How many actors have one word associated with a performance that instantly conjures an image of them in their most iconic role? Certainly "Stella!" as cried by Marlon Brando would fit the bill, as does Al Pacino shouting "Attica!" There are others, but the list is short. One I would like to add is "Refund!" ... and if it instantly brings up Paul Dooley's epic reading of that line, in his role as the dad in 1979's Academy Award winning Breaking Away, then I rest my case. Today being Paul's 90th birthday, this still-working actor (one of the best in the biz), is getting a full-on tribute from me both as a fan—and as a friend. For the simple truth is, I love and adore him.
Paul Dooley (2010).
I first met Paul in 1993, when we were cast in the Los Angeles premiere of Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor. The show had just closed in New York after a successful year's run, and our production, at the famed Pasadena Playhouse, used the original Tony Walton-designed set straight from Broadway—with a cast straight from heaven (see photo below). There were nights when Paul's impeccable timing and one-of-a-kind line readings raised the roof on the old playhouse. But my fondest memories were of my time spent backstage in the green room (it really was green), where I sat listening to Paul's stories of what was already by then a career stuffed with legendary days as a stand up, writer, commercial pitchman, improv genius, and prolific actor in film, theatre and television.
Lend Me a Tenor (Bottom row: Ron Fassler, Anne De Salvo, Peggy Pope, Jean De Baer,
Laura Hughes; Top row: Gary Beach, Paul Dooley, Robert Picardo).
Paul came up the hard way. Born Paul Brown on February 22, 1928 in Parkersburg, West Virginia, to call his surroundings "rural" can't begin to describe it. His dad built the house Paul grew up in with his own two hands. Of his dad, Paul once told a Chicago interviewer, "My father was a man who never smiled his whole life, and that is a bit embedded in me. Although I’ve done every range of character, my father is the one I do naturally. All the Dads I play is my father." After a stint in the Navy, Paul returned home and went to West Virginia University. While there he developed an interest in acting, so upon graduation, headed for New York to try his luck. Being naturally funny, something told him there wasn't much funny about the name Paul Brown. He thought Paul Dooley had a comic ring to it and chose it for his stage name over his second choice: Tom Foolery. Seriously. That's no joke.
Paul Dooley's comedy album, essential in the 1960s, if you took your comedy seriously.
He was part of the 1954 Off-Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera with Lotte Lenya, that burnished that musical's reputation. He played alongside Beatrice Arthur, Ed Asner, John Astin and Charlotte Rae, and at $25 per week, it provided some steady employment for a time (and got him his Equity card). A few years later, when Chicago's Second City comedy troupe came to New York, Paul hooked up with them. "They had me in the pre-written sketch portions of the show, not the improv portion because I wasn’t trained in it. But I was an understudy, and would observe it. One of the actors went back to Chicago, and I had to learn to improvise without knowing how ... I stayed with the show for two years." Shortly thereafter, Mike Nichols, who had seen him on stage, had him in to audition for a new Broadway comedy he was directing. Paul got the gig, creating the role of Speed, one of the poker players in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple. He also understudied the role of Felix and went on to play it opposite Walter Matthau's Oscar for two months when Art Carney left the show.
The original cast of 1965's The Odd Couple (from left to right) Walter Matthau, John Fiedler,
Nathaniel Frey, Art Carney, Paul Dooley and Sidney Armus.
Continuing his work in the theatre, mostly Off-Broadway, Paul supplemented those meager salaries with countless radio and TV commercials. And with a hard-earned reputation as a master improviser and sketch writer, he wound up creating PBS's The Electric Company, a landmark Emmy Award-winning children's television series. In addition to serving as head writer, he also lent his acting skills to filmed sketches and voiced a number of animated characters.
Oh, yes … that’s Morgan Freeman, a series regular on The Electric Company.
In 1977, while appearing in Jules Feiffer's Hold Me at the Westside Arts Theatre, the film director Robert Altman stopped backstage after the show. It turned out to be a momentous night. "We talked for awhile, and the other people in the show were not pleased because he was giving me the attention. The next day, I went to his New York City offices, and that’s when he offered me A Wedding with Carol Burnett."
A Wedding (1978), Paul's first leading role in a film ... at age fifty.
After that, Paul Dooley became an essential member of Robert Altman's stock company of actors. It also helped get him Breaking Away, which was the breakthrough role he had long sought. From then on in, he became America's Dad: Molly Ringwald's father in Sixteen Candles; Julia Roberts' pop in Runaway Bride, and Larry David's father-in-law on Curb Your Enthusiasm, among so many others. He's even worked up a one-man show utilizing that renown, Upright and Personal, which tells his life story. It played last year's Los Angeles Fringe Festival, and like everything else with Paul, is still a work in progress.
Married to the gifted writer (and actress) Winnie Holzman, the two have worked together on most of the TV series for which Winnie has written. From Thirtysomething (where Winnie got her start in television), to My So-Called Life (which she created), and on to Huge, which was a collaboration between Winnie and their daughter Savannah Dooley, a wonderful writer in her own right. Winnie and Paul even wrote a play for themselves to act in, Assisted Living, that premiered in Los Angeles in 2013, later performed at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey.
Winnie Holzman and Paul Dooley in Assisted Living (2013).
If "Refund!" winds up a one-word definition of Paul's lifetime as an actor, he's cool with it. In his own words: "Truck drivers still lean out of their windows and say the line back to me. I think I said it maybe seven times in the film, and each line reading was slightly different. To this day, I will write it on pictures when people ask me for an autograph."
One of my favorite Paul Dooley stories is the time he was picked up by a cabdriver who said, "I know you." In response, Paul asked "You do? Who am I?" And the cabdriver replied, "Well, I don't know your name, but you got a household face."
At IMDB.com, Paul is listed with 199 acting credits (to date). His most recent being a guest starring role as a dying man on the new ABC series The Good Doctor. When I saw him in Los Angeles right after it aired in January, he asked if I'd seen it. I told him not yet, but that I would watch it directly. He said, "Well, let me know what you think."
Paul, what I think is that for a young kid in this business, you got a lot going for you. Happy 90th, birthday.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.