read for it, and then I go in, and there are two people in there, Pam and Peter Bonerz who played the dentist on The Bob Newhart Show. This was Peter’s first directing gig, so he was sitting there. I recognized him and said hello. We talked a little bit, and I told him I’d just been doing a screen test. So I start reading the speech, and about a third of the way through, I just dropped to my knees and said, “I can’t do this! I’m just too tired. I just cannot do this." They both started laughing. I said, “I’m sorry.”
I told them the whole story, and then I said, “Okay. Let me try again.” I started reading it again, and I got maybe two thirds of the way though, and I just went, “I can’t. I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like an idiot. I’m really sorry.” They said, “No. It’s great! Don’t worry about it.” So I go outside and Pam brings me the script and she says, “Here. Take a look at this.” It’s a half hour script, so I read it in about 15 minutes. I read it, and Pam says, “What do you think?” I said, “Yeah. I don’t want to do it.” She said, “What?” I said, “No. I’m not interested.” Pam said, “Why?” I said, “Well, the guy comes in, and he says, ‘Hello,’ and then they talk about him for the rest of the show. Then at the end, he gives this farewell speech at this party they’re throwing for him. It’s just nothing to do there. It’s just I had this great role on All in the Family. I don’t want to follow it with this.” Pam just looked at me like I was a lunatic.
I said, “I’d really like to work on the show. It’s not that.” Pam said, “What would make you interested?” I said, “Well, for example, if the guy came in, and he did some of the stuff they talk about.” Then I went on to tell her that when the guy’s correcting Mary about something, she gets all huffy. It could be fun because I’m a lot younger than she is, and I’m giving her instructions. I’m an expert in getting the ratings up in news programming. They bring in this young kid, and everybody thinks I’m an idiot, and she is very nonplussed by me because I’m so much younger.
I could say, “I know you’re a lot older than I am, and you think I don’t know what I’m doing, but I really do.” Mary could say, “Well, I’m not a lot older than you.” I say, “I’m 26.” And Mary goes, “Oooooh. You know, she does one of those Mary noises.” Pam said, “Let me talk to them.” What happened was, I leave and go to Susan’s office, and at this point, I’m so punchy I don’t really care about anything. I walked through the door and Susan said, “What did you say to Pam Dixon?” I told her. She said, “Well, she talked to Jim Brooks. She really liked the idea, and Jim’s going to make those changes. Do you want to do it?” I said, “Okay.” So I did it, and that was my second episode of television.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The iconic Ed Asner recently passed away. Did you meet him on the set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show?
Richard Masur: Betty White was the first person to talk to me, and then Ed came over. Ed was a peach to me. He and I did a lot of stuff together for a long time with different political issues during the Reagan administration. Those issues were all kind of progressive/left-wing things. I always had tremendous respect for Ed’s commitment to those things. We were also both presidents of the Screen Actors Guild.
Anyway, while I was rehearsing with Mary, Susan called me and said, “Go over to Warner Bros. You’re going to read for The Waltons.” That wasn’t far from Studio City. When I went to LA, there were four TV shows that I really wanted to do. One was Mary Tyler Moore Show, one was All in the Family, one was The Waltons, and the fourth one was M*A*S*H. It took me a year to do M*A*S*H.
I booked The Waltons, and that was my first single camera film show, and that was before I did the movie Whiffs. That was actually the first thing I did that wasn’t a multiple camera, live audience thing. It was crazy. Like I said before, everything was just kismet. I was in the right place at the right time just at that moment in what was going on in television.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Norman Lear was so instrumental in your career just at that moment also.
Richard Masur: Norman had seen me in that play, flew me to California for a part and had no reason to believe I was going to do well in the part, a part he basically had written for me, and everybody was thrilled at what I did. So when I got back from Utah doing Whiffs, I called a casting director who was over at MGM at that point. She was a friend because I knew her from New York. I told her I was back in LA, and she said, “Can you get over here this afternoon?”
My girlfriend, who ended up being my first wife, had just flown out from New York. I just thought, “Oh, God, I can’t just abandon her.” But I said, “I’m going. Do you want to ride with me, or do you want to stay here?” She stayed. I went out there. I waited and waited. If my girlfriend hadn’t been waiting for me, I wouldn’t have minded. But it was driving me crazy. I waited for over an hour, and finally, the assistant casting director came in and said, “I’m so sorry. We’re just waiting for Jim Brooks and David Davis.”
This was for a show called Rhoda. David was one of the producers, and Jim was one of the execs. I knew Jim from Mary where he was one of the executive producers. While I was sitting there, this little guy walks in. I’d seen him on television, but I didn’t know him. His name is Todd Susman. He’s a really nice actor, and he had done a show with Bob Crane called The Bob Crane Show. It ended because Bob had died.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, Bob Crane was killed, and the murder remains unsolved to this day.
Richard Masur: Right. So I knew Todd from that show. I’m thinking, “Oh, God, is he here for the same role?” We’re nothing alike, but that isn’t going to work out because he’s going to get it. After an hour, the assistant casting director comes and gets me. I’ve been waiting so long, so I’m really angry. We walk over to Jim’s office, and as we walk through the door, Jim says, “Hi, Todd! Oh, my God! It’s so good to see you!” Todd goes, “I’m great, thanks.” Jim said, “Oh, you don’t have to leave. You’re perfect for this. Thanks for coming in.”
I’m standing there, and the casting assistant is looking at me, and she’s white as a sheet. She just can’t believe what just happened because she knows I’ve been waiting an hour and a half. She said, “Jim, this is Richard Masur.” Jim said, “Nice to meet you.” I said, “No. We’ve met.” Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have done that. I would’ve said, “Oh, well, actually, you might not remember me.” But I just looked him straight in the eyes and said, “No. We’ve met.” He said, “We have?” I said, “Yeah. I did a Mary for you like two weeks ago.” He said, “Oh, my God, yes! Dave and I were just in cutting the show. You were great! I totally didn’t make the connection.”
Then Jim said to me, “Are you here for the same role?” I said, “Yeah. But that’s alright. If you’ve cast it, you’ve cast it. It’s fine. I’ll come back for something else.” He said, “No. Look, Dave doesn’t know you. I know you.” He didn’t (laughs). Then he said, “Go and read for Dave.” I said, “Okay.” So we go in. The casting director is meeting with me, and my first line is, “Hey, how are you doing?” And I’m so angry, it comes out deeper and slower. Dave fell off his chair. He just started laughing. It was a short scene with a few lines. I finished, and he said, “That was great.” I said, “Okay. Great to meet you. I understand. Don’t worry about it.” So I leave.
By the time I get home, Susan is called saying they’re offering me the role. It was a character named Nick Lobo, which I played on and off for three years on Rhoda. It was this accordion player idiot who went out with Rhoda’s younger sister Brenda. It was a great role. Todd and I have seen each other many times since then. I really think he’s a wonderful actor. He’s had his career highs, and I’ve had mine. So no hard feelings. I did that one scene in Rhoda, which was basically Valerie Harper, David and Julie Kavner, who I was to date. I was supposed to be the accordion player from Rhoda’s wedding, and Rhoda’s wedding was this gigantic event, if you remember.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Oh, yes, Rhoda’s wedding was a special full hour, must watch television event in 1974.
Richard Masur: So Julie kept scoping Nick Lobo out and flirting with him all during the wedding. But the guy who played the role at first was an actual accordion player. He was a little short Italian guy named Frank Marocco. He was the sweetest guy in the world. But they tried to get him to say the words, and he couldn’t do it. He wasn’t an actor, which is why they were having this emergency casting session, and Todd was the right size. He had similar hair. People wouldn’t have noticed. But I was a foot taller and looked nothing like him.
But here’s the lovely thing. They brought Frank in to play the accordion off camera while I faked it. All the time I was on the show, Frank would come back. So he got a lot of work out of it. I really liked that. After we did that episode and were finishing up, Jim Brooks came over saying that he loved it.
I idolized Nancy Walker. She was like four feet tall. It was a real honor to be on stage with her. In the first rehearsal we did when we walk in, and Julie introduces me to her, I put my hands on my knees and bent all the way over, so I could look at her eye to eye. She just stared at me as if to say, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I said, “How are you doing?” I think she adlibbed something, or maybe she just did it with a burn. I don’t remember. But I ended up standing up. It was hugely funny, and it scored really big when we shot the show.
So as I’m saying goodbye to everybody, Lorenzo Music, who is one of the executive producers and also plays Carlton the Doorman, came up and says that it was great. By the way, a lot of people thought I played Carlton as an off camera voice, but I didn’t. Anyway, I told Lorenzo that he should make me a regular because the character’s great, and I might get busy and wouldn’t be available. He said, “We’ll think about that.”
Not long after that, I got a call from Norman Lear’s office to come in and meet with them. It was a moment in time in 1975 when all the networks were buying up theater projects and trying to make them into series. Norman says, “ABC just bought Hot l Baltimore. Do you know that show?” I said, “Yeah. I know it. I never got to see it, but I know what it is.” He said, “They want me to make a series out of it. The story takes place in this rundown hotel, and the occupants are this real cross-section of humanity. There’s prostitutes, there’s gay guys, there’s a lesbian, there’s an aging black radical, just all kinds of different people. Because it was such an odd mix of folks on stage, it was different, and you had two hours to fall in love with them. We have just 23 minutes to get the audience to fall in love with them. So I need a character who’s going to be an outsider who comes into this group, and the audience can fall in love with them through you, which will be you. They will fall in love with them because you have.”
I said, “Okay.” Norman’s my guy, you know. He did All in the Family. He asked me to do that pilot originally. I said, “Yeah. Whatever you want, Norman.” So we made a deal. I did Hot l Baltimore. It was really rough in the beginning because the cast had no lead time whatsoever. They literally were like one and a half shows ahead of what we were shooting. We would shoot a show, and two weeks later it would be on. That’s way too fast, and they didn’t have any scripts banked, so they were just writing feverishly. Some of the scripts weren’t that good at first because they were still trying to figure out what the format was. There were so many characters, they couldn’t figure out how to deal with them, and we were all regulars. So they needed to use us because they were paying us, but more importantly, they needed to establish this world.
Ultimately, what happened was, around the third or fourth show, they figured out if they had a main plot that involved a few people and maybe a subplot that wasn’t as challenging or that you didn’t have to pay that much attention to that involved some of the other people, that would take care of it. My character (Clifford) was always moving in and out of everything because the assignment was that I was the manager of the hotel. My mother owned the hotel, and you never saw her. She had given me this rundown place to learn the business because she owned a lot of hotels. I was supposed to be the straight guy, and I ended up being one of the weirdest characters on the show.
We had this revolving door, and it was the first time we were on the set. It was the first run through we did just before they came in. When I came through the revolving door, I’m talking to James Cromwell who was the desk clerk at the hotel. His character’s name was Bill, so as I come through the door, it really exacerbated, and I go, “Bill!” I stopped, and I put my hand out pointing to him as I’d done in the rehearsal hall. But what happened was the revolving door was not a real revolving door, so it didn’t have that kind of breaking action most doors have. So once you pushed it, it would just stand.
So I was still inside the door, and the door came around and whacked me, and I got my arm trapped in the door. Everybody laughed, and it was silly. I pulled my arm back in and went around like it was a real revolving door, and I came out. It was really funny. So when we did it for the writers and for Norman, I come in, and I go, “Bill!” Then there’s a whack! Then a big laugh. Then I do this go around again and try to maintain that same level of anger, and that’s the end of the first act. So we ended, and then took a break. During the break, Norman comes over to me and says, “Richard, look. For Clifford’s first entrance in the first episode, we can’t have something like this happen where you get stuck in the door like that.” I looked at him and said, “Oh, fuck you, Norman!” And he laughed and said, “It was great! It was so great, and you’re going to do it every week.” (laughs)
None of this was intended with the character. But it turned into this guy just having a problem with the physical world. It would just happen on occasion like Clifford would lean back in his chair, and his chair would go over. I asked that they leave the revolving door on the set where it was accessible. They would put something else in its place on the soundstage when we weren’t shooting. But they always stored it, so I could get to it. On a break from rehearsal, I’d go in there and try and work out what I was going to do with it that week. A couple of them were actually written for me. One was where I had a sweater vest on. I came through the door, and as I do, something gets caught in the door. I came out, and as I’m standing there, the sweater just unravels as the door’s going around. This was a rigged sweater, so it had to be knitted in a very specific way, and we only had two of them. So it had to work (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The original run of Hot l Baltimore only lasted from January until April of 1975, so it was regarded as Norman Lear’s first failure after a streak of hit series. Was it cancelled because the characters were so controversial?
Richard Masur: Well, a prostitute, played by Conchata Ferrell, was the lead. This wonderful other woman, Jeannie Linero, was the other prostitute. First of all, ABC was scared of it. I think that once they realized what the show was really going to be, they were scared of it, and they didn’t know what to do about it. They put it on at ten o’clock Friday night, which was absolutely the wrong place because the audience that found this show naturally was college kids, and they’re all out at ten o’clock on Friday nights. So we had this small but very loyal audience, and then they moved us to Thursdays summarily for some reason at nine o’clock and put us up against The Rockford Files, and we got slaughtered.
We shot 13 episodes, and I think they only aired seven. Weirdly, my now wife was a huge fan, and I’ve met very few people who actually saw the show. Anyway, so that was Hot l Baltimore. Wow, it seems I’m going down one rabbit hole after another.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) Well, we’ve gone too far to stop now, Richard.
Richard Masur: Well, I told you about that because one morning, I get a call from Lorenzo Music, and he said, “We’ve got another episode of Rhoda for you.” I said, “Lorenzo, I’m on a series. I can’t do it.” At that time, if you were on an ABC show, there was no way you were going to do a CBS show. Not a chance! Never happen. I said, “Lorenzo, I told you this was going to happen. Maybe the show won’t get picked up.” But that was going to be two months away, and I knew that wasn’t going to work. Because I wasn’t available, they tried to find somebody else, and they re-wrote it.
So instead of Nick Lobo coming to a date with Brenda, he doesn’t show up and sends this other accordion player who’s a friend of his. He was basically the same guy. He had all the same moves, the same language. He was good, but he was all wrong for it. The actor who played him, Ray Buktenica, and I talked about that later because we got to work together. He said, “Yeah. I was just freaking out.” I said, “Clearly, it wasn’t your role. It was mine.” By the way, I’m not making a bunch of money doing all this. But still, it was this cascade of fortuitous stuff that happened.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Most definitely. The original One Day at a Time aired from 1975 until 1984, and you played Ann Romano’s boyfriend, David Kane, but you left the show in the second season.
Richard Masur: Right. Right. I was doing Hot l Baltimore when they shot the original pilot for the show that became One Day at a Time. It was called Three to Get Ready. The three women were Bonnie Franklin, a woman named Marcia Rodd and Mackenzie Phillips. There were a couple of structural problems like Bonnie’s character had been a nurse before she was married, so she went back to nursing. In the final version of the show, Ann doesn’t have a career. She’d been a wife and mother. That was part of the importance of the story, how people get stuck in that situation. Mackenzie was the only daughter in the pilot. Pat Harrington was in the pilot also as was a wonderful actor named Lewis Stadlen. No one ever saw this except people in the focus group and CBS because they didn’t pick it up.
I went to the taping of Three to Get Ready because I was working on Hot l Baltimore, and Lewis was an old friend of mine from New York. Norman called me and wanted to have lunch. So we went to the Farmer’s Market and got Chinese food at a stand, went upstairs, sat there and ate (laughs). It was horrible Chinese food, which was Norman. That’s how he is. So he said, “You remember that show Three to Get Ready?” And he told me this whole sad story about it. Then he said, “I’m going to remake a pilot. CBS said they’d buy the show if you were in it.” I said, “Oh, come on, Norman. Don’t do that.” He said, “No. I’m telling you what they said. They said that sight unseen, they’d buy it.” I had done a bunch of stuff for CBS at this point and also Hot l Baltimore. So they were very interested in trying to get me on something.
I said to Norman, “I’m not sure how I would fit into this. I don’t think I want to do it. I don’t want to spend the next five or seven years holding Bonnie Franklin’s coat. I like her. I thought she was very engaging and sweet and had something. But I don’t want to be Bill Macy to Bonnie Franklin’s Maude. That’s not to denigrate Bill. I’m just saying that’s not what I am looking to do.” Norman said, “It won’t be that. I promise you.”
I said, “Here’s the thing, Norman. I will do this, but you have to make me a promise. If I come to you and say that I’m unhappy, you need to agree with me now that you will let me off the show.” Norman said, “I can’t put that in the contract.” I said, “I don’t need you to put it in the contract. Just say it to me now.” Norman said, “Okay. I promise.”
Originally, what Norman wanted to do was take Lewis’ character and Marcia’s character and combine them into one, and that would be me. That meant I was wisecracking, I was wry, I was funny, and I also had a crush on Ann like Lewis’ character, who was a doctor that worked with her. Norman said, “I think we’re going to make him a policeman.” I said, “What if he’s the lawyer who got Ann her divorce? He falls for her during the process and then finds her a place in the same building he lives in.” Norman said that sounded great. So that’s what happened, and I’ll never forget this.
We went in to read for the pilot episode. My character’s name was Andy. We got to the end of the read, and now, we’re talking about it because that’s what you did on Norman’s shows. I said, “Isn’t Andy an obvious comedy name? Why can’t he have a name like David?” David was my middle name. Then I suggested Kane because that was the family I’d grown up with from down the street. They were a Jewish family, but the name wasn’t particularly Jewish. Alan Manings, who was the executive producer and writer, came up to me before we left and said, “I just want you to know something. Andy was my father’s name.” I said, “Oh. I’m so sorry.” (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs)
Richard Masur: In the pilot, they had me proposing to Bonnie in this elaborate kind of ceremony where I open a briefcase, take out two miniature champagne glasses with two miniature champagne bottles and a rose, and I set this whole thing up. After we read it, I went to Norman and said, “What is going on? This is the guy who got Ann her divorce, and he knows that she doesn’t want to be married right now.” By the way, I was very interested in being her love interest because my wife is older than I am, and Bonnie was older than me. I’d never seen a relationship between a younger man and an older woman on television, so I thought it would be interesting to explore that. Well, we never did. But that’s beside the point.
What I said to Norman after we read the pilot was, “If you have me proposing to her in the pilot, then this character is going to burn up in no time. He can’t be that clueless and feeble that he’s going to have this unrequited relationship with this woman.” Norman said, “No. It’s so sweet, and it’s so dear. It’s moving and lovely.”
So around the sixth or seventh episode, I had now proposed to her three times, and we’d had conversations around that several times also. They finally wrote an episode where I had an affair with someone else who lives in the building. They had me apologizing to Ann. I said, “Norman, you have to let this guy have a moment where he says ‘No’ to this.” I went home and wrote this speech where Ann says she’s very angry at me, and I say, “You are angry at me? You’re treating me like I’ve been unfaithful? How can I be unfaithful when you’ve never given me a chance to be faithful to you in the first place?” I gave it to the writers, and they agreed. Bonnie really liked it because she agreed with me with what was going on.
There was this gag, this mind game kind of thing, that Norman would do. He’d hold up two pencils and say, “How many pencils do you see?” He did it with Valerie Bertinelli. She’d say, “Two.” Norman mixed them around and keeps saying, “There are three.” The last time she says, “Two,” he says, “I say that you are wrong. I say that there’s two, and if I’m wrong, I will buy you lunch.” She says, “Okay.” He goes, “I’m wrong, there are two.” At the end of the episode, Bonnie comes to the door of my apartment to apologize to me, and I don’t want to open the door.
Originally, when I was apologizing in the earlier version, she’d just come to the door, and I’d let her in. So instead of that, I’m still angry and not letting her in. She’s saying, “Okay, David. Open the door, and let me in.” She says, “I know you want to let me in.” I said, “I do not.” She says, “I know you want to let me in.” I said, “I don’t. I really don’t.” She says, “I say you want to let me in. If I’m wrong, will you open the door?” I said, “Yes.” She says, “I’m wrong.” I flip the chain off the door, and we both start laughing.
Anyway, I promised Norman I would do four episodes in the second season before I left. He’s my godfather in the business. He has always been. I love him. He’s a great man. I could’ve handled all that better and have since told him that, to which he replied, “Don’t be silly.” But it was a completely mutual agreement that things couldn’t work out the way I’d hoped they would with my character. Norman was completely generous and honorable about letting me out.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Richard, you have such great comedic timing. I’m remembering a particular episode of Cagney & Lacey where you played Ralph Barbinski, an escaped criminal dressed as Santa Claus (laughs).
Richard Masur: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I’m really glad you liked the episode. Tyne and I went back a long way. We’d known each other, but we’d never worked together. I had a great time doing it, although it was very scary for some weird reasons. They offered it to me, and because of Tyne, I wanted to do it. But I didn’t know what the right texture and tone was going to be. It was really scary that first day. I was trying to figure out exactly what they wanted and how they wanted this all to land.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were you told about the character?
Richard Masur: I can’t really remember. It’s kind of a blur. I just remember this vague discomfort. Sharon and I had never met until I did the show, but we ended up doing these live radio shows together. We did The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and we toured it all over the South many years after Cagney & Lacey. So I got to know Sharon. She was a peach also.
The thing about the set that was really wonderful was that Tyne had just really insisted that the entire production be diverse in every possible way. So there were people doing jobs on Cagney & Lacey that I’d never seen doing those jobs before. There were women doing jobs I’d never seen women doing. People of color were doing jobs I’d never seen people of color doing before. When I started, there were very few people of color working in the film industry beyond the camera, especially on construction and electric and stuff like that.
The only other experience I had that topped that was the set of Transparent many years later. It was just the most extraordinary because of the textures and the tone. It was a group of really complicated people. There wasn’t a simple person on that set on the acting or creative side. But everybody was working toward the same end and really had their eyes on the prize and what the common goal was.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You had so many comedic roles, but you obviously handled the more solemn topics with just as much skill and dedication. I’m thinking of Fallen Angel (TV movie, 1981) and The Burning Bed (TV movie, 1984) specifically.
Richard Masur: I have always enjoyed working. Everything I’ve ever been lucky enough to get to do, I tired to do as well as I could given the constraints of the character and project. Sometimes, I’ve succeeded. Sometimes I haven’t succeeded to my satisfaction but hopefully to other people’s satisfaction.
Fallen Angel was an amazing opportunity and an amazing experience. I got nominated for The Burning Bed and almost got nominated for Fallen Angel, but that’s another story. I got Fallen Angel purely because the other 20 people they went to before me wouldn’t do it, and they finally came to me. Dana (Hill) who played Jennifer Phillips, was amazing. She was 16 years old and looked 11. She had Type 1 Diabetes and a growth hormone issue also. She was smart as hell and died very young due to the Diabetes.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Any final words on Hudson or upcoming projects?
Richard Masur: Hudson is a real labor of love, and I hope you make that clear here. You said you found it a good experience. You may not love it as much as I do, but I hope you can communicate that because I want as many people to see that film as possible.
I have another piece called Before/During/After. I think it’s available on Amazon, but I’m not sure. It’s another independent film shot on a shoestring with everybody working out of the love for doing it. Finnerty Steeves wrote it, plays the lead and is one of the producers. It’s just really wonderful. I have this really great turn in it. It’s not unlike the turn in Hudson, but it’s a very different character and much more weirdly offensive but funny.
I have another little short film called Frankie. It’s really, really interesting. It’s about a person who’s come out as gender fluid and what that means. It all takes place at an AA meeting, which is a very interesting setting for that.
For me, when I get the chance to do something that maybe can help some other people showcase themselves, that’s my favorite thing to do. All I’m there to do is help make it a tiny bit more interesting and help them realize their vision. I just try and show up and add a little value to the piece if I can.
Many years ago, I did this film with Donald Sutherland. It was a movie for television called The Winter of Our Discontent from the Steinbeck book. It was crazy because Donald’s father died the day before we started shooting. The first three days of filming was pretty much just us. All the scenes were either him or me or both of us. We were supposed to be friends since childhood, and we did it. Donald and I didn’t know each other. We met on a beach the first morning to shoot because he got in so late the night before because of his dad. It was madness. When we finished shooting the film, we really had no time to have a conversation. All we had been doing was working.
So we finished, and I was leaving the next day. Donald said, “What are you doing for dinner?” I said, “Nothing.” He said, “Do you want to have dinner?” I said, “Sure.” So we went to dinner, and he said to me, “How did you do this? How are you my best friend with no preparation?” I said, “This is what I do, Donald. My job is to create a reality around what I’m doing which dovetails with the reality of whomever I’m doing it with is doing.” By the way, Donald and I are not the same age, but it worked.
I’ve always seen my job as first and foremost, I show up, and I do what I’ve been asked to do. I always come in prepared. Then once we figure out what we’re doing together, I don’t get into arguments with directors or other actors about the right or wrong way to do it. I may make suggestions and try something. But it’s not my job to make that decision while I’m acting. If you don’t make peace with the fact you can’t control it or that you’re going to lose control of a piece of it, then you’re going to be miserable. It was never my intention to be miserable.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Looking back now on the about 50-year career, did you choose the correct path even though destiny or fate might’ve played a part in that choice?
Richard Masur: Yeah, I don’t know if I had a choice, to be honest. It was still an open question until they took us to Broadway with The Changing Room. I’m not saying that the door closed on any alternatives. I do feel like I was very lucky because I got to do some very important work, especially on television. Adam and Adam: His Song Continues were very important, Fallen Angel was very important and The Burning Bed was very important.
Norman Lear, bless his heart, changed television starting with All in the Family and had so many shows in his first life. In his second life, he’s continuing to try and do that. I can’t believe he’s got a new version of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in the works. He and Betty White are running marathons. She’s turning 100, and he’s turning 100. At the age of 73, that seems like an awfully long way off (laughs). On the one hand, I can’t imagine getting there. On the other hand, I can’t imagine not getting there.
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