Bill Pullman: The First Time a Fellow Actor Had My Back

By BILL PULLMAN    JULY 25, 2017


Thirty years ago this past June, “Spaceballs,” Mel Brooks’s parody of “Star Wars,” was released by MGM. Critics were mixed about the movie at the time, but it has become a cult classic. And the anniversary has reminded me of the stroke of “ludicrous-speed” luck I had as an actor when Mel cast me as the hapless Han Solo stand-in, Lone Starr.

He and Anne Bancroft had seen me onstage in Los Angeles, but I had done only a small part in one previous movie. Now I was working on a studio lot in a big-budget film with a legendary director-writer-producer and enormously successful and talented comic actors. Chief among them was John Candy, who for reasons I’ll never know kept watch over me.

Lone Starr is the gruff outlier, a loner except for his pal, Barf. John played that half-man, half-dog, or “mog,” who would brag, “I’m my own best friend.”

After the first few days of shooting, I still hadn’t had a private conversation with John. I was a bit lost — maybe I had been a bit foggy since we started — consumed with a sense of panic that I had gotten in way over my head. These were comic actors who could effortlessly — and frequently — get rolling thunderclaps of laughs from the crew. When I tried to make a joke with the catering guy, he responded with the lukewarm reaction: “I see.”

I was walking across the lot after we had broken for lunch. Suddenly next to me was Frankie, John Candy’s driver. He was a short, chill man whom John affectionately referred to as his sidekick.

The First Time
Cultural figures write about the first time they experienced something that greatly affected their lives.

“Do you want to have lunch with John in his trailer?”

I looked over to where Frankie was pointing and saw John hauling himself up into the door of his gleaming trailer in his full-fur Mog suit, minus the headpiece. I didn’t know if I’d be up to the bantering he traded on the set with the other lead actors. My first inclination was to say no but suddenly heard myself say with false cheer, “Sure.”

As I got closer, I heard John shout out, “Get in here Pullman, I’m starving for my Pritikin Diet Soup.” Frankie rolled his eyes at the mention. Inside he went to work heating up a thin chicken broth with a few stiff, floating strands of noodle. I was being introduced to a ritual with endless variations: John would chuckle and rib Frankie, Frankie would roll his eyes, John would find one way after another to curse the diet.

John’s humor was wry, and he loved to deflect any emotional baiting. Recalling one moment on the set, he included an observation of me: “And you, Mr. Still Waters, Mr. Smiling-on-the-Outside, you had it all figured out and stayed out of it.” He was both calling me out for being quiet and making me feel noticed, secure. He delivered this with a round-cheeked grin and a mischievous brown-eyed wink. I think I said, “I’d like to think so."

A production assistant knocked on the door to give us a “we’re-back-in-five.” As John was gathering himself to leave, Frankie pulled out a variety box of a dozen doughnuts: “Boss, you said something about these.” John didn’t miss a beat as he grabbed one and pushed the box my way: “For your blood sugar, Pullman. I see you yawning.” We were co-conspirators now.

The lunches with John and Frankie continued from time to time. But the moment that has turned out to stay with me happened during a crisis for me on the set. We had been working out dialogue for a march into Yogurt’s Grand Hall. It was Princess Vespa, Dot Matrix, Barf and me, with Mel directing. Rounding a corner to face the altar of Yogurt wasn’t just a key story point; it was also a homage to Dorothy and gang going to face the Wizard of Oz.

John was feeling that, as scripted, most of the funny lines were being given to Barf, and he suggested I might take one of the wisecracks. A certain silence suddenly dominated the sound stage. Mel paused.

Now Mel had been, and would continue to be, as generous as any director that I’ve ever worked with. But something about the circumstances made him want to use his metaphorical light saber. Maybe it was because we were on one of our most elaborate sets, with several camera crews buzzing around us. He was the writer and the director, and a gentle giant of modern comedy wanted to give away a line that Mel had provided for him.

“You think Pullman can make the line funny? Pullman? O.K. Back to one.”

We all went back to our start marks and ran through the three-minute sequence, crew and cast making for a lot of moving parts. After a silence following “Cut,” we heard Mel say: “O.K. We are cutting that line. Back to one.”
Later I was disappointed that I had allowed Mel’s snap to fill me with shame and frustration. In the moment, as we all reset for another take, I must have looked like I was stewing.

I felt the arm of the Mog drape around my shoulders. John leaned in. “Pullman, how about another doughnut?” He continued: “You’d better not look so red right now. And don’t go blue on me later.”

His chuckle and wink calmed me down. I did eventually manage to recalibrate. And the next day, Mel met me with a hug.

I have never forgotten John Candy’s generosity. He showed me how to be a gentle leader. He lightened my load.

He had my back.
Bill Pullman
The film, stage and television actor’s new series, “The Sinner,” has its premiere Aug. 2 on USA Network
A version of this article appears in print on July 30, 2017, on Page AR2 of the New York edition with the headline: … A Fellow Actor Had My Back. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe
Continue reading the main story


The actor Bill Pullman.
 His new series "THE SINNER" has its premiere August 2 on USA network.

Credit: Tawni Bannister for The New York Times