Breaking news: Jeff Daniels looks back on his most famous roles, from Dumb and Dumber to The Newsroom
Find you an actor who can flawlessly deliver Aaron Sorkin dialogue behind a news desk on an HBO series and equally shine in the most memorable diarrhea scene in comedy film history.
Yes, Jeff Daniels always understands the assignment. Originally trained in the theater before getting his start on Broadway, the two-time Emmy winner transitioned to Hollywood stardom with roles in very different-type hits like Terms of Endearment, Speed, and Dumb and Dumber. More recently, he's found a home on prestige television with high-profile turns in series for HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and Hulu.
Now, ahead of Sunday's premiere of his new Showtime series American Rust, Daniels speeds through the most memorable roles of his career.
Hawaii Five-O (1980)
Daniels made his onscreen debut with a one-off guest-spot as Neal Forrester on an episode of the 12th and final season of CBS' Emmy-winning police procedural.
"I'd been in New York going on four years when we got to do 5th of July, a play I'd done off-Broadway, out at the Taper Forum in L.A. It ran three months and then I stayed an extra month. I mean, Hollywood, might as well audition, right? And I got Hawaii Five-O. So that's nine days in Hawaii with my wife of four months — and it's Jack Lord. So yes, I'm in. I was a guest criminal, a high school kid… the plot was so weak. But I got to work a little bit with Jack Lord and I learned how important hair is. [Laughs] When we were finally caught and arrested, and Jack was giving his Jack Lord final speech of the episode, we're standing on a cliff, overlooking the Pacific, and the wind... everybody's hair was all over the place, and then you look over at Jack Lord and the only thing that was moving was one little bang. Everything else was a helmet. I'm going, "Hair. Remember to make sure about your hair."
Terms of Endearment (1983)
After breaking onto the big screen with an appearance in Miloš Forman's Ragtime, Daniels landed a key supporting role as college professor Flap Horton, the husband of Debra Winger's lead character, in James L. Brooks' star-studded affair. The film became a box office and Oscar powerhouse, with wins for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress (Shirley MacLaine), and Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson).
"I started going up on a lot of movies, and they would cast in L.A. but they'd always come through New York because New York actors have a reputation of being better with dialogue, so we'd get a look. And you'd be in waiting rooms with Kevin Kline, Peter Weller, John Goodman, Kenneth Branagh, Mandy Patinkin, guys like that. Eventually, we were all going to get there, it's just whether this movie that we were all up for was going to be the one. And Terms of Endearment happened partly because Flap Horton was a very unlikeable role. A lot of managers and agents of actors — not these specific guys — were like, 'No, you're not playing that role. We need likable roles to brand you.' Well, I didn't care about that. I was an off-Broadway actor — and very inexpensive. I met with Jim Brooks at his apartment and Debra came in and we read all the scenes and Debra said, 'Yeah, he's good enough for me.' So I was in. And then you're sitting on a set with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson and Debra, who is riding the wave that was An Officer and a Gentleman. She was it. She was Julia Roberts before Julia Roberts. And you're also there. That's what it felt like."
Speed became a runaway summer hit in 1994, but Daniels, costarring as Jack Travern's (Keanu Reeves) partner Harry Temple, was just happy to be employed for more than half the movie.
"Speed was, 'Get me a job.' That's what Speed was. [My agent] said, 'Well, we've got this script Speed, we'll send it to you, but you're dead on page 22. You and Keanu go into this 50-story building and you get in the elevator shaft and fall and die.' I said, 'Well, the career's in trouble but it's not in that much trouble, so I'm going to pass.' And then they said, 'Hang on, there's a new draft coming, you die later.' I said, 'How much later?' He goes, 'About page 88.' 'I'm in.' I did it and lasted all the way until I crawled in through that window into that house and the house blew up. I was lucky they did another draft."
Dumb and Dumber (1994)
Daniels' big Harry year continued with the lovably dimwitted Harry Dunne. The winning chemistry of Daniels and Jim Carrey helped turn Dumb and Dumber into a comedy classic, eventually leading to their 2014 reunion sequel, Dumb and Dumber To.
"I really wanted to do Dumb and Dumber. The career was at a point where I had to get on a plane at my own expense and fly to L.A. and audition for two weeks, and I was going up for about five movies at the time. I needed a job. But when I auditioned for Dumb and Dumber, I said, 'I can do this. I know how to do this.' There was hesitancy from the agents about working with Jim because he's such a solo performer. As one agent said, 'He's going to wipe you off the screen.' And I said, 'Yeah, but I got the toilet scene, I got the tongue on the pole scene, I got the snowball in the head scene. Unless they cut those scenes that Jim's not in, I'm going to score.'
"And then I smartly learned how to work with Jim so that Jim could be Jim. We want Jim to be Jim Carrey, but it's not a competition. And another comedian would have been trying to one-up him, and the movie is about two buddies and Jim wanted an actor that was going to make him listen and react and not just try to top him. I instantly became the follower. 'Let Jim lead. Lloyd Christmas is going to lead the way. Come on, Harry. Let him pull you like a puppy on a leash.' And then we were good, and you get to play off Jim. He really is a comedic genius. And it was a joy to do number two, and if he ever wanted to do number three, I'd be there on Monday."
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
The divorce of writer-director Noah Baumbach's own parents served as the inspiration for his first film in 8 years, which starred Jesse Eisenberg, Laura Linney, and Daniels as arrogant Berkman patriarch, Bernard.
"I wasn't doing the kind of projects I wanted to do. I had to take some risks and chase some things that were out to other people. I had to compete if I wanted to stay in the business because the career was really starting to slow down. And I flew to New York, met with Noah and Laura Linney, and I went through the script with him. I said, 'By the way, that's funny. [Flipping pages] That's funny. That's really funny.' And on and on and on, 10, 12 things. He goes, 'You're the first actor that has found the humor in this.' I think that's why I got it. Then I met Noah's father, that helped. And then you jump off the cliff, and it's fun to play people who aren't perfect and who aren't always likable, but you have to get the audience to follow them through the story. I've always been taught, certainly coming out of New York and the theater, play warts and all. It's not until you get to Hollywood that you suddenly have to put a polish on everything and say certain things because you're branding yourself so you can do the same damn character for the next three movies. That's not the school that I went to."
The Newsroom (2012-2014)
For his first regular TV role, Daniels was paired with walk-and-talk king Aaron Sorkin, but he did much of his monologuing while seated, as he starred on the polarizing HBO series as opinionated news anchor Will McAvoy, for which he'd win his first Emmy.
"That was about the time that I was feeling less than challenged. I was not going to move to L.A. and do some TV show where you're just the father who walks in and go, 'What are you doing now?!' I was going to quit before that happened. I had done God of Carnage on Broadway with James Gandolfini and I said, 'I'm thinking about really going after television.' HBO was going at the time, Showtime was going, that was about it for cable. And Jim said, 'I got David Chase, get yourself a good writer.' I was lucky that when I made myself available Sorkin wanted me — and I am now officially challenged. Because when Aaron Sorkin hands you a script, it kills normal actors; the memorization, the speed at which you have to do it, the ownership of what you're saying and how you're doing it has to be done at such a pace that you got to be ready to go to work. Anybody on a Sorkin show knows the amount of time that you have to put in to do what they do. I talked to some of the West Wing people and they just go, 'You'll never work harder in your life at learning what you have to say.' But, as one of them said, 'Wait until you see what you get to say.'
"Aaron is not shy about his politics, and, for me, they're easy to wear. He was shining a light on the news business that was suddenly 24/7, and they're still suffering from that to this day. We were a little hamstrung, which is one reason why it only lasted three seasons, in that if something happens in the news today, he's got to write it, we've got to shoot it, and it's minimum three or four months before it can air. So he would go in and we have no choice but to comment on things that happened, but it's not necessarily an indictment on the news media's facts and information coverage, it's more about the spin. During the run-up to the 2016 election, Meet the Press would allow Trump to phone in for the first 10 minutes. Back in the days of Tim Russert, you either sat across the table from Tim Russert or you didn't get on. Now Trump can call from his bed — and why? Because the eyeballs will be on the first 10 minutes of Meet the Press. So they lead with him, and they shouldn't have. Sorkin was going, 'Don't do that. Don't let them on.' But we do because we got to get to the next commercial.
Steve Jobs (2015)
Following the end of The Newsroom, Daniels and Sorkin quickly re-teamed on director Danny Boyle's film about Steve Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender), which featured Daniels as former Apple CEO John Sculley.
"We were in the third season of Newsroom and we knew we were ending in two or three episodes, and Aaron was going, 'I'm doing Steve Jobs, there's a guy named John Scully, a supporting role, do you want to play him?' I said, 'I'd love to.' That was the audition. Actually, the audition was three seasons of Newsroom. But still, when you get on the good side of a great writer like Aaron, you're one of his company of actors that he can turn to. You come through for him, just like you did on Newsroom, and then, later on, he sits down next to you while you're doing a SAG screening event for Steve Jobs and he says, 'We just got the rights to To Kill a Mockingbird for Broadway, would you like to play Atticus Finch?' 'Yes. Yes, I would.' And two years from that day when he asked me, we opened. But it's a creative relationship that is very reminiscent of the theater. The writer says, 'I know he can do this. I've never seen him do this, but I'm going to write him to that.'"
The role of outlaw Frank Griffin in writer-director Scott Frank's Western miniseries earned Daniels his second Emmy win.
"I had done a movie 15 years earlier with Scott Frank called The Lookout and I just loved him. Scott came to me and said, 'I got this role, you've never done anything like it before.' He sent me the script and he was a cerebral bad guy. He was a guy who needed to ride into a town that was full of psychiatrists. But no one really did that back then, so Frank just took his issues around with him everywhere he went. And the fun of playing those guys isn't to play them like the badass or the villain, it's to play him like the hero. He's absolutely right and he believes what he's doing is for the right reasons; you just happen to be in the way of those reasons, so you have to die. Once you get how he thinks, then that's where the fun is. That makes up for having to learn for three months how to ride a horse. Anybody who's ever, 'I've always wanted to do a Western,' have you? First rule, learn how to ride. Don't lie. I talked about it in the Emmy speech. If you're an actor who thinks you want to do a Western and they call and say, 'Can you ride,' say, 'I don't know how.' Then go learn. Because you're going to show up on the set and they're going to put you in cowboy camp for two days, and that ain't enough time. Eventually, you're going to get thrown off, and if you're like me, you're going to break your wrist, which I did on the second to last day of shooting. I got thrown off, broke my wrist, and it's still broken. That's the wrist I used to hold up the Emmy. That made it okay."
American Rust (2021)
Based on Philipp Meyer's novel of the same name, the new Showtime series stars Daniels as Del Harris, the complicated and compromised chief of police of a Pennsylvania Rust Belt town. A murder soon forces Del to decide what he's willing to do to protect the son of the woman he loves (Maura Tierney).
"I knew about Philipp Meyer's book back in 2005; I wasn't in a position then to get things made anywhere. And then post-Newsroom, post-Godless, post-Looming Tower, and post-Mockingbird, I was able to. So when your agent calls and says, 'What do you want to do,' that's probably a good indicator that you've made it. "Huh. American Rust." I went to Dan Futterman, he said, 'I love it, let me do it.' Again, an example of a really good writer tailoring a role for an actor he's already worked with, on Looming Tower. He wrote me stuff that I could do, have done, and then many things I haven't done but that he knew I could. The fun of it was kind of creating that guy together over the course of five months and being very happy with the result. It really is a roll of the dice, both for Danny and me. You're creating something from, not nothing because it was a book, but almost nothing as an actor.
"You're shooting the novel is what it feels like, instead of a condensed version of it in a 120-minute movie, that's maybe going to be shown at a theater near you. Or you can do something for a Showtime, like American Rust, and it's going to air. You're not doing an independent movie that no one's going to see. And that's a good thing, people actually seeing what you do. I like that. Newsroom was a series. We went three years, that was enough for Aaron, enough for me. American Rust is hopefully a series, we'll see. You get more to do; you live in the guy longer. I remember coming back for season 2 of Newsroom, and that first day was like, whoa, I feel like I'm doing an impression of Jeff Daniels doing Will McAvoy. And then within two hours, you fall back into it. It's going to be similar going back to Mockingbird on Broadway; you're going to fall back into him and then let him take you — and then it's fun. So I like coming back to that same guy. If that's what happens with American Rust, I don't mind it."
American Rust premieres Sunday on Showtime.