Dan Lauria Recounts The Wonder Years & Life As An Actor
Brooklyn-born Dan Lauria is a renowned actor and beloved TV Dad to many. He is best known for playing the memorable role of Jack Arnold in The Wonder Years, and also Jack Sullivan on Sullivan and Son. Dan is someone who has been immersed in the TV business long enough to have seen Hollywood undergo some massive change, which is something we dive deep into during this episode. He has endless stories about some of the iconic greats, many of which were his friends, co-stars, and even mentors.
Dan hasn’t spent his career merely acting on TV, but also writing, and being fully entrenched in the mounting theater scene. Join us on today’s episode as we talk about his deep-rooted affinity for old movies, his influential time overseas serving his country in the US Marines, his uncensored thoughts on the film industry and how it’s evolved, and how he went from hometown Sports hero, to acting legend.
We chat about his early days in the business working restaurant jobs with Bruce Willis and John Goodman , his extensive list of IMDb credits, and the impact his iconic character, Jack, had on America in the hit TV show, “The Wonder Years.” Dan dives into the details of the show’s untimely ending, and shares what would have happened to each of the characters, had the show continued. He gets into the reasons “The Wonder Years” was so successful, including the use of masterful storytelling, solid writing, and sparing editing. It’s no wonder the show got its own reboot on ABC.
We go all the way back to Dan’s high school days, and talk about what it was like to be a schoolboy at Lindenhurst High School on Long Island, New York, and eventually a college kid at Southern Connecticut State University. We also talk about his enriching experience in adulthood with the Big Brothers & Sisters program, and even his newfound tik-tok dancing skills.What you might not know about Dan is that during his early years, in between theater jobs, he was a substitute teacher and a football and wrestling coach. He’s also been known among his friends to have “double-feature night,” where he plays back-to-back classic movies at his home and invites his friends and fellow cast members to partake.
Dan is not only an impressively talented and well-accomplished actor, but he is a true humanitarian and someone I now call a friend. We hope you enjoy this inspiring episode!
In this Episode
[00:46] – Jason introduces his next guest, Dan Lauria, beloved actor and TV Dad to many, best known for playing the character Jack Arnold on the hit TV series, The Wonder Years.
[02:16] – Jason explains how he knows Dan Lauria and how they initially became connected.
[05:53] – Dan talks about how the editing and acting style of movies & TV shows has changed and evolved.
[09:48] – Dan mentions his acting mentors Charles Durning and Jack Klugman, and how they shaped the way he views movies and appreciates the art of acting.
[10:51] – Jason asks Dan about growing up in Long Island.
[12:43] – Dan shares the story of how he first got into acting, and his first theatrical experiences.
[16:27] – Jason asks Dan about how the part of Jack was cast, and how Dan ended up working on The Wonder Years.
[19:26] – Jason and Dan discuss the role of narrators in movies and TV, and how the view on narration has shifted over the years.
[20:38] – Dan and Jason talk about the importance of storytelling and writing in television, and how editing plays a part in bringing a story to life.
[21:37] – Dan shares why The Wonder Years should have never been cancelled, what really happened, and where the characters would be if the show had continued
[26:57] – Jason goes through Dan’s IMDb and asks him about past characters he’s portrayed
[33:00] – Jason asks Dan about whether he prefers stage acting, or television acting, and they discuss the differences between the two.
[34:47] – Jason asks about “making it” as an actor in California versus New York, and Dan tells him about working at a restaurant with Bruce Willis, and hanging out with John Goodman and Shaquille O’Neal.
[37:49] – Jason shares his story about his son meeting John Travolta.
[41:30] – Dan talks about his theater days working with Charles Durning, Dom DeLuise, Peter Falk, and Jack Klugman, and how they eventually honored Jack & Charlie’s simultaneous deaths.
[46:46] – Dan describes how he started a play reading program that eventually landed literary agents for over 70 writers.
[48:07] – Dan talks about being National Big Brother of the year in 1972, and what a wonderful program it is.
[49:12] – Jason goes deeper into his military background.
[50:52] – Dan tells a story about Jimmy Steward from the monthly meetings he attends with the National Veterans Foundation.
[53:30] – Dan gives advice to aspiring actors who are looking to catch their big break.
[58:09] – Jason asks Dan about his recent TikTok dance video.
[58:23] – Jason thanks Dan for coming on the show, and they talk about what Dan is working on these days.
Dan Lauria, thank you so much.
It means the world and I’m going to talk about the story about how we connected. So my son’s… The whole reason why I’m here is that I’ve got a… He’s now 17. He was 11 when we moved out here-
We moved out here from Georgia, actually.
Yeah, we moved out here from Georgia.
I don’t hear any accent at all.
No, I grew up in Long Island. We’ve got the whole Lindenhurst kind of connection here.
Yeah. That’s what I thought. I was saying maybe I had something wrong here.
Yeah. So the story is, so we ended… I sold everything so that we can come out here and I’ve got a… He was 10 at the time, my son, Zach, so he can pursue a young career in acting, right?
So we ended up out here and he’s been going through all the auditions and all that fun stuff. And it’s been a couple years but the connection to you was, for whatever reason, they ended up showing an episode of The Wonder Years in school.
Oh yeah, they still do.
In elementary schools, yeah.
And so he watched this episode and he’s like, “This is the greatest show ever,” right? And so he went home and he literally binge watched every single episode.
A boy of excellent taste.
Of course! He was so into it. I’m like, “Well, why don’t we go see the house where it was filmed? I hear it’s in Burbank.” And so we drove over there.
University Place, right?
Yep. Drove over there and it looks just like the same thing. And took a couple of photos in front of it and, sure enough, I posted it on Facebook. And so after I’d posted it on Facebook, I got a direct message from an old friend that I went to high school with by the name of Casey Riley.
Oh sure, yeah. Casey, she’s like my goddaughter. As a matter of fact, one of her sisters is my goddaughter.
Is that right?
And so Casey’s like, “Hey, that’s Uncle Dan. Uncle Dan is, I think, in New York right now filming, but he lives in L.A. Maybe I can connect you two.”
Yeah, I went to high school with her dad, who I just talked to yesterday.
Is that right?
Huh. You were so nice to speak with me and my son. If you remember, before COVID you invited Zach and I over to your home.
To watch an old movie.
We did. It was a boxing movie.
Yep. And the thing that I love about that whole experience was being connected with you because you were like a TV dad to me. And I’m sure you were a TV dad to a lot of other people in this world.
Well, there was one Father’s Day where the LA Times said, “Of all the TV dads, who would you want to be your real dad?” I wasn’t even on the list.
The next year they said, “Of all the TV dads, what TV dad was most like the dad you had?” I was number one.
Number one. Is that right?
So nobody wanted me, but everybody had me.
So that’s a tribute to the writers.
I love it. And when I grew up, I didn’t have a father figure. I had a grandfather and I had a grandmother and a mother who had me young, and so for people like me, we needed that. Right? We really did.
The writing shows you how powerful the medium can be when it wants to be.
It really is. And so when went to your home, this is surreal. I’m sitting here with my TV dad watching old movies. And the coolest thing about that whole experience was not only meeting all of your friends that were there. It seems like you do this on a regular basis.
Yeah, before COVID we did it every Sunday night.
Right. Just how you deconstructed the art of acting as we watched the movie.
It’s becoming a forgotten art, yes.
It really is. And so before I got there, I never watched movies that way. And most people don’t.
No. No, and I really think they don’t know what they’re missing. So this stuff about your generation not being able to sustain a full scene in one take. You know, they need that stimulation, they’ve just got to be cut, cut, cut, cut. That’s ridiculous. It hasn’t changed since the Greeks. If you tell a good story, people will listen.
And when you do all that editing-
…Subliminally, your mind is taken out of the story. The reason why you can watch an old movie over and over again, like It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas and still cry is because Frank Capra is taking you off your couch and bringing you into Bedford Falls, and you can’t do that if you cut on every line. It just doesn’t grab your heart.
And to watch some really great actors in new movies, sometimes it’s embarrassing and then you watch the same older version of that movie and you’re sitting there with a tear in your eye and hearty gut wrenching laughs come out.
Just to give you one example, I don’t think you can be a better actor than Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin and Michael Caine. And you watch the modern, the newer, Going in Style, it’s almost unwatchable. But watch the old one with George Burns, Lee Strasberg, and Art Carney. And I’ve showed it to those group of kids that come over and they go, “This is so beautiful.” And you see entire portions of the old one are not even in the new one. And their excuse is, because they say your generation won’t sit there that long. Well, they won’t sit there that long for bad dialog.
A bad story. But they’ll sit there for a good story and I guarantee you they will not sit there for a bad story regardless of who acts.
But they don’t understand that.
They don’t understand it.
And it really hurts your generation as far as talent goes because a lot of good actors who are capable of doing a scene without the assistance of editing are now not getting hired because producers say we’re going to cut on every line anyway. So half of acting is gone right there because nobody listens.I’m working with actors right now who cannot do two lines at a time. They’re not asked to so they don’t bother. They say what’s that line. They say it and they know it’s going to be cut.
They feed it to them and it’s done.
Yeah. And what I don’t like about it most is there are some really good young actors out there. I work with them on stage and they’re being passed over for somebody who has more hits-
Yeah, more followers, right?
More followers or because they’re better looking, whatever. But the art of acting is not brought into the equation. And that, I think, hurts everybody. Definitely hurts writers.
They’re afraid to write a speech more than four or five lines.
Because nobody is going to deliver it.
Well, nobody is going to deliver it and they’re going to cut it up anyway.
They’re going to cut it up anyway.
So that’s really what I have young people come over to watch old movies or when I do my lecture at colleges, it’s basically on that.
Well you allowed both Zach and I to watch a movie from a different perspective and appreciate the true art behind it. Especially when you’re talking about some of these older movies.
Oh yeah, and I was fortunate because Charles Durning was my mentor and Jack Klugman. And I got to meet a lot of the old actors. And through the Veteran’s Foundation, not that I acted with them, but I got to sit with James Stewart and Robert Mitchum. Robert Mitchum even did a reading for our reading series once. And Rod Steiger and… They were well aware of how the acting was being diminished each year we go on.
Well, hopefully, that will change.
Well I think you’re seeing when a good young writer/director gets to direct his own film and his final cut… You see the movies that get nominated, they’re all the ones with long scenes with cuts.
Right? The big blockbuster, of course, they’ve got to nominate because it makes money but they usually don’t win.
Well, who’s voting for it, right? I mean the people that appreciate the art. That’s why.
Right. So there’s still some hope.
So you’re a Long Island boy.
But born in Brooklyn.
I went to Copiague High School. I lived with my grandma and my grandpa.
Right. That’s where you met Casey.
Yeah, yep, Copiague High School.
I grew up in Copiague and then Lindenhurst.
It’s the same, really.
Right next door.
But big rivals, right?
Oh yeah, always. I was always playing against my friends one way or the other.
Yep. You went to Lindenhurst High School. You graduated from there?
Yeah, I graduated from Lindenhurst. Went to Southern Connecticut on a football scholarship because I definitely didn’t have the grades.
And I was in the Marine Corps for three years. Then I went to University of Connecticut for my Masters, which is in Playwriting.
Football. Now did you, in high school, think that you were going to pursue this acting? Because I think about it. It’s hard to get out of Lindenhurst.
Right? And end up in Hollywood.
Well, it was a good life there, you know.
Yeah, right. It’s very family oriented. Your kids go to the same school that you went to. You buy bakery goods from the same-
People. And then their sons and daughters, yeah.
That’s how Long Island life is, right? And so most people don’t have the courage to get out of Long Island, unless you go to college and then it sounds like that was part of your journey. But back in high school, was there that whole acting bug at all?
I had an aunt, my Aunt Adele, who lived with us for a while and I think she was a frustrated actress. And I’d come home from practice and she’d say, while I’m eating dinner, she’d say, “Go to bed.” So I’d go to bed real early and at two o’clock in the morning, she’d wake me up and go “James Cagney” and we’d watch the Late, Late Show. So I loved old movies.
And then when I got into college, it was during spring football, I was telling a joke on the football field before practice and this little old lady came over with her cane and tapped me on the shoulder pad and said, “Would you like to be in a play?” And I say, “You know, I always wanted to try that.” And she said, “I know.” And I said, “How would you know?” And she said, “Because I’m the greatest acting teacher in the world.” And it was Constance Welch who started at Yale, but ended her teaching career over at Southern Connecticut, which was right down the block from Yale.
And she dragged me over to the Theater Department and as far as I was concerned it was just like playing ball. So I loved it. And even while I was in the service, in the Marine Corps, one of her first students was James Whitmore who, after studying with her, went into World War II as a Marine, and she would send him plays. So when I was in, she sent me plays to read while I was overseas.
Wow, she kept in touch with you, huh?
Yeah. So then when I came out, I was going to go to-
So you graduated UConn-
Then went I got out of the Marine Corps, I was going to go right into the City but I wrote a play and it won a grant to the University of Connecticut so I went and got my MFA.
So when you went to college, your football scholarship, you did all four years, or did you end up leaving a little bit early or-
No, no, no. I did actually four and a half.
Four and a half years, and from there you got drafted into the Marines or did you go-
No I went in as a… It’s not ROTC for Marines, it’s called PLC. And I went in as an officer.
You know, Long Island, all our parents were in World War II. Regardless of what my thoughts were about the war, you just felt you had to go.
You sure did.
Like Casey’s dad, John. He went. We all went.
Neal went to… Well, it’s Walt Whitman High but it was South Huntington when I was there. We were big rivals.
I was older than Neal but when I was at Lindenhurst, we were the top dogs on Long Island. We won everything. But when he was at Walt Whitman, they won everything. So we were always back and forth.
Batting eyes before each other. I love it. Yeah and then for those that are listening, they were the writers of Wonder Years.
Yeah, I met them when they were on Growing Pains. And Neal and I, well, we just hit it off. And all that rivalry from high school. Great guy. Great writer. Him and Carol created that… They were there for the first 18 episodes and really created a great show and then Bob Rush came in and he was the head writer and he really maintained the foundation that they had created.
So I want to know a little bit more about that, right? Because he grew up and I think, if my research is correct, they wanted the setting of The Wonder Years to be in Huntington.
They never mention where The Wonder Years is, but there’s so many clues. The jet jacket, for one, that Fred always wore. Every time we mention a street name, it’s something from Long Island, Jericho Turnpike, Sunrise Highway. So, there are enough indications to say it was pretty much Long Island.
And so when they’re casting for this part of Jack, right? Walk me through that.
Well, the only reason why I really got The Wonder Years was because of Joanna Kerns. I was on Growing Pains. That’s where I met Neil and Carol and then the following year, I did another Growing Pains. And like I said, Neil and I just hit it off, Long Island guys. And then The Wonder Years came up and my agent couldn’t get me in and Joanna Kerns said, “You ought to call Neil? He loves you. He’ll get you,” and I said, “No. That’s so unprofessional. I don’t want to do it.” But Joanna Kerns called the casting director and the casting director mentioned my name to Neil and he went, “Oh yeah, Dan. He’d be perfect.” So, that’s how I got in and I just auditioned with everybody else, but to be honest, I think I had a leg up because Long Island.
There is, right?
And I looked a little bit like Neil’s dad.
Okay. Yeah, because when you think about it, it’s like a show from Long Island, right? You’ve got a dad that has a military background. It’s like for the most part, you are just going to be playing yourself, right?
Well there’s a lot of difference, but I think the only contribution I made as far as the writing is concerned was when we were working on a pilot, Neil and I was just sitting there and he goes, “Dan, is there anything you think we could do for this character?” And I said, “Well, I’m a Marine. It’s not going to hurt if somewhere along the line we mention he’s a veteran.” And the very next day Neil said, “I talked with Carol last night and we’re going to make you a Korean War vet. You can’t be a Vietnam War.” It wouldn’t have fit the timeframe.
He said, “But we’re going to make you a Korean War vet and you’re going to be a Marine,” and a couple times that came in too, but other than that, the writing was so… I’m real big about writing. There were very few times I said, “Oh, could I say this instead of that?” I think in the whole 130 shows, I might have said that two or three times.
Wow and wasn’t there a story about, I guess, Fred Savage really wanting you to be his dad on the show?
Oh, I didn’t know Fred before the show.
Oh, you didn’t?
No. We became very close afterwards. I still talk to her. Ironically, I’m probably closer to Danica than anybody. I see her all the time. We’ve worked together. We do a lot of readings together and through the entire 130 shows, I only had one line to Danica. I would talk about her to Fred a lot, but she said, “Good evening, Mr. Arnold,” and I said, “Hi Winnie,” and that was it. That was the only lines we had together.
Wow. I don’t think I would’ve ever thought that, in hindsight looking back, being a fan of the show.
Yeah because many of the conversations that I had with Fred were about girls and Danica.
And it’s interesting because that show, one of the things that really made that show stand out was because of the adult version narrator, right? Daniel Stern, I believe was-
Yeah. Daniel Stern was a narrator. Initially was going to be Arye Gross and then when they put the pilot together, they went with a little older voice and Danny did, and Danny directed a number of them. Yeah. He doesn’t act very much now because he is a brilliant sculptor and he’s doing very well and he’s a great guy.
And I think my son, and even mine, one of my favorite movies is Stand By Me, right? And that’s kind of the same-
There’s been a lot. Yeah. They say this, “Oh, this show was copied from this and that,” but you can go all the way. If you know anything about old movies-
No. I’m just saying having that narrator, right? Tell the story-
But the narration has been around forever. Matter of fact, try to sell a script today with a narrator on. They say, “Narrators don’t work,” and I can give you millions of them that work. Even Shawshank Redemption has a narrator in that-
It does. Another great movie, right?
In the closing monologue of Wonder Years and I’ll read it here. It says, “Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house a lot like other houses, a yard a lot like other yards on a street a lot like other streets and the thing is after all these years, I still look back with wonder.” How great to close out a show like that.
Tell me that’s not great writing.
It’s amazing writing.
So right now, you’re storytelling and if I cut from your face to my face, to your face to my face, everything you said would be lost. It would become very technical.
So true. So, just a curious question. So the characters, right? So, I know Jack died in the show, right?
Yeah. That was actually supposed to be the end of the show, the last episode. We should have never been canceled. We wanted to do one more season so the show would end with Fred graduating high school and then we’re about to plan our honeymoon that we never really had, me and Alley. And on the day Fred gets accepted to college, he comes home and finds me dead on the floor from a heart attack and that’s the end of The Wonder Years because Fred, I mean, Neil’s dad passed away while they were playing tennis and we were 27 out of 166 shows and we were canceled because of one man, Ronald Perelman, the man who owned Revlon.
Is that right?
Yep. Bought the show and sold off everything that New World had and he tried to rob AB… And even Bob Iger, who said to me that even if he had stayed, he wouldn’t have been able to save the show with this guy. So I’m telling you now, if I’m ever in a room with him, one of us is coming out, and I wouldn’t bet on him.
Oh boy. I wouldn’t want to be in there-
Say that anywhere you want. It’s been in print. You don’t have to edit it out. So, that was unfair to end that show when it did. It was unfair to the public, and all the actors, and even the Teamsters, who were willing to not take the raise that we were due just to do 12 more episodes, so we could end the show the proper way.
Well, I do. I’m not going to speak for anybody else, but I can tell you there are a few who feel the same way.
And everybody feels that way?
Well, all the fans do.
There was no reason not to do at least 12 more. Matter of fact, the quote, and I’m getting this right, the amount of profit did not warrant another season and Ted Turner bought the distribution rights. He said, “I’d buy 100 more.” He was great about it.
So on that note, the fictional characters, right? What do you think if it was real life? What would they be doing today?
The real characters?
Yeah. The characters.
Well, my character’s gone.
Your character’s gone.
I know from what the writers told me, Allie was going to get remarried and Fred ends up having kids and living across the street from Winnie Cooper who’s married and has kids.
Is that right?
Yeah and Josh is still the best friend and becomes probably the most successful of all of them business-wise. So, I have always thought they should have done Fred as a father with a couple of kids and you hear a voiceover and at night, he comes out and looks through his telescopes and there I am as a ghost swinging on the swing saying, “See? You thought I was a jerk. You’re doing the same thing,” and I thought that would’ve been a great idea, but I’m glad they’re doing a new Wonder Years.
I want to talk about that too.
Yeah, no. I don’t know what took them so long. I know the failure of knockoffs, I think, delayed it. But the knockoffs made, more like Brooklyn Bridge. Great show, good actors, but there is this kernel in those shows that makes the young kid smarter than the adults in all situations, whereas The Wonder Years ended with more than half the shows, the narrator saying, “If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done that,” and that’s why it’s a great teaching lesson. That’s why we started this conversation with them showing it in schools And that was the difference with the ones that don’t make it and I don’t think they’ll make the mistake with this new Wonder Years because Neil and Marlins and Fred are involved and I think they’re going to say, “Hey look, the kid’s going to be wrong.”
Yeah and this, it actually airs, I believe, in September, the first episode.
Yeah. I just sent them a congratulations and I told them if you need a Sicilian uncle, give me a call.
Well, I was going to ask you, a cameo appearance, possibly?
I’m sure Fred and Neil, if they feel bringing some of us on will help and it’ll be well written, but if they think it’ll detract from the storyline, perhaps it’s best to keep them separate.
Sure. So, you have such an amazing IMDb, right? With all of the work that you’ve done over the years.
That’s a nice way of saying I’m old, but yeah. Go ahead. Keep going.
Well, this’ll be good, right? Well, it’ll be your memory test here, right?
Oh, I don’t know half of these things.
I’m going to play a game with you here.
Oh, please don’t because no. I told you my mentor was Charles Durning and big thing was never look back.
Is that right?
Yeah. When somebody asked me, “What was the best thing you have ever done?” I’ll tell you right now, it’s the next one.
You don’t look back. Okay.
The next one.
Well, and that makes sense because I really ever go back and listen to these podcasts. Did you do that? Did you watch The Wonder Years?
No. I’m one of those actors, I don’t like to watch myself. I think I’ve seen every Wonder Years that I’m not in. I’ve seen very few that I’m in.
Got it. Well, I’ll just start with some of the… So, the movie Stakeout, 1987.
Yeah. That was a lot of fun.
Which character did you play?
I don’t remember the character’s name, but Forest Whitaker and I were the cops that watched the house during the day and Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez watched it at night and I know the dog that I had. I remember his name, Winston. I said to Forest, “That dog’s getting paid more than we are,” and Forest just said, “Because he can pee on cue and we can’t.”
Well, you were Phil Coldshank.
Phil Coldshank. Yeah. That sounds right.
Yeah and then I was the head detective in Stakeout two.
Okay. Who’d you play in Growing Pains?
Well, the first one I played a hockey coach.
Yeah. I don’t remember his name and the second one, I was a passenger on a plane and my wife was going to have a baby, I think. Yeah. I remember the plot lines. I don’t really remember names.
And I’ll give you an easy one to end it here. What about Sullivan & Son?
Oh, well I was Sullivan then.
Yeah. Jack Sullivan.
Yeah. I got to tell you, I got to be honest with you. That was like robbing a bank. I had to back up to get my check, put my hand behind me and I never laughed so much in my life. Ryan Murray and Steve and they were four standup comics. You couldn’t say a line without five guys jumping on it and Jamie Widows directing and of course, Jody and I and Christine Ebersole, they were the best. Just all we did was laugh. You got to remember when you do a sitcom, on Monday we come in and read the script and all our writers laugh and the executives laugh, but you know as you’re reading it, half of this isn’t going to be shot.
So, then we walk over to the set. We have lunch. We fool around and then usually some exec walks over and says, “Go home. They’re going to rewrite,” then you come in on Tuesday. You sit around the table, you read it, you get up on your feet and you know half of it’s not going to be there. And then you come in Wednesday and it’s like, “Well, okay. Three quarters of this might stay,” and then Thursday, you block it out and then Friday you shoot it and you shoot it twice with live audiences and they got 12 different camera angles. I mean it’s just robbing the bank, but I never laughed so much in my life and Steve, he was a sweetheart. Just great people.
It’s nice to see you light up when you talk about that, right?
Yeah. Vince and Peter Billingsley. Matter of fact, Peter Billingsley was the original boy in A Christmas Story, and they produced A Christmas Story: The Musical and that’s why I got to do the Broadway play. So, it was all because of Peter and that. So, I didn’t even have to audition. Steve and Peter saw me do Lombardi. They said, “You want to play?” Actually, they wanted me to be the bigot at the bar and I said, “Listen, guys. I’m still a dad from The Wonder Years and if I do that realistically, it might hurt you.” And then they called back and they said, “Why don’t you be Sullivan?” And I said, “If you can buy me as an Irishman, I’m in.”
It’s interesting that you say that, like I’m the dad as The Wonder Years, right? You think that hurt your career later?
All those things. For everything you gain, you lose. For everything you lose, you gain. Like when I do a play, especially in a regional theater, a lot of people come, especially people of your age or maybe saw it originally, who are now showing their kids, they will come to the play and then it’s my job, after the first 10 minutes, to make sure they’re not still looking for the dad of The Wonder Years.
So people say that, but on stage it doesn’t hurt at all.
It doesn’t and I want to talk about the stage stuff too. So I’m sure back when the show was being filmed, you probably got recognized everywhere you went. It was probably-
Yeah. When anybody’s on a hit TV show, even now, they’ll go, “Yeah. The dad from The Wonder Years.”
You still get it, huh?
Yeah. In New York City. I like it because I’ll be walking down the street and a cab driver will yell, “Hey coach!” Because they went to see Lombardi, but that’s fine. I never understood actors who get upset because people bother… Well, what’d you think was going to happen?
That’s what you signed up for, right?
Yeah and I’ll tell you the truth. I mean I always end my lecture at colleges with this. Our business is like any other business- 15% of the people I work with are total assholes and 85% are just the nicest people who, regardless of what the writing is, are trying to do the best they can to give the audience what they want.
What they want.
And I can go on and on with great example. Like my dear friend, Joe Montana, he’s on a show that’s very formula. Every week you see, but Joe will work. Just he wants to give the audience the best, even though it’s almost the same thing every week. And he’s such a good actor and I think the audience appreciates that. And he tries to convey that to the younger people that work with him. The difference between our business though, we promote the 15%. Another business would be promoting the 85%.
You wreck a hotel room, you’re all over the paper.
It’s true. Would you consider yourself more of a stage actor? Is that more of your passion?
Yeah. That’s not even close.
It’s not even close?
No. Television, it’s really not acting. It’s editing and it’s getting further and further away from acting. When I started, I did eight Cagney and Lacey was with Tyne Daly. I bet you more than half our scenes don’t have a cut in them. You work with Tyne, why would you? It was great writing. And now we do four or five minute scenes without a cut. Now you can’t do two lines without them. So that’s not acting. Even if it is, even if you create a connection with somebody. I don’t think especially the producers understand that chemistry is what happens between two actors. As soon as I cut from your head to my head, what we’ve cut is the chemistry. So on stage, when that curtain goes up, you better be able to carry the freight. You know? Something like Lombardi had 286 performances and with Judith Light, boy, you better be good.
And that went a lot longer than you guys anticipated. Right?
They said we wouldn’t run 10 weeks because we were two TV stars, we weren’t movie stars. And we ran 11 months.
It’s like batting against Sandy Kofaux. You better get up there and start swinging.
You better be good, right?
Well, that was the question I was going to ask, is it hard to make it in California or New York? And it sounds like New York.
I can’t answer that now because it’s changed so much. So it was much easier for me than it is for the younger kids. We just had to learn how to act. So we got jobs as waiters. I washed dishes. I worked at a place called Cafe Central and Bruce Willis was the bartender. I washed dishes.
Is that right?
It almost sounds like a show.
Yeah. And we were all doing plays where we didn’t get paid. I think John Goodman probably did better than all of us because most people don’t realize he can sing. He’s in the original cast of Big River. He had a great voice, plus he did commercials. Most of us were doing these plays, half of which were terrible, terrible, but not getting paid, but we were learning our craft.
And making all the connections and networking, right?
Yeah. Whatever you had to do.
That’s half the battle, getting out there. What is one maybe a big regret that you have in your career? Any movies or TV shows that you turned down? What’s some of the bigger regret?
None of that stuff because when they say, “Oh, you turned down,” I was never a big enough star to turn down things. It just sometimes I wasn’t available and you wished you were because that was a hit, but I still write a lot and I’ve had a play off Broadway a couple of years ago. I got another one coming up, but I have always regretted I lost my literary agent early in my career and it was my fault. And I’ve always regretted that. So I’ve got to work twice as hard to get things when, I should have… Susan Soleman is her name. She’s a great literary agent, but I disagreed about something and I was young and I was like, “No, I got to do it my way,” and that was a big mistake. Acting-wise, I have no regrets.
I’d like to be Tom Hanks. See, that’s a perfect example of what I was talking about. I did Earth and a Moon. I didn’t get to act with Tom Hanks, but he directed the two episodes I did. And you hear all these stories about how nice Tom Hanks is. Well, I’m telling you now he’s even nicer.
Yeah. Great guy. Really cares about what he’s doing too.
Well, another nice actor. So my son, I was being like the acting dad. I was taking my son to the auditions, a lot of rejection. A lot of rejection. And so we just got done with an audition. We went over, we were in Beverly Hills and we went to get some, was it ‘s?
Nate and Al’s. Sure.
Nat and Al’s, right?
We eat some matzah ball soup, and feeling kind of back home in New York. And so once we get out of there, we walk out and there’s a coffee shop next door. And we walk in and I look up and I shows Zach. I’m like, “That’s John Travolta.” And Zach lights up because he’s like an old soul. And so he wants to go up. I’m like, “No, he’s in a meeting. He’s sitting down. Don’t do that.” And everybody’s aware that John Travolta is in the room. Right?
But it’s not really polite to interrupt. Right?
There’s etiquette, I guess. So anyway, he gets up and my son immediately runs over at John Travolta, this 11 year old kid. And I’m stumbling because he’s going to ask them to take a photo with John. You don’t get a chance to see John anywhere. And so I’m stumbling and he’s like, “Relax.” He tells me, “Relax. It’s okay.” He’s like, “Hey, I’m John. Nice to meet you.”
“What’s your name? And what’s your name? You’re an actor?” And he stood there for like 20 minutes with us talking. And-
See, you shouldn’t be surprised about that because one of the reasons why he’s been around this long, even though he had a big slump period for a while, is he’s one of the easiest people to work with. He’s just a good man, a good artist. I don’t know him personally. I met him a couple of times and he just was everything I was told. He’s a nice guy. As a matter of fact, he was asking me about some old movies.
Is that right?
Yeah. The one time we talked for a few minutes. There’s a lot of them like that. Bryan Cranston. I did this thing where I asked celebrities to do these videos and tell a story to help regional theaters say a line. I’ll show it to you on my phone. I have 72 of them. And you won’t believe that people that are on them. Lou Diamond Phillips Bryan Cranston, Judith Light, just name after name, Alfred Molina, Tony Shalhoub. And everybody says, “How’d you get these big names to do that for nothing?” I said, “I asked them.”
I said, “Do you want to help the theater?” “Yeah, I’m in.” They usually know when I call, “Oh Dan, what the hell do you want now?”
I say, “Come on. I got an idea to save…” We’ve raised almost $4 million to help regional theaters.
Wow. You have the power to create a future that wasn’t going to exist anyway.
We got to hang on to the theater somehow. We’re in bad straits right now.
So as a kid, growing up again on Long Island, I’d go to bed and I’d fall asleep. And we had a small little apartment in my grandparents’ house and every night I’d fall asleep to two shows. And so The Honeymooners-
You want to talk about not editing?
Seriously, one of my favorite shows of all time to this day.
And notice how little editing. And that’s live.
That’s live. Right?
She was at your house that night when we went.
I would love to do that.
I’ll give you her number. Like Fred, he couldn’t understand Fred Savage. “What do you mean live?” I said, “Fred, there was no video tape. When you were doing it, it was in their living room. What if something went wrong? Too bad.” But The Honeymooners is a perfect example. Now, they screwed up all the time, but they knew how to cover it.
There was no cue cards.
So good. That was again, one of my favorite shows.
What was the other one?
And then The Odd Couple.
Oh, with Jack.
Yeah. And that’s why I wanted to transition to that.
Now, Charles Durning I knew from the first day I went into New York City and for 40 something years. Jack, it was just the last 10 years of his life. We worked on Rescue Me, I think it was in New York and we had a great scene together. And he grabbed me, he goes, “I hear you’re a theater nut.” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” So he says, “I want you to come that Coconut Grove in Miami and we’re going to do The Price.” I said, “Jack, I do not do old plays. The last line of my bio is Dan doesn’t do plays by old dead white guys.” And he goes, “No, no. Don’t give me that. I need you. You’re going to be…” I said, “All right, I’ll make you a deal. If I do this play with you, you got to do two new plays.” “Ah, all right.” So I went down, we got good reviews. We became very, very close and he did do the two new plays.
Is that right?
Yeah. And one of them was The Value of Names by Jeffrey Sweet. And Jack always said it was best play he ever did. It’s about the house on American activities committee, but it’s a three-hander. And he was very much involved with that. He was at John Garfield’s apartment. They were reading through Golden Boy, the revival. John Garfield’s in the original, but he’s not the golden boy, but in the revival, he’s the golden boy. And there was a knock at the door. Jack being one of the youngest guys there, John Garfield’s real name was Julie. He said, “Jack, get the door, will you?” When Jack opened, there were two men from the government to serve the subpoena. And I said, “Jack, what did Garfield do?”
He says, “Well, John came up and said, thank you guys. Would you like a drink? And one of them said no and walked away. And the other one said, thank you. Anyway, Mr. Garfield, I wish you the best of luck. I’m a fan. And walked away. And John Garfield turned around to the crowd and said, guys, we cannot rehearse here anymore. I’ll see you at the theater. Please don’t come over because they’re going to be following me.” And they were and they did. This is something most people don’t realize. I was doing A Christmas Story on Broadway. And I was literally in the hospital room when Charles Durning, like I said, he was like my dad, and he passed away. And I went back to the theater. There was no way I wasn’t going to go on. Charlie would’ve came out of the clouds and killed me. And the guy playing Santa Claus walked in and he says, “What’s the matter?” He saw I was upset. And I said, “Charles Durning passed away. I have to call Jack Klugman and let him know.” Because we would go to dinner. Dom DeLuise, Peter Falk, Jack Klugman, Charlie Durning and me. We’d go to dinner at least once a month. And as I said, “I got a call Jack Klugman,” my phone rang and it said Jack Klugman.” And I didn’t even say hello. I just said, “How did you know?” And Jack’s wife said, “Know what?” And I said, “Well, Peggy, I was just going to call you to let you know Charlie Durning passed away.” And I heard her drop the phone on the floor and she picked it up and said, “I was calling you to tell you Jack passed away.” They passed away four hours apart on Christmas Eve.
So I called Paul Lieber, Who’s in charge of all of Broadway PR stuff. And I said, “Paul, is there any way we could dim the lights on Broadway one night for Jack and Charlie?” And it was this long pause. And then Paul said, “No, we’re going to pause it two nights.” And it’s the only time in the history of Broadway the lights were dim two nights in a row.
Is that right?
I can see the emotion.
I can see the emotion.
Yeah, it was a good night.
Being around those guys, talk about acting you. You step on the stage with Charlie Durning and those guys, Peter and them. And they were very opposite. Dom and Charlie were a lot alike, very much like I am. We always had fun acting. And Peter and Jack, oh, I’ll tell you, they’d worry about everything. Peter, just, even in a reading, “Dan, is it funnier if I moved the water bottle here or should I move it over here?” “Pete, just move the bottle.” Charlie Durning one night he said, “Pete, if acting was that hard, Dan and I wouldn’t do it.”
Well, it’s nice that you found a core group of friends out here. Well, it was mentors, friend.
Basically through Charlie and then when The Wonder Years was a hit, Charlie said, “All right, what are you going to do for the theater now?” Cranky old Irish guy, “Come on, come on. We got to do some private theater.” So I produced a couple of plays and one of them was A Bronx Tale.
Is that right?
Yeah. And De Niro bought the rights from us. And then-
Didn’t Chaz have something to do with that too?
Well, Chaz and Frankie Renzulli wrote it. I did the initial play, not the movie.
I got it.
They had to buy it from us.
I said, “I don’t want to produce plays because it’s not what I do.” So Charlie talked me into starting a reading program where every Monday night we read a new play to help writers get literary agents. And we were going to do one a month. That lasted for six months. And then we did two a month for the next six months. Then we did one a week for 10 years. 70 writers got literary agents, but because of Charlie, Joe Montana and Wendy Malick, we were able to get the biggest stars to come read. And this poker game that I was in, and the audience would be Sid Caesar, Rod Steiger, Mel Brooks sometimes. And they would come. Usually when Charlie read, they would be out there. And it was just one rehearsal and you rehearse on Sunday and you read it Monday night. I loved doing it. It was a lot of work.
And you’re changing people’s lives.
I went broke doing it, but I loved it.
Well, you’re changing people’s lives. Right? Helping them find their literary agents.
Yeah. I was making some great contacts with writers.
A lot of the guest spots I get now I walk on and somebody says, “You remember me? I wrote a play you did a reading of.” I go, “Oh yeah. Good. Thanks for paying me back.”
See? Right? It’s nice to get those connections. Yeah. So you never had any children?
However, you were National Big Brother of Year.
1972. I’m on my sixth little brother.
Yeah. It’s a great program, and they lie a little bit to you.
Yeah. Big Brother says you only have to pick him up once every two weeks for a couple of hours. That isn’t going to happen. Once the kid falls in love with you, you fall in love-
You’ve got a connection.
Yeah, you end up… My current one, Julian, he’s got two more years, and then the bills are over, but I paid through his education.
Is that right?
Yeah, sure. You get close. Two of them end up working on “The Wonder Years”. One of them just retired. My little brother, Glen.
Is that right?
Yeah. Got him a job on “The Wonder Years”. And after 25 years, he’s retiring as a grip.
See? You made a lot of impact on a lot lives.
Yeah. No, that’s Big Brother, I recommend. Big Sister, you can’t have a better program. Actually, you benefit more than the kid in a lot of ways.
I could totally see that. Now one of the things that I admire most about you is your military. Thank you so much for your service.
That was my honor.
I was also a vet. I did four years in the United States Air Force.
Denny Franz was in the Air Force.
Yep. Right out of high school, that’s how I left Long Island. Joined the Air Force, ended up in Texas, Lackland Air Force Base. Did my bootcamp. Ended up in Vegas of all places. It was the home of the Thunderbirds. So I’d wake up as a young, 18 year old kid in the dorm room and there are air shows happening all day, just seeing these F16s and stuff. Then I got a chance to go to Italy for a little bit, got to see the homeland.
I never saw any of that stuff.
No? Did that for three months and came back. But it was awesome, but you contribute a lot still to the veterans associations and stuff.
I do Toys for Tots. I do the voiceover for that. And whenever… My company commander, when I was overseas, then Captain Fulford, Carl Fulford became a four star general. It was the only time in the history of Marine Corps they had three, four star generals. It’s always the commandant and the assistant commandant. But he was put in charge of all Marines in Desert Storm. He was actually in a room when Colin Powell said, “You break it, you own it.” One of the finest people out there. He still comes to my play when I do a play, great guy. But whenever he calls and says, “Hey, we need you. Come here,” I’m there. You got to go.
Of course you do.
You serve, you got to go. I’ll tell you a good military story. In a National Veterans Foundation, we would have these monthly meetings and Cesar Romero was there and Charlton Heston and general Stewart, Jimmy Stewart. I could never call him Jimmy, or… I call him general. I just couldn’t get it out. But one night, he was in the Army Air Corp because there was no Air Force then. So he says, “I invited somebody I served with to come to the meeting tonight. He worked on my plane in World War II.” He was a young kid then. And we said, “Sure, General. Great, glad to meet him.” About 10 minutes later, Walter Matthau walked in.
Is that right?
He worked on Jimmy Stewart’s aircraft as a mechanic.
Funny how life reconnects with you.
No, Jimmy Stewart was… He had 36 missions. A lot of them served, but didn’t see combat. But Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, they were major stars who actually went into combat, even Clark Gable had six combat missions. It’s a different time. Jerome Powell.
Oh yeah. Yeah. So my son recently… Just a couple days ago, I guess they gave the list of seniors, because he’s going to be a senior this year in high school. And so he got that call from the recruiter.
Did he really?
He got the call from the recruiter. And so my son knows that I was in the Air Force and they don’t really talk about that too much. I try to bring that up sometimes, and so the recruiter got his ear for 30 minutes and was telling him all about the military and this and that. And so now my son’s got an interest. And so he’s asking me all these questions. So I sat down and watched “Full Metal Jacket” with him.
Yeah. Army. Yeah. Yeah. I’m not big on that one. Nobody is going to make me walk out in the open singing Mickey Mouse. If you think that’s going to happen… That’s like letting the guy loose in Private Ryan. That ain’t going to happen.
I wanted to give him a taste of what bootcamp would be like. Right.
Oh yeah. Well…
And that does it.
Yeah. Well, that bootcamp-
Yeah. It was fun. So, my son was in the acting business and he’s still in it, but he’s never got that breakout role, and there are stories of actors that don’t get it until-
Well, and my only advice to him is you’ve got to create it yourself. Do a play like Chazz Palminteri. He was sleeping on my couch for a while, but then he wrote a play that everybody came to, and you take off. And even that I think is harder for younger people than it was when I started. I know I did Mario Van Peebles’ first movie. We had to shoot it on the weekends. It was the only way we could get a generator truck. We had to do the cables, the actors. He literally robbed the camera from his dad who was a famous director and we’d set up and it took us forever. But in that year, there were only 20 independent films, so they were all seen. Now, Toronto Film Festival just had 1200 independent films because everybody can do it.
So the new technology… The good thing is you can make a movie. The bad thing is, everybody can make a movie. So God knows what gem is not being seen because you just don’t have enough time to go through them. So what are the ones that are being seen? The ones that maybe have no money, but can get some celebrities in. I’m doing another one, not next week, the week after, for friends. And I try to get other people, like Tony Dennison’s going to join me on this one. We’re just helping out some young people because we know nobody’s going to watch it unless you get some kind of name in it.
But that negates what independents are about. You’re not supposed to be having names. It’s just supposed to be a good story told well. Now making it more than that and I tell them, “You cut up my scenes, I’m going to come after you with a nine iron.” You’ve got to convince these young directors that you cannot make the movie in an editing machine. You have to tell a story.
And the young actors, not to give up on their dreams. If that’s really their passion and their dreams, you’ve got to go make it happen.
And when I see a young actor on his phone while they’re setting up cameras and not running his lines-
Not into it.
I can hear Charlie Durning’s voice and Jack… ” What are they doing? What’s the matter?” Oh, they’re going to edit it anyway. That’s their problem. Why do you care? Let’s do our scene. Let’s make the crew. There’s always an audience. The crew is the… I’ll tell you in “The Wonder Years” Steve Confer, our cinematographer, is a great guy. And Albert, the guy who replaced him.
They had a thing that they were not only the cinematographer, they would be the camera operator. And when we would do a scene, that master, when they said cut, if they got off the camera, that was the greatest compliment you could get as an actor. That meant it was good. Now of course, they’d call them back and do it again. And they’d just be like, “They don’t really need it.” But the crew, these guys have been around and they love to see a good scene, something that makes them laugh inside or cry. We’ve lost all that with this, “Let me say that line again. Let me say that line again.”
Over and over. Yeah. It’s a whole different world.
So that’s what’s hurting your son. If he can act, it’s hard for him to compete when they don’t care about acting. So I think the younger people had a lot harder than I did.
Yeah. It’s tough. It’s tough. Yeah, there’s a lot of rejection. A whole lot.
Always was, but usually talent would get through, but now-
And it’s easy… It’s interesting that you say that because it’s even easier now than back before there was social media and everything else. You had to have talent.
Well, we did plays.
You did the plays.
90% of people of my generation, we all did theater. There were very few of the older actors, the great ones, who didn’t come from the theater. You’d be surprised. Robert Mitchum, I knew him. Charlie Durning would go to his house. He did theater. People didn’t even realize. Yeah. I mean, there were a few. Gary Cooper wasn’t a theater person, but all of them came from the theater.
Yeah. Nowadays there’s none of that out here in L.A.
Why? You’re only going to do one line at a time. You’re going to do it 80 freaking times.
So I guess I saw a video of you doing a TikTok dance recently.
Oh, my friend made me do that for… I got to live through that one again. Okay.
You’re a TikTok star.
I can’t dance. I can’t dance. You think that’s funny, you should try to hear me try to sing.
Well, it’s funny that you say that, but you’ve got a musical, right?
That’s right. I did a Broadway musical, so don’t laugh too hard.
See? Don’t laugh too hard.
Because I didn’t sing a note. I was the narrator, but first day of rehearsal, John Randolph, great director, he said, “Dan, you’ve got to come in on an eight count.” I said, “Count slower. I don’t know.” I said, “When that little girl walks upstage, I’m walking on.”
Well, I appreciate you coming down here to speak with me. It mean so much.
Oh, anytime. And you’ve got my number, come on over with your son. We’ll watch an old movie.
I would love to do that.
Maybe we can get him into directing and direct his own.
I would love to do that. Yeah. Yeah. When you open the house up again and start doing the movie nights.
Call me. The three of us can.
Let’s do that.
We’ll grab a pizza and watch it.
All right. And what’s something that you’re working on? Anything you’re passionate about what you’re working on right now?
Well, Monday I’m going to Durango Play Fest, which Wendy Malick and I started. And then the week after, I’m going to work on this… It’s a pilot, but it’s young kids. I don’t know how they think they’re going to sell it after we make it. It’s actually not that bad. And then at the end of September, I’m supposed to do a play at St. Clemens Church in New York with Judith Ivy, and Holland Taylor, and… Who else? John Rubinstein.
Yeah. So we’re trying to get people to come back into New York. I hope that’s going to happen. I don’t really like doing revivals, but in this case I’m doing it. And then I have a play that I’ve written, that’s been auctioned and a couple of theaters want to do it. Not in New York, but around New York so hopefully we can get that to New York.
Okay. Well let know. I’d love to take the kids to go see it.
We’ll see. Like Charles Durning said… When a young actor asked Charles Durning for advice, he said, “There’s a couple things you have to do. One, you work out every day.” Now, as heavy as Charlie was, he never smoked. He never drank. He could go forever. He could dance like you wouldn’t believe, you should read aloud, at least a half hour. He would always say, “I do it, even when I’m on the throne, but you should read aloud.” And third, watch an old movie. Any day you’re not working, watch an old movie. Watch them over and over again. I can’t tell you. I never auditioned for a comedy without watching “His Girl Friday.” I never auditioned for drama without watching “Requiem for Heavyweight,” which we watched-
And if I have to play a villain, I watch the original “Cape Fear.” And the last thing he would say is, “Don’t ever grow up.” If you’re not excited about your next audition… I hate acting. I don’t like to audition. Well, I don’t like self tapes, but I love going in a room. You know why? Because I’m not auditioning. I get to act for five minutes. They don’t want to hire me, that’s their loss, not mine. You’ve always got to maintain that attitude. I don’t care how old I am. I’m looking forward to the next play I’m going to be doing.
I love it. That’s a great way to look at life, man. Well, again, thank you so much. And I look forward to coming to your house and doing movie night.
Yeah. Thank you.
Thank you. Thanks for having me.