JOHN GOODMAN is on his way to dinner at a Westwood deli when he stops dead in his tracks in front of a neighborhood cigar shop. The sights and smells hold him in their grasp as he gazes in longingly from the sidewalk.
An older man sitting near the entrance stares a few moments before inquiring, "Hey, aren't you John Goodman?"
"Um, used to be," the actor fires back, continuing on his way but promising to return after his meal.
The man smiles understandingly. Of course the man he addressed as John Goodman is, and continues to be, John Goodman, although his list of people the actor "used to be" could fill a small studio soundstage. They include Dan Conner, the loving blue-collar yin to Roseanne Conner's yang on the groundbreaking sitcom "Roseanne." Then there's Babe Ruth, Huey P. Long, "Monsters, Inc." head James P. "Sulley" Sullivan and Monica Lewinsky confidante Linda Tripp on "Saturday Night Live."
And he "used to be" Fred Flintstone in the 1994 film version of the classic cartoon -- a role that still makes him cringe with embarrassment.
Much of Goodman's distinguished career on stage and screen has been linked to the word "big," owing to his formidable girth and a diversity of roles ranging from slapstick comedy to tense drama. He appeared in the original Broadway production of the Tony-winning musical "Big River" in 1985. He played Big Dan Teague in 2000's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" One of his most famous starring roles was as the crazed bowling buddy in the 1998 cult classic "The Big Lebowski."
But a year after two short-lived network TV flops (NBC's computer-animated "Father of the Pride" and CBS' "Center of the Universe"), Goodman is returning to his theater roots to tackle perhaps the most challenging "Big" of all -- Harvey "Big Daddy" Pollitt, the terminally ill, bullying patriarch of the dysfunctional Southern family at the center of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." The production opens Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse.
The drama is the inaugural offering of the Westwood theater, which is reopening after an 18-month, $17-million renovation. Directed by Geffen producing director Gil Cates, the play also features Oscar-winning actress Brenda Fricker as Big Mama, Jeremy Davidson as Brick and Jennifer Mudge as Maggie.
Like the made-over Geffen, the production marks a fresh beginning for Goodman, a veteran of more than 70 films in less than 30 years. He fled Hollywood about 10 years ago, moving to New Orleans with his family -- partly so his wife could be near her relatives, but also to escape the relentless media focus on entertainment, which he found disturbing. Though he worked steadily, he feels the move largely robbed his career of its momentum ("Out of sight, out of mind," he says). This year's hot, humid Louisiana summer bored him silly.
Then came Hurricane Katrina.
Though his home suffered damage, he feels worse about the residents whose lives were devastated by the hurricane. When the opportunity to perform onstage in Los Angeles presented itself, he jumped, seeing it as a chance to return to the city on his own terms in an intimate setting without a lot of media glare. Perhaps more importantly, it offers a diversion from the gnawing anger inside him when he thinks about New Orleans.
"I can't go home," he says. "It's a real godsend that I'm here. It takes my mind off the things that hurt so much. Day after day I worry about what's going to happen to the city. The political corruption goes centuries deep. There's so much anger that I feel. They should put a guillotine in the middle of Jackson Square. I would be the judge, jury and executioner. People died that didn't have to die. It's unbelievable."
He adds with a slight smile tinged with more than a little dark humor, "But the Great Scorer will even things up. There will be a judgment call."
Big shoes to fill
EVEN after a full day of rehearsal of the intense play, Goodman appears at ease and comfortable. As he enjoys a huge bowl of matzo ball soup and a hand-filling Reuben sandwich, his conversation is fueled by dry wit and self-deprecating remarks.
Cates and his cast, he says, have made him feel especially welcome. As soon as he started rehearsals at the Geffen, "I started getting the juice. I felt at home. This play is so deep, so hard. It will be a different show every night."
And though he's never felt more challenged, Goodman says "Cat" is the best piece of writing he's ever been involved with. His portrayal of Big Daddy will likely invite comparisons to Burl Ives, who appeared in the well-known 1958 film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. Two made-for-TV versions that were more faithful to the original play were produced, including one with Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones, and Rip Torn as Big Daddy.