How Tim Matheson Survived Hollywood and Landed in the White House
Beginning his career as a child actor, the 68-year-old actor has worked tirelessly in Hollywood since the early 1960s, including a stint as the original voice of Jonny Quest on the classic animated Hanna-Barbera series, and maintained a thriving career into adulthood with major turns in films like "National Lampoon's Animal House," "Up the Creek," "Fletch," filmmaker Steven Spielberg's "1941," and Mel Brooks's "To Be or Not to Be."
Later, Matheson found prominent roles on television, most notably a recurring, Emmy-nominated stint on the White House-set series "The West Wing" as Vice President John Hoyne, and, more recently, as small-town Southern doctor Brick Breekland on "Hart of Dixie," all while building a flourishing behind-the-scenes career as TV director, helming episodes for scores of series, including "Third Watch," "Without a Trace," "Psych," "Suits," and "Burn Notice."
Now Matheson's tackling one of the most serious dramatic roles of his career, playing President Ronald Reagan -- himself a journeyman Hollywood player prior to his political ascent -- in "Killing Reagan," National Geographic's TV-movie adaptation of authors Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard's bestselling account of the attempted assassination of Reagan by John Hinkley Jr. in 1981, airing Oct. 16.
Given Reagan's enduring high-profile and increasingly iconic status nearly 30 years after he left the Oval Office and a dozen years after his death in 2004, the role may well be the most challenging of Matheson's career, requiring him to both capture the essence of a towering cultural figure and imbue his story with a sense of both drama and history, as he revealed to Moviefone. In the conversation, Matheson also discussed his long career and his own eyebrow-raising encounter with Secret Service agents.
Moviefone: From vice-president to president -- I'm glad to see you had it in you!
Tim Matheson: Where he should have been the whole goddamn time! You know, but actually President Bartlet was a hell of a president.
Yes, a very good fictional president. Did you ever have the opportunity to be in the same place at the same time as President Reagan, who, of course, had a great history both as a Hollywood actor and as the governor of California? Did you ever encounter him?
No, never met him. I got caught in a traffic jam that he created one time when he was driving to Century City because they'd shut down blocks around him, but no. I shot a movie, "She's All That" -- we were in the Bel-Air neighborhood, near where the president lived, and when he was still alive, I believe.
And I knew [his daughter] Patti [Davis], socially. She came over to my house for a couple of parties or something at one time -- a lovely lady, and the Secret Service were very nice. There may have been some, like, illegal smoking going on and it wafted up towards them and I asked the guys whether they were cool, and they said "We don't care what's going on in there. We're not the parents." They were funny.
You were certainly around and plugged in at the time of the assassination attempt on Reagan, what were your memories of that news event when he was shot?
I was shocked -- and I was amazed that I was as upset as I was, you know, because I didn't vote for Reagan. I was a liberal, and still am, and I voted for Jimmy [Carter], but it made me realize how much I liked him. That despite our political differences, I really liked him, and it made me sad that this sweet old man had been shot down by some stupid kid, some crazy guy with a pistol.
And, I must say, the way he handled his recovery, and springing back into the presidency as quickly as he did -- or apparently springing back – was remarkable. And he won me, and I voted for him the second time. He was the only Republican I've ever voted for.
Whatever one might think of some of his policies, there was a very charismatic quality to Reagan, and he came off as kind of the right man at the right time, you know?
Totally! I totally agree. I think he understood the job and he knew the value of the image. Jimmy was the best, most wonderful Christian man, a great man -- and a terrible president. He was down there in the weeds with everybody else, whereas Reagan delegated everything. He would -- came in at 9 and went home at 6, and told people, "You know what I want, just get it done," you know? And he was a good executive.
Did you get a sense of how this incident changed him, and maybe set him on a slightly different path?
Yeah. According to what he had written, and what's been reported about him is that he said to his wife, he said, "I think maybe the rest of my days here on Earth belong to the Lord" -- he was religious -- "and I think that he has me here for a reason." And he came -- he came to believe that reason was to get rid of nuclear weapons, and but to do that he felt you had to have a strong military, you had to build up the military, and then confront the Soviets directly, in terms of "Tear down this wall!" and calling them on it and being harsh with them.
I thought it was bluster at the time. I just thought it was that cowboy bluster that we got with George W. Bush, but it wasn't. It was very measured, even to the point where I read a perspective on when he fired the air traffic controllers, he was aware. They talked about how the Russians are going to look at this, they're going to go, "Oh, my gosh." And they did -- they responded.
When they got the feedback on the Russians, it was like "this is not Jimmy Carter." We're dealing with a whole new thing here. He just, hey, those guys didn't do anything, they didn't come back, they're fired, gone! So, he was -- they were so aware of the image that the presidency projected, and that's what -- that's what they worked on more than anything I think.
Given that your career contemporaries in Hollywood, did you know Jodie Foster at the time?
No, I don't know Jodie.
That was such a weird time for her, with John Hinkley's obsession with her going public.
Yeah, it's horrifying, just horrifying, and it just makes you aware that celebrities have those issues around them all the time -- that poor young Internet star, YouTube star [Christina Grimmie], the singer who was shot down by some guy, just like that. It's a new world.
I think that the best thing to come out of the Reagan assassination attempt, and perhaps this movie, is we realized that the James Brady group that's been formed, they got the gun ban, the assault rifle ban, at least for 10 years, and then it just wasn't renewed, unfortunately.
But, at least that's what came out of it, and we have to learn from these events, and they're now just much more ... more than periodic. They're just much more numerous and scary. It's the same kind of sick mind that's doing these things, and -- and it makes us realize there is something about health care and our mental health care that needs to be looked into.
What do you think of Ronald Reagan, the Hollywood actor? Did you take a look at anything he did back in the day, or just are you familiar with his work?
No, I've seen -- I've seen clips of Ronnie. He was okay. He was a B [movie] actor, and he was a B-list actor. And some people could say that about me, you know? It's not a derogatory term. There are very few A-list: Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Denzel [Washington]. There are very few of them, and the rest of us are lucky to be B- and C-level actors, as Kathy Griffin says.
And so he's a B actor, and he was falling out of movies. The [television anthology series] "GE Theater," I think that's where he made the connection with America. That transformed his life because they made such a deal. They made him -- not rich, but they gave him a lot of money. They gave him a beautiful house and they fixed up his house for him, and he spent all that time running around the country, speaking to all the employees at all the GE plants, and listening, and I think that's when he became a Republican, and that's when he started really becoming much more conservative and refining his political instincts.
And then he saw a larger role for himself. As he got away from acting, then he saw "I can see the effect I'm having on these people when I talk to them, and I'm talking about things that they're passionate about." And then they invited him to run for governor.
What was fun or challenging -- or both -- about being Reagan for this project, as you were performing and trying to evoke him?
The challenge of it was I took a lot of dialect classes and had a coach, and I'd work on the dialect, continually, and it's one of those things. It's like, you practice, practice, practice so you can forget about it and let go of it, and hone and imprint it so that it's there and you don't have to think about it.
Because, if I'm acting an accent, if I'm acting a mimic, a mime of what Reagan is like, then that's not going to be a good performance. Because, really, what you've to got to do is you've got to find the emotional core of the character and go from there, hopefully. It's scary, you know? Because what are they going to think when I'm doing this, and then you let go of that, and just jump in and do it.
And the fun of it is, you're in the Oval Office, and when it seems real, your mind doesn't know. So the great thing about acting is you get to stop being Tim Matheson and you get to become Ronnie, that other thing, and very few in life get to step away from who we are. And you just go to that part of you that's Ronnie, or the Scottish gentleman, or whatever you're playing, and you get to leave yourself behind just hopefully put your toe in the water of that person, or more. And that's the joy of it. He was a richly complex and interesting and fascinating man, for me, and I just -- there was a lot more there, and I came away with a tremendous respect for him.
You've had such a prolific and productive career. You've done everything from Otter in "National Lampoon's Animal House" to "Hart of Dixie's" Brick Breeland. When you have a minute to kind of think about the breadth of your career, how do you feel about it?
It makes me proud and happy, and feel just blessed and laugh and everything because I think the best part of it was, as a kid, I was like the third kid through the door. I wasn't the lead kid. I was a journeyman actor. I had one line here, and two lines there, and a day here, and three days there. I was just working, and I saw the kids that became stars crash and burn once they outgrew that, and it was sad.
They outgrew that kid thing, and now all of a sudden they weren't the star of that show, "Lassie," or "Leave it to Beaver," or whatever. They had to start over again. And Kurt Russell went through it, and he smartly went through it. He got away. He went and played baseball and came back. And Jodie, the same thing. You really need to get away and restart it. And I didn't have that problem. I went and I did voiceovers and stuff.
And then, when I was a young adult, I got to work with Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda and Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds and Jason Robards and Van Johnson. The greatest thing about starting at that age was I got to perform alongside people who grew up in vaudeville, and that just impressed the heck out of me with how generous they were to other performers from vaudeville that were having a hard time. They'd give them parts and take care of them, and give them jobs and stuff -- just how wonderful and gracious they were, and how talented! They could sing, they could dance, they could tell jokes, they could do it all. But there were all these sort of segments of your career and it seems like about every six, seven, eight years you get a chance to open another chapter, open another door.
And so I did Westerns. I did a bunch of cowboy stuff until I was in my mid-20s. Then I got tired of doing straight parts and I started doing improv, started doing comedy after "Animal House" -- that was my first comedy -- and each of those changes was risky and scary as hell.
And then "The West Wing" came on, and TV movies came on, and I did a lot of movies. And then I started directing. And then "Heart of Dixie" came along. I mean, I was really quite successful as a director, doing pilots like "Covert Affairs." And I remember, at each juncture, I've never been more scared in my life! I remember doing an episode of "Burn Notice" that I was directing and they asked me to act in it, and I was playing this great character in it, and I just thought "If I screw this up, I can kill two careers with one show!"
But that's the tightrope and the high-wire act that I think is exhilarating and challenging and so rewarding. A good one comes along every five to seven years, and maybe this is the next one. I don't know. You never know until the audience weighs in. The phone rings and my attitude now is just to say yes to everything and just embrace it and give it your all, and it'll sort itself out.
And you can always run for office.