- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
He was well-cast by Robert Altman to play the hamburger-loving character of Wimpy in the 1980 production of Popeye, released for the first time on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.
Paul spoke to us about making Popeye, his fond memory of the fictional town of Sweethaven, and his career, and his memorable career.
Popeye is now available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.
HTF: It's such a pleasure to talk to you. I had not seen Popeye before and it's such an unusual creation. You had reunited with the director Robert Altman for the film, and it stands out as quite an exception in his general filmography although it's got his fingerprints all through it. It was filled with such a marvelous collection of actors: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Robert Libertini, Donald Moffat, yourself, of course. What do you most remember about your time working with that ensemble of actors?
Paul Dooley: Well, it was as much about the place as it was about the actors. But of course, the actors were all very eccentric and unusual and very different and had many skills. Acrobatics, they were jugglers, they were tumblers, they were vaudevillians. So, we all bonded together because of the eccentricity of the characters, including Wimpy. But also, we fell in love with the set. And the set became so real to us, Sweethaven. We weren't on Malta, and we weren't in a small town called the Mellieħa where our apartments were. We were living and breathing Sweethaven. And that became the memory of the place. Not the island, not the country, just the set.
And the set was built with new lumber, then distressed to look like a 100-year-old whaling village. It was so beautifully done and designed that it felt absolutely real. It didn't look like a set to me; it looked like a real old place. We had 12 hours of shooting days, and had dailies together, and we had the three meals together. We didn't go into other parts of Malta. We didn't find anything there. There was nothing to do there. There was really no television, and there was no movies, so we had our own community, and it was Sweethaven more than anything. And the people there, the actors, became a family. And that's true of most of Altman's movies.
HTF: Well, I was going to say the sets were incredible as were the costumes, and, along with how Altman framed and shot the film, it’s looks impressive in this new release on Blu-ray. Now, I know the film was considered a relative failure despite earning a good bit of money. And a lot of critics were not kind, though it did have admirers like Siskel and Ebert. When you think back, how do you view the film?
"I can tell you the story as I've learned it over the years from Altman and other people is that it was perceived as a failure for a reason which had nothing much to do with the film."
Paul Dooley: I can tell you the story as I've learned it over the years from Altman and other people is that it was perceived as a failure for a reason which had nothing much to do with the film. When you go over budget by as much as $7 million, which we had because of bad weather, the studio back at Hollywood doesn't believe it's bad weather. they think you're just over there screwing around. And so, they had a gripe and a grudge against the movie. They also had this bad feeling about Bob Evans who was the independent producer. So, by the time the movie came back home and got edited, they were against the movie based on political stuff and almost hoping it would fail. And then when it got mixed reviews, it made it perfect for them to consider it a failure. But the truth is it made its money back over time, internationally, because Disney was a co-producer, and they had a wonderful distribution arm in many countries around the world. And it did make its money back and perhaps a profit. And as time goes on, it's still popular from DVDs. So, the thing about it being a failure is partly that the studio had it against them. They were mad at it from going over budget and getting mixed reviews. But a lot of it was political.
HTF: You were a keen cartoonist as a youngster. Had you been a fan of cartoons like Popeye?
I loved it, and I grew up on it, and was thrilled to actually play one of the characters, Wimpy, that I'd read about all my life.
Paul Dooley: Oh, I lived and breathed the Sunday comics. I read Popeye when I was 10, 12 years old. And before I was an actor, I was a boy cartoonist, and so I had lived and breathed the cartoon strips. And Jules Feiffer who was a friend of mine--I've done two plays with him besides Popeye, was a cartoonist. And he didn't go to the cheap animation that Fleischer made, he went back to the old comic strip, and that was where he got the story. So, I loved it, and I grew up on it, and was thrilled to actually play one of the characters, Wimpy, that I'd read about all my life.
HTF: I have long been an admirer of your work. You've appeared in films I've adored, on television series that I've been enamored with, and I know you've had great experience with improv, and spent time doing stand-up. But when I see you in dramatic roles-- and I'm thinking, particularly of the terrifying role in an episode of Chris Carter's Millennium. And I am recently binge-watching all of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and in an episode there, you played against Dennis Christopher again as a rather mean, self-centered old fart.
Paul Dooley: Yeah.
HTF: But you are searing in those roles. I know actors love range. I know they like not to repeat themselves, but is there something particularly fun about playing evil, vile human beings and balancing that, I guess, with comedy too, but do you sort of relish those sort of awful human being roles, too?
"I was a little afraid of drama. I thought I couldn't cut it. I saw comedy as two-dimensional and drama as three-dimensional. You had to dig deeper and use your emotions more. Comedy doesn't use the emotions that much. But when I started seeing myself in the dailies for A Wedding, I said, "Oh, I guess I can do this, too.""
Paul Dooley: Well, I haven't done a lot of them, but I have done a few. And I asked the director why he cast me [in the episode of Millennium]. I was a guy who had abused his young daughter. We shot it up in Canada, and I asked, "Why did you choose me?" He says, "I chose you particularly because everybody saw you as a nice father, and they wouldn't suspect you until we find out the end of the episode." Because there was a trial in the episode, and he wanted to stack the deck so that they thought I would be innocent, but I was actually going to end up being guilty. But I'm sure I'd love to dig into a good, meaty kind of a part which is evil. That's fun kind of acting. But I would say 98% of all my acting has been benign. I played fathers in nearly every movie I've done. And I was even Larry David's father-in-law [laughs]. I like any of it, but I tell you this. When I started with Bob, he gave me a part in A Wedding and it was a little comedic because I was playing a kind of a rube from Kentucky, of an ignorant guy. And it was a little bit funny, but it was mostly just all about his daughter marrying into a really rich family, and he was just a guy who ran a truck stop.
But I was afraid of doing roles that weren't comedy although many of my commercials have been straight but probably most of them had been amusing. But I was a little afraid of drama. I thought I couldn't cut it. I saw comedy as two-dimensional and drama as three-dimensional. You had to dig deeper and use your emotions more. Comedy doesn't use the emotions that much. But when I started seeing myself in the dailies for A Wedding, I said, "Oh, I guess I can do this, too." Then I had an epiphany. I said, "Oh, if you have good timing, it works for drama too. It's not just comedy. If you have good timing, it'll make your acting better in dramatic roles." So, then I said, "Okay, if Bob Altman wants me to play drama sometimes, I'll play it.
Paul Dooley: And then I really found it was something else I really enjoyed, and I have played both over the years. But in my heart of hearts, I prefer comedy.
"I only did four of them, and I still get the Trekkies asking me for autographs."
HTF: I'm a lifelong Star Trek fan as well and a lover of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And you played Enabran Tain on that - and you played against Andrew Robinson's Garak character - who was just legendary in the canon of Star Trek.
Paul Dooley: I only did four of them, and I still get the Trekkies asking me for autographs.
HTF: Well, you made such an indelible impression.
Paul Dooley: It was a great part. He was a real mean son of a gun because my character on Deep Space Nine, Enabran, wanted to get rid of his kid. And he was finally going to plot his death or something. [laughter] He was pretty villainous.
HTF: Do you look fondly back on playing that role?
Paul Dooley: Oh, I loved doing that. And I have a copy, and I look at it from time to time. And I love it because he’s so serious and so evil. But that was fun. I could really dig my teeth into that one.
HTF: Yeah. Well, thank you. I'm glad Popeye's coming out on Blu-ray so people can experience it, perhaps for the first time like myself. But its legendary and cult status will continue uninhibited. It was a great pleasure speaking with you, Paul. Thank you so much.
Paul Dooley: Thank you, Neil. And take care of yourself.