Hey, You're That Guy: Actor Paul Willson Talks Improv and an Actor's Life

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Hollywood has launched a thousand careers, and among them are the many extremely talented character actors and comedians we’ve watched for years, whose nuanced performances knock us on our asses every time we see them.

 

Just the sight of them elicits responses like, “I love that guy! Wasn't he in that one movie? You know the one. What is that guy's name?” They're the bit players, the minor characters, the people who give performances that sometimes outshine those whose names go above the title and for the most part these folks are pretty damn interesting. They’re the unsung heroes of Hollywood, and we thought it was high time they were given the attention they deserve. 

Character actor Paul Willson is a comedy staple, perhaps most recognizable for his recurring role as “Paul” on television’s Cheers and as one of “the Bobs” in Mike Judge’s cult-classic film Office Space.  Willson played neighbor "Leonard Smith" on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show for five years–later appearing in two separate roles on Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show—and he's played minor roles on a multitude of shows including Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Boston Public, The Mentalist, The News Room, and many others. When he arrived in Hollywood in 1976, he came equipped with solid improvisation chops, which he had honed on San Francisco comedy stages since the mid '60s, and a fierce determination to become a working actor. He did just that, amassing enough credits in the last 36 years to humble most newcomers in L.A. County. We talked recently to Paul Willson about his life and career.

W2C: Let’s start with the basics, Paul. Where did you grow up?
Paul Willson: I was born in Minnesota in 1945, but from the first grade on I lived in San Francisco. I left to go to Reed College in Oregon but returned when I dropped out after my junior year.  

Why did you drop out?
At Reed, you had to write a senior thesis and I just didn’t know what to do. I had also been in a motorcycle accident, and got an incomplete in a course, so I dropped out. But returning to San Francisco in the summer of 1966, who’d want to be anywhere else? And, I’m not pulling rank here, but San Francisco in 1966 was so much more hip and fun than it was in 1967. 

You don’t hear that very often. Most people associate 1967’s Summer of Love as the heyday of San Francisco “hippiedom.”
San Francisco was just a great little community before ‘67. It was interracial, multi-income, and there were all of these little restaurants, hardware stores, and corner grocery stores that still existed before all of the original people started to move out and all of those little shops became head shops. 

You could live cheaply, live well, and have a lot of fun. It was just a low-stress, sort of hedonistic kind of life. But when more and more people started coming in and apartments became “crash-pads”, and when the drug use became heavier, it was sort of ruined. 

What were you doing theatrically at the time?
I was in an improv group called The Pitschel Players. We worked out of a church in the Mission District. 

As an actor at that time were you exposed to the legendary, guerrilla-theatre groups like The San Francisco Mime Troupe? 
Actually, before I moved back to San Francisco, while I was still going to college, I was a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS was actually renting space from the Mime Troupe. When I mentioned I went to Reed College, I heard shouting from the other room, “Reed College, Reed College, send him in here.” It was [Mime Troupe founder] Ronnie Davis. Apparently, he had just booked a gig at Reed for his famed Minstrel Show, which was an usual and stunning show. It was set as a minstrel show but soon becomes deconstructed. Half of the minstrels were actually white and half were black but all in blackface. You didn’t see a lot of stuff like that at the time. I guess you’d call it Brechtian. Anyway, Ronnie Davis grabbed me and made me produce their show at Reed. 

What made you want to get into sketch comedy and improv?
The Committee, a famed sketch comedy group, came to San Francisco in 1962 when I was in high school. They did a lot of political satire. They were a spin-off of Second City and wanted to do something more political. I went and saw them all the time. When I started performing with my own group I met and became friends with people like Howard Hesseman and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb who were later in The Committee. My group did a set with The Committee when Del Close was visiting. 

How was it working with improv guru Del Close?
Del was a very interesting character and I don’t think that anybody was undecided about Del. He was someone who did a tremendous amount of drugs and came up with a lot of crazy stuff. But he was also a genius and produced some marvelous theatre. I myself didn’t care so much for the show that he did with The Committee. He invented, along with a few other people, the long form version of improvising which was later known as “the Harold”—and my group was in on the early workshops of that. 

I was interested in making my life as an actor. I started in ‘66 but I don’t think I knew what I was doing until 10 years later when I got to Hollywood. I never really had any formal training. 

Have you worked with directors that were comfortable with their actors improvising?
Well, Mike Judge [Office Space] was great with that. He encouraged it. If we got a good solid take on what was written in the script and then he let us play. The events were certainly determined by the script but a lot of the dialogue was improvised. As a matter of fact, I’m very proud of one of the lines that I came up with because there are clips all over YouTube. 

Which line?
“It doesn’t matter, he’s not going to work here anyway.”

Of everything you’ve worked on, are there any particular projects of which you’re especially proud?
Office Space is definitely one of them. Cheers is too, for obvious reasons, and It's Garry Shandling’s Show is another. I’m also really proud of a short film that I was in called Solly’s Diner. 

At what point did you meet Garry Shandling?
I met him in a workshop. At that time he was a writer on Mike Nesmith’s show, Television Parts, and he was starting to be a standup comic. He was coming to learn techniques. Coming from Arizona, Garry had a tan and the name Shandling is not ethnic-specific, so I really thought he was an American Indian until I saw his Menorah. 

When he was preparing the The Garry Shandling Show: 25th Anniversary Special, Mark Sotkin the co-writer, who had been a member of my comedy team before I joined, suggested to Garry that I might be good as one of the parts on this fake talk show. So, they cast me as Pete Schumacher the sidekick.  

Are you still doing improv?
Yes. My group, Off the Wall Comedy, is the longest running improv group in the US.  I joined in 1976. Three of us started in ‘76, two in ’75, and the rest joined by 1982. Robin Williams worked with us for a year. He was a very benign and nice person, obviously destined for greatness. John Ritter, also extremely nice, worked with us too.  

You’ve certainly run the gamut from working on very low-budget films to big studio films and network TV shows.
I’ve been in both kinds of productions. I did a movie that was shot in 2000 called Barstow 2008 which I won a Best Actor award for at the Aspen Comedy Festival 2001. Good experience doing it, but difficult, which is common in the world of low-budget filmmaking. We shot the movie in Barstow, California in 120 degree heat. We had only one trailer.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve been recognized for?
It was around the time that I was working frequently on Cheers. I was in a grocery store and two young people came up to me and said, “Hey, you were in the Devonsville Terror,” a low budget film from 1982, directed by a German director named Uli Lommel, who was very committed to making movies which didn’t have any stars at all. 

Do you still go on auditions or is life a little easier because you’re recognizable and casting directors already know you?
That only works up to a degree but then all the people that I knew who were producers and casting directors died. Here are the stages of an actor’s life: "Who is Paul Willson?" "Get me Paul Willson," "Get me a Paul Willson type," "Get me a younger Paul Willson," and "Who is Paul Willson?” I’m in the "Who is Paul Willson" stage now. I still get work. I’ve got some commercials running that are producing nice residuals. I just did my second episode of The Mentalist, so there’s stuff going on but it’s not like it was.

Steve Karras is a contributing writer for the Chicago based publication Web2Carz.com. A long time writer and journalist he has covered the entertainment beat for many years. Article used by permission: Original article: Hey You're That Guy: Actor Paul Willson.

Pictured: Paul Willson as Bob Porter on Office Space.

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