John Goodman’s laugh could disarm nations. The surprise isn’t in how forcefully it comes out—in face-scrunching, body-shaking waves—but when. It’ll drop like an anvil during a question you hadn’t meant to be funny, or explode in the middle of a sentence he’d begun earnestly. Is he laughing at you, or with you, or at himself, or at some hilarious memory that he’s too smart to share?
I first hear it when I ask if he’d like to walk through Central Park. It’s only a few blocks west of the Loews Regency, his base of operations while in town to promote his two fall movies: Ben Affleck’s Argo and Robert Zemeckis’s Flight. Goodman is in stitches, then suddenly he isn’t. “No, I don’t,” he finally says.
We’re returning to the Regency after failing to get a seat at a diner, Viand, around the corner. Barely wide enough for a row of booths and a counter, the restaurant seemed to shrink even further when Goodman walked in. “She didn’t scout the territory,” Goodman tells his publicist, pointing an accusing thumb at me. “Viand was jammed. And steamy.”
Goodman, 60, looks trimmer and healthier than he has in the past. (When he was last on Broadway, in 2009’s Waiting for Godot, he weighed over 300 pounds.) “I already got my exercises this morning,” he announces. Specifically, he went to Equinox and used the elliptical machine. “That’s all my knees can handle anymore. I got the arth-er-itis.” He walks with a noticeable limp; he’s had one knee replaced with titanium and expects to have surgery on the other. What caused the damage? Another explosion of laughter. “Thirty years of being a slob. I earned it.”
He’s been sober since 2007, having battled alcoholism since his twenties. “It was terrible for my family,” says Goodman, who lives in New Orleans with his wife, Anna Beth (their daughter, Molly, is 22 and in film school), and tries to attend an AA meeting every morning. “If I’d picture in my mind a drink—usually straight out of the bottle—I couldn’t not do it.” Acting in plays, “I’d have the shakes so bad I’d have to have a drink to get through the show. I’m lucky I never got fired.” Then one night, he says, “I bottomed out in a hotel room and called for help.”
Today, he just smokes. Outside Viand, before we met, I watched him sneak a cigarette between two parked delivery vans. He buries his head in his hands when I mention it. “I’ll quit as soon as I get home,” he says, explaining that he reverts to old habits in times of stress, which began early this year with the filming of a British mini-series called Dancing on the Edge (he plays a thirties millionaire who invests in a black jazz band) and won’t let up until he’s finished promoting Argo and Flight. When he can’t smoke, he chews ice. “I don’t want any enamel. I don’t deserve any,” he says.
Despite his self-deprecation, Goodman’s career is on an upswing. He was the most prominent American star of last year’s Best Picture winner, The Artist. “I didn’t have to learn any lines!” he says when asked why he signed on to play a studio boss in the French silent film. Argo is a another Oscar front-runner. In it, he plays John Chambers, the real-life makeup artist behind The Planet of the Apes, who worked with CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) to create a fake sci-fi movie as a ruse to free six American Embassy staffers during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. “Tony knew who to contact in Hollywood immediately,” says Goodman. “Who you gonna call? John Chambers!”
More recently, Goodman reteamed with Joel and Ethan Coen in New York to shoot Inside Llewyn Davis, about the sixties Greenwich Village folk-music boom, due next year. It’s his fifth movie with the brothers. Goodman credits other directors’ fondness for Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and The Big Lebowski for helping him get work even when he was at his least employable. He stops laughing when I ask whether he and the Coens stayed in touch during the twelve years between O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis. “In the back of my mind, I wondered if I’d screwed up somehow,” he says. “I never showed up drunk on set with them, but I always wondered if it had to do with that, something they’d heard. It was at a time in my life I was blaming myself for a lot of things. I wasn’t working a lot during that time, and I just worried what effect that had.” He sighs. “Alcoholics’ anxiety.”
He’s just glad the gang’s back together. In Davis, he plays a heroin-addicted jazz musician who accompanies Oscar Isaac’s title character on a road trip from New York to Chicago. “All I do is sit in the back seat and bitch about stuff,” says Goodman. He had such a good time that he forgot until halfway through the shoot to ask the Coens which instrument his character is supposed to play. “Ethan said, ‘Well, you’re a trumpet player.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m a pianist.’ And Joel thought I played sax. Between the three of us, we’ve got a whole combo down.”
Goodman is just coming off another reunion: He filmed a sitcom pilot for NBC with Roseanne Barr called Downwardly Mobile. “She owned a motel–slash–trailer park in Arizona, and I was the caretaker of the joint,” he says. Both characters were single, “and you can probably see where that was going.” The network ultimately rejected the show, but “we had a ball doing it.”
At the premiere party for Flight later that week, Goodman ushers me past a crowd of autograph-seekers to an outside corner of the Time Warner Center where he can smoke in peace. “I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but at the same time, I don’t want to spend my whole night signing things,” he says, taking a drag. His index finger and thumb are wrapped in gauze. When he opened his hotel-room window to light up the other night, “the top of the window came off, sheared in the middle, and came down like a guillotine.” But he was booked on Letterman, so he did the show before getting stitches. “I looked like a goofball, but it killed 30 seconds of conversation,” he says.
He needs another cigarette. The noise and schmoozing are stressing him out, plus tonight is the first time he’s seen Flight—about an alcoholic pilot (Denzel Washington) who makes a miraculous crash landing—and he’s still trying to shake it. “It’s such a creepy feeling. I knew what [Washington’s character] was thinking about,” says Goodman. “That shit right out of the bottle.” He shivers. “It didn’t trigger any feelings of wanting to drink. I just remember creepy behavior. You’d tell people, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna quit. I don’t need it,’ and then that’s all you can think about.”
Seeing the movie also brought back memories of the painful hair extensions he wore to play Flight’s comic-relief cocaine dealer. “This guy’s trapped in 1975,” Goodman explains. “I looked like what Brian Wilson probably wanted to look like at one time, like the older Lebowski brother.” He’s checking the Cardinals score on his iPhone when two women ask for a photo. “Get the hell away from me!” Goodman growls. They look stunned. Then he laughs and opens his arms.
*This article originally appeared in the November 5, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.