From Fargo to Chicago, Shameless star William H. Macy looks back on his famous roles
The 14-time Emmy nominee shares stories from Fargo, Boogie Nights, and more.
ER (1994 to 2009)
Twenty-seven years before Shameless, Macy's initial major foray into television helped set the table for Frank Gallagher. Beginning with the powerhouse medical drama's pilot, the actor appeared in 31 episodes as County General's chief of surgery, Dr. David Morgenstern. But it was ER's chief who stuck with Macy.
"John has a wonderful intolerance for bulls--- behavior," he says of John Wells, executive producer and showrunner of ER and Shameless. "He enforces that in such a lovely and genuine way. He never loses his temper — he’s like a Buddha. I lost my temper with him and I couldn’t get a rise out of the guy; he just sort of smiles. Every time he directs or writes or he’s on set, he looks like he’s having more fun than anybody else. He just loves every bit of it. He’s a got a rule: no sides. He doesn’t allow them on set. He said gently one day, 'Don’t you hate it when people walk around with those pieces of paper? Learn your lines! If you’re in trouble, carry the whole script.” [Laughs] Carrying the whole script is like a scarlet letter on your chest. From the second they get out of their car, the actors are ready."
Macy wasn’t initially seen as a fit for sad sack Jerry Lundegaard, but the actor wouldn’t take no for an answer. "I thought Jerry was a great role for me, even though Joel and Ethan [Coen] had described him differently than me," says Macy, who was Oscar-nominated for his performance. "I loved Fargo the first time I saw it up in there in my brain. I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that it was going to be a wonderful movie. I know nobody will say that. They’ll say, 'I was completely shocked,' but I wasn’t. I thought the script was just magnificent. I loved the cadence, the dialogue, the music, the sense of humor. It had success written all over it."
And he wasn't the only one on the "relatively quiet" and "workman like" set who realized the rare opportunity in front of them. "We had the best time, Frannie [McDormand] and me," says Macy of his Oscar-winning costar, who portrayed Marge Gunderson. "We both just got that this was special and these were great characters."
Boogie Nights (1997)
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout drama, Macy plays pornographer Little Bill, and the actor credits the filmmaker's acumen for putting together a cast, noting that many of the stars reunited for Anderson's next project, Magnolia. But Macy's biggest takeaway from Boogie Nights was the long tracking shot that began with Little Bill entering a New Year's Eve party and ends with him killing his cheating wife, her lover, and himself.
"I wore what’s called a gore vest; it had a gore gun and that is a tube that throws out a lot of blood and guts and brains," he explains. "It was under my clothes and the tube came out at the back of my head, between my neck and my collar. When I pulled the trigger, that’s what fired the gore gun. Nowadays they don’t let actors do that. [Laughs] It was a really big effect and Paul decided to do it at the end of one of those monster unbroken takes. Something happened with the gore gun on the first take and it went off prematurely. That was a mess, because it took 30 minutes to clean the wall and change my clothes and reload the gun. And then it took 40 minutes to set up each one of these because of the choreography and people coming in and out. We did the second one, which went off perfectly, and they were unwiring me to get ready for another take and I was watching Paul and everyone watch the playback, and when I heard the shot everyone around the monitor jumped back and covered their mouths in horror. I thought, 'I betcha we don’t do another take.' And we didn’t."
State and Main (2000)
The first thing that comes to mind for Macy when reflecting on this satirical comedy about a troubled film production is his director, "American treasure," David Mamet, with whom the actor started a theater company.
"I just adore him," says Macy of the playwright. "There's an old trope that you're taking your life into your own hands if you want to do a movie about making movies, but this one worked. And I had the best part, playing the director. Oh my lord, it was funny. There's a scene where [Sarah Jessica Parker's actress character] decided she won't take her shirt off unless we pay her extra. It’s this hysterical scene in this tiny little bathroom where she’s weeping, her heart was breaking and it was so genuine, and I’m talking her into taking her shirt off for the shot. [Laughs] It was a long scene and it’s not easy dialogue, and the first three takes were interrupted by David — he couldn’t stop laughing. Finally, Sarah and I both said, you’ve got to go out, take the monitor and go. And we finally got the scene. It’s rare that what you’re doing is so frickin’ funny that it’s hard to stay in character."
Macy also has fond memories of collaborating once again with his Boogie Nights and Magnolia costar Philip Seymour Hoffman. “There's a bunch of us that hit the film scene around the same time, and he was the best of us,” Macy declares of the late actor. “I don't think there's anything he couldn't have done. He was soulful in everything he did."
Door to Door (2002)
Back in the peak movie of the week days, Macy and writer-director Steven Schachter churned out almost a dozen, with Macy considering Door to Door to be "the zenith" of them.
"It was a heavy makeup show," recalls Macy. "We shot for 26 days and I had to wave my call 26 times in order to get the makeup on and off. The skin can only take so much of a beating. It was a long time in the chair. When I was lucky, it would be an hour. But there’s something about an actor doing a role with a face full of rubber on. It’s freeing for you to act at once more boldly and more simply. It’s as if you’ve got a mask on. You can act the sh--- out of things. [Laughs] It’s like that little bit of protection between you and the hard world out there."
Macy won Emmys for writing and acting in this TV movie about a salesman with cerebral palsy. But his best idea might’ve been including the real Bill Porter’s website in the end credits. "As a joke almost, I said, 'Hey, in the credits, let’s say, 'For tough cleaning problems, contact Bill at his website,'" reveals Macy. "A couple days later, I said, 'You should tell Bill we’re doing this.' Well, the credits rolled on opening night and within two minutes his site crashed. It was thousands of orders. As I understand it, his company stopped having a yearly sales contest, because, after Door to Door, no one could touch Bill."
Wild Hogs (2007)
In this hit comedy, Macy stars opposite Tim Allen, John Travolta, and Martin Lawrence as a group of middle-aged friends who take a road trip on their motorcycles.
"The only thing I can think that would be more fun than Tim, John, and Martin is Tim, John, and Martin on motor f---ing cycles," proclaims Macy. "We loved it! Tim Allen and I are cut from the same cloth when it comes to cars and s--- like that. They’d say to 'Go up there and turnaround,” and Tim and I would take off and go like three miles. They didn’t say where to turnaround! [Laughs] Oh jeez, it was fun. They’re all so clever and quick-witted, so the set was poppin’. I really was hoping we’d make a Wild Hogs 2. It never happened, don’t know why, we all wanted to do it. One of the loveliest ancillary benefits is I still ride a motorcycle. I ride it to Shameless every day."
For this drama about a father (Billy Crudup) struggling to deal with the loss of his son Josh (Miles Heizer) in a school shooting, Macy took on the role of co-writer, director, and supporting actor. Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter originally brought their script to Macy, but he thought it "didn't quite work," that is until they came to stay with him in order to get it right.
"It was the end of the three days and I thought we had not pulled it together yet," admits Macy. "We were standing out on my balcony, and I thought it was Casey, but they swear I said, 'What if Josh is the shooter?' I literally got a chill all over my body. It scared the s--- out of us, because the notion of it was so incendiary and such an unknown. Write a story about a man who loses his son to a senseless shooting, few of us have been through it, but we can all imagine what it must be. But what if your son was the shooter? And none of us had a clue of what the f--- you would do. The degree to which it frightened us was the degree to which we all agreed we have to do this."
From there, Macy enjoyed the experience of figuring out how to pull off what he considers "one of the more shocking reveals in any film," as the audience isn't keyed into Josh's guilt until late in Rudderless.
"We all agreed that we couldn’t manipulate the audience before that," he says. "We made it our business not to withhold any information, but just not to give that information. It was quite a high-wire act. If you’re too manipulative, the audience will turn on you. It pisses people off. The second thing that just terrified us was for the people who have lost loved ones in these senseless shootings. Oh god, the chance that we could offend was so overwhelmingly dangerous to us, because we so didn’t want to offend, we wanted to sympathize. I was proud of the movie because we talked about a victim that rarely gets his or her day, and the parents are victims for sure."
Shameless (2011 to present)
"Now everyone wants to do television," according to Macy, who believes that the jump from the big screen was "much bigger" when he signed on to be Shameless' Frank Gallagher, for which he's a five-time Emmy-nominee. "Immediately I had no doubts that this thing would have legs," he recalls. "It was so fresh, and I loved everything about it. And boy, has it been a mitzvah in my life. I’ve learned a whole lot about acting. There ain’t nothing like getting to go to work every day. If only I could have done this in my 20s or 30s, I would have learned how to act a lot better a lot sooner."
And as the beloved Showtime series prepares for the end, the prevailing emotion for Macy is gratitude. "It’s rare to be in a hit, and it’s rare to get a long-running TV show," he explains. "[Wife] Felicity [Huffman] got 8 years out of Desperate Housewives and here I’ve gotten 11 years out of Shameless. We are blessed. Almost every TV show when it gets to the end of its tether will jump the shark at a point, and the last seasons are notoriously bad because everyone is out of gas and there are no stories. But, man, I’ve got to tell you, we’re about to start episode 5 and they’re still bringing these great, surprising scripts."
Macy says he will miss the work and his Gallagher family, but there's one very specific part of his Shameless days that he's trying to soak up while he still can.
"I used to say in this business the highest high you can get is a great role in a Broadway hit," he says. "And I still think that is probably it, but I’ve gotta say, riding through the gate at Warner Bros. on your motorcycle when you’ve been coming for 10 years and they know you and I just slow down and hold out my hand and the guard would slap five with me and I’d ride my bike right up to my trailer, well, there might be feelings better than that in this world, but they’re rare. That’s pretty cool, and I’m going to miss it."