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Interviews with Actor William H Macy and Salesperson Bill Porter
Oscar nominee William H. Macy is one of the most distinguished talents of his generation. He continues to demonstrate his versatility in several diverse roles, adding to his already impressive credits.
Macy can be seen in TNTs Door to Door. The movie, which Macy also co-wrote, is based on the true story of the life of an award-winning door-to-door salesman with cerebral palsy. Macy plays the salesman Bill Porter and the film also stars Kyra Sedgwick, Helen Mirren, Kathy Baker and Felicity Huffman.
On the big screen, Macy will next be seen in the comedy Welcome to Collinwood for Warner Brothers. Produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, this movie is a comic tale of a group of working class guys in Cleveland who try to rob a pawn shop. Macy plays an ex-con trying to raise bail for his jailed wife. This film features an all star cast including George Clooney, Jennifer Esposito, Luis Guzman, Sam Rockwell and Isaiah Washington.
Macy is about to begin production on the romantic drama The Cooler for director Wayne Kramer. Macy will play Bernie Lootz, the unluckiest man ever, whose virulent bad luck is so infectious that he is just the right guy to have as a cooler on the floor at the seedy Shangri-la Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas. Bernie is forced into this job to repay a debt, but once the debt is repaid Bernie wants nothing more than to put Vegas behind him. The Casinos slippery manager attempts to keep Bernie and his cooling abilities on the floor, by throwing a drop-dead gorgeous waitress Bernies way, but the plan backfires when Bernie and the waitress end up falling for each other and Bernies bad luck turns to good in the face of love.
Macy has also begun production on the Showtime Original Picture Stealing Sinatra which depicts the 1963 botched kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr. Ron Underwood will direct the film in which Macy stars as John Irwin, one of the three kidnappers. Frank Sinatra, Jr. was abducted from his hotel at gunpoint by Barry Keenan and Joseph Clyde Amsler just before a show in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Sinatra was brought to Los Angeles and held for four days by Keenan, Amsler, and Irwin (Macy) before his ransom of $240,000 was paid by his father. However, the kidnappers had little time to enjoy the money. Irwin, accompanied by his brother, turned himself in to the authorities and the three were rounded up and convicted. David Arquette and Ryan Browning also star.
Most recently, Macy was seen in Neal Slavins critically acclaimed Focus, a haunting drama based on the 1947 novel by Arthur Miller. Set against the backdrop of World War II, Macy plays Lawrence Newman, a man who is mistakenly identified as a Jew by his anti-Semitic neighbors and becomes a victim of religious and racial persecution. The film also stars Laura Dern, Meat Loaf and David Paymer.
Macy is best known for his portrayal of Jerry Lundergaar in Fargo. For this role he received an Oscar Nomination and an Independent Spirit Award as Best Supporting Actor. He also garnered nominations for Funniest Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (American Comedy Awards), Best Actor (Chicago Film Critics), Best Supporting Actor (Dallas/ Fort Worth Film Critics), and Best Actor in a Drama (International Press Academy). Macys film credits include Magnolia, Pleasantville, Happy Texas, Mystery Men, Jurassic Park 3, Psycho, A Civil Action, Boogie Nights, Wag The Dog, Air Force One, Ghosts of Mississippi, Mr. Hollands Opus, The Client, Roommates, Shadows and Fog, Twenty Bucks, Murder in the First, Searching for Bobby Fisher, Radio Days and Panic.
In the realm of television, Macy has been no less prolific. He received an Emmy Nomination as Best Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his recurring role as Dr. David Morgenstern on ER. His episodic credits include L.A. Law, Bakersfield P.D., Civil Wars, as well as the pilot and several episodes of Law and Order. His movie of the week credits include A Murderous Affair, Heart of Justice, Standoff at Marion, Andersonville and the miniseries The Murder of Mary Phagan and The Awakening Land. In addition to the politically charged The Writing on the Wall, Macy also appeared in two Mamet vehicles, The Water Engine and Showtimes Texan. In 1999, he starred opposite his wife Felicity Huffman, on the TNT television film A Slight Case of Murder. Macy and his writing partner Steven Schachter wrote the film and Schachter directed. Also with Schachter, Macy has written several television scripts, including an episode of Thirtysomething, the HBO movie Above Suspicion and the USA Networks movie The Con starring Macy and Rebecca DeMornay.
Born in Miami, Macy lived in Georgia until age ten before moving to Cumberland, Maryland, where his love for acting spawned as Mordred in Camelot. Elected junior and senior high school class president, he set out to become a veterinarian at Bethany College in West Virginia, but after performing in play after play Macy transferred to Goddard College in Vermont, where he came under the tutelage of theater Professor David Mamet.
In 1972, Mamet, Macy and his writing partner Steven Schacter moved to Chicago, where they collectively built the St. Nicholas Theater. Macy originated roles for several of Mamets original productions, among them, Bobby in American Buffalo, and Lang in The Water Engine, soon establishing his feature film presence with writer/director Mamet. His performance in Oleanna, as a college professor accused of sexual harassment earned Macy kudos as a master of verbal machine-gunning from Entertainment Weekly. His detective in Homicide inspired similar praise from New York magazine: Macy may be the ideal Mamet actor: working-man handsome, street smart, and nimble of tongue. He continued with Mamet as a Mafioso driver in Things Change, a Marine in House of Games and an FBI agent in Wag the Dog.
Moving to New York in 1980, he continued to build his reputation in the theater as an originator of new roles, in such off-Broadway productions as Baby With the Bathwater, The Dining Room (later filmed for PBS - Great Performances) Life during Wartime, Mr. Gogol and Mr. Preen, Bodies, Rest and Motion, and Mamets Prarie du Chen, Oh Hell, and Oleanna. His stage credits, approaching fifty during his ten years in New York, also include the Broadway production of Our Town, Tony Award winner for Best Ensemble. Macy was also seen on the London stage in the spring of 2000, where he co-starred in the revival of David Mamets American Buffalo. Following the run in London, the production moved to the Atlantic Theater Company in New York.
Along with his acting career, Macy has also earned respect as a teacher and director. Having led theater classes in Chicago and New York University, today he serves as director in the residence at the Atlantic Theater company in New York. His extensive directing resume includes Boys Life at Lincoln Center, the LA production of Oleanna at the Tiffany theater, as well as Lip Service, an HBO film which won an ACE Award for best Theatrical Production. Most recently, Macy directed the play The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York. In 1998, Macy was honored by Showest when he was named Best Supporting Actor of the Year for his body of work.
Macy is married to actress Felicity Huffman, who starred on the critically acclaimed series Sports Night. They live in Los Angeles with their daughter and have another child on the way.
ABILITY caught up with Macy
to speak about Door to Door and Bill Porter
Chet Cooper: How did you get involved with Door to Door?
William H. Macy: I saw a news program about Bill Porters life. I showed it to my wife and she loved it. I thought that it could be a great story. So, I contacted my writing partner Steven Schachter. There were various producers involved along the way. Schachter and I pitched it to TNT, which turned us down. Then we pitched it to HBO, which bought it. We wrote the script and then HBO dumped it. Then TNT turned around and picked it up. Im really proud of the writingalmost as much as anything. The difficulty with the script was trying to be truthful to Bills life and not make up a bunch of stuff that didnt actually happenjust tell his story fully but still make it dramatic. So, we had to find the drama. We realized that we could apply a kind of Forrest Gump approach to it by emphasizing the world that surrounded Bill. That allowed us to write something with a dramatic thrust. The breakthrough on how to tell the story came when we decided to fictionalize Bills customers. Although Bills life has had a lot of drama in it, it doesnt have a dramatic through-line. In other words, Bills still alive. Theres no third act. So, when we had the idea to write about how Bill affected people, it gave us a license to make up a lot of stuff. Im really pleased with the way it all came out.
CC: Did you have a chance to spend some time with Bill?
WM: I met him just one time. I went to Portland with Steven Schachter and we spent the weekend with Bill and Shelly. We had dinner a couple of times. Shelly drove us around and Bill was in the car. We drove his old sales route and met a couple of his customers.
CC: Did he try to sell anything to you? (laughs)
WM: (laughs) No. But, he is quite the salesman. Everywhere we went people said that Bills a brave man and hes funny and hes stoic and hes stalwart and hes all those thingsbut mostly hes an excellent salesman. He will not take no for an answer.
CC: Did you do any research on cerebral palsy?
WM: I did do a bit. I contacted a guy in Los Angeles and met with him. I actually rented My Left Foot and watched how Daniel Day-Lewis did it. There was also my brief meeting with Bill. But, I realized pretty early on that whatever I did it would have to be a bit stylized becausewell, try as I mayit is really hard to imitate something like that.
CC: Have you had any feedback yet?
WM: Weve gone to film festivals with it. The first one was the Aspen Film Festival in Colorado and then the Sarasota Film Festival in Florida. Both times it was quite a moving experience. Audiences just loved the thing. It was great for Steven and I to see it in front of an audience. One of the odd things about writing for television is that you dont get that theatrical experience of sharing your story with an audience. Mostly you sit in your living room and watch it on TV.
CC: So, this gave you a kind of meter?
WM: It gave us a meter on how well it was playing. Were really pleased. We are going to do a couple more film festivals. I think they are going to do a big hoopla opening.
CC: Is the opening in Los Angeles?
WM: At this point, it is going to be in Washington DC and New York. Then, theres going to be a benefit in Los Angeles.
CC: What kind of hoopla is going to happen in DC?
WM: Oh. I dont know. I think they want to hear some politicians. Its all in the planning stages.
CC: Do you think Bill will attend?
WM: I hope so. Hes officially retired now. He doesnt like to fly, but I think we could get him to at least one of these functions.
CC: Do consider yourself more of an actor or a writer?
WM: Im more of an actor. Steven Schachter and I have a sort of cottage industry of writing movies of the week. Weve done six or seven of them. We write for everybodyHBO, Showtime, all the networks. I have started starring in the last few movies. Before that, he and I would write them and sometimes I would act in them. He directs them.
CC: Do you know about Media Access?
WM: No. Tell me about it.
CC: Media Access works with the entertainment industry to promote employment and positive portrayal of people with disabilities in film and television. Part of what Media Access tries to do is create casting calls for actors with disabilities and especially when there is a portrayal of person with a disability in the script. There are a lot of actors with disabilities out there. Of course, they realize there are certain roles that would be tough to getbut they are trying to at least get these actors the chance to audition.
WM: In the last couple of years, Steven and I have realized that as writers we have a responsibility to stop and look at our scripts and then make sure that theyre representative of the world around us. Its very, very easy for two white guys like us to write a script without even realizing that we only wrote in characters like usjust white people. In the last couple of years, we have realized that we need to take another step and look at each role and say, Why is that a white male? Does it have to be a guy? Can it be a woman? Could she be black? Could she be Asian? Could she be in a wheelchair? You have to stop and ask yourself those questions. They dont always naturally spring to mind. Writers have a tendency to write about what they know. So, we want to make the scripts more representative of the world around us. The writers need to get proactive about it.
CC: What has been your favorite part in your acting career?
WM: Thats a tough one. Fargo, of course, changed my whole life. I did this little movie called Happy Texas. I just loved the Sheriff character that I playedChappy Dent. I did this movie called State and Main where I play a film director. I love that character. Ive had a bunch of them. Its really hard to say.
CC: Do think your writing might become more dominant than your acting?
WM: Ive always acted more than anything else. Ill probably continue to do that. Im a better actor than anything else. But, I certainly like the writing and I would love to do a big, fat feature with Mr. Schachter.
CC: What are you working on right now?
WM: Im working on a film in Vancouver, Canada for Showtime. Its called Stealing Sinatra. Its about the crisis when Frank Sinatra, Jr. was kidnapped.
CC: Are going to be filming any of it in Vegas?
WM: They might do a day or two of exteriors in Vegas and Los Angeles. But, no, we will shoot the whole thing in Canada.
CC: Is that something you helped write as well?
WM: No. It was something I was, at one point, considering writing with Mr. Schachter. But, a dear friend of ours, Howard Korder wrote it.
CC: Do movies like Door to Door go to video?
WM: They almost all do. Certainly, TNT puts all their stuff to video. I know HBO and Showtime do also.
CC: I can see a lot of organizations purchasing it.
WM: It could be. Bill Porter is a great man. I just loved meeting him and hanging out with him. I love his stoic attitude toward life. Philosophers tell us to do something about those things that are within our own control and do not worry about things that are not within our control. Otherwise, it is just wasted energy. Bill seems to live up to that standard.
CC: So, you really liked making this movie and the people that were part of it?
WM: Yes and there is a killer supporting cast in Door to Door. Of course, Kyra Sedgewick is wonderful as Shelly Brady. Nancy Lenehan just stole my heart away. She plays the tree woman. I love that part.
CC: How much of the character writing is yours and how much is Schachters?
WM: We duke it out over every word. It is a true collaboration. Some writing partners split things up. One will take a scene and one will take another scene. But, Steven and I write together.
CC: Well, you both did a great job.
WM: Thank you so much.
CC: Whats next?
WM: First, my wife and I are going to have a baby.
CC: Congratulations. Does she know about it yet?
WM: (laughs) She does know. Shes about a billion months
pregnant. Shes due maybe within the next two or three weeks.
CC: So, tell me about your career as a salesman.
CC: When did you start working for Watkins?
BP: 40 years ago.
Shelly Brady: Actually, in 1961.
BP: Thats right.
CC: How many of those original clients do you still have?
BP: I still have them all, unless they have moved away.
SB: Once Bill gets a customer, he doesnt let them go. He probably has about 400 customers.
BP: Thats right.
CC: Do you still service them today?
SB: He services them over the phone now. He used to walk door-to-door, but, about 4 years ago, he was struck by a car and fractured his hip. So, now he sells his products over the phone and also via the Internet. But, he does not manage the website. He just gets the check. Right, Bill?
CC: Tell me what happened with the car accident?
BP: He hit me when I was standing on my curb.
SB: Bill had just stepped off the curb in front of his home on his way to work. He was going across the street to catch the bus and the car turned and didnt see him. The sun was in the guys eyes. He finally saw Bill and tried to stop. But, it still knocked Bill to the ground, fractured his hip and re-injured an old back problem. He tried to go back out selling door-to-door but the pain was too excruciating. It set him back for about half a day. (laughs) He was down in the dumps, but the next day he called me and said, Ive figured it out. Im gonna sell over the phone.
CC: How is your health today?
BP: Its not the best.
SB: Hes...well, Bill, should we tell how old youre gonna be this September?
SB: Before, when he went door-to-door, he was walking 7 to10 miles a day. That kept him in really great shape. With his cerebral palsy he had health issues, of course, but not getting out and walking since the accident has caused a spiraling. But, it really doesnt keep him down. He still runs his errands downtown when he needs to and he still sells.
CC: Bill. Were you able to sell to the person that hit you with his car?
BP: No. (laughs) I didnt try.
SB: (laughs) Im surprised he didnt. One time when we missed an airplane because Bill didnt have a picture ID, we ended running around all day. At the end of the day we were at the DMV office and he sold the woman there a can of cinnamon.
BP: Thats right. (laughs)
SB: You might laugh about that. But that does happen.
CC: I would think it might. Do you travel a lotgiving talks?
BP: I havent flown in quite a while now.
SB: We spent about three years speaking to companies such as Disney and Nike. When companies started calling, they said, Bill, will you come and share your story? He said, Im a salesman. I do one-on-one. I dont speak to groups. Ive worked for Bill since I was 18. So, I said, Let me help you. So, we did travel extensively for three years. This last year, because of some of the health issues, he decided he would connect via satellite or over the telephone. So, I would go and share Bills story and he would join up with some modern technology. Thats how we do things now.
CC: Would you be comfortable telling me what kind of revenue you are able to generate?
SB: When we were traveling together, I keep telling Bill, Come on, theyll put you up in a fancy resort. Theyll give you a massage. We had an agency working for us that last year and they were charging $10,000. When Bill decided not to travel anymore, they cut it down to about $6,000. We anticipate that after the book about Bills life and the TNT movie are released it will pick up again. Weve just discounted it because he prefers not to travel.
CC: What did you think of the movie?
BP: I thought they did a fine job. Im impressed. I thought it was so well acted. The whole thingI thought it was well done.
SB: It was just amazing. I was with Bill when we watched it. I couldnt decide whether to watch Bills face or watch the movie. He was so enrapt. I was concerned. I thought, How will Bill take someone portraying him? What a task that William Macy had before himto portray that with honesty. I wondered how Bill would take it and I know Macy was concerned, too. We were just blown away. Afterward, Bill was pleased with it.
BP: Very pleased.
SB: To see Bill watch the movie and actually cry during one partit was amazing. Some of it is fictionalized, but based on truth.
CC: Which part affected you most Bill?
SB: Bill was really affected by the customer that passed away. You know the customer with the lonely life. It struck home. Even though it was a fictionalized customer, he has had customers that were like that, right Bill?
BP: Yeah. I had customers exactly like that. It kind of got to me.
SB: Of course, William Macy just knocked my socks off. To me, he captured the heart and spirit of my friend. When I walked onto the set in Canada and saw Bill Macy as Bill Porter, I burst into tears. Because he just...he was Bill.
CC: Bill. Did you keep your socks on?
BP: (laughs) Im very proud of the movie.
SB: We are both very proud of the movie. They did a very good job capturing Bill.
CC: What about the role based on you?
SB: You know what? Bill and I were laughing because there was Kyra Sedgewick up there with her hands on her hips saying, Bill. You know, Im going to make you a cup of soup. Then Bill Macy says, Oh no. Go home to your family. Well, Im just going to make you a friendly cup of soup, anyway. I think they did a really good job capturing our relationship.
CC: What about the shower scene? (laughs)
SB: (laughs) Bill and I pretty much laughed at that. You know, as I said (laughs) Since you are the one going there and I dont know if this is off the record or not, but a little bit of it is fictionalized and I just had to bite my tongue. There are still some Hollywood moments in there, but we are very proud of the movie overall. We just laughed. I said, You know what? I didnt take a shower at Bills. If I had I would have dead bolted the door. (laughs) I know they were trying to artistically capture the fact that Bill has never been married. Hes still a man and really the only two women in his life have been his mother and I. Right Bill?
SB: And sometimes I probably drive you crazy like your mom did. I mean we have our moments dont we? But, thats what good, close friends have. (laughs) Thanks for bringing the shower scene up. Right Bill?
BP: Yeah right. I didnt think that would be brought up. (laughs)
SB: We were just trying to push that under the carpet. (laughs)
CC: So, overall you are pleased.
BP: Very much so.
SB: Very much. One thing that concerned Bill was that the movie portrayed Bill as moving out of his home, which did not happen. Bill just laughed at the shower scene, but the moving was one thing that concerned him at the very end of the movie. Right Bill?
SB: But, I think the truth of that scene is that over the years Bill and I have had moments when weve both been upset. They are just using creative license to show that drama.
CC: How many products are in the inventory that you sell?
BP: About three hundred and fifty.
CC: Does your website service your clientele?
SB: Bill personally services the clients that were on his walking route. As far as the internet customers go, that is handled through his online director. People will e-mail him on the website. I usually help by showing Bill all the e-mails, so he can read them. I write something back on his behalf. The orders are handled by the director and Bill just gets the commission checks, which he doesnt mind at all. Do you Bill?
BP: No, I dont. (laughs)
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