David Ogden Stiers:
Talking To God

by Michelle Erica Green

David Ogden Stiers has performed in over 100 films, plays and television shows during a long and illustrious career, though he will likely be remembered forever as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III from M*A*S*H. In more recent years he has appeared in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and provided the voices of Cogsworth in Disney's Beauty and the Beast and Dr. Jumba Jookiba in last summer's Lilo and Stitch. He is also a guest conductor for several classical orchestras.

On USA's The Dead Zone, Stiers plays Johnny Smith's legal guardian, Gene Purdy. With the arrival of candidate Greg Stillson in the season finale, "Destiny," Reverend Purdy's political ambitions grew in stature. Shortly before that episode aired, Stiers talked to interviewer Michelle Erica Green about his role on the series, common elements between himself and Purdy, and the importance of the classical arts in contemporary world.

Q: Will you be a regular on The Dead Zone next season? I gather that Purdy was intended to be a recurring role.

Stiers: And certainly when I'm there shooting, I regret that. But if I take even a demi-step back and look at the overview, he shouldn't be in every episode. You should wonder what he's doing behind the scenes. Absence is sometimes more potent than being in their faces, which means that there is this dark, stealthy shadow moving in the background. You don't know whether it's manipulating what you're seeing onscreen or there's some impending threat. I just love the unknown quotient of it. It does some of my work for me.

Q: Do you think that Purdy is a power-hungry man who's using religion as a means to an end, or that he sincerely believes that he knows God's intentions?

Stiers: I'm unsure of how to answer that. I can tell you how I proceed as an actor, and that is that I believe everything the man says. I think spiritually he is exactly who he says he is, and I think there's a powerful and sometimes prioritized business instinct that overlays the spiritual. If I could reduce that to the ends justifying the means, I would have to know what the ends are. But I would suspect that in some cases, that would be true.

Q: How do you think he feels about Johnny?

Stiers: Heartily ambivalent, I would say. He's identified as a morally upright, spiritually-based presence in the community. Here is a relative by marriage and adoption -- I became his guardian. As Purdy, you're presented with someone who has attributes, apparently abilities, that are like the central figure of your religion, but without the parentage, without the upbringing, without the proselytizing. It's secular. If he can do it, what do we need you for? And if he does something that would even slightly reflect negatively on the established church, where does that put Purdy? How does he backpedal?

I don't think he ever wants to become an apologist for Johnny. I think the next energy you see will be trying to co-opt Johnny's abilities and put them in the service of Purdy's ends, rather than being adversarial. I think we're going to try to become uneasy friends.

Q: He's really the first well-rounded Fundamentalist I can think of on a television show, who's neither a saint nor a complete hypocrite. How black-and-white a thinker is Purdy; do you think he has concerns that Johnny's powers could be from the devil?

Stiers: I have to say no, because I don't want to play that. I have to trust Michael and Shawn to write him to be exactly who he's supposed to be. I don't want to guide it. If I have insights or suspicions, I would talk to them and either be disabused of them or see that wonderful light behind somebody's eyes, 'That's a great idea! Now is the time to begin to introduce that energy.' I don't think he's malign, and I don't think he functions from any satanic energy. He's not a malevolent man.

Q: He could be the most sincere man in the world yet still distrust Johnny and his abilities. This man awakes from a coma and science can't really explain it. A lot of the questions it raises are theological and ethical.

Stiers: Absolutely, and isn't that refreshing. The trick is going to be to embrace Johnny's abilities to the least-threatening extent possible. I think Purdy is going to try to stay as close to him and be as watchful as possible, cordially, and work behind the scenes if he thinks Johnny is doing something less than ideal. He would probably set up little roadblocks to try to dissuade him from those things. Even while I'm watching for any sign, it's going to be a slight ratchet week-to-week until there's a demonstration in one direction or the other.

Q: Have they told you how much of the arc from the book they're going to use, involving Greg Stillson and his candidacy?

Stiers: I think Purdy is Stillson's major underwriter and probably his spiritual advisor. It begins in the [season] finale, but Johnny has to comprehend what he thinks he sees with Stillson and interpret it properly. The visions are not full stories; the visions are sometimes puzzle pieces, and sometimes they're parable-like. He has to figure out how it actually applies -- what its real place is in a larger picture. I don't think Stillson is an instantly answered question.

Q: Had you seen the movie of The Dead Zone, or are you a fan of the book?

Stiers: I love Steven King, and I had not read that book, and I hadn't seen the movie just because I don't have cable. They offered me the book a year ago, and I said, 'I would rather play what's on the page for you, and not wonder about, "How come we're leaving this behind?"' Michael Piller is not a whim-based writer. He is meticulous, and such a craftsman that when I get a script, I feel terrible when I rewrite a line just because the little post-its aren't sticking in the back of my brain and I transpose clauses. I hear the difference -- I know I've said something less than fully correct, even though the words are the same. He's very careful about word choices he's puzzled over. He's not throwing darts here. I remember that from Star Trek -- you did not change lines because you wanted to put some personal stamp on it. The stamp is there. You make it fit. And I don't mind that at all. When Michael writes something, I tend to take it very seriously.

Q: Did you know Michael Piller from Star Trek -- is that partly how this role came about?

Stiers: I think I was discussed very early on for the role, when The Dead Zone originally looked like it was going to UPN. Then I think someone at that network superseded the Pillers' and Lloyd Segan's casting predilections. When things went awry and they found it necessary to recast, USA said 'Fine for Stiers,' so here I am.

Q: You did one of Next Gen's most memorable episodes, 'Half a Life,' where you had to decide whether your character should commit suicide.

Stiers: It was meaningful and tough. Most television you watch, and are entertained, and then it's self-flushing. But I have a feeling that episode started a lot of very interesting conversations. It was certainly true in my case, where the discussion was generational; I made the mistake of watching it with my mother and father, who had very particular thoughts about aging and unwillingness to prolong life by heroic measures. They were very forthright and unsentimental about their wishes.

Q: Did you agree with Timicin's decision to die?

Stiers: Culturally, yes. Ethically, no. It's easier when it's not one way or the other; when two things are warring, it's easier to play. It's also more interesting for the audience. No matter how old we are, are we so cynical that we don't pursue love when it reveals itself? My instinct would have been, 'I love you, daughter, but you have your own life. Here is a universe beckoning to me! I'll call you when I'm 75 and say, nyeah, nyeah.' I have been stopped about it by fans of Star Trek, and I'd rather that than the army show.

Q: Do you tend to be a 'little black book' actor, where you've read the show's bible and you want to have all the character notes written down before you start?

Stiers: Yes, for the most part I am. But I didn't want to do that [with The Dead Zone]. I would rather play the series than the book or the movie, but normally I would do that. This thing has been so carefully adapted that I think I would disserve it if I did more than I do. I'd muddy the waters, and I like clear waters.

Q: Have you had a favorite moment yet?

Stiers: Yes I have! It's a sudden guest appearance in a bed with three other people, that we barely got through until we were so tired of being in bed together that it became really boring. It's just a wonderful moment.

I'm finding an interesting thing about what I hope is Purdy's energy, not just mine, because I came out of theater a long time ago and return to it. When I'm in front of a crowd, I really like it. I really like exhorting -- talking to the back row as intimately as I talk to the front row. Exhorting the crowd...all I did was introduce Stillson, but I had a wonderful time. More fun than frankly I think I was supposed to have.

It's an attribute of working in theater, when in Shakespeare you learn to be emotionally and psychologically legible, as it were, to the back row of the balcony without being too big for the first few rows. And it's certainly true of conducting -- a great deal of it is very powerful looks. The stick is one thing, but letting someone, horns or percussion know that the moment coming up is extremely important and you're looking forward to it and you want it to be right and you're at their service, and your eyes are telling them how to play, the indication of the moment.

My proudest moment recently was conducting Beethoven's Emperor piano concerto with Chie Nagatani on the piano -- a Japanese-Hawaiian Vancouver pianist. She learned the concerto for the concert, and you know how it is. You get three rehearsals, and it sounds like it, with intonation problems and stylistically insecure moments on the part of the orchestra. Then, by god, Beethoven was present! You could see how proud they all were.

Q: You do so much other work outside of television -- conducting, movies and I know you've done a lot of Disney voice work. Do you have flexibility to keep doing all that?

Stiers: Oh, sure. I have recorded and happily will again in Vancouver for Disney, and when I'm here at home on the coast of Oregon, I have a little jaunt up to Portland to a recording studio and have a wonderful meal in a great seafood town in the middle of wine-producing country. I'm trying to find a negative, here...nope! I'd go in and record Lilo and Stitch, either the series or the second movie, and drive home happily.

Q: What do you and Purdy have in common? What parts of you are you getting to show in this role?

Stiers: They're wonderful attributes in him but terrible in me. I would say he's a first-rate emotional manipulator. He can seem so spiritually centered and wise that you should just do what he says, and you shouldn't even argue; it's been thought out on a much higher plane than the one his victim occupies. When he needs to, he doesn't hesitate to play dirty -- certainly an impulse I try to stifle in myself.

But actually something I do like about him, unless I'm imposing this, is that the spiritual and the secular co-exist in him with perfect ease. I would love to get to the practical implementation of the notion that the act of breathing is a form of prayer. I personally am a long way from that. I think he's farther than he would like to admit.

Q: But you think he's really trying to get there. Sometimes you meet people who are going through the motions, not because they believe, but because they're hoping by doing it that others will think they believe.

Stiers: I think he's as aware of his human impediments to being there as anybody else is. Most religious people, whether they believe it or not, but certainly the televangelists, make it clear that they are humans and subject to the same fallibilities as everyone else is. Even while privately, they're probably understandably prideful that they don't do the same things other people do. They have foresworn that. I think Purdy and his deity are working on a handshake deal. He's identified his view of the deity he's going to serve, who probably carries a briefcase and carries a three-piece suit, and that's who he's talking about, no matter how the listener drapes that deity in their minds.

Q: How much fun is this to work on -- can you break out of that mindset and goof off on the set? You're laughing now.

Stiers: They're so unused to me, I must tell you, and I say this with a little bit of wonder and a little bit of regret, 'Oh my god, I'm at that stage in my life.' I'm treated as the eminent character actor on the set -- the oldest person there. I'm older than the producers and writers. And there's this wonderful sort of angular courtesy toward me until I break people of it and we just talk like co-workers. I've gotten some serious laughs by saying things that they find completely out of keeping, or who they'd like to think I am.

[Anthony] Michael [Hall] is tough; Michael loves to laugh, but Michael also is in every bloody scene. His workload, I don't know if he knew what he was biting off. He had to have worked a long time to have gotten it off the ground this well, and he's a co-producer. He's thoroughly wedded to this piece. And he loves to laugh, but he has a producer's beanie on, and he's sort of on guard because if he lets go, he really will joke around for five, ten minutes, and the beanie becomes a very heavy top hat.

He's a very smart man and a very crafty actor, in the sense of what he brings to it. That guy is so in touch with his passions that I have felt more than once in a scene with him like a voyeur -- that I should actually look away -- 'This is personal, I shouldn't be here, let me know when you're done and we'll talk.' There really seems not to be a weak link, and that's a major rarity.

Q: I take it that you're past the point of worrying about typecasting from the role?

Stiers: People tend to associate you with one thing or another. I'm happiest now talking to really young kids in the 6-12 range, because they know me as voices. Do you have children? Did you go see Lilo and Stitch?

Q: And Pocahontas and Beauty and the Beast. I have two children under ten. There seem to be a number of extraordinary actors who make the bulk of their living doing voices.

Stiers: We could also be making some not-terribly-expensive, really meaningful films about people who don't have special skills, examining the way we deal with the caretaker aspects of our lives, with spouses, with children, with parents. I would think that that's the most important thing there is, and at its best, I think Dead Zone does it.

I've directed a play called Amateur Night at the Big Heart a couple of times, by a Denver playwright named Terry Dodd, and I may direct a new play of his in a year. It takes place in a country and western bar, it's all heart and music and friendship...achieving, honoring and losing friendships. I would love to do this as a movie. As a play, it only runs two hours, and Terry and I worked at a screenplay. I would love to take it to something before C&W becomes a lost fad. The jukebox is another character in this piece; you play the song that reflects your mood, and have a chat or a fight with somebody while the music's playing.

But I tend to be reactive -- I'm quite content to sit on the coast and study scores getting ready for upcoming concerts. I like not being driven anymore. There is a pleasure in having a career, and if there are things that I haven't done, I may still, and there are things that I have done that I probably rather would have not, but I'll leave those to the viewer's imagination.

Q: The show that you referred to earlier as the army show...

Stiers: Yeeeeeessss?

Q: Is that just because you're tired of talking about it? Not hard feelings?

Stiers: Not at all. I did the reunion recently, simply as the firewall, so I don't discuss it anymore. That was my last participation in it, and I have resolutely moved on in the new millennium.

Q: How many Perry Mason movies did you do -- seven? And I saw you years ago in a Doug Henning play. But has Winchester haunted you, with producers wanting you to play someone like him?

Stiers: No, because I said to my agent for a decade after it was over, 'If people come to you and want me to play that, it's an automatic decline and I don't want to hear. Tell them thank you for thinking of me when you think of me as a 58-year-old bag person with warts -- please call me.'

Q: How did you wind up in Woody Allen's company of actors?

Stiers: I think I'm sorry to say that's over. I was terribly flattered -- he called once, and then called again. The first one was almost the most enjoyable, because I played the young John Houseman, and John was my mentor at Juilliard.

Q: Were you in the Kevin Kline-Patti LuPone group of The Acting Company? Why isn't there anything like that anymore?

Stiers: Kevin and Patti and I were group one, yes. I'm afraid in the main it's happened because we don't prize the result anymore. If someone can make you laugh, make you cry, we're content to employ them and discard them. The notion of classical theater or training, or the arts generally, which I mean in the rarified sense -- not inaccessible, but the rarified sense of the classical arts -- mask work, properly done Molière...things have to be re-set now. We update works that really don't need updating. We need to get an audience to look at the originals, and discipline ourselves to recreate them as closely as we can to a stylistically accurate norm.

But it's also the reason I think that we don't go to concert halls anymore -- it isn't just money, though in great measure it may come down to that. Not disposable income but donatable income. This is really important. Because we are exposed so instantly to information we seek, we've forgotten how to invest ourselves over a longish period of time. We're used to the commercial interruption, the ability to pause, the ability to go offline or back online suddenly. The Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream overture doesn't work on pause. You get back more than the time you invest in sitting through a two-hour concert, and if you don't understand what that is, don't be mad at yourself if you don't get it instantly. It does take constant exposure for works to reveal themselves to you. You don't get it all at once, because it's not a message; it's a way of communicating.

Q: Do you think this is a failing of education or our whole commercial culture?

Stiers: Certainly they're in collusion. I've also never heard any of our elected officials that I can remember saying, 'I am so grateful for the drama program when I was in high school. I'm so grateful that I went through the debate team, because it gave me the ability to stand in front of groups of people and make sense without folding.' And yet they find theater dispensable unless it's a musical and raises money for the sports teams. Our point of view is easily changeable and we don't invest ourselves in things.

The notion of cutting the arts in schools is so retrograde to our stated desire that we want people to be smarter, deeper and better people. We want more for less, but we get it when we keep the arts in place. Just talking in the case of music, it's also studying instruments a second language, and spiritual growth, and time management, teamwork and personal best, an elevated sense of history and geography because the works you play are from a wide variety of countries and periods. You get more than you invest, and not just for the kid. The environment gets more than it invests.

An arts group in St. Louis did a study of money for the arts, based on another study from New York that concluded that for every dollar invested into the arts, four dollars got energized in the community. The St. Louis group sat on their results for awhile because they were so astounding -- they found that it was over $18 for every dollar. It isn't just great for education, and for the other side of our spiritual lives; it's great for our financial environment.

If you sit next to someone at a concert, then you see that person the next day in line at the bank, or if you hear them talking about having been at the concert, you know something about that person. You both went through the same emotional experience at the same time. You shared that evening. You know something important about each other. Unlike sports, which are about beating someone, rooting for one team, the arts are about cooperation and insight. They are a salve for the societal sore of isolation and mistrust.

Anyway, back to Woody Allen...I made the mistake of saying to Juliet Taylor, who does Woody's casting, 'For god's sake don't put me in any more of these. He doesn't like to rehearse, and I need rehearsal, I need to know what other actors are doing. I don't make it up at home and bring it in.' It wasn't until I sat around a roundtable with Woody, Helen Hunt, Dan Ayckroyd and Charlize Theron for [The Curse of the] Jade Scorpion that I realized that's exactly what he did expect me to do. And because I'd been cast, I was empowered to do that. He doesn't like to direct; he figures by casting, he's directed. That was hard for me to arrive at, obviously. And having arrived at it, I found myself having shot my mouth off to the point that I probably will not be called again. It would be miraculous if I were.

Q: Are you doing anything right now in the arts that you're particularly proud of?

Stiers: I have recorded a CD for children -- piano and cello recordings of Ravel's Mother Goose Suite and Ferdinand and the Bull.

Q: It's now looking like Dead Zone could be quite a long-term series, which is something you obviously have experience with. Is that something you were hoping for with this -- that you may have to start referring to it as the psychic show?

Stiers: I never object to however it falls out. I can have feelings about it, but things evolve generally the way they're supposed to. A series I loved shooting, Love and Money with Swoosie Kurtz, we had more fun, we did all thirteen episodes, it was a grin-fest and wonderful hard work. It just didn't go, and I was desolate because I'd so looked forward to a nice long run of it. The word had been positive, the network seemed to love it, and then it was scheduled miserably. So whatever happens, I'm up for -- I would love a long run.

This interview originally appeared at
USA Network.

Get Critical