Early in an actor's career, he or she may make brief appearances in films as part of building a reputation within the industry. After they are already established they may make brief appearances for the enjoyment of working with old friends or to fill their schedules during hiatuses between television shooting seasons. Robert Picardo has a long list of such credits, playing a wide assortment of smaller film and television roles. In this column we explore these roles allowing you, our readers, an opportunity to enjoy the Brief Appearances that he has made.
This installment is;
(Click here for Part 2 of Innerspace)
Innerspace (1987) is one of a several Steven Spielberg comedy/special effects films directed by Joe Dante (the two Gremlins movies are others). The movie stars Dennis Quaid as a daring but irresponsible test pilot, named Tuck Pendleton, who signs up for a bizarre mission: He will be placed inside a capsule, which will be reduced in size until it is smaller than a blood cell, then injected into a rabbit. If the experiment is a success, future surgeons could operate from inside their patients' bodies.
High-tech thieves want to steal the technology of Tuck's employers, and send a squad of hit men to steal the syringe that contains his capusle. A scientist flees with thesyringe to a nearby shopping mall, where in desperation he plunges the needle into Jack Putter, played by Martin Short, and injects Tuck's capsule into the very startled Putter.
Tuck uses a communications system in the capsule to talk from within Jack's head. At first Jack thinks he's hearing things, but then Tuck tells him the whole story, andenlists Jack's aid in a desperate effort to outwit the bad guys and restore Tuck to normal size before his oxygen runs out. There are complications - lots of them - mostly centering around Tuck's estranged girlfriend Lydia Maxwell, played by Meg Ryan. Jack, with Tuck inside of him, has to convince Lydia of what's happening. Once she's convinced, Lydia decides to track down "The Cowboy" who she believes may be involved in the plot against Tuck's employers.
Robert Picardo plays The Cowboy, an Arab of indeterminate nationality, who is a fence that deals in stolen Western technology which he sells overseas. But that hardly begins to tell the story of this role, or why Robert is especially proud of it. Robert's story begins with how he got the role.
Joe Dante wanted to give Robert the role, but the casting had to be approved by Steven Spielberg. At the time, Robert was doing a major role in a play in Berkeley, CA, so theaudition was done on video tape. To create the Cowboy for the audition, Robert took an Almond Roca candy wrapper and glued it to one of his teeth to give him a gold tooth. Then they Vaselined his face and hair and he wore the loudest, tackiest clothes he had. Joe lit him very harshly from the side and took extreme close-ups so Robert's face was very craggy. Robert says, "I looked like a Sergio Leone movie!"
For the audition Robert used an Israeli accent even though the role called for an Arabic accent. Robert explains, "The reason I picked an Israeli accent is that I live in a part of Los Angeles that's nick-named 'the Kosher belt' and there are a lot of eastern European Jews and Israelis who happen to live there. So I've developed a good ear for the accent. So that was an easier thing for me to grab for the audition."
Because the role had very few scripted lines, the audition consisted of Robert improvising as the character including, Robert says, him "reading from the manual for Joe's video recorder which was sitting there." The piece de resistance was when, still in Israeli accent, Robert said, "What a wonderful country this is! I love America! My favorite thing about America is country vestern music. I'd like to sing a medley of my favorite country vestern songs!" Then he sang "I'm an old cow hand, from the Rio Grande," which ended with a "Yipee Hiyo Chiyah." He did "Chappy Trails to You" and finished with "I got spurs that yingle yangle yingle" sending the audition audience in spasms of laughter. Not only did Robert get the part but they incorporated him singing into the film.
Robert says that the ideas for the character were well-defined before he took the role. It began with the idea to take a character from a culture that has nothing to do withAmerica and then dress him in a cowboy hat and boots and have him speak in ridiculous cowboy idioms. His motivation was that he was captivated by Dallas reruns, and that he wanted to be like J.R. Robert says, "that was enough of a lead for any actor to start weaving together a performance. That he wanted to dress and talk like a cowboy - was such a clear and funny thing to play." Next, Robert tried to make him look as muchlike Muamar Khadafi, who was the Arab villain of the moment, as he could. He is quick to add, "But it's such a comic character that I certainly don't consider the character Arab bashing." The final element Robert describes as "a nightmare of a guy that women meet at a bar that won't stop talking to them." This part of the performance was inspired by the "Two Wild and Crazy Guys," the Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd skit onSaturday Night Live. Although those characters were eastern European, Robert says, "just the fact that the Cowboy was a character that was so in love with himself and his own irresistibility comes somewhat from that sketch."
In the film, we are introduced to the character, from the knees down, as he walks up the aisle of an airplane, in some of the most outrageous boots you're ever likely tosee. He sits in his seat, produces a cigar, then lights it with a match he strikes on his ring. When the flight attendant reminds him of the no-smoking rule, he extinguishes the cigar in his palm, then turns to the person in the seat next to him and says, "There is nothing like a good cigar, eh partner?"
But the character is really defined in his hotel room as he prepares for a night at The Inferno, his favorite San Francisco discotheque. We see him picking a pair of boots from a pile of half a dozen pairs of outlandish cowboy boots and putting them on. We also see his suitcase-sized and -shaped portable stereo with cowhide exterior in the background as he begins to sing "I'm a old cow hand, From the Rio Grande." He finishes the song while polishing his boots with a pistol-shaped portable polisher, then practices his "quick draw" technique in the mirror with it. Robert says "The scenewhere I'm getting dressed to go out on the town - Joe let me stage that scene. After he shot it he did one of his classic Joe Dante jokes which was [imitates Joe's voice] 'You expect me to print that?'"
Robert continues to pour it on in the subsequent disco scene, shirt unbuttoned to his navel, gold chains around his neck. We see him dancing up a storm by himself in the middle of the dance floor when he is joined by Lydia. Their dance is punctuated with startled looks from Lydia as we must assume the Cowboy is taking liberties with hand placement. After the end of the dance they are sitting at a table and he lights another cigar saying, "Women love me. But you know that!" Bob made up the line and it's one of his favorites from the film.
Lydia leaves the disco in The Cowboy's company and Jack follows them. In the next scene, Jack, whipped into an adrenal frenzy by Tuck and the capsule, bursts into The Cowboy's hotel room thinking that he is there to rescue Lydia. There Robert stands in his cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and black bikini briefs. Putter pauses just for a second to take the scene in and in that moment Robert pops the cork off a bottle of champagne and the wine gushes and sprays out, then delivers the most risque line of the movie, "Hey, Jack, don't knock, just come!" The intensity is just too much and Putter knocks out the Cowboy with a single punch. Only then do we discover that Lydia was actually in her own room.
Tuck decides that Jack should replace The Cowboy in a meeting with the organization that stole the technology. So, with the real Cowboy tied up in the bathtub, Tuck usessome of his capsule's electronic gadgetry to transform Jack's face to look like the Cowboy's. From now, through his last scene, Robert plays Martin Short's character pretending to be the Cowboy. The difference is remarkable. Robert physically looks and acts like Martin Short.Jack (as the Cowboy) and Lydia make the Cowboy's meeting with the bad guys. Robert tells us that this scene is "Another of my favorites is when I'm portraying Martin Short as me and, of course, I have blond hair and The Cowboy is supposed to have black frizzy hair like Lionel Richie and one of the characters says, 'Cowboy, what happened to your hair?' I look around panicked because I have no answer and I say, 'I had it done Clint Eastwood style. You see Outlaw Yosie Vales? Vat a flick!'" He continues, "I remember reading that line to Mike Frennel, the producer, who doesn't have the greatest sense of humor in the world. He looked at me and went, 'Is that funny?' Then I knew it was a good joke.
As the scene continues, Jack and Lydia are invited to join the villains for breakfast and are served raw eggs in bowls. Jack tries desperately to get the egg onto a fork to eatit, not only failing but spilling it on the table in the bargain. On first viewing you may wonder, "Did they make Short up to look like Robert or did they use trick photography?" The answer is neither. This scene shows Robert's command of physical comedy, and especially of imitating Martin Short's style. Robert says, "The stuff with the egg was a lot of fun. It's also ridiculously silly - I mean it's a great prop - to try to eat a raw egg when you're nervous. That was a lot of fun."
Revealing any more of the plot would spoil the surprise, so you'll just have to see it to find out.
Naturally, as a smaller role, this part was quite a plum. Robert explains why this role was special to him, "I think that the dual-role aspect of the performance is what makes it different and a little more challenging." The role was made even more challenging because Robert had to imitate Short's performance before his performance was fully created. However, by the time they shot the movie, Robert had been around Short quite a lot and had watched him closely. They also gave him dailies of Short's work so that he could work on imitating some of Short's mannerisms.
In addition to the preparation for this film, Robert has a natural ability as a mimic. Perhaps that is what allowed Joe Dante to have faith that Robert would successfully create the character of Jack Putter attempting to be the Cowboy. Robert also credits his prior work with Jack Lemmon and with other actors who are famous for doing tenuous, babbling, nervous characters in comedies, the way Jack Lemmon does in "Some Like it Hot."
The magazine Entertainment Weekly once ran a spread of famous men in underwear scenes in movies. Robert with his matching boots and briefs and bottle of champagne, made the cut. Robert says, "I was delighted that that scene from Innerspace, which was several years old at that point, had made the list because I was in some elite company." Of course, the film has had more of a lasting effect on Robert's career than that. As Robert puts it, "more people remember me from that film than any of the other small supporting roles I played in movies because even though it's not a very big part, The Cowboy is a memorable character and quite funny."
© 1996 by Chris Powell. Reproduced on the Official Robert Picardo Home Page with permission of the author.