The Dead Guy Movie: Jonathan Silverman on a Career in Comedies

The actor tells stories about the making of Weekend at Bernie's, Caddyshack II, his latest film and the TV show 'Monday Mornings.'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

When I was growing up, Jonathan Silverman was on TV all the time. Weekend at Bernie’s and Caddyshack II were in pretty heavy rotation on HBO. It was like Silverman was my afterschool buddy, in a totally innocent, not weird way. I got to meet him back in November when I moderated a panel at the American Film Market. The film Conception was already available on Netflix and VOD, but director Josh Stolberg and stars Silverman and Pamela Adlon spoke with attendees about the filmmaking process. I got them started with a few questions and got along really well with the filmmakers, so we spoke with each of them again by phone later that week. In Conception Silverman and real life wife Jennifer Finnigan played a married couple in one of several intercut stories about having babies. He co-stars in Stolberg’s next film, Crawlspace, about a foreclosed family stalking the new residents of their house, and costars with Finnigan again on TV’s “Monday Mornings.”

CraveOnline: Meeting you for the panel, you seem so happy. Are you in a place where you feel really fulfilled and satisfied by the opportunities you’re getting?

Jonathan Silverman: Sure, I’ve been doing, this professionally anyway, for almost, God, is it 30 years? Yeah, almost 30 years. I’ve enjoyed the whole ride. There’s certainly a lot of ups and downs, more enjoyable experiences than some others but it’s always been enjoyable. It’s always been something that I have been able to learn from and leave knowing a little bit more. So yeah, right now is as pretty good a time as any. I’ve got a couple of movies that I’m very proud of that are recently complete. I just made my directorial debut. I’m about to work on a second feature that I’ll be directing in the spring. I have a regular TV gig. It’s all good.

Had you ever been to AFM before?

I have, yeah. I’ve been to the Market several times over the last few decades. This was probably the busiest in the sense that I had a screening on Friday and various meetings for the National Lampoon project that I directed, and I had the panel with you for a project that I acted in, then I had some meetings in between for future projects. So this was definitely the busiest AFM I’ve ever participated in. It was a good one.

In the past, what would they bring you there for? Just to schmooze with possible buyers?

Exactly, it was just the opportunity to make some connections and possibly get some folks interested in a project that they might not have if I hadn’t stuck my head in and made myself available. [Laughs]

With Conception, learning that you only worked for one day, is it kind of amazing that you can work for a day and end up with a more substantial credit than some of the films on which you might work for much longer?

As my friend, Pam, said on the panel, Conception turned out so beautifully, it’s really one of the better movies that she’s been in. It’s one of the better movies that I’ve been in and it’s thrilling to know that you could work on something, I don’t want to say with low expectations, but certainly work on it just for the sake of working on something of quality, not knowing that it’s going to have a future life, not knowing if it’s going to be received positively, not knowing that it’s going to get into so many of these film festivals and get such lovely reviews and get sold and be appreciated. The fact that it did all those things and we still had a wonderful time on it is very rare, and got a happy ending.

I noticed one of the festivals it got into was the Tel Aviv Film Festival. Did you go to that one?

I saw that too. It has some international flair. I didn’t. I certainly attended a few film festivals for Conception but they were all in the Southern California area. I believe Jen and I went as far as Newport and as close as the Beverly Hills Film Festival, would’ve loved to have made the trip to Tel Aviv but couldn’t quite fit that one in our schedule. I got a note from Josh Stolberg that the very first sales number he got after the screening I believe is from a company that’s going to be distributing it theatrically in Korea. So who knew? I guess a story about where babies come from has an international flair to it.

Was playing a married couple with Jennifer easier to create that intimacy, or actually harder?

Exactly. We have been fortunate enough to work together quite a bit and I know the very first time we did something where we actually played versions of ourselves, a friend of ours used to produce and star in a really terrific comedy for the Starz network called “Head Case” where she played a fictitious therapist to the stars. Alexandra Wentworth is our friend and it lasted for I think three seasons. She called in a lot of favors and those favors involved just coming to play with her in an unscripted format and play yourself or a version of yourself. Before I had even met Jen, I had done a few versions of the pilot to help them get it picked up. As Jen and I were dating, we came in as a couple who were discussing getting married. Then after we got married we played a couple who were recently betrothed and the various situations that a couple would talk to a therapist about. Regardless, we watched the first episode that we did together in hopes that we had some type of actual chemistry on screen, because we know we get along in real life but what if, God forbid, that magic doesn’t come through to the other side? So in subsequent years, we’ve done a ton of stuff together, both as strangers, as boyfriend and girlfriend, as husband and wife and we love working together. We just do and it’s a good thing because I’ve now jumped on Jen’s series for David Kelley so this one may last quite a bit longer than some of the other gigs. I’m glad we have that chemistry on screen as well as off.

I was glad when I asked you how I should introduce you in the panel, you said it was good to mention Weekend at Bernie’s because I wasn’t sure which way that would go. Has that been a good item to have on your resume?

You know, when I first did the movie, it was probably my fourth or fifth gig as a feature. The only experience I really had were these wonderful Neil Simon movies and Broadway plays, a couple of smaller projects in between so I was more than thrilled to get this job. It was a studio film, it was one of the two leads and a wonderful, acclaimed director who I love, Ted Kotcheff, who gave us The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Fun with Dick and Jane and North Dallas Forty and the first Rambo. A screenwriter named Robert Klane who wrote one of my favorite movies ever, Where’s Poppa? with Ruth Gordon and George Segal. I had no idea that this film would be as funny as it was, would have as long a shelf life as it has had when we made it. I thought oh, this is just a dark comedy and maybe it’ll be out for a week or two and maybe it’ll make a dollar or two. I certainly had no idea it would be as successful as it was. It’s turned into, for whatever it’s worth, a cult classic. It plays all the time and it’s been very helpful in the sense that it’s the lowest common denominator when I’m asked, “Hey, you’re an actor, aren’t you? You look familiar. What have I seen you in?” Which is such a difficult question to answer. How do I know what you’ve seen? I can list one of the 40 or 50 movies or however many I’ve done but this conversation could go on forever. When I saw the lowest common denominator, I can say the name of that film, Weekend at Bernie’s, and the glint in the eye happens and they go, “Oh yeah, sure, the dead guy movie!” In that sense, it’s very helpful.

When the sequel introduced a voodoo curse, did you feel that corrupted the integrity of the series?

Oh, the integrity. Again, I had no idea this thing would be successful. The fact that it was, it’s no secret, I’ve said it before, I was hoping we would just be able to pat ourselves on the back and say, “Look what we did. We made some people laugh, the film made some money, the studio’s happy. Let’s just leave it at that.” It wasn’t until, I don't know, three, four, five years later that the studio said, “Let’s gather the gang and make a sequel.” I know I was a bit confused wondering how you could make a sequel that stars a dead body. But they said, “Listen, we’ve got the script and we’ve got Andrew McCarthy signed on, we’ve got Terry Kiser signed on so you can jump on board and get this nice fat paycheck and have some fun with us in the Caribbean for a couple months, or you can spend the rest of your career being asked why someone else took over your role?” So when it was put to me that way, I said, “Okay, let’s go play.” Of course, we had more fun on the second one than we did on the first, so I certainly enjoyed myself immensely.

When you got the lead in Caddyshack II, was that a moment where you thought, “This is it. I’ve made it. This is Caddyshack II?

Oh, Fred, you’re bringing up all the good ones. The original Caddyshack with Chevy Chase and Bill Murray is one of the best comedies ever made. To this day, when it’s on I can’t turn it off. I have, I would say, 90% of it memorized. Harold Ramis was the writer/director on it and I had just worked with him when I got offered the sequel to Caddyshack. We had shared a role in a movie called Stealing Home. I played the younger version of Harold. Jodie Foster and Mark Harmon were the leads. And I told him, “I’m being offered. The sequel. To. The best movie. That anyone could’ve ever made. Your Caddyshack.” He went, “Wow, my God, you’re going to have so much fun.” We realized it was shooting at the same location, the same country club, the same golf course in a little town called Davie in Florida. Harold had written the first draft of the sequel and they got Chevy Chase to come back. They couldn’t get Bill Murray but they got Dan Aykroyd to jump on board and Randy Quaid was in it. Rodney Dangerfield was supposed to be in it and through some circumstances he ended up not being in it, but one of my favorite humans and standup comics, Jackie Mason took over. This was shortly after Jackie just got his Tony Award for his one-man Broadway show. The movie had everything going for it [Laughs] and a giant budget, and it just turned out to be a big piece of poo. But you never know. You have to just keep swinging and stepping up to the plate and swinging for the fences. In hindsight, if the same thing was offered to me again, if I could go back in time, I probably would have taken it again. It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time.

Sure. Did you play on that golf course during the breaks?

Oh yeah, we had the entire course. It was bankrupt by the time our production took it over so there was a massive hotel and facility and a golf course not only at our disposal whenever we wanted it, but we were told as part of our rehearsal process to work with one of the pros. He was available to us at any point during the day to go out and perfect your form and your stroke so when the camera was on you, you actually looked like you knew what you were doing. It was a joy for a golfer, and I know it’s the reason Randy Quaid took the job because he was completely addicted to golf at the time and just wanted to be a part of it.

What about the fake golf course with all the obstacles? Was that available to play on?

That was a little different. We had spent so much time, the entire cast of the older veterans – the Robert Stacks and the Dina Merrills and everyone else who was in the movie – in addition to the younger group – myself  and Chynna Phillips and Brian McNamara and Jessica Lundy – we had spent so much time working with the instructors and the pros, but what we didn’t realize was that oftentimes when it came to us shooting a drive, the camera crews wouldn’t let us use actual golf balls because God forbid, if it went adrift, it would hit a camera operator in the eye, it would smash some equipment. So we oftentimes had to use these little puff balls, these little ping pong like fabric balls. No matter how good your swing is and no matter how much you’ve been practicing, there’s really no way to make a little puff ball go 30 feet up in the air and make it look like you know what you’re doing. It kind of defeated the purpose but nonetheless, we had a lot of fun.

We all wanted to play on that big mini-golf course.

Yeah, I guess that was the idea, but it was fun. It was fun. A lot was shot, as I mentioned, at this course in Florida and then about a week’s worth, maybe even two weeks was shot back in L.A. They had to recreate that mini putt-putt course and all the crazy stuff in various backlots.

What can we expect from “Monday Mornings?”

“Monday Mornings” is terrific. It’s my wife’s show. I’m just lucky enough that David Kelley threw me a bone on it as well. It’s a wonderful piece based on a novel by Dr. Sanjay Gupta called Monday Mornings. In the novel, he focuses on these surgeons and unbeknownst to most of us who aren’t in the medical profession, surgeons have these meetings that are oftentimes held on Monday mornings. They’re called Morbidity and Mortality Meetings. Basically it’s the opportunity for the chief of staff to get together with the surgeons and discuss everything that has happened in the previous days or the previous week, whose lives were saved and what was done in order to save them. Whose lives were lost and who’s accountable? It stays very private within this group of esteemed surgeons and this is a chance for the public to get a little peak at it. It’s fascinating stuff. From an actor’s point of view, the material is so dense and so rich. The great Alfred Molina plays the chief of staff of the hospital. Ving Rhames plays an emergency room surgeon. My wife, Jennifer Finnigan plays a brain surgeon. Jamie Bamber, a wonderful actor who people may know from “Battlestar Galactica” plays a surgeon. I play a general internist who develops a crush on a heart surgeon played by a wonderful and beautiful actress named Sarayu Rao. I had agreed to hop on and just do a few scenes in the pilot episode because I have a past relationship with David Kelley. I had done a pilot for David about eight or nine years ago, one of the few projects that did not get picked up in his esteemed career. So when he found out that I happened to be sleeping with his leading lady, he’s like, “Oh, let’s get you onto this.” And I said, “Sure, it’d be fun.” So I did the pilot episode and he said, “I’m not done with you yet. I have a couple more.” So I did a few more episodes and he hasn’t gotten rid of me yet. I’m still there. I’m working on, what, episode number eight right now, of 10.

Crawlspace sounds awesome.

Crawlspace is great. I’m so proud of Josh. He’s, I don’t even want to say blossomed because he already was a great director by the time I met him, but his work is just terrific and he really can’t be pigeonholed. To go from something like Conception to Crawlspace, it’s two different genres and he excelled at both of them. And he’s still great to work with. He’s a wonderful actor’s director.

What a great premise. As someone who’s stuck in an upside down mortgage myself, I can’t wait to see that family take it out on the bankers.

It’s pretty messed up and it truly is inspired by an actual event. It didn’t happen in America, it happened in Europe but Josh had read this story in a newspaper and said, “Oh my God, what if?” And then he created his own universe and turned it into a horror film.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel