William Sanderson is a rare breed of performer that is becoming increasingly scarce on the big screen these days, but celebrated on television; he is an adept character actor. Sanderson has been lucky enough to appear in a collection of incredible TV series and score some supporting roles in landmark movies alike. He has appeared in episodes of TV classic like Starsky and Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard, Quincy, Batman: The Animated Series and The X-Files, along with being a series regular on the ‘80s hit Newhart.
He also made his way to the silver screen in milestone movies like Blade Runner, The Rocketeer and Last Man Standing before scoring roles on legendary HBO series like the savage Western Deadwood and the Southern vampire drama True Blood.
Sanderson has been acting since the 1970s but is doing some of his most exciting work yet in the highly-anticipated and long-awaited conclusion to Deadwood, when HBO releases the film to conclude the series this year. He took some time to chat with us about his storied career, transitioning from TV to film and back again, along with his new upcoming memoir. Here’s the man in his own words.
If you’ve never checked out Deadwood, here’s a trailer for the show to offer you a taste of what you’ve missed.
I just noticed that after going over your credits, as lengthy as they are, there seems to two distinctive or defining factors that kind of jumped out at me that helped establish the longevity of your career from the outside looking in. Those seem to be, to me at least, diversity and style. So, I wondered what piques your interest in a project that makes it stand out to you? Is it the genre, the people involved, your interest in the script itself or a little mix of everything?
William Sanderson: Well, the most important thing is the writing, but if you go through the credits, I’ve played a lot of idiots, or sort of idiots, but it’s the writing. We take jobs for different reasons. Even Bob Dylan said he had to make a living, he had a family and might’ve taken some jobs he might have wished he hadn’t. I’ve done that. A lot of times I want to work with that person. I’ve had the pleasure of working probably more than thirty Academy Award winners. It’s in the book, the memoir that I’m finishing. That’s actually in the literary agent’s hands right now.
But, different reasons, desperation (chuckles). And when you have a great director, that’s quite a thrill because somebody like Ridley Scott, who directed Blade Runner, is a visionary. And the late Sam Shepard (Black Hawk Down, The Right Stuff) said he only wanted to work with film artists. But hey, I’ll work with anybody, but right now, I don’t have to work anymore, I still enjoy it. I just did a job up in Canada, called American Gods (the Amazon Prime series based on the Neil Gaiman book). It was a lot of fun.
Yeah, with Ian McShane on Amazon, correct?
Sanderson: Yeah, he’s the star and Ricky Whittle (The 100), a wonderful actor. Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) was in the scene. I didn’t do much, but any time I can work with Ian, having done all the shows with him on Deadwood, it’s a thrill. I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job without him.
Moving right along
Sanderson: A long answer to your simple question. I’m sorry.
William on the set of Wagons East with Ed Lauter, (RIP 2013). Ed was famous for playing villains.
Oh no, don’t worry about it. I live for that kind of stuff! I just noticed that you also have a strong affinity for Westerns and that there were a lot of Westerns weaved throughout your resume. I was wondering, is that something you grew up with? Something you grew to love? Or was it more of a particular case that those were the projects coming along at the right time and that happened to be the genre mask that they were wearing?
Sanderson: Probably the latter, you’re probably right, but I learned to ride a horse in a movie. I’d tell casting people I can fly, it’s a little scary, but the Westerns were really exciting. If you can work, if I can drop a name, with Tommy Lee Jones who has ranches around the world and has polo ponies out the you-know-what.
Robert Duvall, and James Garner. I did a Maverick that they revived and James Garner, I hate to talk about just dead people. The makeup lady drank a little too much, you could smell it on her breath, but I liked her and I’ve been known to do that too. But she said, “If they bring back Westerns, you’ll work forever.” So I did get quite a few, everything’s relative, but someone told me that science fiction, I’ve got a number of (credits to his name), were the modern Westerns. I don’t know, but I certainly rode horses as a youngster and had some fun on the Westerns. You’ve gotta try to keep up. I can tell you stories but I like your questions though.
Oh thank you! Well, actually that’s a perfect setup because I noticed you were speaking of Maverick, and your TV resume is just insane! Starting in the ‘70s with Starsky and Hutch, then going up to stuff like X-Files and Batman: The Animated Series, and ER. Even comedies like Married with Children. I also noticed that you managed to weave your way between TV and film where it was considered to be taboo or lowbrow to do that. What has it been like watching TV become more and more cinematic and evolve to the point where film and TV are almost like a reflection of each other at this point? After doing series like Deadwood and True Blood and being on the forefront frontier of watching TV hard-R dramas become the respected art form they are now.
Sanderson: Well, first of all, I’m glad to survive 35 years in Hollywood. But I was very scared when, I’m certainly dating myself here, I was on a series called Newhart from ‘82 to ‘90 and I’ve sat in an interview and heard the casting director said to the director, “I don’t know if you want to use him, he was on a TV series.” And he hired me.
But I’ve talked to another casting director who said once, “They pay me to find people who aren’t on TV or haven’t been on a TV series.” But I love TV and I’m grateful to God that I got to do both, but I didn’t think HBO was too much like… unlike a movie because, and I got to do two hit series there, but there’s a stigma. There are people that even to this day, not like it used to be, but I think when you’re young, it’s a young man’s game. I started in the movies, such as they were, but when you’re older you’re grateful for a TV show, especially a regular job, I love that. You can take someone out to eat and you know where your next cheque is coming from.
Check out a quick clip of Ian McShane and William Sanderson in a scene together from Deadwood.
Yeah, I was gonna say…
Sanderson: Well, thank you. I practice a little self-deception. Tom Hanks did pretty well dressing like a woman on Bosom Buddies (which ran from 1980-1982 and starred Peter Scolari who was Sanderson’s co-star on Newhart from 1984-1990). He became a superstar, so I don’t want to use any excuses. I just practice self-deception (acting) and keep going.
Yeah, so what were the culminating events that led to Deadwood?
Sanderson: Aw, well, thank you for asking that. I did a Western with Bruce Willis called Last Man Standing.
With Walter Hill (director of The Warriors, producer of the Aliens franchise), yeah.
Sanderson: It was a remake of Fistful of Dollars (starring Clint Eastwood), somebody else would question it, based on the Japanese film, I can’t pronounce his name…
Oh, Akira Kurosawa, it’s Yojimbo (starring legendary action star Toshiro Mifune), I believe.
Sanderson: Yeah, but I had a really good part, and the director happened to be Walter Hill, and I’d wanted to be in a film of his going back to the ‘70s. So when Deadwood came around, he was directing the pilot. So that didn’t hurt, I know who Walter Hill was. I just got lucky, you know? You know that thing from the Bible, “Many are called, but few are chosen?”
If you’ve never heard of Yojimbo, here’s a trailer for the classic 1961 Japanese film.
Yeah, and it’s funny too because you could almost argue that all of Walter Hill’s projects are Westerns in a way, whether you’re looking at direct Westerns like Southern Comfort. Or if you’re looking at what could be considered urban Westerns, like The Driver or even 48 Hours and things like that.
Sanderson: I’m always intimidated when the interviewer knows more about movies, but yeah, he did one called The Warriors in the ‘70s, and I think you’re right. He’s a tough taskmaster but I’d love to work again with him. I remember going through a scene, and as I get older I want to take it easy in the rehearsal, so I told him. He said, “No, I want you to do it just like you did in the audition.”
I said, “I don’t want to spend my energy. I’m like (Winston) Churchill, if I’m standing and I can be sitting, I want to sit down. If I’m sitting and I can be lying down… I’ve got to conserve my energy.” That’s a big issue when we get ready to do Deadwood. Will I have the stamina to keep up with people 25, 35 years younger.
Yeah, right? And on that note, after having such a notoriously prolific run on Deadwood and True Blood, what is it really like to be part of the HBO family? Especially now, with 2019 looking to be one of their biggest years yet with the new season of True Detective, Meryl Streep being on Season 2 of Big Little Lies and with the finale of Game of Thrones coming up. It’s arguably one of the most exciting times to be in the HBO family.
Sanderson: Yeah, it’s a great place to work and I think they often came out like movies, the episodes. We had good directors and wonderful guests. The chance for me to work with Timothy Olyphant (Justified, Live Free or Die Hard), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri), Kim Dickens (Lost, Sons of Anarchy), I can’t say them all… I wish I could. I hope if they’re listening, they’ll buy me a cup of coffee.
Sharon & William posing with the star of Man’s Best Friend.
(laughs) I’ll see what I can do.
Sanderson: We had Brian Cox (The Jason Bourne Series, X-Men 2) come in from Europe and he’s a wonderful actor, I saw him on Broadway ten years later. He’s doing a show now Succession (also on HBO), so I don’t want to talk myself out of a job though. If I didn’t do it, I’d survive but we all hope to do it, we all want to do it (the Deadwood movie).
Yup, oh yeah. Especially after how rabid and die-hard the fanbase for something like Deadwood has been. People have been calling for this (a Deadwood finale) forever so it’s almost crazy to say no at this point, right?
Sanderson: It is, it is. I guess I shouldn’t ask for a helicopter to take me from Burbank to Santa Clarita but maybe I’ll get a boat on the water. Hey, I’ve got to be very careful. I love the show and I expect everybody wants us to do it, but we live in different parts of the country and you have to coordinate everything. It’s a big job, but I was told to look on the internet and it said I was doing it, so I sure am.
Well, I can definitely tell you as somebody that’s a member of the audience that the fans could not possibly be more thrilled to see this thing get the wheels spinning.
Sanderson: Well, thank you, but can I ask you a question?
Yeah, be my guest.
Sanderson: How did you learn so much about music, as well as film and TV?
It may be completely unrelated to this interview, but check out this Diet A & W Root Beer commercial from 1988 featuring Sanderson.
Well, actually my Opa is a jazz musician and he grew up playing sax and clarinet and he was the conductor of a big band, like a Dean Martin type band, while I was growing up. He really taught me how to love, appreciate, and respect music.
And really help me understand the role that art can play in people’s lives. I was a really hyperactive kid, and what my mother realized was that she could get me to calm down for two hours at a time by parking me in front of the TV and putting a movie in. So I just became rabidly in love with stuff like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Then my dad got me into gangster movies and Westerns and some of the stuff he kind of grew up on when I was a little bit older and I’ve just kind of been here ever since. I started taking writing more and more seriously, and that’s how I got involved with writing for magazines and stuff. I sold my first indie script to a little company in the city outside of Toronto where I’m from and it wasn’t for too much money, but I got to pay my rent with it that month. So it was a pretty big deal for me.
Sanderson: A hell of a compliment too.
Yeah, well, at 23…
Sanderson: Well, some of it’s in your genes and experience, environmental, but growing up in Memphis around Sun Records (home to legendary artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis) and Stax Records (home to legacy acts including Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MGs, Richard Pryor’s comedy albums) which I write about in the book (Sanderson’s upcoming memoir). I do hope people get to read it. I was in his house, I played football with him, but I can’t carry a tune. They say music is the most ideal of the arts, whatever that means, it certainly lifts us up. I’m proud to be an actor and proud to be a part of Deadwood.
William and Don Pugsley (Don played character named Goose) on the Rocketeer set.
Absolutely. So do you have any idea what the book might be called or when it might be coming out?
Sanderson: I have an idea, but it’s in the hands of the literary agent. We had an offer, but like a movie, you look and see who makes the best offer but I shouldn’t even probably mention it. But why did I write it? Well, I was afraid you’d ask me that, but you’d like to know what I think. It doesn’t have a title or a publishing date yet. We have, it’s like a movie script, you might have a working title or something.
Oh yeah, absolutely.
Sanderson: Publishers have a lot to say about that, but it has to do with struggle, and perseverance, and lots of mistakes with trouble starting as a teenager. People ask me why I went to law school and that’s hard to answer too, but I’d get into trouble and say, “I’ll make it up to you.” My parents, you know, they never put a lot of pressure on me, then I finished but I never took the Bar (exam). Got a late start, so to speak. Two years in the army, three years of law school, then I moved to New York and did plays for nothing. I jump around a lot, it’s neurotic fragmentation, but I’ve got to get it in there. Some people think that I’m… They think I’m the character I played, sometimes I have, and that’s when you get in trouble.
Well, that’s the thrill of the ride when it comes to life. We all wind up in unexpected places, for better and for worse.
Sanderson: Yeah. Well, I’m very grateful, I’m very happy that I don’t have to work, but I still enjoy it. I think I did alright, character actors won’t win any beauty contests, generally, but I think I did pretty well.
Yeah, well, you’ve got a hell of a career to look back on.
Sanderson: Thank you.
Watch the trailer for the classic Harrison Ford film.
That was actually my next question. I wanted to ask. What was it like being a part of projects that were so ahead of their time, like Blade Runner or The Rocketeer? Especially in the modern age, we’re in now, where comic book movies and big blockbuster franchise sci-fi movies are everywhere, we look and they’re so commonplace, when they were so distinctive, especially at the time.
Sanderson: Well, with The Rocketeer, it’s Disney, I think Dave Stevens wrote it (the original comic book the film was based on). I love Bill Campbell who played The Rocketeer, Alan Arkin who played the mechanic, they were great, but to be honest, it didn’t make a big deal at the box office.
They put me through a lot of stuff, a lot of meetings, it was a smaller role and I hadn’t been off the (Newhart) series long, and I was always afraid I’d never get a movie, so I did that. Joe Johnston was a great director (who later directed Captain America: The First Avenger), but the one who really helped was Blade Runner. People thought it was a fascinating failure when it came out. We had the hottest actor in the world, Harrison Ford, but years later it did kind of become a sci-fi classic or a cult classic. So, I get off subject sometimes, so just steer me back.
Sanderson: Blade Runner helped generate a lot of jobs., cartoons, voice-overs, even a lot of commercials. So, you know…
Yeah, absolutely. So beyond American Gods, what’s next on your horizon beyond the memoir?
Sanderson: Well, Deadwood is! Other than that, I hope I’m still alive. The start date is mid-October (of 2018) and they said, “Keep yourself available until December.” You’ve gotta take days off for Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I don’t think beyond the next job. The truth is that you’re only as good as your next job.
Sanderson: It’s scary, but just trying to survive and the book is a lot of work. It can give your nightmares, maybe you’ve written one, I don’t know, but thank God for my wife because I drank too much, then I met her and got things a little bit under control. She remembers things, we’ve been together for thirty years, but before is kind of hazy.
(Laughs) That’s wonderful. I read a ton of memoirs, so I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for it and I’d love to take a peek at it once it hits the shelves.