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Jeffrey Tambor on His New Comedy, Bent, and the Secret Origin of Arrested Development’s Oscar

Jeffrey Tambor. Photo: DAVID CROTTY/Patrick McMullan

On the new NBC show Bent (premiering tonight at 9 p.m.), Amanda Peet is a divorced lawyer, David Walton her contractor, and Jeffrey Tambor his unemployed dad, Walter, who inserts himself into their lives because he can’t find work as an actor. Walter likes to reminisce about past glories — stints on China Beach, Herman’s Head, and Picket Fences — which feels like an inverse of Tambor’s career: In the eighties, he was an omnipresent failed-sitcom star (The Ropers, the TV version of Nine to Five) and itinerant guest (The Love Boat, Hill Street Blues), but later in life became a TV-comedy icon on such ahead-of-their-time programs as Max Headroom, The Larry Sanders Show, and Arrested Development, which he’ll return to as soon as the new seasons currently planned for Netflix get scripts. (Could that mean he’ll have the chance to juggle appearances on Bent and Arrested at the same time? If only Walter had such luck.) Fortunately for Vulture, Tambor did have a rare few minutes for a chat.

Walter keeps a tally of all his failed auditions: 2,163 so far. Can you relate?
I think it comes with the territory! [Laughs.] You scratch any actor, and you’ll get their stats. You remember all of them. I can remember one audition where they stuck a wig on my head so tight, I couldn’t move my mouth; I won’t forget that one easily. And I didn’t get that one, by the way. I liked the fact that the script for this pilot described Walter as “in his fifties, movie-star handsome.” Come on — you’ve got to take that role! They probably envisioned it for someone with hair.

He doesn’t seem to realize he’s bald.
Nor do I. Do you think I’m bald? [Laughs.] I don’t think about it. I started to lose my hair at age 15, 16, and rather than mourn that, I used it to play the older fellows in summer stock. But I think he probably has a little resentment. But he’s an actor, so it’s all about illusion.

He’s got a motto: “I’m bent, not broken.” This makes your third show where you’ve got a catchphrase …
Hey, now! Yes! That’s a career! What’s the next motto going to be? “Hey, now!” changed my life. 

How? Do people come up and ask you to say that all the time?
People still shout it at me. People ask me to put it on their voice mail. It’s touching. Did you know Howard Stern uses it [as a sound effect] every four seconds? I was being interviewed by him once, and I laid it down on a track for him. He asked me, “Just say it into the microphone,” and now it plays on a loop. I was talking to Garry Shandling just the other day; we spent about 45 minutes catching up and remembering things from the show.

What was your favorite moment from The Larry Sanders Show?
There are two: It’s a toss-up between the time [my character] Hank refused to take off the yarmulke and when Hank took over the show. Garry and I talked about Hank hosting, because it was so transformative. We didn’t want to rehearse it, because I wanted it to feel like Hank hadn’t rehearsed it. And it still makes me crack up! It was so much fun remembering all those moments.    

Did you know there’s a greatest hits for Hank Kingsley on YouTube?
What? You have to understand, I have 2-year-old twin boys, so I use YouTube for “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”

So which gets more requests: “Hey, now!” or “There’s always money in the banana stand” or “No touching!”?
That makes four mottos! It’s a four motto family. Oh, get this: We took our kids to one of those medieval jousting restaurants — and you know they make money on the deal, because there’s no cutlery — and we were sitting in the king-and-queen section. This waiter kid runs down the aisle towards us, yells, “No touching!” and runs off. That’s my life! I mean, it’s okay with me, but can you imagine what the poor people sitting around us must have thought?

Did you have any idea that shows like Max Headroom, The Larry Sanders Show, or Arrested Development would become these beloved cult classics?
No. I was behind the curve. I had to read the script for Max Headroom three or four times to understand it. I did know that The Larry Sanders Show would be a smash, because I understood that one. I ascribe to the idea that you want to go to the geniuses, people who know how to write, and it had such great writers: Garry, Peter Tolan, Judd Apatow, Paul Simms. And it wasn’t just that, but the way they shot it, documentary-style, which they did on Arrested Development, too. You see that all the time now. I always remember this one moment, where if you replay it, you can see a little blue paint on the wall, from when David Cross was moving out of the shot while doing his Blue Man Group thing. 

Do you know yet when you go back into production for the resurrected show or the movie? Is there anything you’d like to see happen to George Bluth Sr.?
I wonder if we’ll all get a price break on Netflix now? All I know is that they’re going to make a movie. I swear to you, I am not being devious, but all I know is that they’re writing it now. Oh, and that whole rumor about Michael Cera holding it all up? That was a ruse. That wasn’t true. I’m excited, but that’s all I know, and I’ve never been able to anticipate what they’ll do. If I show up and [creator] Mitch Hurwitz says, “We don’t need you today. Bob Einstein is going to be your voice [as Larry Middleman],” I’d still be interested. Do you know how his twin brother came about? We were fitting a wig for George, for a scene when he’d have hair , and I walked outside, and Mitch was way high up in the writers’ room and looking down, and he saw me with the wig — it wasn’t cut yet, so it came down past my shoulders — and he said, “Hold it right there!” And that’s how Oscar was born. That’s what was so great about the show, how stuff that happens on set could transform the show.

Do you have the same opportunities on Bent? Is that how one of Walter’s day jobs, playing piano at a department store, came about?
[Laughs.] I can’t play a note of piano, although I did play a pianist in Never Again with Jill Clayburgh. You saw my proclivity at bongos in one Bent scene, but there’s no wrong way to play bongos. But that’s all part of the writers’ creativity. Although when he’s teaching a class, I use a gesture — head and heart — and that’s a gesture I use when I’m teaching, so there is a bit of me in there.

Walter wants to be a leading man. But you’re usually a character actor. Never Again was one of your few leading roles.
I never wanted to be No. 1 on the call sheet. No. 4 or 5 is good. That’s really all I ever wanted to do. There’s freedom and loveliness in that. No duress. People think it’s all eating grapes by the pool, but acting can be hard work. My role model for acting, serious acting, was Charles Laughton. I liked that he was different. I’m not movie-star handsome like George Clooney. I remember when I was doing Meet Joe Black, and there was a scene where I was drinking wine with Brad Pitt, and the light hit him, and I remember going, “Oh my God — that’s what movie-star handsome is.” I’m a little more eccentric. But those are the kind of roles I want to do. I’d rather be Captain Bligh than Marlon Brando, say, if we were doing Mutiny on the Bounty.

Do you ever find yourself being typecast?
Bosses, dentists, principals, and therapists — they’re all bald. [Laughs.] And dads, like in The Hangover. I once lost a role because my eyes were too warm. I was reading for a gangster part, and I was told my reading was perfect, but I feel too much pain. My most unusual character was this 500-pound guy who married Demi Moore in a Tales From the Crypt episode, because it was such a complete transformation. He was just so corpulent, disfigured, and I remember coming out of the trailer, and people thought it was the real thing, and they were going, “Ugh!” And I thought, This is what it feels like to be ugly.

You’ve seen some major creature transformations in Hellboy, Hellboy 2. Do you have a whole new fan following since working on those?
Guillermo del Toro is another genius in my life. When he first sent me the Hellboy script, I didn’t know a comic book from anything. But I thought, Whoever this guy is, I’ve got to do it. And it was a fantastic experience. I’ve read some comic books and sci-fi since then, but I don’t usually go there. I still think that my friend Ron Perlman deserves an Academy Award for playing Hellboy. I keep telling him that. My goodness, what an actor! But it depends where I am. If I’m dropping my daughter off at school, then I’m Mr. Salomone from Eloise to all her friends, or the big-nosed thug from Tangled.

Your first movie was with Al Pacino, when you played a lawyer in … And Justice for All. And you’ve just reteamed with Pacino to play yet another lawyer in the upcoming Phil Spector murder-trial movie for HBO.
I was so scared making … And Justice for All, because I didn’t know anything, not even what a mark on the floor is. Al helped me through that. So I reminded him of that, and I told him it was so great to be working together again. We have two or three scenes together. And he and Helen Mirren have this one really jaw-dropping courtroom scene together. I just came back from shooting that in New York, and I was wondering, Is this the end? Have I come full circle?

Jeffrey Tambor on His New Comedy, Bent, and the Secret Origin of Arrested Development’s Oscar