david j. moore chats with actor Richard Tyson…
A busy actor since making his auspicious cinematic debut as perhaps the greatest movie bully of all time in Three O’clock High (1988), Richard Tyson always makes an impression when you see him on screen. He’s done everything from sexy and suave (Two Moon Junction, 1988) to being the bad guy (Kindergarten Cop, 1990), and he’s also done comedy in three different Farrelly Brothers pictures (Kingpin, 1996, There’s Something About Mary, 1998, and Me, Myself, and Irene, 2000). He’s been extremely active as a character actor in notable films like Battlefield Earth (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001), and different horror films such as Big Bad Wolf (2006) and 2015’s Bound to Vengeance, which casts him against type. Tyson, who’s done extensive work in theater, has run the gamut of acting, and he’s never stopped working since his humble beginnings as a kid from Mobile, Alabama who dreamed of making his way to Hollywood and becoming a star.
I love you in Three O’clock High – you’re the ultimate cinematic bully!
(Laughing.) Thanks, man! I tell ya, that was my first movie, and I had four brothers. They said, “You’ll never make a better movie!” I said, “Thanks – it’s my first one!” I tell ya, I’m stopped every day – to this day – about playing Buddy Revell.
Was your guest starring spot on Moonlighting your first on-set experience?
Three O’clock High was my first movie, but Moonlighting was my first gig, basically. I played an L.A. Dodger’s fan / detective in something before that, but Moonlighting was the first one to show up. That was Bruce Willis’ show.
How did you get your start with acting? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?
I went to Annapolis right out of high school. I was very proud to be selected. I joined the Navy, basically. I volunteered when people weren’t volunteering. I was playing football and I threw my right foot out. I discovered Edgar Allen Poe that year. Poe went to West Point for one year. I ended up going there for one year and one month. It ended up like that. It’s a technical major usually at the military academy, and I certainly wanted to go into English. It was best for the Navy and for me to leave. I was very disappointed that I had to leave. I went back home to Mobile, Alabama. I then left Mobile with a hundred dollars to go be in the movies. My brother played football in Mobile at the time, he goes “There’s forty-seven people in town here who want to see you be in the movies. You better go and do it.” I said, “I’m doing it! Get out of the way!” I look out of the window of the bus, and my girlfriend is crying, my mom’s crying. I took off. I ended up at the YMCA here on Hollywood and Vine. The next morning, I snuck into MGM studios, and for years I broke into every studio out here. I snuck in, acted like a delivery boy. I just sprinted when the guard wasn’t looking. Many different ways. Finally I met a casting lady named Jane Feinberg, and she told me to go away and train and come back. So I left and went back to the University of Alabama, and took two years. I thought it was only going to take one year. I got my Master’s at Cornell. Five years later, I called that lady and said, “I’m back.” I went back, but she was at a place I couldn’t get to, and so I climbed a three-story fence on the back lot at Fox, got in, and found her. She goes, “Wow. Richard Tyson.” I had long hair, knew Stanislavski and Shakespeare. I had done a couple of monologues for her way back in the day, so I showed back up, and she said, “I’ve been in this office for nine years, and we always tell actors to go away and train and come back. Guess what?” “What?” “You’re the only one to ever come back.” She then said, “What are you doing for an agent?” I didn’t have one and she said, “I have a match made in heaven!” She called Bruce Willis’ agent and in 30 days I was shooting a pilot that never made it, and then I did the episode of Moonlighting. That’s the short version of a long journey!
Like you said, people recognize you and know you from Three O’clock High. This is the movie that sort of defined your life and your career in a way. How did that come about for you?
Yeah, in a way. You’re right. I had fourteen callbacks. I was living in my truck. I had a couch in my pickup truck. It was an old truck. I also had a barbecue grill. I would take it to Malibu and put the tailgate down, and the couch would be level. I would cook chop steak or something, and that’s how I lived. I got an audition for this movie at Universal – Three O’clock High. It was at Spielberg’s production company, Amblin. I never met Spielberg, but I was told he loved all the dailies. He loved me. I wish I could meet him today. Aaron Spelling was the other producer on it. I auditioned for him years later, and there were like 25 people in the room, and he got up and walked over to me and whispered to me and shook my hand and goes, “Buddy Revell!” It was real cool. Anyway, I went into Spielberg’s office and I auditioned three or four times, and I had ten more. They cast Casey Siemaszko first, and they were matching us up. The best acting I did was walking out after they said, “Okay, you can go home now.” I acted like I was going to jump into my Porche and zip up to Malibu. Once I got to my truck I was already home. It was a raw time and I was playing a raw character. Finally, they picked me. They flew me to New York. I called all my pals from the Master’s program at Cornell. I was a year out of school. I called them and said, “Look – I’m in Spielberg’s movie! Come and see me at the Plaza!” I stayed up all night with those guys in my suite. I was telling one of my friends how it all happened, but he finished my story and said, “You told me that story years ago in school!”
Your next film was Two Moon Junction, the Zalman King picture. You also worked with King on Red Shoe Diaries.
Yeah, that was my second movie. I said, “Wait a minute – I’m a bully, not a suave guy like this.” I said, “Okay, I can do this.” I met him six days before they were to film. There were other actors out there who wanted to pay him to play the roll. There was a line he’d written in the script that seemed awkward. I was trying to remember the line. April Delongpre was the character Sherilyn Fenn was playing, but we were on Delongpre Avenue in Hollywood. I couldn’t remember the line. I was outside, and I rewrote the line on the sidewalk with a piece of chalk. I walked in and did the scene, which I’d rewritten a bit, and Zalman goes, “That was great! Man, that was really good. Um, can you do me a favor?” I go, “Yeah, what?” He said, “Would you go learn my scene?” (Laughing.) I went, “Oh, yeah, yeah. I’m sorry.” I said, “This scene is a little awkward.” He said, “It’s supposed to be awkward!” Zalman comes back out to me while I’m sitting in my truck, and he sees on the sidewalk the line I’d written. “Come on in! Let’s shoot!” It was magic to get cast in that role. I was nice to a girl for the last time ever in a movie. I thought I did a good job. I get stopped for that too – all the time.
Your next one was Ivan Reitman’s Kindergarten Cop. You got to be the villain in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It was a blockbuster!
Absolutely! Kindergarten Cop really opened everything up for me. Lots of people know me from that. The line I read for was something like, “Scout’s honor: I’ll throw the gun out!” The casting director told me he fell asleep watching 90 actors test for that role across the Universal lot, but when I showed up and said the line he sat up and said, “Wow!” He watched it two more times. He told me he saw thousands of people for that, and so he wanted to bring me in. I went in and I met with Ivan Reitman, who was real cool to me, and I also met the president of Universal. After the reading, Ivan asked me if I was old enough to play the part of a guy who had a five-year old kid. I told him I might have been a father of a five-year old if I hadn’t been careful. (Laughing.) I didn’t hear from them for about a week. They finally came back, and it was like winning the lottery. Every time you get a movie, it’s like winning the lottery. I was thrilled about it. That was a triumph. Ironically, the president of Universal offered me a five-picture deal with Universal with a salary per week. At the same time, I was offered to play Genghis Khan in a miniseries. I was to be gone over a year in Russia by the Chinese border, and I ended up taking that deal instead of the Universal deal and I played Genghis Khan. They pulled my eyes back, and I aged from 21 to 55. I conquered the world on horseback for that year. Charlton Heston was in it, Pat Morita was in it, and we filmed parts of it in China. It was supposed to come out around the time of Braveheart, and it was just a perfect, biographical story about a real guy. If that had come out, who knows? The sky would have been the limit. It was an Italian company, and they never released it. It’s still sitting in a vault in Rome. If it had come out on ABC like it should have … you know, I was the lead. I could have written my ticket, but it never came out. I was gone to Russia for a year. Doing a miniseries is like doing four or five movies. That means none of those movies came out the next year. All of a sudden I was gone for three years. People thought, What the hell happened to Richard Tyson? I dropped off the edge of the world. I said no to Universal, but I couldn’t have predicted the outcome. I thought doing a miniseries was fantastic. Hopefully we can resurrect that some day.
You also did three movies with the Farrelly Brothers – Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary, and Me, Myself, and Irene.
Oh, yeah! I met them playing hoops in Santa Monica. We play golf together. They gave me a script. I was doing Hardball at the time on NBC. We were doing 17-hour days, and we did ten months straight. They asked me how the series was going, and I said, “It’s killing me!” The Farrelly Brothers asked me to read this script. I read it, and it took me about a week because I was so busy. I thought it was funny. It was Dumb and Dumber. I said, “Good luck with that!” I was up to my ears in work, and the next week they signed Jim Carrey to an 8 million dollar deal. I ended up not being in the movie as one of the dumb guys. We remained friends. In fact, we’re working on a project now.
I’ve got to mention Battlefield Earth. I’m actually one of the few who enjoy the movie for what it is.
It’s funny. I was playing softball in Santa Monica and I got a call from my agent. He said, “You need to go back home and get ready. You’re flying to Montreal on John Travolta’s jet. You’re going for a read-through for this movie called Battlefield Earth.” I said, “Look, I’m on deck. I’m playing softball. I gotta bat, at least.” He said, “Don’t! There’s a limo waiting.” I had to bat, though, and I got a pinch runner and I left. I jumped in the limo, and we go to the backside of LAX and there’s Travolta’s eight different jets. They said, “Go right up to the largest one, and I went up and there was a beautiful stewardess onboard. There was no check-in or anything. We flew to Montreal for a weekend. I was very happy to meet John Travolta. I’d been a big fan of his and he said he was a big fan of mine. I haven’t run into him since, but we were on set there for six weeks. It was a beautiful place to be in the summer. Barry Pepper was great, what an actor. I became friends with him. I was so sorry to see the reviews. I think people were worried that there would be subliminal messages from L. Ron Hubbard, however he wrote that before he ever invented a religion. I think everyone was scared of the movie. I saw the movie and I thought it was okay. I was disappointed with how it was received.
After that you had a small role in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. How did that happen?
You know what? I was one of the last ones to be cast on that. I do live theater in Topanga Canyon, and I’ve done some of the greatest roles ever written there. The unwritten rule when you do theater is if you get a real job, you leave. The L.A. Times interviewed me while I was doing A Streetcar Named Desire, and I was asked, “What are your hobbies?” I said, “This!” There’s no money in it, but this is what you do for the love of it. As you mature and go through life, you can end up playing some great roles that Shakespeare wrote. You can start off as a young man playing Romeo or one of his friends, and end up playing some great, mature roles when you’re moving through life. The thing about Black Hawk Down, I was playing Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. It was opening day, opening night. We’d already had two preview audiences. And opening day, I get a call from my agent, and he says, “You need to get on a plane right now! Ridley Scott wants you in Morocco tomorrow afternoon at one o’clock!” I said, “It’s opening night, man!” He said, “You’ve got an understudy, don’t you?” I said, “Dude, I do, but you can’t do that to somebody! You can’t be the lead to a Shakespearian play on the morning of!” So I called my friend, and I said, “Meet me for breakfast.” I couldn’t do it over the phone. I said, “Hey, man, you’re on tonight.” He laughed. “Hey, come on, Tyson, you’re always joking!” I said, “No, man, seriously. You’re on.” He said, “Yeah, right. This is opening night of The Taming of the Shrew. Where are you gonna be?” I said, “I’m going to Africa.” He just went, “Get the hell out of here!” I said, “I swear!” He wouldn’t believe me. The blood eventually left his face. He went, “I gotta go, man!” He went on that night. I don’t know how he did it, but I flew to Africa that afternoon. I had a weekly contract on Black Hawk Down and I was there for over five months. It was an unbelievable experience. Sam Shepherd played the general. All these guys were there at a restaurant – Orlando Bloom, Ewan McGregor, Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore – and we were all at the Hilton together for five months. We go to this restaurant. This waiter comes up and goes, “Josh, would you take a picture?” Josh sweeps his hand across his brow and he stands up to take a picture, and the waiter goes, “Oh, me and Tyson.” Everything I’ve ever done has played in Morocco. I’m huge in Morocco! (Laughing.) It’s funny. On the first day, I walk through the lobby, and I saw Ridley Scott, and went over and shook his hand. I said, “Mr. Scott, I’m Richard Tyson.” He goes, “I know that. I cast you in a movie ten years ago, and you were going to play the lead. The movie was Point Break.” I said, “Absolutely! It was called Johnny Utah at the time.” I’ve been mad at my agent for ten years because that was supposed to be me. Patrick Swayze ended up playing my role! Ridley said he dropped off the movie, but he wanted to go Blade Runner-like on it. Once the director drops off a project, the new director brings in his choices. So Ridley knew me. Since I was one of the last to be cast on Black Hawk Down, I didn’t have to go to boot camp. I’d already done boot camp in Annapolis. It’s so great that when I meet veterans today, they know me from Black Hawk Down. It was a real honor. I felt like I served in a way even though those were fake bullets. But if the big boys come looking for you, I say yes to them.
I always get excited when I see that you’re in a movie. There was a turning point in your career when you started doing horror films. I actually saw a movie you did called Big Bad Wolf in a theater, and you have a great part in that as a werewolf.
(Laughing.) Oh, my God! I can’t believe it. But yeah, it was fun. It was great. That director just thought that a werewolf movie isn’t scary, but if the werewolf talks it could be campy. I tried to add camp to it. We had battles back forth on that. If you see him, tell him he still owes me a hundred grand! (Laughing.) Throw that out at him. Anyway. I learned a lesson.
I recently saw your latest film Bound to Vengeance, and it’s an interesting role for you. It’s not the typical role you play. You scale it back. You’re this guy who is taken on an odyssey through the night.
I still haven’t seen the final cut. It was an interesting project. I’d heard about it, and I wanted to meet the guys who were making it. They were an intellectual group. They were all very kind to me. They probably wondered why I was there. I live in Malibu Beach, and I like it one day, but I don’t like it two days. I’d rather be on a set. So I was available, and they agreed that it would be a good fit, so I jumped in on it. I didn’t know I was going to be in a noose for two and a half weeks. The character I play has a contraption around his neck the whole time. That was a brutal shoot to say the least. I tried to see each take through even though it was cutting the airflow out of me. I always look at it … every take – those 30-seconds – I try to make it the best I can, the best I’ve ever filmed.
What’s next for you, Richard?
I’m doing Atticus Finch, which is not a horror movie, but I’m doing To Kill a Mockingbird up here near Malibu in Topanga Canyon all summer long. Doing that play in this social climate is really a special thing that we get to do. The thing I’ve got going on with the Farrelly Brothers is called Stable Hands. I also wrote a Civil War picture that’s based on a true story about my great-great grandfather. He joined the war to join Lee’s forces. It’s called Grandfather. We’re hoping it will come out in the next couple of years. We’re hoping Kris Kristofferson will do it. He’s my father-in-law, so I’ve got the inside on that. I fell in love with my wife before I knew who her father was. I look up to him. He’s a true icon in this industry. He’s a great guy. Mostly it’s a voice-over role. He’ll be reading the letter that General Lee wrote to surrender. Anyway, it’s a beautiful piece of work. Hopefully, he’ll like it enough to do it. Grandfather is my Rocky.
Many thanks to Richard Tyson for taking the time for this interview.