in memoriam

In Praise of Tom Petty’s Weird-As-Hell Acting Career

Tom Petty and Kevin Costner in The Postman. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

Though Tom Petty disputed his public image as the great “laid-back, laconic” rock star — his own children, he said, knew him as “the most intense, neurotic person” — it’s hard not to shake the idea of him as a patron saint of chillness, a cool dude who did basically whatever he felt like doing, no matter how random. Key to that image was Petty’s odd side career as an actor, which followed no observable logic or through line. Music legends’ forays into the movie business have often been marked by careerism or legacy-burnishing; Petty, by contrast, seemed to sign onto whatever project tickled his fancy at any given moment.

Petty’s first proper big-screen role came in the Timothy Hutton afterlife rom-com 1987, Made in Heaven. (He’d previously appeared as himself in 1978’s FM.) In Heaven, the rocker plays a criminal named Stanky — not “Stinky,” never “Stinky,” though to be honest it’s not like “Stanky” is much better — who comes out on the wrong side of a barroom standoff. The movie has been forgotten, perhaps justifiably, but it also contains cameos from Ric Ocasek and Neil Young.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Petty made a series of appearances on his friend Garry Shandling’s shows, playing a friendly neighbor on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and an ornery version of himself of The Larry Sanders Show. Neither is online (though you can see a bit of one of his appearances on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show here) but you can get a sense of their vibe in this behind-the-scenes video from a few years ago, which shows the pair shooting the shit about touring, recording, and reconnecting with old friends before they’re gone. When Shandling died last year, Petty took the time to pen a remembrance of his “dear friend” for Billboard.

In 2002, Petty was one of a cavalcade of rock stars to lend their voices to the classic Simpsons episode “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” which sees Homer and his buddies attend a rock-and-roll summer camp. It’s a brief appearance, but it has fun tweaking Petty’s image as a lighthearted good-time guy.

A few years later, Petty dipped his feet into animation more deeply, joining the cast of King of the Hill as Elroy “Lucky” Kleinschmidt, a lovable ne’er-do-well whose main character trait is winning $53,000 in settlement money after slipping in pee at a Costco bathroom. This wasn’t a one-off thing, either — Lucky appeared in 28 episodes, even getting his own redemption arc!

But you can’t talk about Petty’s acting career without talking about his most monumental role, playing the mayor of Bridge City in Kevin Costner’s mail-based postapocalyptic epic The Postman. The mayor is a deus-ex-machina character who helps Costner’s renegade mailman escape Will Patton’s evil general; based on Costner’s line about the mayor being famous once, and the mayor’s habit of spouting Tom Petty lyrics, we’re meant to believe that Petty is actually playing an alternate-universe version of himself. Yes, that’s right: In Postman canon, after the apocalypse Tom Petty fled to a small town near the U.S.-Canada border, eventually gaining enough local goodwill to be elected mayor, a job in which he spent his days riding a gondola back and forth across a dam. The Postman is a pretty bad movie, but if that doesn’t make you smile, I don’t know what to tell you.

In Praise of Tom Petty’s Weird-As-Hell Acting Career