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A Tribute to Paul Dooley + Gazette story
By Steve Fesenmaier
WVIFF did a fine job paying tribute to one of West Virginia’s finest
actors, Paul Dooley. Guest host Chamber Stevens, who has known Dooley
and his wife, Winnie Holzman, a world-class TV writer and creator of the
new Broadway hit, “Wicked,” and inventor of one of recent TV’s finest
series, “My So-Called Life,” for several years hosted a program at the
film festival on Saturday, Nov. 1. He made a great compilation tape for
Dooley’s career, including a clip from the very first TV show Dooley
ever did, a Jack Paar episode, to his work on “Deep Space Nine.” He
interviewed Dooley who also performed some great accents and finished
with reading an imaginary Kurdish tale from a “rare book from the public
library.” About 100 people came including Dooley’s family and friends,
one of whom I mistook for Dooley. Then they screened one of his best
films, “Breaking Away” (1979) where he played an Archie Bunker type
father. Dooley has just completed his first film as a director and
hopefully the WVIFF spring edition will be able to show it. (It’s about
the life of feet…sounded very funny…)He has also written a screen play
about growing up in Parkersburg with Eric Stoltz planning on directing.
Pam Haynes awarded Dooley an award from Gov. Wise and I got to tell him
about other famous films made about the Ohio River valley – WV’s first
film, “Stage Struck”(1925) and Jimmy Stewart’s last Hollywood film,
“Fool’s Parade.”(1971) Dooley is part of Robert Altman’s regular company
and has worked with almost all of the greats, both in Hollywood and on
stage. He was also part of the Second City group in Chicago, learning
improvisional acting. Dooley was the first actor that I knew was born in
WV when I first came to WV in 1978 - after Don Knotts who was a friend
of Dooley’s. I myself have been trying to get him back here since 1979.
I asked Chamber Stevens if he could track down other great WV actors
like Brad Dourif and Conchata Ferrell and perhaps bring them back. He
said, “First, we need to get Knotts.” Congrats to Stevens and WVIFF for
paying such a fine tribute to one of our greatest native-born actors. I
wish that there had been about 300 more people in the audience, but the
100+ were vocal and showed their love for Dooley. ( His real last name
is Brown.) Last year they did a fine job on honoring Clyde Ware. I am
pleased that the film festival I co-founded 19 years ago has evolved
into such a fine organization.
October 26, 2003
# A Hollywood and TV stalwart comes home to West Virginia
By Marina Hendricks
AFTER graduating from West Virginia University in 1952, actor Paul
Dooley was recruited to direct plays for a fledgling troupe of
college-age thespians in Beckley.
The shoestring operation drew the city’s support, with residents
providing assistance with utilities, food, publicity and the like.
Dooley and his cohorts ran up bills nevertheless, a situation that
worsened considerably when the man who recruited the troupe skipped
“One night he just climbed in his pickup and we never heard from him
again,” recalled Dooley, a Parkersburg native who grew up in nearby
To make good, the actors signed notes promising to pay their debtors on
a monthly basis. Dooley then moved to New York City, where Morgantown
native Don Knotts helped him get his first acting job.
Years later, with Dooley well established as a character actor with
standout roles in 1979’s “Breaking Away” and 1984’s “Sixteen Candles,”
he had occasion to revisit his Beckley experience courtesy of yet
another West Virginia native who achieved Hollywood success.
“I met Chris Sarandon out here, and Chris tells me it was his father’s
restaurant we owed money to,” he said, speaking by telephone from his
home in Burbank, Calif.
Accompanied by his wife, screenwriter/playwright Winnie Holzman, Dooley
will return to his home state for an appearance at the West Virginia
International Film Festival, which runs Friday through Nov. 8.
The couple will attend a special presentation of “Breaking Away” on
Saturday. All WVIFF events will take place at the Capitol Center
Theater, 123 Summers St. (For a complete schedule, see page 2F.)
Holzman and Dooley will come to West Virginia straight from an opening
of her Broadway musical “Wicked,” a “Wizard of Oz” prequel from the
Wicked Witch’s point of view.
Although the advance buzz is positive — preview shows are selling out —
Dooley said his wife won’t mind getting out of town. “Like many people,
she doesn’t want to read the reviews.”
Just like Dad
“Breaking Away” follows four friends as they try to figure out what to
do after high school graduation. Dooley plays Mr. Stoller, the
blue-collar father of rabid Italian cycling fan Dave (Dennis
Christopher). The writer, Steve Tesich, won an Oscar for the screenplay.
“I think it tells a universal story,” Dooley said. He noted that
Yugoslavian-born Tesich based the relationship between Dave and Mr.
Stoller on the author’s own experiences.
“I played my father. I said [to Tesich], ‘How do you think this is
going? Do you think I’m doing right by the character?’ He was thrilled
with what I did, even though it was nothing like his father. I’ve met
people from Maine to Mexico to England who’ve said, ‘Just like my
Dooley’s résumé boasts a number of such paternal roles. While older
movie fans remember him in “Breaking Away,” younger ones recall him as
dad to Molly Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles” and Julia Roberts in “Runaway
His fatherly television credits include “ER” and two HBO shows, Larry
David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Dream On.” He received an Emmy
nomination for the latter.
“I don’t mind playing the dad with Larry David. If I get tired playing
any of them, it’s the understanding dad,” he said. “If it happens to be
a dad, I can sort of do that in my sleep. There must be something about
me that makes me acceptable as dads, rather than a killer or a bank
Fans often tell the real-life father of four that they wish their
fathers were like his characters.
“It’s only because it’s been idealized — very few fathers sit down on
the couch in the middle of the night and apologize,” he said, referring
to a pivotal “Sixteen Candles” scene with Ringwald. “In real life, a
grumpy father doesn’t change.”
A free-lance life
Dads represent only a fraction of Dooley’s career. An alumnus of the
seminal “Second City” improvisational troupe, he was cast in the
original Broadway production of “The Odd Couple” (taking over for Art
Carney as Felix to Walter Matthau’s Oscar).
He still hones his improv skills regularly with a group that includes
cast members from “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and Dan Castellaneta, who
voices Homer on “The Simpsons.” “We keep doing it for our soul,” he
said. “We don’t do it for money.”
With his company All Over Creation, he recorded countless commercials
and radio spots. He also served as co-creator and head writer of “The
Electric Company,” the Emmy-winning children’s public television show.
In addition, he appeared on television’s “Grace Under Fire,” “Star Trek:
Deep Space Nine,” “The Practice,” “Mad About You” and two shows on which
his wife also worked: “Once and Again” and “My So-Called Life.”
“It’s just a free-lance life,” he said.
As for the big screen, Dooley played Wimpy to Robin Williams’ Popeye in
the feature about the spinach-swilling sailor. He also was tapped for
roles in “Happy, Texas,” “Insomnia,” Paternity” and many others.
Mockumentarian Christopher Guest, whose mother used to be Dooley’s
agent, cast him in “Waiting for Guffman” and “A Mighty Wind.”
“I’ve known Chris since he was 17,” he said. “He’s kind of a comic
genius. [His movies] never get old. You can see them five years from
now, 10 years from now, and they’ll still be funny.”
His experience on “A Mighty Wind” has lingered. The cast has been
traveling to some of the country’s biggest cities to recreate the folk
reunion concert that anchors the film.
“They’re fabulous,” he said of his fellow actors, who include Guest,
Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Bob Balaban, Harry Shearer and Michael
McKean. “I’m an improviser from ‘Second City’ and they’re all
improvisers. All the dialogue is invented.”
Shot in West Virginia?
His latest project is “Comfort and Joy,” a movie for the Lifetime
channel also starring Dixie Carter and Nancy McKeon that will air later
this year. With his son Adam, he also has written a screenplay based on
his boyhood in West Virginia. Actor Eric Stolz, one of Dooley’s
castmates from “Once and Again,” has expressed interest in directing.
“I thought some people reading the script might not get it, but Eric
said, ‘Oh, I know these people. They’re like my uncles and aunts in
Missouri.’ It rang a bell with him and he was very insightful about
Dooley, 75, said he would consider shooting the movie — in which he sees
Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand playing the parents — in West
Virginia, especially if he can find local investors.
“I’d make it back there if there were compelling reasons to do so. A
movie brought into West Virginia would bring a lot to the economy.”
Meanwhile, he looks forward to his next job, a voiceover in a Pixar
animated feature titled “Cars” scheduled for release in 2005. “I’m going
to play a Jeep named Sarge,” he said.
“I have plenty of time off, even though I appear to be busy, but I’m
glad at my age to still be working.”
To contact staff writer Marina Hendricks, use e-mail or call 348-4881.
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