An Interview with Tim Thomerson (Part 1) – By Nic Brown

I’ve been a fan of Tim Thomerson for a long time. How long? Well I got bit by the bug for “B” movies in the early 90’s when I was working my way through college as a projectionist for a movie theater. While my theater ran mainstream Hollywood stuff, the job kept me out some nights until 2am. Then I’d get home and couldn’t sleep. What would I do? Watch late night cable or movies from the video store near my house. There were a number of films that caught my eye: BLACK MOON RISING introduced me to Tommy Lee Jones, Chow Yun Fat showed me there was more to Asian action cinema than kung-fu with THE KILLER, and then there was Tim Thomerson.

The first film I saw him in was TRANCERS. I loved it. His character, Jack Deth, had a great name and a dark noir feel, and best of all it was science fiction. I started looking for more films with Tim in them and I found them: CHERRY 2000, DOLLMAN, and one highly underappreciated film that became another of my favorite “Bs” – NEMESIS, just to name a few. I liked the films, but I especially loved the characters he played and how he played them.

Flash forward twenty or so years. I’m still watching “B” movies and I’m still loving them, but I now also write and pod-cast about them. That has brought me a lot of surreal moments, but probably none more so than the day Tim Thomerson called me.

Tim has been working on an independent film project, BRING ME THE HEAD OF LANCE HENRICKSEN, which is being written and produced by Hollywood filmmaker/actor Michael Worth. Done documentary style, the film is a BEST IN SHOW for the Hollywood set, as it follows Tim’s quest to learn why Lance Henricksen (ALIENS, THE TERMINATOR, DOG DAY AFTERNOON) gets all the good roles and he doesn’t. As I talked with Michael about how production was going on the project, he said, “Would you like me to ask Tim if he wants to do an interview?”

I jumped at the chance and a week or so later I was on the phone with Tim Thomerson! We spent the next hour talking about everything from how he isn’t really a fan of sci-fi to his love of surfing. Tim has proved to be as charismatic and approachable as anyone I’ve ever met. I’m happy to share part one of my interview with actor, comedian, and surfer dude Tim Thomerson with you.

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Tim – So are you eatin’ Moon Pies and drinkin’ RC down there in Kentucky right now?

Nic – I haven’t had a Moon Pie in quite a while. As for drinking, I’m more of a Diet Mt. Dew guy myself.

Tim – Hey, I just had a Dew!

Nic – And God bless you for it sir!

Tim – (Laughs) Well I have to get stoked up and go take my ‘old guy’ walk this morning. I used to run but I’m all messed up right now. I just had a neck operation and I can’t run because of it.

Nic – Ouch. What happened?

Tim – Well I had the operation about eight weeks ago. I had a surfing accident in Thailand and that kind of did my neck in.

Nic – You were surfing over in Thailand?

Tim – Yeah, I’ve gone over to Phuket, Thailand every summer for the last five years to surf and I got stacked up pretty good. I’ve been surfing ever since I was a kid and you know I’m not a young guy anymore. I’m 65 and every old surfing guy has shoulder and neck issues, so it goes with the territory.

Nic – When you recover from this will you be able to surf again?

Tim – Yeah, I’ve got about three more months of recovery before I can get back in the water for that. I’m going to try and get on a swim program here or something like that here just to start getting that range of motion back. You get some screws in there and some plastic and then you have to let your body get used to that stuff. I’m in physical therapy now but I really miss going in the water. It makes me crazy

Nic – I can understand that!

Tim – Say Nic, you’re from Kentucky, do you know who Jim Varney is?

Nic – He graduated from my high school so he came and spoke to my class a couple of times.

Tim – Well Jim is one of my heroes!

Nic – Really?

Tim – That’s right. David Letterman and I are old friends and we both just loved Jim. We couldn’t get enough of him. I’d say “Hey Jim, what’d you do for fun back there?” [in a very good imitation of Jim Varney’s voice] “Well Tim we’d take LSD ‘n fight each other!”

Nic – [Laughs]

Tim – He was just the best! He had a great stand up routine. Just damn funny stuff. Letterman still breaks out into some of Jim’s bits every now and then.

Nic – Speaking of stand up comedy, didn’t you get your start in stand up?

Tim – Well kind of…Anthony Zerbe helped me get my first job back in the early 70’s as an extra on SERPICO, and I got my union card from that. Then I was in New York studying acting and doing stand up comedy. Acting was what I always wanted to do, but I was fascinated by stand up. It was doing stand up that got me noticed and it was Richard Pryor that got me my first real film role in the movie CAR WASH. So stand up was sort of my way of auditioning to the public.

One of my goals back then was to do “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. I was intrigued by guys like Carson, Pryor, [Jonathan] Winters. I also liked Steve Martin – we kind of started out at the same time. So yeah, you could say that I got my start in stand up, but acting is what I was studying and that’s what I always wanted to do.

Nic – So stand up was more of a doorway into the industry for you then?

Tim – That’s a good way to put it. Of course I was lucky. Pryor put me in CAR WASH. Then Robert Altman saw me on “Midnight Special” – it was a variety show that ran after Carson on Friday nights in the 70’s. Well he cast me in A WEDDING, which was a real big deal for me. It was kind of an ‘unsung’ Robert Altman movie, but it had a lot of big stars in it and he [Altman] was a really cool guy to work with.

I will say this though, stand up was sort of a doorway for me, but I was able to do what I set out to accomplish in it. I played Carson and I played Las Vegas, so it was a bit more than just a way in for me.

Nic – Once you got into films, it seems you didn’t have much trouble getting work. You’re credited with close to 200 roles in movies and TV, but it seems like you end up doing a lot of Sci-Fi, from your role on the 70’s show “Quark” to the TRANCERS movies and such. I have to ask, as someone who’s known for their work in Science Fiction, are you a fan of the genre?

Tim – [Laughs] Not on any level at all! I’ve just never been a spaceships and Sci-Fi fan. The only thing I ever really liked was THE THING, the original and the remake by Carpenter, that was a good movie too and I liked BLADE RUNNER. I tell ya, sometimes it feels like you’re living in BLADE RUNNER today in L.A. with all the stuff going on.

The Sci-Fi thing just sort of happened. When I started out in TV I got cast as the bad guy a lot in shows like “Hawaii 5-0” and “Starsky & Hutch.” Then I ended up doing a run of sitcoms and such, that included “Quark” and that show was kind of Science Fiction. So it was part of the progression for me, but I’ve never been a fan of it. I’ve always loved cowboy movies and the old gangster movies and film noir that sort of thing.

Nic – So do you try to bring some of that ‘gangster/tough guy’ feel into your Sci-Fi roles?

Tim – I was fortunate enough to train in acting with Stella Adler. She was a good teacher. I also had a basic foundation in theater, although I couldn’t stand doing theater…all those words and dealing with the ‘theater folk’ [Laughs]. It was all just a little too intellectual for me. Anyway, all the jobs I was getting were film and television related and I was a first generation television watcher and so I was influenced by those guys that I saw as a kid. There was also my Dad, he was a navy guy and so I grew up on naval bases in San Diego and Hawaii. The other thing was my Dad was an ordnance man so I was always around guns and such. So growing up, my life kind of felt like one of those old black and white World War II movies. That really influenced me, but I didn’t know how much until I got into acting.

Getting back to your question about the Sci-Fi roles, other than “Quark”, TRANCERS was really the first real Sci-Fi role for me. Well I looked at this character, Jack Deth, and I thought it would be good to play him in a ‘noirish’ fashion. So I went to the writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Mao, and I said, ”Why don’t we do this guy as a Phillip Marlow type only set in the future?” I just ran with that and created the persona of Jack Deth. So that’s kind of how that got started.

Nic – What about some of your other Sci-Fi and Horror roles?

Tim – I had some interesting ones like NEAR DARK, which was more horror than Sci-Fi, and NEMESIS. Now there was a film that was ahead of it’s time. The character I played in that was a tough one to pin down.

Nic – How so?

Tim – Well if you’re really watching the film [NEMESIS], you’ll pick up on the fact that I’m really playing a woman in a guy’s body. In the beginning when you see Farnsworth, he’s a little off center. Then later in the film I turn into Farnsworth the cyborg and he’s a completely different dude. So I was talking with Albert [Pyun] and I asked him how I should film this guy because I didn’t really have a bead on him. Albert explained the character to me a little better, and said start off with him off center, but then make him become more and more machine-like, really bring out the cyborg. That was an interesting character to play and I think that movie is highly underrated.

Nic – I agree, it had a lot of concepts and action in it that you really hadn’t seen before.

Tim – Exactly! Take the scene when Olivier [Gruner] takes his machinegun and shoots a circle around himself and drops right through the floor. Albert was the first guy to do that! Now think how many times you’ve seen that in the big budget films by Bruckheimer and those guys. There were a lot of bits like that in NEMESIS that come back later in other movies.

Nic – I can see that. I mean the whole film was kind of built around the idea of the internet and the ‘information age’ but it was made back in 1992, before that really took off and he nailed a lot of it…except for the killer cyborgs taking over the world.

Tim – [Laughs] Yeah those guys were pretty weird.

Nic – You’ve done quite a few movies with Albert Pyun.

Tim – I’ve done ten movies with Albert and he’s one of my favorite guys to work with because he takes us all around the world making these movies and I got to play all these different types of characters. We’ve worked in Hong Kong, Rome, the Philippines and on and on. Hell, I met my wife while we were making DOLLMAN.

Nic – So wait a minute…you owe your marriage to DOLLMAN?

Tim – [Laughs] Well, yeah I guess so. That’s one that I kind of like. DOLLMAN was a fun little movie…a stupid movie, but fun.

Nic – You’ve been in so many movies and shows that this may be a tough question, but what do you think were some of your favorite roles to play?

Tim – [pauses for a long time] There was a slum lord I played for a couple of episodes of “Hill Street Blues” and he was probably the most ‘not me’ character I ever played. I really had to slip into this character; he was a real Chicago or East Coast kind of guy. That was one of my favorites because it was something people weren’t used to seeing me play and it was a challenge.

Then there’s this little movie I did by director Bryan Cranston called LAST CHANCE. It was really a ‘chick’ movie, but it was pretty good. I play this guy who’d written a book, like a Hemingway or maybe more of a Cormac McCarthy type who’d gone to the bottle and ends up driving a truck and just trying to stay sober. Then his truck breaks down in this little desert town and he falls in love with this woman. It’s something I’ve never played in my life and Bryan [Cranston] is just a great director and a hell of an actor. He sits down with me when we were filming and he tells me to just say these words. Don’t act it, don’t arch your brow, just talk. That was tough for me because I usually try to do something more that the audience is kind of in on, if you know what I mean. Because often these are low budget or even no budget movies and it helps to bring them in on the joke and let them know we’re all having a good time. So I try to put a little humor in it and figure folks will cotton to it. But for this role, Bryan had me play it straight and it really worked.