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It's a matter of character

When Jeffrey Tambor lost his hair at an early age, an incomparable supporting actor was born.

August 24, 2003|Mark Olsen

An everyman's everyman, it turns out Jeffrey Tambor is also an actor's actor. A one-time PhD student who abandoned academia for the stage, he made his feature debut with a memorable turn in the 1979 film " ... And Justice for All." For years Tambor bounced back and forth between television and film work, a steadfast character actor, until the role of Hank Kingsley on "The Larry Sanders Show," with his inimitable "Hey now" catchphrase, finally brought a name to that face.

Tambor has never been busier. Besides a brief appearance in "My Boss's Daughter," which opens this week, he will be seen next year in the comic-book adaptation "Hellboy" and has a regular role on Fox's new fall comedy "Arrested Development."

At the beginning of your career, you had small roles on a generation's worth of now-iconic television shows, including "The Love Boat," "Barney Miller," "Three's Company" and its spinoff, "The Ropers."

I was as green as you could be. My first guest appearance was on "Starsky and Hutch," and I came to the set and asked, "Where's the rehearsal hall?" They said, "We don't rehearse." And I was there so early the soundstage wasn't even open. I was actually doing a show, I think it was "Sly Fox" at the Shubert Theatre, and I wanted to leave after my scene was over. They said, 'Where are you going?' and I said, 'I've got a show.' They said, 'No, no, we might need you.' I just said, 'I have a show to do,' and I left.

The publicity apparatus for "My Boss's Daughter" wants to be sure that people know you have a very small part in the movie. You seem to have a knack for making small roles seem much bigger, much fuller and more rounded than they necessarily need to be. Is there a difference in what you do depending on the size of the role?

It's the same. You play every role like it's the lead. My motto is, for keeps. You do it for keeps. Honestly, that role is so small, it's not even a cameo -- it's a ca .... It's a turn. I try to tell myself I don't love acting, but I always feel better when I'm doing it. I'm not a line counter.

You just got back from Prague, where you've been on and off for the last six months shooting "Hellboy." Apart from your role in "The Grinch," you've never really been in a big-budget special-effects picture before. What is your role?

I'm an administrative guy in the FBI, a media consultant, and he's less than capable. Honestly, "Hellboy" has been one of the great film experiences that I've had, particularly working with the great visualist and great director Guillermo del Toro. I didn't know his work before the role came up, and I was sent a comic book, a movie he had done called "The Devil's Backbone" and the script. I said get me there as fast as you can. I don't know if it's everybody's philosophy, but if I'm a little un-used to a situation or I'm scared of it, I want to do it.

You really seem to be enjoying your greatest success now, well into your career. Were you ever concerned about being stuck as an anonymous character actor?

Do you think I'm a young ingenue? I was never going to be the guy at the front of the Titanic. I've always been a character actor, I was a character actor at 16. I lost my hair very young, so when I went off to summer stock, I was always the old man. And I think I am at my best now. I agree. I know I'm enjoying it more. I'm 59 years old, what else am I going to do? And I have to admit, I always felt I would come into myself later, my own Jeffrey-dom.

Looking back, is it difficult to watch any of your earlier performances?

Well, I'm not keen on watching myself. I feel once I've sent it, I've sent it. I try not to go to dailies, they don't inform me very much. I never look or sound like I think I'm going to look or sound. For instance, I'm always surprised by how bald I am.

-- Mark Olsen

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