Friday, February 19, 2016

In Character: John Goodman

Since I began my In Character series nearly five years ago, readers have consistently requested that I cover John Goodman. And for good reason. After all, John Goodman is THE character actor’s character actor, and he’s good in anything, no matter the quality of the overall project. But he’s a tough actor to summarize. His body of work is massive (144 current film and television credits), and his range is impeccable. So over the years, I’ve been stuck: do I list my favorite Goodman performances, or do I present a more balanced portrait of his full capabilities as an actor (i.e. a villain, a good guy, a goof, a “straight” man, etc.)? Ultimately, I just said screw it and went with the former. So, below is not an all-inclusive look at Goodman’s career, but rather the roles I remain most fond of. Do feel free to share yours as well!

Five Essential Roles
Raising Arizona (1987)
Gale Snoats
For his most famous pre-Roseanne role (and his first collaboration with the Coen brothers), Goodman played escape convict dummy, Gale Snoats, with fiery glee. You can tell, even this early in his career, that Goodman had no shame in embracing The Weird in his characters. I mean really, who can forget Goodman screaming his head off as he emerges from a bottomless pit of mud next to a prison? Or Goodman and William Forsythe screaming in panic as they speed down a desolate highway in search of the baby they’ve just stolen? It’s a relatively small role for Goodman, but one that was essential to the development of his career.

Roseanne (1988-1997)
Dan Conner
Whether you were a fan of the show or not (I was always more of a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air kind of kid), there’s no denying the impact of Roseanne, and Goodman’s incredible work in it. Goodman’s seamless chemistry with on-screen wife, Roseanne Barr, coupled with the show’s relentless pursuit of real, middle America problems, changed the sitcom landscape. Goodman starred in each of the show’s 221 episodes, and I can’t possibly remember them all. But I’m most drawn to Season 6, which features the hilarious mystery marijuana episode “A Stash From the Past” and the dramatic “Lies My Father Told Me,” in which Dan opens old family wounds. That season helped Goodman win a Golden Globe, which would, shockingly, remain his only notable award for playing Dan Conner.

Barton Fink (1991)
Charlie Meadows
There’s something to be said for the affable psychopath. When we meet them, they’re so nice that we don’t think twice about them. But when we learn how batshit crazy they are, we keep waiting for the beast within to storm its way out. That’s Charlie Meadows, the big-boned, lighthearted, ear-leaking insurance salesmen who befriends Barton Fink (John Turturro). It’s such a joy to see Barton and Charlie get on so well early in the film. But when cops inform Barton of Charlie’s psychotic tendencies, the film is taken to a much more interesting place. Will Charlie turn on Barton? Will he protect him? Help him, even? Charlie Meadows is damn near Goodman’s best work; a role only John Goodman could play, and play so well.

Matinee (1993)
Lawrence Woolsey
My favorite of Goodman’s “fun” roles. As fun as his early ‘90s streak of hammed up work in films like Arachnophobia, King Ralph, and The Babe are, nothing tops Matinee. Much of this can be credited to the fact that Matinee was a staple of my childhood. Repeat viewings were common, which meant Goodman’s small-town dreams/big-time heart movie producer, Lawrence Woolsey, was constantly on my mind. I rewatched Matinee for this post, and I felt like a kid again, thanks much in part to Goodman’s zany work in it. And sometimes, there is simply no better feeling than that.

Treme (2010-2011)
Creighton Bernette
Just once, I’d love a David Simon show to be popular while it’s actually on the air. But, alas, all of his incredible work with HBO (The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme, Show Me a Hero) either gained praise after they aired, if they gained any at all. Treme was particularly brutal. The show was critically adored but virtually ignored by viewers, and thereby cancelled after three and a half seasons. But the few of us who got in early and stuck around for good were privy to some of the best work HBO has ever put out.

Right out of the gate in the show’s opening episode, Goodman’s Creighton Bernette was one of Treme’s main draws. A professor at Tulane University, Creighton was an articulate family man who enjoyed passionately defending his city of New Orleans. This included starting a web series laced with profane rants against the New Orleans system, and the people who ran it. If you’re looking for a new show, do give Treme a chance. If nothing else, I promise it contains some of Goodman’s best work.

The Best of the Best
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Walter Sobchak
It just has to be Walter. The endlessly quotable, hilariously manic, wildly crass Walter. It’s a role so iconic, a performance so embedded in pop culture, that I struggle to think of what I can add to the conversation. What I will say is that playing a character as big as Walter is a huge gamble. You’re turned to 11 in every scene. You’re crazy, nonsensical, loud, tough to like – you’re big. It’s a performance so large that it could turn audiences off, which may help explain why the film performed so poorly when it was initially released. But now, of course, Walter Sobchak is an icon. He’s right up there with the finest characters the Coen brothers have ever created. There is no end to my enjoyment in watching Walter convince Donny (Steve Buscemi) and The Dude (Jeff Bridges) to follow his outlandish schemes. I can watch The Big Lebowski daily and laugh throughout every single time. Like all of Goodman’s best roles, it’s impossible to imagine someone else inhabiting Walter so effectively. It’s script, performance, and actor, married together flawlessly.

Other Notable Roles
in Inside Llewyn Davis
Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
The Big Easy (1986)
Punchline (1988)
Sea of Love (1989)
Arachnophobia (1990)
King Ralph (1991)
The Babe (1992)
The Flintstones (1994)
Fallen (1997)
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Coyote Ugly (2000)
Normal, Ohio (2000)
Storytelling (2001)
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
The West Wing (2003-2004)
Beyond the Sea (2004)
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006)
In the Electric Mist (2009)
You Don’t Know Jack (2010)
Red State (2011)
The Artist (2011)
Damages (2011)
Community (2011-2012)
Argo (2012)
Trouble with the Curve (2012)
Flight (2012)
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Alpha House (2013-2014)
The Gambler (2014)
Trumbo (2015)


  1. If you know John Goodman is in a Coen Brothers film. That's when you know it's going to be a great film. I fucking love him in all of the films he did with yet Walter is his crowning achievement... SHUT THE FUCK UP DONNY!!!!

    I also love him in Revenge of the Nerds.... "You know when you were a baby. Your father carried you in his arms and said, 'some day, my son is going to be a man' Now look at you. You all just got your asses whipped by some goddamn nerds. NERDS!!!! Well, if I were you. I'd do something about it. I would try and redeem myself in front of my maker, my father, and my coach!"

    He was one of the few bright spots in Storytelling which I didn't like as I just loved all of the rants he did. Even in bad movies such as the fucking awful Flintstones movie, he just can't suck. I think he's one of those guys who have the ability to just not suck no matter what the project is in.

    1. Man, I completely forgot he was in Revenge of the Nerds. That's hilarious. Also agree that Coens+Goodman=Gold. Always.

      And it's true, the man can be in bad stuff, but he himself is never bad.

  2. YES YES YES! Your 6 favorite roles are nearly identical to mine. I kind of missed the Roseanne boat but as far as films go, Charlie Meadows and Walter Sobchak are such indelible characters. And I agree, people need to seek out Treme. He does great work on the show.

    1. Soooo happy you've seen Treme. I absolutely loved that show and him in it. (The arc around Khandi Alexander's sexual assault though... damn, so intense.)

  3. No love for his seminal role in the 1984 horror movie CHUD as Diner Cop, haha. Came out just after Revenge of the Nerds. Not being a big Coen Brothers fan (I know it's shameful), I think my favorite role of his probably West Wing.

    1. I've never seen CHUD haha! Can't believe it. I do love him in The West Wing. He inhabits that role with such confidence, and he does it in a matter of seconds. Love it.

  4. The first John Goodman performance I saw was The Flintstones, so it kind of stuck as an association with him. I haven't seen much of his work, but I've always liked him in the ones I've seen (Argo, Community, Monsters Inc). I will have to watch The Big Lebowski soon.

    1. It's very difficult to fully appreciate The Big Lebowski on the first run through. I certainly didn't. But if you give it time, it can really sink in. And Goodman is absolutely priceless in it.

  5. Oh man, i LOVE John Goodman. I never thought i would see an In Character piece for him just because it's so impossible to narrow all of his roles down to just five. He has so many incredible and memorable roles. Any movie he appears in, he is gonna steal. Now i definitely agree with The Big Lebowski as the top choice. No one but John Goodman could have played Walter Sobchak. It's one of the most perfect casting choices i can think off.

    But if i'm gonna mention a performance not on your list i'm gonna have to go with O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Or maybe Trumbo. He was great in that movie. And Argo. Or maybe Inside Llewyn Davis. No, my personal favorite choice outside of The Big Lebowski is gonna have to be his voice work in Monsters Inc. I just love that movie and he was the perfect voice for Sullivan. I can never get tired of that movie... Or maybe i should pick King Ralph. What? I like that movie. Or did when i was 10. Haven't watched it since.

    1. He's the best! I was always too intimidated to tackle this post, but hey, here it is! I did like him in Trumbo. He's great at the Giving Zero Fucks role, while lacing in some morality. Great actor.

  6. John Goodman is fun. I think he tends to play a lot of characters that are similiar and I don't even care, I just love watching this guy on screen.

    I hear you with those HBO shows. I was late on watching The Wire and I had no idea he was in Treme for a bit. I'll have to check that out after I get through Oz, Deadwood, and Six Feet Under. lol

    1. Exactly! Even if he's in similar roles, he's always a joy to watch. So, so true.

      Well, I do promise that all those HBO shows are 100% worth it. I just started rewatching Deadwood myself. It's incredible.

  7. He's so great. I once helped present an award to him at the New Orleans Film Festival, and he fell off the stage...literally.

    1. Oh my god. Really?! Definitely want to hear more details about this!

  8. Fantastic post, AW.

    My mom loved Roseanne, so I was probably on board with 150 of those episodes. Dan was easily my favorite character, as Roseanne and Jackie were a bit too all over the place to latch on to.

    I love all your picks (those I've seen, anyway), but I would probably add his role in Flight. He's kinda like Walter, except likable and helpful.

    Okay, fine. He's the opposite of Walter.

    1. Thanks man! I really like his work in Flight as well. I just really like that movie. But he's hilarious in it. "I need.... a glass a water. I need.... a credit card. I need.... a $100 bill."

  9. Great post! Goodman is one of my favorites. It's nice to see his work on Roseanne given a shout-out. I don't remember watching it growing up but I was addicted to the re-runs for a while, mostly for Goodman. He just did a marvelous job with the comedy but the drama as well; some of his and Roseanne's scenes about their characters' struggles were so well-written and intense but never over the top. Walter strikes me in that way too. He's always on another level putting The Dude through the ringer of conspiracy theories, rants, etc. Yet Goodman is good at being authentically unwound and out-of-touch.

    1. Thanks! So true about Goodman's best characters being on another level. Like... imagine if you thought like Walter. How does he even come up with that stuff?!

  10. For years the earliest role I remembered seeing Goodman in was The Big Easy then I happened to watch Revenge of the Nerds again and - holy shit - a much slimmer Goodman was the football coach for the jocks.

    I love Raising Arizona - "We felt prison had nothing left to offer us so we released ourselves on our own recognizance."

    And his run down the fiery hallway in Barton Fink is literally one of the most memorable scenes I have ever watched. And Barton Fink beat se7en by four years. Just sayin'.

    I had forgotten about Matinee. I saw that quite a few years ago.

    As for ones not mentioned, I'd name yet another Coen Brothers movie - O Brother Where Art Thou where he played the Cyclops. I probably laughed for a minute at the one-eyehole KKK hood.

    1. That hallway scene in Barton Fink is so iconic. Every time I watch it, I get chills. He's great there, and the line he keeps repeating is so Coen brothers.

  11. Love him! And Walter is a good call. This will not stand!

  12. Goodman is great. I love him in just about everything I've seen him in and he's often the best part of those films. I hope to keep seeing him for years to come. Great choice.

    1. Thanks! He was such a blast to write about. What a performer.

  13. Great stuff, man. Can't go wrong with Goodman. Walter is an awesome choice for #1. I'm tempted to go with Charlie Meadows at the top, but it's a fine line.

    1. Thanks dude! It's gotta be Charlie or Walter, hasn't it? Such good characters.

  14. I LOOOVE this guy. He manages to be memorable even in something like Trumbo. Walter is my favorite too and even though there is such a loudness to this performance there are those moments when you can really see how much war messed him up - like that argument in the coffee place when he just mumbles 'I'm just gonna sit here and finish my coffee'. That just always made me so sad because you can see how this guy went through some horrible shit and how much effect it had on him and how lonely he is. That's why I always appreciated the performance so much because under all the hilarity there is so much more

    1. You touch on something really interesting here (and something people rarely mention) and that is how literally damaged Walter is. It almost makes you want to see him before the war, to see if he was that loud and fucked up then.

  15. I really liked his performance in Flight (2012) too. He was hilarious in that.

  16. John Goodman's pretty damn good in everything he's in. You could say he's a Good Man, get it?

    But yeah, Walter's the obvious best choice here. The Big Lebowski's chock full of scene-stealing performances, but among them, Walter Sobchak stands out as the scene stealingest.

    He's also perfectly cast in Barton Fink, bringing effortless humanity to a role that could have easily cartoonish and forced.

    He has the funniest scene in Raising Arizona. You know what scene that is.

    His work in Community is hilarious, too, especially in this scene and this scene, although the latter's best line comes from Donald Glover ("I can't tell where the air ends and my skin begins!")

    Also, while 10 Cloverfield Lane came out after this post, and while I wasn't as blown away by it as everyone else seemed to be, his performance was easily the best think about it. So creepy.

    1. I too thought 10 Cloverfield Lane was just okay, but that his work in it was fantastic. He's capable of so many things with just one damn look. Love the guy. A Good Man, indeed.

    2. Also, I'd like to hear what you think of another prolific heavy-set character actor, Paul Giamatti. Personally, I think he's one of the best in the business, with Sidways as his best performance.

    3. Oh I love him. Definitely need to cover him here. He's so good on Billions, but my fave is Sideways as well.