"A Conversation with Phil Proctor"

Phil Proctor
Beverly Hills, CA
with Al Chambers
Ann Arbor, MI
Recorded February 28, 2005

AC: I think of you as a comedian, as an actor, as an improv man, as a creator of voices. Which is right? Will the real Phil Proctor please step forward?

PP: Well, my card, as you may remember says, "The Total Tool," and that is kind of the way I look at myself and my career. I have been able to survive as long as I have in show business, which is all I have ever done in my entire life starting as a child actor, because I have been able to shift into other aspects of the entertainment industry when one of them dries up.

AC: You have been in this business professionally for more than 40 years . . .

PP: I started when I was nine years old, doing a show called "Uncle Danny Reads the Funnies" on WPIX Television in New York.

AC: More than fifty years, then . . .

PP: I started with the Firesign Theater over forty years ago.

AC: Why do you love this business? Why doesn't it ever get old?

PP: Well, it's playtime. It's fun and it's challenging. You're always asked to stretch your talents to whatever is required. It is never dull. Always a little bit adrenaline-creating, a little bit edgy, a little bit nervy. And that's kind of fun. It's also very athletic. People don't realize how athletic it is to be in show business. Obviously, if you are doing an action movie or if you see people emoting on the stage for three hours, you go "Wow, that takes a lot of stamina." But standing in front of a microphone delivering the same line over and over and over again in different ways, with different interpretations until the director is satisfied? At the end of a long day, believe me, you feel like you've run a marathon.

AC: With that in mind, do you do any particular physical or mental training?

PP: Well, I do work out. I actually use a treadmill to learn lines and music. I rehearse my music and run lines as I am walking. It makes the time go very quickly. And it is of course exercising my brain, my lungs and my legs and arms at the same time. I'm convinced that memorizing lines staves off Alzheimer's.

AC: Do you have a proudest career moment or a favorite role?

PP: No, actually I don't. Everything I do is fun to some degree. I will be doing a role later this year that I am very pleased with. It is the role of the lawyer in a musical adaptation of "Bartleby the Scrivener" by Melville. It is an absolutely incredible singing role and I love it very, very much. But I have been doing this for such a long time and have had such satisfaction from all the things I do, I don't really feel like I have a favorite. I'm just favored to be able to keep doing it.

AC: The musical role, that's live theater; where is that going to be?

PP: At the Antaeus Company. My wife, Melinda Peterson, and I have been with this ensemble for almost a decade. It's a renowned classical theater company in North Hollywood. We are up for a whole slew of awards this year for our production of four short Chekhov farces. I am happy to say that I was in two of them, "The Anniversary" and "The Bear." Hilarious!

AC: What do you think of live theater in contrast to the other things you do?

PP: There is nothing to compare to live theater because you are performing in conjunction with an audience. I remember when I took a course in the Philosophy of Art at Yale. Paul Weiss was the professor. I remember that we got into several spirited discussions. He rejected the idea that the audience was an integral part of an actor's performance. I couldn't convince him that the audience has a psychic and a physical effect on every performance and that there is a bond of majesty that happens between the performer and the people who have come to see the performance. His philosophy of art was based on an artist creating wherever the hell he wanted to. I remember Moss Hart, came up to Yale to talk to us at the Dramat, and I had a nice conversation with him afterwards. He said that a painter can paint anywhere they want, but an actor has to act on stage in front of people. I said "Yes, Mr. Hart, yes, you are right. Let me take you over to Paul Weiss and you tell him."

AC: What is your overall feeling about your time at Yale as an undergraduate? Did Yale prepare you for your career?

PP: Yes, very much so. The time that I had in the Dramat working with the late Lee Starnes and Bill Francisco and the talented undergrads and Drama school students all of those wonderful people who have gone on to successful careers in theater and in films. We were surrounded and immersed in such an incredible group of talented people from all over the country. It was a dream come true to able to work my craft and art and learn and study. That is why I ultimately changed from a major in Russian to a BA in Drama. Yes, I was fully prepared to continue a career in theater when I walked out of Yale. In fact, I got my first job on a soap opera near the end of my senior year so I stepped right into working even before I graduated. And it was fabulous. I felt totally prepared. I loved all of my experiences at Yale.

AC: If you had it to do over again, would you study harder? I always say no when people ask me the same question about my spending so much time at the Yale News.

PP: I agree, Al. I studied hard and partied reasonably hard, but I get off in the arts and in performing. There is no high like it. The concentration that I applied to what I hoped to be my lifelong profession also inspired me in my scholastic pursuits and socially. Because I was in the Dramat, I could meet some pretty beautiful girls. So I was a happy guy. All of my needs were fulfilled.

AC: I know you were back in New Haven in February. What was that about?

PP: I was performing an evening of comedy at my senior society, Scroll & Key. I entered Scroll & Key in my senior year primarily on the advise of fellow actor Austin Pendleton, who was in the group a year ahead of me. I was attracted to the artistic nature of that society as opposed to what I knew about some of the other groups. Otherwise, I don't think I would have pursued senior society activities, because I wasn't involved in the fraternities or any other organizations. I was surprised to find that it was such a deeply satisfying and supportive experience during my senior year.

So I went back to perform there an evening of comedy for the present group of seniors and seniorettes and visiting alumni. It was a very interesting experience, but it was the toughest crowd that I ever played to. From conservative-minded seniors in their 60s to crazy liberal-minded kids. There was no way that I could say anything that wasn't going to offend or alienate somebody. It was a great experiment. It was fun also to visit the hall. I hadn't been there in a long time. These tombs are just beautiful inside and filled with great art of the 19th century. I don't know how all the others look but ours is just gorgeous.

AC: Let's stay with your toughest crowd for a moment and talk about humor and comedy. How do you know how to be funny?

PP: I think that it is an instinct. I think that people who have a sense of humor are usually raised in families that have a sense of humor. I have met people who are humor deprived — who do not have the humor gene. It is an odd thing. If you've got it, usually the whole family has it. It is an ancestral thing. You are raised with people who like to tell jokes and have a good laugh and are quirky or have funny ways of thinking about things or saying things. So I was always raised in that kind of an environment and therefore encouraged to be funny myself. I have always kind of seen things from a humorous prospective ever since I was a child and was attracted to anything that was funny as opposed to stern. I have just always been a pundit and a humorist.

AC: I guess that explains then how you can stay funny as times change and you grow older?

PP: Well, yeah, because if you have a sense of humor, you are not taking things all that seriously anyway. And that applies to life. Granted, I have had periods of depression like any other human being. It is not that I can tell myself a joke and pop out of it. Life can be hard and you can fail at things or humiliate yourself and it takes a while to get back on track again. For the most part, humor has always been the way that I have ultimately gotten out of any of these difficult times. My wife Melinda and I are constantly making each other laugh. It just makes life so much easier in the face of the difficult things that can and happen.

AC : What about the Firesign Theater? Did you and the others have specific ideas about humor and about political and social satire?

PP: We came together on the radio doing put-ons or send-ups as they call them In England. Peter Bergman, who I reconnected with after working with him in the Dramat, ended up out here hosting a show he called "Radio Free Oz," which was the first counterculture call-in show. It was at the time of the anti-war movement. I went on the show, met the other two guys, Phil Austin and Dave Ossman, Turned out we are all firesigns I'm a Leo with two Sagitarrians and an Aries. We came up with the name after we started improvising together. What we'd do was portray different absurd characters and people would call in and treat us as if we were real. We could take them so far out, we would just take them out to the upper stratosphere. Soon we were performing material at a local club and our first record was based on a skit we did at UCLA. It was called "Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him." Since then, we have done 28 or 29 albums, earned 3 Grammy nominations and so forth. We just came off a hot tour of five cities in six nights playing to sold-out houses from Seattle down to Marin County. So we are still doing our stuff. It is amazing.

AC: The same magic as sixty-somethings as when you were 20-somethings?

PP: Yeah, we started in the sixties and now we are in our 60s. We are still having fun. What brought us together was the power of imagination in the spoken word. We all loved the radio, and everyone liked to write, everything from poetry to political commentary. When all of us got together, we loved the idea of creating movies for the mind, creating pictures just with sound and sound effects and music and acting and comedy, of course.

One of the other aspects that has kept Firesign Theater so much fun for me over the years is the predictive aspect of what we have done. Because we are parodying things from a surreal point of view, it seems we can kind of comedically project where something might go if we push it to an absurd lengths. We see our satire as a tool for sharpening people's perceptions on what their world is and where it might be going.

AC: Tell me about Firesign's relationship with NPR?

PP: We've appeared on NPR over the years on various kinds of assignments, usually during political campaigns. This time it got a little dicey because National Public Radio — I call it Not Public Radio — has become in many ways a lackey of the corporate mentality that has pretty much taken over these days. Big business means small opportunities for people who want to be funny, but as Mel Brooks says, "Comedy is the conscience of the country," so we're looking into "Air America" right now. There were several pieces they wouldn't air because they said they were not funny. That was shorthand for too politically provocative. But we released that material on an Artemis CD called "All Things Firesign." We also were on the first year of XM satellite radio, which was completely free form. Just like the old days on FM. We did a monthly live two-hour live show and we just had a ball and won some awards as well.

Now, we're actually listed among the top ten programs being podfcast on the net! In fact, the reason that we had full houses for our tour was because of the Internet. In the past, you had to have publicity machines allied with the studios or the recording companies that would promote a tour. Now, everyone who's interested in Firesign Theatre can know what we are up to from the Web. We had people coming all the way from Florida to Seattle to see us perform.

AC: That is interesting, the web just shows up everywhere but that is good. Ever since I have known you, you have had accents and voices that were part of your being and your being 'on' all the time . . .

PP: Yes, eet ees true (with an accent) . . .

AC: How did that happen?

PP: Well, when I was in the CIA I had to learn several languages and pass myself off as, oh I guess I shouldn't talk about that. . .Actually, I was born with an affinity to hear and repeat, which my pal, Edie McClurg calls having an "audiographic" memory. Ever since I was a baby, I could hear and repeat. There is a story in my family that my grandfather was singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" to me and that I hummed it back to him. So he took me downstairs and I did it for my family. It was my first and last non-paying gig. As I grew up, it helped me with languages. As a result, I basically have a fluency of sorts in about seven and I am trying to learn a couple more. I get to use them all the time in my work adding voices to movies and CD-ROM games. I just did one where I played a character in Russian. I can play around in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian and fake a lot more. I've even had to voice match characters in Aramaic and Latin for "The Passion of Christ." I'm brushing up my Irish at present because we're returning to Dublin in April to tape a radio show and teach a class in voice-overs; and we'll be making a side trip to Istanbul because my wife is doing a play set in a famous hotel there, the "Pera Palas." So I'm studying a little Turkish, which is very challenging. "Ne demeck — anlamadin Turcesi!" The study of languages and dialects is a great way to write off these trips.

AC: Some of these voices that you have effected like Howard on Rugrats or the announcer on "Big Brother," do you view them as your own creations or is it working with other people's material?

PP: It is a collaborative business. Howard came out of an audition where I thought he looked like a nerd so I talked in a nerdy manner, which the director/creator liked. It's been on the air for 14 years now, and in the latest incarnation "All Grown Up," they've actually given our characters gray hair. With Big Brother, I worked with a wonderful producer-director, John Kroll, who has produced all kinds of reality programs. He wanted the voice of Big Brother to be very dramatically involved in everything that was happening on the show. So the voice became a character. I've done it now for three years. When I do major animation features, the director will ask several of us to present our interpretation of a variety of parts, and the next time we come back in a few months, you discover that you've got a role. That's how I got to do the Seahorse Dad in "Finding Nemo", Charlie, the manager in "Monsters, Inc." and the drunk French Monkey in the "Dr. Doolittle" movies.

AC: You mentioned the power of the Internet. What about your web site, "Planet Proctor." How does that fit and what does that do for you?

PP: Basically, I decided about ten years ago that I wanted to write on a regular basis as an outlet for my comedic ideas and to keep my talents sharp. So I started writing "Planet Proctor" and sending it out to a bunch of people. Eventually, a Firesign fan who created web sites came forward and suggested that he become my webmaster. Sadly, he passed away about two years ago but another fellow has taken over. My primary participation, because of the limitations of my time, is to sit and write when I can and to try to get an orbit out every two weeks or so. And this year, I'm adding photos since I'm kind of a semi-professional photographer as well. Selections from "Planet Proctor" are reprinted fairly regularly in "Funny Times," and occasionally in Readers Digest. I send it out to about 1,200 people for free -- and they send it on to God knows how many others. So I have become kind of well known for it.

AC: That's right, that is the way the Web works. You mentioned Melinda before, but I wanted to hear more about family. Does it help to have your wife in the business?

PP: Well, I had two rehearsal wives before I finally found my true soul mate. All of my ex-wives are Leos and almost all of my serious girlfriends were, also. I finally figured out that I was looking for the ideal me in a female form, and I finally found that partner in Melinda. We met working together in a play called "Nude Radio," which is funny in itself. I was playing Russian exchange person (accent) and she was playing a Southern belle (accent) from Valdosta, Georgia. It was all about love at first sight. In the play, we went to bed at the end of the first act. And all I can say is that life imitated art. We've been together now for 14 years.

AC: Nice.

PP: I have a beautiful daughter by my second marriage who is also in the business and had a supporting role last season in "The Wire" on HBO. Kristin, in fact showed up on the Academy Award broadcast. She'd done a spot for Home Depot where she played a gorgeous bride, so there she was in her wedding dress with her proud Dad. I was really her proud Dad but the actor thought he was.

AC: Is there any kind of routine to your life? Is there anything like a normal day?

PP: No, there really isn't. I get calls for auditions or work and have to adjust my days accordingly. Usually, I audition in the morning by driving from our cozy canyon retreat to my agent's and reading for cartoons, commercials, games and theatrical V.O. roles. And then I have the day pretty much to myself depending what else I am involved in. Right now I'm in rehearsal for the role of the chaplain in Brecht's "Mother Courage." Generally speaking, I have a busy life and I've been pretty successful. And amazingly, I'm actually producing more income now than at any other time in my life.

I've built up some sizable pensions in AFTRA/SAG and AEA, and on July, 28th, God willing, I'll turn 65 and soon thereafter, I'll start to receive full pensions and social security. That's going to change my options, and I'm looking forward to seeing what effect it has on our ability to travel more and so forth.

AC: What do you think of the United States as the global leader in entertainment. First is it true? And second, is it good?

PP: Yeah I think it is true and generally good. It is fun for us in Firesign because we parody so much of the popular entertainment and we use the trendy templates of the moment in order to reach people with subversive ideas. The whole premise of Firesign Theater is that if you are listening or seeing something that we have done, you think that it is real. And then something comes into your head that you weren't expecting.

I also want to mention that the reason that people like myself are doing well in the later part of our career is primarily because of the electronic platforms created to distribute product. I make the majority of my income from royalties and residuals and the DVD revolution has helped us all. There is an issue however, involving CD-ROMs and Interactive games, because we don't get residuals for those. It is a multi-billion dollar industry, which actually has surpassed motion pictures for income in the past year, and I'm actively working with my peers to confront this challenge to our union.

AC: You sent me a photo of your being at Gates exhibit in New York. That reminded me of both of us growing up in New York. What did you make of the Gates and Manhattan in the 21st century and how things have changed in our lifetime.

PP, Al, all I can tell you in that regard is that I grew up in Manhattan on the upper East Side, went to private schools and finally worked my way up to Yale. I visited New York a lot over the years, especially when I was touring the country as part of Proctor and Bergman, and sometimes, it was filthy and crowded and noisy and other times, it seemed neat and bright and vital. But it was always stimulating to be there. On this trip, we found the Gates in Central Park to be a wonderful, wonderful way to bring New Yorkers together. People talking, dogs meeting, walking around in the changing weather, all enjoying what Christo pulled off on an enormous scale. It allowed me to visit parts of the park that I had never seen before. It was a heart-warming experience and we met all kinds of nice people.

AC: Do you have any specific goals or dreams of things that you'd like to be able to do that you haven't been able to do yet?

PP: I always do. They tend to be in two areas, travel and adventure. I'd love to spend more time in Italy and in Europe in general. I'd love to spend time in countries where I can master another language. On the other hand, I want to continue to be engaged in the industry. I am always a little concerned whenever there is a period when I am not as busy as I would like to be, when people are not hiring me to speak Estonian with a Brooklyn accent. Then, I tend to think more of escape. I am sure all of us at this time in our lives tend to ruminate about this. I say, "Honey, if the business were to dry up, it'll be time for us to look at something else to do with our lives." It may involve more travel or downsizing so we have more wealth to work with. But for now, I am very content to still be at it after all these years and still be challenged and still be having fun.

(Phil Proctor's e-mail address is philip.proctor@mac.com)