i love the eighties

An Eighties-TV Thug of the Week Reminisces

Are all the ads for the movie remake of The A-Team making you nostalgic for the eighties heyday of the bloodless action TV show? The dial (and it was an actual dial then) was filled with heroes like B.A. Baracus, Michael Knight, Hardcastle, McCormick, Simon, Simon, and Magnum trading weekly punches with a rotating group of bad guys and driving their cars off the road, only to have their nemeses crawl out the windows of their overturned rides unscathed and throw their hats on the ground in frustration. If you find yourself trolling Hulu for a hit of the past, you’ll see a very familiar face on the receiving end of those roundhouses and car chases: omnipresent character actor M.C. Gainey, who just wrapped an arc on Justified, but whom you know as Mr. Friendly the Other on Lost, the naked guy who chases Paul Giamatti in Sideways, and countless other movies and TV shows. When he first arrived in Hollywood, however, he found steady work as a thug/criminal/dirty cop of the week, popping up on everything from The Dukes of Hazzard to Hunter to T.J. Hooker to The A-Team, to menace the heroes and inevitably be subdued. We called up Gainey to have him reminisce about those heady days of taking punches and holding Daisy Duke hostage.

How did you become the go-to guy for thug roles?
I’ll tell you what it was like. When I came to Hollywood 33 years ago this month, I was coming from acting school and from several years in regional theater and college theater, and I had just been strictly a theatrical actor. I loved movies, but I didn’t really think about myself being in them too much. I got to town and they took one look at me and they said, “Give this guy a gun.” There was never any discussion about it. I just had that look that looked like a crook to them.

Did they have to do anything else to “crook you up,” as it were?
The great thing about those TV shows is that every week they needed a new gang. Every week. And so it was work one week on Dukes of Hazzard, next week on T.J. Hooker, next week on Simon & Simon, next week on Knight Rider, next week on The A-Team. But some of it was really silly in a delightful sort of way. The costume du jour in those days for bad guys was the Members Only jacket, and over at Universal they had a rack of them for me in my size in different colors. And I would go in and they would say, “What did you wear last week on Simon & Simon?” “Uh, I think I wore maroon.” “Let’s go with gray this week.” “No I wore gray on T.J. two weeks ago.” “Okay we’ll go for blue then.” And so the Members Only jacket has always represented to me goonwear.

Did your roles get bigger over time?
I started out as Goon No. 3, then Goon No. 2, and then Goon No. 1. I sort of worked my through the goon hierarchy. For me it was very exciting because it was silliness, but it was silliness that mattered to me. I realized that after years of studying Shakespeare and Chekhov and regional repertory theater, what I really wanted to do was bust in and rob a bank and jump in the screaming getaway car and tear through the city and get in a shootout. And it was really a magic turn of events for me. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

You mentioned the Goon-of-the-Week conceit for these shows. On The A-Team, you were part of a brother clan during your episode.

I was, with the great [character actor] Don Stroud. He was like half a generation ahead of me. He was a bad guy in Coogan’s Bluff and was in The Buddy Holly Story. The funny thing was that two of my other brothers on the episode were from the Epper family, which had generations of stuntmen. Three generations of that family have doubled me. You know you’ve been around a long time when your stuntman says, “Yeah, my grandfather doubled you.” [Laughs.]

Did you get to do a lot of your own stunts back then?

A lot of times in the fighting, the punching, the getting knocked down aspect of it, I was happy to do all of that. I’ll be honest with you — I was stupid; I would have done anything. [Laughs.] Drive a car 70 miles per hour, slide it sideways? I would have tried it. But they generally had a pretty strong structure of the stunts, so there was a limit of what you could do. And I used to feel resentful about that. I used to say, “Wow I really want to do this.” Man, times have changed. Now when I get there the first thing I look for is my stunt guy.

Did anything ever go awry on a job?
I was doing a TV show — and since you’re publishing this, I think it shall remain nameless — but I was holding most of the cast hostage in the Boar’s Nest. Oops, I guess I let it out, didn’t I? [Laughs.] When the heroes were to burst in, with their guns a-blazin’, I was to pick up Daisy Duke, move my arm around her waist, and lift her up to use as a human shield. And in the rehearsal it went fine, but in the first take, she started kicking like a banshee. Fighting and kicking. And I thought, My God, what an actress, she saved it for the first take. And they said, “Cut, cut, cut!” I didn’t know it but I had pushed her breasts up out of the top of her little costume. And I thought, I’ll never work in this town again. There was an awful lot of I’ll never work in this business again going on, ya know?

Based on stories like that, did you ever think you’d last this long?
I remember, I think I was on the first season of The A-Team and it had just started airing when we were doing our episode, and we came in after lunch and George Peppard called out and got everyone quiet on the set. And he read the overnights and we were No. 1 in our time slot. And, oh man, it was such a big deal. And I was like, “Wow, George Peppard cares about that stuff?” And it took me 30 years to realize, Oh hell to the yeah! When you get into the third act of your career you care about having a hit series.

Have you ever wanted to play more cops or something different?

I’ve played a few cops through the years, and they were always trigger happy or racist or crooked. Con Air was kind of a turning point for me, in my mind. I never shot anybody in that movie — I never did anything bad — because there were so many bad guys in that movie. I said, the hell with this, I’m just gonna be a lovable guy. I’m like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. That was a turning point for me — that I didn’t have to hit all the darker notes in characters. I take a great deal of pleasure in trying to take the edge off of these characters now.

You really got to do that on Lost.
I came in Lost at the end of the first season and kidnapped Walt and everybody was like, “Oh this guy is gonna be bad.” And they wound up calling the character Mr. Friendly. Because I would not play the darker aspects of it, I insisted on playing him as a friendly guy. And the character turned out to be gay. I felt like somebody on that island had to be gay; somebody in every group is gay! Why do they all have to be macho bad guys?

We always loved Mr. Friendly and were disappointed he didn’t show up in the finale. Did they ask you to return?
There was talk about that, but I just did a five-part arc on Justified, so I was never really available at the right time. I would have loved to have gone back, though! Just to see those guys again. It’s such a great Hollywood story. Forget all the stuff about what Lost is, look at this group of people! Apart from Matthew Fox and Terry O’Quinn, they were snatched from nowhere, overnight, and they’re in a fucking hit show? That’s Hollywood, baby!

An Eighties-TV Thug of the Week Reminisces