Growing up in the small town of Ottumwa, Iowa, Tom Arnold dreamed of becoming an actor. There was just one problem. "There was no way to get there," Arnold says simply. "No one had ever done it, and if you talked about it, people thought you were crazy." Arnold's sanity has been questioned time and again in his career, but leaving his small town behind and coming to Los Angeles in 1988 to pursue standup might have been his smartest move. He remembers with endearment his early impressions of the city. "It was way more crowded than I imagined, but I loved it," he raves. "It was just like I'd seen on TV—there were beaches, people were happy, and it wasn't 30 below zero all the time."
Within a year of arriving here, Arnold scored the American dream: He became an actor and writer on the hit television show Roseanne, thanks to the help of his first wife, the show's star. But there was a nightmarish side as well: Tabloids were rife with tales of the pair's antics on and off the set, and Arnold was viewed as having no viable talent other than being able to marry well. It didn't help that Barr often behaved like a demented Charles Foster Kane, trying to force her creation on audiences by producing vehicles for Arnold, such as sitcoms The Jackie Thomas Show and Tom.
The thing was, Arnold was talented. Jackie Thomas, about a spoiled TV star, was far ahead of its time and would have been right at home alongside current shows Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm. As Thomas, Arnold was willing to play the clown, always self-effacing and frequently endearing. Ironically, it was after the marriage came to an ugly and public end in 1994—when most people expected Arnold to dissolve into obscurity—that he finally started to come into his own. First was his scene-stealing work as Arnold Schwarzenegger's sidekick in True Lies, which single-handedly resurrected his career. He followed that with another great supporting role, this time as the loudmouth friend opposite Hugh Grant in the comedy Nine Months. Then, just as Arnold was adjusting to his success and being in demand, he made a mistake. Several, actually: Big Bully. The Stupids. McHale's Navy—the list goes on. Arnold began churning out subpar comedies at an alarming rate, and his career went from promising back to punch line. There was the hope that maybe a brave director would step forward to revisit Arnold's potential, but it started to seem the actor was out of second chances.
The director who finally rose to the occasion was Don Roos, the biting satirist behind The Opposite of Sex, who has cast Arnold as a lovable cuckold in his new film, Happy Endings. In Roos' universe everyone is hiding secrets or trying to take something, with the exception of Arnold's sweet widower, Frank. When Frank's son (played by Jason Ritter, son of the late John Ritter) brings home Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to try to convince his father he's not gay, Jude sets her sights on the rich father, and Frank falls hopelessly in love. It's a performance Screen International called "guilelessly perfect," and it's unlike anything Arnold has ever played. And though Roos wrote it with Arnold in mind, it was a role the actor landed only after bigger names turned it down. "Most of the studios we went to in the beginning were so resistant to Tom," Roos says. "But when everyone else said no, we could go back to him. Let's just say we were very lucky with the people who said yes to our movie and the people who said no."
Arnold rewards his director with a sweet, goofy performance that earned raves when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. And Roos, for one, feels vindicated. "Oh, I have a list of all the people who were against him, and I feel very smug," Roos says, laughing. "The one thing we hear from everybody who goes to the movie is, 'Wow, Tom Arnold really moved me.' Part of it was frustrating, because I want to say, 'Where have you been all his career?'"
Back Stage West: Don Roos wrote Frank with you in mind, yet it's not a typical role for you. Do you see yourself in Frank?
Tom Arnold: About three years ago, Don gave me the script and said, "I've got a gift for you. I wrote this for you; read Frank." So I read it, and I remember sitting with my wife and reading how Frank was. He's flawed. He's vulnerable. He's 40 and dates women in their 20s and buys them stuff. I said, "I don't get the connection." My wife said, "I was 27 when we had our first date, and you took me to Gucci, remember?" So I guess there are some similarities. What I love about this film is, you learn so much about the backstory of characters through title cards. There's one that says when a woman broke up with Frank, he paid her credit card for six months without knowing it. Then, when he found out, he kept paying it for another six months. That's something I think I've done a couple times. When you're a guy like that, it's just sometimes easier. Even if a woman breaks up with you, you want them to do well, and it's easier than a confrontation. Playing Frank was emotionally harder than any other role I've done, because who wants to be vulnerable? I don't. That's the last thing you want to do, especially for someone who's tried to be funny. But Don cast the right people. My relationship with Jason Ritter clicked perfectly. I don't even know if there was any acting, there were so many real moments there. It's been that way with some of my best roles. Even True Lies, the way I feel about Arnold Schwarzenegger is very much like our relationship in real life. Joan Cusack is one of my favorite people, so for her to play my wife in Nine Months was thrilling.
BSW: Even though Don wanted you, you still had to fight for the role. How did you go about landing the part?
Arnold: It's funny; I was the first guy cast, and then I was the last guy cast. I knew Don in a way that is a good way to know people. Don and I have both been sober a long time, and he's one of the guys who, when someone is [in] trouble, we make some calls and go down and help them, and it helps keep us sober. He does a lot for people, and I liked him a lot from that. So I didn't have to audition because he wrote it for me. But during the period between writing and making the film, he had some trouble getting the film made. And there were a couple places that looked at the list of names and said, "Well, we like everybody, but I think we can do better than Tom Arnold." So Don fought that fight until it was too much to fight, and I had to say, "If I'm a real friend, not just a Hollywood friend, I want you to get your movie made. It's an honor you wrote something for me, and when I'll watch it, I'll think about that. But I want my friend to succeed with or without me." It took me a day to reconcile that, but I did. There was a list of great actors I heard being tossed about—Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas, Alec Baldwin—and I knew that I would cast them over me, too. So it wasn't offensive to me at all.
A little over a year ago I was at Lions Gate, [which] had the movie then. I was in a general meeting, talking about doing a horror movie, and I said, "You know, what I really want to do is Happy Endings. I love the script, I love Don Roos, and he wrote the part for me." They didn't know that. Lions Gate [is] a great place because they trust their writer-directors. And Mike Paseornek, the head of production, walked me to my car and said, "You know what? That idea is so weird that we love it. So if these other five guys pass, it's yours." We shook hands, and I didn't think anything else of it.
About two months later I was in New York, and Don called me and said, "This is the happiest call I've ever had to make. You start in two weeks, so shave your beard, whiten your teeth, and you can't smoke cigars the run of the movie." I had tried for nine years to quit cigars—I smoked, like, 12 a day and had tried everything to quit, even hypnosis. And I quit immediately and haven't smoked since, because I really wanted to do this. He also told me not to lose weight, even though I might have my shirt off. I wanted to start fasting, but he said not to.
BSW: Do you hear that a lot, that people want other names before you?
Arnold: Oh, yeah. It's how people do business, especially smaller companies that have to sell movies overseas. But it's worked both ways in my career at different times. When Paul Schrader was directing Touch, they really needed me to be in it [so they could get] financing. I love Paul and I loved the cast, so I did it. You can't be offended by it. Every once in a while you get somebody like James Cameron, who fights for you. When I met him, he instantly cast me in True Lies, even though I was in this crazy marriage and had very little experience in movies. It was an important part in the most expensive movie of all time, at that time. And he'd seen everybody—great actors like John Lithgow. I just happened to come in at the end. I almost didn't go in because I was, like, "I don't want bother this guy. The part's too big. If it was a bartender or something, maybe I'd have a shot." But I wanted to go down so I could say I met Jim Cameron. I didn't even look at the sides, because why learn? I wasn't going to get it. Once I got there, we talked for a while, and he said, "Since you're here, read a little bit." I did, and he took out his camera and asked to film me. I said, "Sure." Then he made a call and said, "Get Arnold down here." Ten minutes later, Arnold showed up in his Hummer. So he had us do the scene and filmed it and said, "You can't tell anyone for two weeks, but you've got it." I went home and I was stunned. I thought I knew what had happened, but I wasn't quite sure. And I couldn't tell anybody. Jim was doing it for Fox, and I'm sure when he told them the cast they were, like, "What?" But Jim Cameron is the kind of guy who says, "This is the movie I want to make, and if you want to make it with us, this is how it is."
I know Don went through some of the same thing with me. I'm sure there were people, even at the end, who were, like, "Wow." Some of the other actors in the cast—their representatives were just doing their jobs—were concerned. I know, because after it premiered at Sundance, they came up and apologized to me. And I don't blame them at all. Especially with independent movies, when you have a certain type of credibility at stake, [and] when you have the guy who starred in Soul Plane last summer…people are going to be concerned. But it was nice to have it work out and have people say, "I couldn't imagine anyone else in the role now." Once in a while something nice like that happens. I had it with True Lies and I'm getting it now, so we'll see what happens.
BSW: Does it ever get frustrating, when you feel maybe you've proven yourself already?
Arnold: Yeah, in some ways, but I have to accept that every day I have to prove myself. There are people whose whole frame of reference to me is my crazy first marriage, even though I've been divorced from it for over 11 years. And that's a long time in show business years. But there are people I meet with who call my agent and say, "Wow, he was nice. I had heard differently." You deal with that because whatever you were doing before, whether true or not, precedes you. Also, when I'm on TV, I'm always hyped up because I don't want people to get bored or change the channel, and they think, "That's how he is; he can't calm down and play something straight." I could complain, but, you know, I worked at a meatpacking plant in my 20s, so this is all gravy. If I have to prove myself to people one person at a time, I'll do the best I can and continue to live my life.
BSW: Someone who worked with you on The Best Damn Sports Show Period once told me you were one of the smartest people he'd ever met, but you seemed to want people to think you weren't. Is there any truth to that?
Arnold: You know, I always think about Laurel and Hardy and Lewis and Martin and the great comedy teams. Whoever played the dumb guy was usually the smartest one. Even if I play dumb, I just want to do it right. I just look at everything now as, whatever I do—going on a talk show, a small part in a movie—I want to do the best I can do. It's just as important to do eight minutes on Letterman as it is to star in a movie. Sometimes I make bad decisions, but I think we all get smarter as we go along.
BSW: Do you think being a tabloid fixture for so many years helped or hurt your career?
Arnold: Hurt. I see these young kids in the tabloids going to parties, and it never helps you be an actor. If you just want to be famous and go to parties, it will help you. But it will hurt you if you want a real career. I understand the logic is, "I'd better get what I can, because this time is short." I understand that; we're insecure. I've learned people have their ideas that are hard to change. Jason Ritter's dad was so talented, and, during interviews, people will ask me about him and make comments like, "There's only one talented person per family or marriage." That's what people said in my case. The woman was obviously talented, so I had to be a moron or something. It's just how we stereotype people. But you've got to assume that if a really smart, talented person is with somebody they think is smart and talented, there might be something there. Maybe not. In our case, it probably wasn't because I was so sexy. People think once you're with someone, you're home free and all the doors are open. I'm watching this Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes thing. When I see how well Nicole Kidman has done, I think she's done it in spite of being married to Tom Cruise, not because of [it]. He didn't give her the talent she has. He didn't give her the choices she made. She made some great, tough choices.
BSW: But it got your foot in the door and presented opportunities.
Arnold: Yes. In my case, it did help a little bit, initially. It will get you in the door, but people will think you're limited, and they will resent you. They feel they struggled, and it's just been handed to you. So, with my first marriage, I knew I had a great opportunity to write on Roseanne. To write on her show was the greatest thing ever. I would have been happy doing that; I wasn't even thinking about acting. After I got the job, I learned how to write. I knew how to be funny, but writing scripts is hard. But I was mixed in with a bunch of talented people. The best of us are like vampires that suck the talent out of other people. That's why, [when] you work with a great director and great actors, it makes you better. We're sponges, and nobody starts out great. You suck it up, and it helps you grow. I learned so much from being around the writers and the cast. After we broke up I remember people in the paper saying, "That guy will never work again." There were so many jokes. But I had already filmed True Lies, and Jim Cameron and everybody said, "Relax. When True Lies comes out in three months, everything's going to change." But you can't count on that. And the first time they tested that movie, Jim told me later that Arnold's name came up, and everybody cheered; Jamie Lee Curtis' name came up, and everybody cheered, then my name came up…and people booed. But at the end, when they filled out the cards, the guy they liked the best was me. So within two hours in that movie, something changed. The movie opened July 14, and the difference between July 13 and July 15 for me was incredible. This is how weird the town is: Nobody knew me, but because I was good in this hit movie, people assumed I must be an okay guy now. The feeling was palpable. They couldn't say I had zero talent anymore. It was a great thing. Of course in the last 10 years I've made mistakes and bad choices, and done things that, had I known the future, [I] would not have [done]. But I'm still working, and I have to enjoy that.
BSW: Do you think you're pickier now?
Arnold: Hopefully. I'll tell you later. When I did True Lies and Nine Months, I started getting offered a lot of money to do things. Because of the divorce and because I didn't take alimony, I wanted to work. So I started making movies because I was offered $2 million or $4 million. I did four movies in a row, and that slowed me down. Not only was it bad personally but professionally it was awful. And I made the mistake of saying, "This script is not as good as the others, but I will make it better." And you can't. It was a mistake to work that much and try to carry movies that probably weren't ready to be made. It was just too much. You have to find your place. I think I'm a very good supporting actor, and I love doing ensemble films like Happy Endings. If I ever totally star in a movie again, I'm going to be very, very careful.
BSW: Did you ever turn anything down you regretted?
Arnold: Yeah. And I should have done them. They were working with great directors and were smaller roles. But there wasn't as much money, and everybody encouraged me to try to be the next Jim Carrey. It doesn't haunt me. There's never been a role that I didn't get where I watched it and felt bad. I think with Happy Endings I would have. I love this film. However the movie does, just being there from day one and getting there after all the struggles, there have been a million rewards along the way.
When it opened Sundance, right before it started, Jeffrey Gilmore, who runs Sundance, literally grabbed me out of my seat. I thought I was being kicked out or something. He took me backstage, where it was so dark, and there was a little pool of light and this guy steps into it, and it was Robert Redford. And he said, "Tom, I can't meet everybody, but I had to meet you because I loved you in this movie." I couldn't get over it. I went back to my seat, thinking of being a kid in Iowa who loved Robert Redford, flashing on everything he's ever done and how surreal this was. There were times when I thought I would never have any more moments like that. I'd had them before; I'd taken them for granted. But it was a keeper for me.
I remember how Roseanne came out here and went on The Tonight Show and killed, and Johnny Carson called her over, and I remember watching it; it was her big moment. Because I was famous for being with her, I thought I would never have that moment, and it was okay because I liked being her husband and working with her and supporting that. But one day I went to see a movie, and they showed a trailer for my first movie, Hero. It was me and Dustin Hoffman onscreen, and that was my moment. I was, like, "Oh, my God, this is what it's about." You don't think you're going to get something. And when you do, it's even sweeter than you thought it would be. And you've got to enjoy it because it's a hard job.
Another funny thing about meeting Redford is, I'd almost done a movie with him. The director really wanted me to play the heavy, but the studio was nervous and went with a guy who does the scary roles a lot. We came so close to working together. It's the kind of role that, next year, I might have gotten, thanks to Happy Endings. But not this year. That's why I tell my agents, "You get me the opportunity; you get me in the door, that's all I ask of you. The results, you cannot control, but you get me in the door." Every good thing I've ever done, I feel like I've had to be forced down someone's throat. BSW