Paul Dooley: Character is Destiny

Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics

At the opening of his one-man show at Theatre West, Paul Dooley lists all the other character actors that he's often mistaken for, including Paul Sorvino, Ned Beatty, Charles Durning, Pat Hingle - great actors all of them, memorable from a hundred roles, but seldom identified with just one.  They are the actors whose faces you know you know, but their names... don't quite come to mind.

So let me tick off a few of Paul Dooley's credits and see if his face begins to materialize for you:

-- Larry David's father-in-law in Curb Your Enthusiasm

-- Wimpy in Robert Altman's Popeye with Robin Williams

-- Mr Spritzer the TV Host in the Hairspray movie with John Travolta

-- Julia Roberts's dad in The Runaway Bride

-- The main character's dad in HBO's Dream On

-- Molly Ringwold's dad in Sixteen Candles

-- Mia Farrow's dad in Altman's A Wedding

-- Dennis Christopher's dad in Breaking Away

See a pattern in those last five credits?  And now you know why his show has the title it does.

As Paul tells it, he loved jokes and all form of comedy from the time he was a kid; his all-time favorite comedian is Buster Keaton, whom he reveres as a comedy god.  Paul came to New York City after serving in the Navy to try to make it as a clown.  (His original last name is Brown, but he changed it to Dooley because he thought that it sounded funny.)  He performed at kids' parties and department store openings and any kind of gig he could get, but there was enough money, and he kept hitting rock bottom.  Finally he was able to get a commercial agent at William Morris, and that saved his career.  At one point he had 27 National Commercials running at once on TV, and he was named spokesman of the year.

He was "discovered" as a movie actor by Robert Altman, who made him an important part of his ensemble for four movies. First came playing Carol Burnett's husband in A Wedding, then there was the movie that was supposed to make Paul Dooley a star.  The Perfect Couple, 1979.  Paul plays a middle-aged Greek businessman who is matched up with a bohemian rock singer (played by Marta Heflin) by a computer dating service.  For once Paul Dooley had a chance to play the romantic lead, and he did a great job.  Roger Ebert wrote, "We begin to expect an original comic achievement ... [and] we get one too, as long as Heflin, Dooley and his family are on screen.  But Altman gets sidetracked..."  The result was that the movie was largely neglected, and it rarely gets any mention, even when Altman's body of films are discussed.  (But the comically bizarre Greek family here could certainly be seen as a forerunner to the one in Nia Vardolos's My Big Fat Greek Wedding - which,  20+ years later, was anything but neglected.)

Winnie and Paul - hanging on their bathroom wall

So it was back to playing "the dad" for Paul Dooley - something that had a grim twist to it, in terms of Paul's real life. As he movingly recounts in his show, Paul and his first wife were in the midst of an acromonious divorce when she took their two children and disappeared.  Just vanished without a trace.  It's a gut-wrenching story, and one that you should really hear Paul tell.

Only two shows left of Movie Dad at Theatre West, and I highly recommend catching it.  Paul Dooley has come a long way from his upbringing in rural West Virginia, and he has become an original, an American comedy treasure, who took the improvisational skills he learned from Second City and gave it emotional depth and resonance.  Unlike most comedy originals, Paul has become a deeply happy man through his 30 year marriage to Winnie Holzman, the actress and writer who penned the musical book for Wicked.

It's a real kicker of a story.  But, again, he tells it so much better than I could.


Steve is a 5-tool writer (plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, journalism) who has had 11 books published, 10 plays produced, and has written for the New York Times “Arts & Leisure”, Village Voice, New Republic, and many others. He is one of the few people on the planet who can lay claim to spending time with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as well as so many other extraordinary people who refused to color inside the lines. He is always on the lookout for the original and the incisive.