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.
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Matinee is set in south Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. This part of the United States was less than one hundred miles from Cuba, and was expected to be the first casualty in the event of a nuclear attack. The crisis provides a backdrop for the story that unfolds in two parts.
The first part of the story centers on Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), a small-time horror movie maker and theater huckster/showman, who is on the road with his leading lady and perpetual fiancée, Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarty), to the Florida Keys to promote and premiere his newest film. The character is based on the producer, William B. Castle, who spent more effort adding gimmicks to his movies than actually making them good. Goodman plays the character with what Bob describes as a "Step right up! persona, like a master of ceremonies at a circus." As a couple, Woolsey and Corday remind Bob of Nathan and Adeleide in Guys and Dolls, a sort of permanently-engaged couple.
The second part of the story is a coming-of-age story that centers on four teenagers, ably played by a quartet of actors. There's Gene (Simon Fenton), the "Navy brat" who moves from city to city without ever getting a chance to put down roots and whose love of horror movies has him anxiously awaiting the arrival of Woolsey. Gene and his family are especially affected by the Cuban blockade when his father is called to duty. Stan (Omri Katz), Gene's lone friend, is hopelessly smitten with Sherry (Kellie Martin), a girl who is interested in exploring her own sexuality. Finally, Lisa Jakub plays Sandra, the uncertain daughter of a pair of freethinking beatniks.
These stories collide at the premiere Matinee for Woolsey's new horror thriller, "MANT." The trailer the week before promises that it's "Half man, half ant and all terror!" Like Castle, Woolsey's presentation of his latest picture has him rigging the theater with fog machines, electric buzzers in the seats and his female star posing as a nurse in the lobby collecting "medical releases." Soon the theater is rocking (quite literally) as Woolsey plies his trade on his young, unsuspecting audience.
Into this mix, we add Bob, as Howard, the bumbling theater manager who is beyond panic over the Missile Crisis. The character is introduced early in the film as Gene and his little brother leave the theater after seeing the "MANT" preview. As they walk out of the theater, Howard is attempting, rather badly, to assemble a stand-up promotional display for "MANT." Bob describes the character as like "'Barney Fife,' when [he] draws the gun and can't hold his hand still, in the old Andy and Mayberry series." (Barney was the character in The Andy Griffith Show played by Don Knotts). The character is integral to the plot and, as Bob puts it, when the audience is diverted by the other elements of the story, is a thread to remind them that at the peak of the crisis there was a palpable sense of dread that nuclear holocaust could occur at any moment.
As the showing of "MANT" unfolds in his theater, Howard flits about, perpetually worried and constantly listening to CONRAD, the emergency broadcast station, on his pocket transistor radio for up-to-the-minute information on the Missile Crisis. Gene is at the show with his little brother where he meets with Sandra. An attraction forms between Gene and Sandra and they sit together to watch the movie. Stan meets up with Sherry, who he's been trying to avoid since being threatened by Jessie (Dennis Loomis), her older, former boyfriend. They sit together as well despite Stan's misgivings about what might happen. The former boyfriend has been hired by Woolsey to work equipment backstage and to dress in a MANT costume to terrorize the audience. He soon discovers Stan and Sherry together and aims to claim Sherry for himself, so he abandons his post with the sound effects equipment. Howard, who in a fit of nervousness has dropped his radio into his fishbowl, becomes convinced that the end has come when the loud sounds and electrical surges caused by the film start dislodging plaster from the ceiling and causing intermittent flashes on his television. He grabs his fishbowl and heads for the basement where he's set up a completely self-contained one-man bomb shelter.
Meanwhile, Jessie - in full MANT costume - has assaulted Stan in the audience and our four main teenage characters are dashing around the theater, escaping the MANT and trying to find each other. Howard, discovering that he's forgotten the fish food, leaves the fishbowl in the shelter and heads back for his office. The four teenagers end up in the shelter, strategizing their next move, when one of them accidentally releases the door that starts closing automatically. Stan and Sherry escape but Gene and Sandra are stuck inside when Howard returns to discover that his shelter has been taken over. Isolated from the outside, and convinced they will be the sole survivors, Gene and Sandra discuss their fate and cuddle up to help make each other comfortable. Woolsey, who has been chasing Jessie to get him to return to his post, arrives as Howard loses control, is convinced that the sounds from the theater are The Bomb, dives to the ground and assumes the "duck and cover" position promoted in schools as the necessary safety measure.
While a great deal of Bob's character and actions were written into the script, as usual, director Joe Dante allowed Bob to make adjustments to better define the character, to provide interesting cinematographic features, and to add comic moments. As originally scripted, Bob thought that the character was too cold and self-absorbed. He suggested that Howard have a pet fish and then went on to incorporate the fishbowl into the story in a number of ways. Bob suggested Howard's loss of his transistor radio by dropping it into the fishbowl. In addition, where the script originally had Howard leaving his shelter for another reason, Bob suggested that he leave to get food for his pet fish - giving the audience a small reason to like the character. Also, the fishbowl in the shelter provided an element of the cinematography - once Gene and Sandra are locked into the shelter, the camera views them through the fishbowl providing a visual metaphor for them being trapped. As an additional site gag, a pirate skeleton is in the fishbowl and - as Bob put it - provides a "little morbid undertone to being the last surviving people on earth, which one of the kids says when they're locked in there."
The other addition Bob made to the character was in keeping to his own goal of having a hair or wig joke in each of his pictures. He explained, "I have a hairpiece the size of a quarter on my forehead with a bunch of long hairs that I flick down the back of my head. That was a tribute to my high school chemistry teacher who used to have a comb-back. He had some hair in the front of his head in a hairline and he had nothing behind it. So he would grow these ten-inch hairs and flick them straight back." The greater purpose of this elaborate piece of makeup is to provide a momentary bit of hair comedy. As Howard ducked and covered in front of the closed shelter door, and pulled his jacket over his head, the hair stands up in comedic fashion. Bob says, "I got teased a lot by John Goodman who said, 'You've been reduced to hair jokes, have you?' I said, 'Yep. (laughs) And proud of it.'"
As often occurs with Joe Dante films, Bob was able to work with regular Dante players and friends. Bob's long-time friend, Dick Miller, plays a shady character working scams for Woolsey. Bob lamented, "The irony is that Dick and I are rarely in the same scenes. In The 'burbs is, I think, the only time we're in the same scenes. Most of the time, we don't intersect in Joe's movies." This time was different, though. Bob arrived on the set during filming that included Dick, so they got to hang out and have fun together between takes. Another long-time friend who appeared in the film is David Clennan. Those of us who remember the TV show thirtysomething remember him as the tough advertising agency boss. Voyager fans have seen him most recently as the Cardassian holographic medical consultant in the episode "Nothing Human" that aired early last December. In Matinee he played Sandra's beatnik father. The joint work on this film allowed Bob and David to room together for two or three weeks during the filming.
The film got really good reviews and has done reasonably well in viewer polls available on the Internet. However, it did only moderately well at the box office (only $9.5 million). Bob's take on this is, "I think that part of the explanation might have to do with the movie being aimed at two different audiences without finding a crossover between the two. The youthful romance seems very much to be aimed at a young teenage audience. But the parody of the science fiction film and also, more importantly, the whole backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis is something that is really aimed at Baby Boomers." For some, myself included, the teen romance is a sweet addition to the story, and the film is an exceptional story. Bob agrees. "I think that Matinee is not only a very good movie, it is touching and is the kind of film a family can sit down and watch together."
© 1999 by Chris Powell. Reproduced on the Official Robert Picardo Home Page with permission of the author.