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Just Trying to Find His Footing

Can viewers, even those who watch 'Will & Grace,' accept John Goodman as a gay dad? Hey, it's still a work in progress.

October 29, 2000|WILLIAM KECK | William Keck is a Los Angeles-based writer

Temperatures in the Valley have fallen to the "chilling" 60s--arctic by L.A. standards. On the CBS Studio Center lot, production assistants battle pesky winds as they hurry script revisions down Gilligan's Island Road and up Mary Tyler Moore Avenue. On Stage 14, the new home of Fox's "Normal, Ohio," the AC forces the crew to congregate around the coffee machine as if it were Buddha himself. Veteran actor Orson Bean has come to work for today's run-through dressed in a frayed sweater--the preferred wardrobe choice for much of the notably young crew. There's no mistaking that autumn has come to the Valley.

So why is John Goodman sweating? Not lightly glistening mind you, but dripping, repeatedly wiping fresh sweat from that endearingly familiar mug we fell for during his nine, mostly unforgettable, seasons on "Roseanne." It is just two days before the studio audience will be ushered in for the taping of episode five, and Goodman is the sole cast member still clenching his script--his lines yet to be committed to memory.

During a break, Goodman offers to make a cup of coffee. While he brews a fresh pot in his dressing room, he downs a Diet Pepsi and asks if it would be all right if he smoked. The sweating has subsided now, but the actor is clearly miles away from relaxed. Perhaps it's something as simple as St. Louis' loss in the baseball playoffs the night before that's left this Missouri native looking seconds away from a massive coronary.

More likely what is troubling Goodman is that, with a couple of months' worth of episodes already in the can and his show set to premiere this Wednesday, the actor as yet does not have a firm grasp on his character, Butch Gamble--a divorced gay father who returns to his family home in rural Ohio after spending the past four years "finding himself" in "La-La Land."

Squeezing his sizable body into a very regal wooden antique throne, Goodman finally lights his cigarette. "I don't know what I'm doing yet . . . and I may not know," he says. "I'm really trying to find him--week by week."

In the gym on the studio lot, also home to NBC's "Will & Grace," Will's portrayer, Eric McCormack, recently delivered a "gay pep talk" to Goodman, who began working out last month.

"I told him, 'Good luck with the show--gay's been good for me,' " McCormack says. "I never went out of my way to play gay. There are moments of freedom that every guy has--to sing a song, to hug a friend, to kiss a friend on the mouth. Just doing those without any fear will read as gay as John Goodman needs to be."

When he accepted the role, Goodman's chief concern--aside from being perceived as offensive--was any effect if might have on Molly, the 10-year-old daughter he has with Anna Beth, his wife of 11 years. "It was the same concern I had about playing Fred Flint- stone," says Goodman of his role in the 1994 Universal blockbuster.

The star of a steady string of films including "The Babe," "Blues Brothers 2000" and "Bringing Out the Dead," Goodman is never without work. This summer he appeared as Piper Perabo's disapproving father in "Coyote Ugly." Next up--a grief-stricken cop in "One Night at McCool's" and a traveling salesman/Klan leader in the Coen brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," both set for releases early next year. Why then, at age 48, financially set for life (after a nine-year run in a hit sitcom that lives on in worldwide syndication and made him a millionaire many times over) and with film roles continuing to come his way, would Goodman leave his family in New Orleans to return to the grind of a weekly L.A.-based series?

"I got to missing 'Rose,' " he says of the hit sitcom. "It was showing up everyday doing your job--better than sitting on a couch flipping channels. When [the producers] called, it seemed like a good idea--gimmicky, but a good gimmick. Then the more I thought about it, the more afraid I got. I'm afraid of my own shadow, and I can see the walls coming down from the hills after this one."

*

It was "Roseanne's" executive producers, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner (now exec-producing Goodman's new show), who suggested the actor's name to Bonnie and Terry Turner, the husband-wife creative team behind "Normal, Ohio," "3rd Rock From the Sun" and "That '70s Show."

"We adore John," says Carsey. "Just the thought of him playing a gay character made us smile." The Turners originally conceived of a gay "Odd Couple." Terry Turner remembers, "It all started with Bonnie saying, 'If you did 'Kate & Allie' today, one of those women would be gay."

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