John Goodman knows what it means to miss New Orleans
John Goodman wasn't born in New Orleans. But he should have been.
Hollywood's go-to teddy bear since his Emmy-nominated "Roseanne" days in the late 1980s -- and a notable New Orleans resident since the mid-1990s -- he is funny, self-effacing and every bit as approachable as you'd want your neighbor to be, actor or not. In a Big Easy that loves its celebrity residents, Goodman is one of its biggest and easiest.
Consider: A recent interview request wasn't filtered through a posse of publicists, agents and managers, as is de rigueur in the biz. Rather, it generated a refreshingly playful email response a few hours later from the actor's personal account: "I have a phone number on you and am willing to stalk you for this interview. When is convenient? -- John Goodman."
That's rare in an actor of Goodman's stature. After all, he is a guy with 11 Emmy nominations, five Golden Globe nominations, and two Screen Actors Guild nominations to his credit. Thursday night (Sept. 29), he'll add another honor to that collection when the New Orleans Film Society names him its 2011 Celluloid Hero.
The award is given annually "to a cinema luminary in recognition of outstanding service to the art of motion pictures," and is presented at a kickoff gala during which details of the Film Society's New Orleans Festival are revealed. Goodman is among the highest-profile winners of the award, but he's typically -- and genuinely -- humble about it. "Yeah, it's nice," he says. "If you stay in the business long enough, they start giving you stuff."
He is calling from his Los Angeles home, where he's decamped to attend to his nonstop career. The temperature there is dandy, in the 60s, but there's no place like the Garden District home where he spends his time between gigs. "You can't get po-boys here," he says of Los Angeles.
Spoken like a true New Orleanian, which Goodman has been -- at heart, anyway -- since his first trip to the city in 1972, with a few dozen of his nearest and dearest fellow hell-raisers.
"First time I came to New Orleans, we loaded 50 guys into a bus in 1972, spring, for Mardi Gras," Goodman remembers. "We came down to Baton Rouge for a few days and then spent about 36 hours on the street in the Quarter.
"I had never -- well, I hadn't seen much of anything by that time in my life -- but had certainly never seen anything like that.
"And it wasn't just Mardi Gras. It was just something in the air or something, and not just the Boone's Farm. But anyway, whenever I could over the next years, I would get down there. And then I started coming down every year. I would take a vacation for that."
At first, of course, it was all about the French Quarter, which had a way of widening the eyes of a St. Louis kid like Goodman. But between go-cups, he started noticing things.
"Initially, it was the Nevilles," he said. "And then I wanted to learn how that sound came about, and I just looked into that and started uncovering this whole new world I knew nothing about. ... It's just something that's not of this country, and it's just unlike anyplace else. I just grew to appreciate the totally different culture down there."
All the while, he was plugging away at an acting career that yielded him bit parts in movies such as "C.H.U.D." and "Revenge of the Nerds," both released in 1984. And then, in 1986, the studio suits at Columbia Pictures made him an offer that was too good to be true: They would fly him to New Orleans, foot the bill for his stay -- and give him a paycheck to boot -- to play Detective Andre DeSoto in a neo-noir crime thriller called "The Big Easy."
He laughs mischievously when recalling his time on the film. There were still wild oats to be sown, and he sowed them.
"I remember coming home one morning about 6:30, when everybody was leaving for work, and laughing at them," Goodman said. "And I went up to my room and got a phone call 15 minutes later, asking where I was. I said, 'Well, I'm off today.' And they said, 'Oh, no you ain't.' So I learned a valuable lesson."
Shortly after, Goodman and his "Big Easy" co-star Dennis Quaid -- with whom Goodman had also performed on Broadway a decade earlier -- would again be cast together in a Louisiana production, director Taylor Hackford's "Everybody's All-American." Telling the fictional story of a star Louisiana State University football player who struggles to adapt to life after his days as a campus legend are over, it starred Goodman as Quaid's wingman, Lawrence. It also gave the actor a chance to live out some of his gridiron fantasies that had been cut short by a high school injury.
"I remember running out into Tiger Stadium -- they let us shoot five minutes before the game, five minutes during intermission, and all we wanted after the game in Tiger Stadium," Goodman said. "And I remember running out as a 1957 Tiger in the middle of the field with people screaming -- that many people -- and I forgot to breathe. I literally forgot to breathe until I hit the middle of the field. I was just so excited."
It wasn't the only time his breath was taken away during the shoot. On a Halloween field trip to New Orleans, he was introduced to his future wife, a Bogalusa girl named Anna Beth Hartzog.
All of this was before the world came to know Goodman as Dan Conner on "Roseanne," the enormously popular ABC sitcom that, over the course of its nine-year run, became appointment TV on Tuesday nights for many Americans. It would also earn Goodman seven of his Emmy nominations, and an enduring fame to go with them.
When the show ended in 1997, Goodman had a decision to make. A successful actor with a young daughter at home (Middle name: Evangeline), he could raise her in Los Angles. But New Orleans beckoned.
"I just didn't feel comfortable having her brought up as a showbiz kid," he said. "My wife is from Bogalusa, and I figured I'm going to be on the road working a lot, so if I'm going to live somewhere outside of Los Angeles, it might as well be here, so my wife could be close to her family."
Since then, he's built a list of movie credits longer than the beer line at Jazzfest, roles that include voicing parts for Pixar's "Monsters Inc." and Disney's New Orleans-set "The Princess and the Frog," as well as a number of Coen brothers films ("Raising Arizona," "Barton Fink," "The Big Lewbowski," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?").
Les bon temps still roulez from time to time, of course, but those boozy, 50-guys-crammed-in-a-bus days are long gone. Instead, Goodman -- four years sober -- has settled into a quiet, ordinary New Orleans existence. He walks his dog through his Garden District neighborhood. He works out at a local gym. He does his best not to appear too annoyed by the tour buses that pass his house regularly.
"I just try to low-ball it at home," he said.
After Hurricane Katrina, his local profile was raised by his memorable role in the HBO series "Treme," as well as his support of rebuilding efforts. That civic leadership continued after the BP oil spill.
"It was the only thing I could do after the storm, and it just felt like I was doing something, trying to raise money for the Red Cross," he said. "But this is a place that people, once they get down there, they love. I've talked to a million people who are, 'Oh, man, I love it down there,' and people that haven't been down there, you want to get them down there just to sample it, just get their sample menu in. And once they get down there, they love it."
Goodman will get back home in time for the gala, but he also has his fingers crossed that his work schedule will allow him to return for the film festival's Oct. 14 opening-night movie, "The Artist," in which he co-stars.
"I hope so," he said. "I'm trying to get out of here and get back home -- if I can raise the bail money."
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