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Another angle on Carlin

The corrosive comic gets in touch with his inner daddy in director Kevin Smith's new film, 'Jersey Girl.'

March 26, 2004|Erin Ailworth | Times Staff Writer

Before filming "Jersey Girl," George Carlin told director Kevin Smith that his dream role was to play a clergyman who strangles six children.

"And I said, 'Well, you get to play a grandfather,' " Smith said, laughing. Not quite the same thing.

"Nobody thinks of [Carlin] as a dad, but he was and he is," Smith said. And that's why Smith wrote Bart Trinke, the caustic but lovable grandfather in "Jersey Girl," for Carlin. No strangling allowed.

Carlin said Bart will introduce moviegoers to the "sweet and kind of giving and generous" side he hides behind the "loudmouth."

"It was a chance for me to do some more serious acting than Hollywood expects from me," Carlin said. "It's not one of those silly, superficial kind of thin comic-comedy things where you play the high school principal and the kids blow up your desk and you lose your temper."

The reason the character works, Smith said, is because Bart is based on who Carlin is in real life: "He's not always 'on,' he doesn't feel the need to constantly make you laugh."

In fact, Smith said, his two favorite fatherhood moments in the movie show us a quieter Carlin: one when he is asleep in a chair in the living room, and another when he tells his son, Ollie, that he'd rather not die alone.

"It's the moment where he lets his guard down and essentially tells the son he loves him without saying it," Smith said, and Carlin does it like the guy Bart is, a little glassy-eyed but without the "Demi Moore 'Ghost'-like tears."

Bart is Carlin's third role in a Smith movie. In the 1999 comedy "Dogma," he was Cardinal Ignatius Glick (yes, a slightly off clergyman, but still no strangling), and in the 2001 comedy "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," he got to be a hitchhiker.

It all started on Conan O'Brien's talk show. After the taping, Smith popped by Carlin's dressing room to buttonhole him into appearing in "Dogma." The two met a few months later at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles.

"I was like a 14-year-old girl sitting down with Justin Timberlake," Smith said, calling himself a Carlin acolyte. "He blazed the trail in edgy humor and smart humor" and is still not afraid of trading on the occasional off-color joke.

What few people recognize about Carlin, Smith said, is the man behind the zingers -- the guy "throwing out his brilliant insight into the mundane," whether he's on stage or off.

Carlin's role is modeled somewhat after Smith's deceased dad, "the guy who kept me on the straight and narrow" and to whom Smith dedicated this movie. He described his father as a quiet postal worker who endured his job for his family and would occasionally crack a joke or offer a bit of wisdom.

"We were always proud of him because he never shot anybody," Smith joked.

Carlin said playing Bart was "like putting on an old suit." The New York native said he grew up learning about values and language and relationships from blue-collar working guys and TV shows. His own father, an ad man, wasn't really in the picture.

Even so, the father/grandfather part was easy thanks to Carlin's now-adult daughter, whose birth he describes on his website: "Daughter Kelly is born. God smiles."

"I was a parent to a little girl ... whose diapers I changed and who I was sweet and tender with," Carlin said. "All I really had to do was kind of like, do that again. It was as if none of the years had passed."

At the same time, Carlin said, he never sugar-coated anything with his daughter. She traveled the road with him, watched his comedy routines and learned how to cuss from him. So while neither Carlin nor Bart will ever be Ward Cleaver, neither are they just grumpy old men.

Smith said Carlin nailed the crux of Bart by writing a back story for his character explaining why he is always picking on Greenie, one of his film buddies.

It makes sense to Carlin, who said he needs to have some system to bolster his lack of actor's training and, he often jokes, skill. That system is simple, he said: It's "OK, you be the mommy, I'll be the daddy make-believe."

"What I do is make it up according to what I think it ought to be," Carlin said. "I try to know my character. I write a biography about him so that I have an idea about his whole history."

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