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Bat Man

The many faces of John Goodman -- We talk with the star of ''Roseanne'' about the new Babe Ruth biopic

Scowling atop the pitcher's mound and amply filling out a vintage wool baseball uniform, John Goodman bears down for his next pitch. He glares toward the batter's box; he goes into his stretch, he winds up convincingly — and launches something less than a blazing fastball that thuds weakly into the dirt in front of home plate. ''Damn,'' he grunts, gripping a sore left shoulder that is being forced into unnatural work by the right-handed actor. ''Damn. Threw that one like a girl.'' There are chuckles from the male crew members and a couple of good-natured protests from the women working on the Wrigley Field set. ''Oops, ha ha, just kidding,'' laughs the big man in the baseball suit. ''Hope the press didn't catch that one. Don't want the fems on my ass, too.''

The feminists are the least of Goodman's concerns this hot July Chicago afternoon. He knows that when audiences get their first look at The Babe, his film bio of baseball immortal Babe Ruth, he will be taking on two groups of people more implacable than any umpire. ''I'm going to have the sportswriters and the film critics after me on this one,'' he says, sitting in the stands after filming the scene (which showed Ruth's often forgotten early prowess as a pitcher). ''Everyone thinks they know what the Babe was like, who he really was. I must be the only one out there with any doubts.''

Goodman's fears are legitimate. More than four decades after the Bambino's death in 1948 — and nearly six decades since his 1920s prime as a ballplayer — George Herman Ruth remains America's most enduring sports legend, a larger- than-life symbol of the nation's most flamboyant era. Ruth has always been seen by the public as a mythic character, an inescapable presence who shadowed everyone around him. Even his teammate Lou Gehrig, one of the greatest players of all time, was eclipsed by the one and only Babe. Indeed, Ruth's story is so immense it has defied telling on film; only one theatrical movie, a miserable 1948 effort with William Bendix, has ever been attempted. On the other hand, maybe filmmakers never had the right actor.

They do now. Bill Finnegan, one of The Babe's executive producers, says flatly, ''The film would have never been made if not for John. If we were doing a movie about, let's say, Ty Cobb, you'd say, 'Let's go find some actors who could play Ty Cobb.' But when you're doing Babe Ruth, you've got to start with a guy who can convince people he's Babe Ruth...there might not be two actors in all of movies who can do that.''

Dressed in his New York Yankees woolens and with a dab of putty giving his nose the requisite fleshy pug look, Goodman enjoys a resemblance to the slugger that is eerie. But the actor's fitness for the part transcends mere physiognomy. Actress Margaret Whitton, who appeared with Goodman on stage in a 1981 Public Theater production of Henry IV, Part One, says, ''John is an amazing actor — he projects intensity and naturalness at the same time.'' Canvass Goodman's colleagues, and such accolades are hard to avoid. Steven Spielberg, who has been developing a film version of The Flintstones for nearly two years just so Goodman can play Fred, is one of his biggest fans. During the shooting of a scene in 1990's Arachnophobia, Spielberg (whose Amblin Entertainment coproduced the movie, with Hollywood Pictures) hid on the passenger side of a car Goodman was driving. ''I just wanted to be able to say, 'I was in a scene with John Goodman,''' he says.

Until The Babe (and the forgettable King Ralph), Goodman's supporting part in Arachnophobia was typical of his at bats; in film after film he has entered the movie as if from a side door and then proceeded to walk away with the audience. In his roles as Sally Field's insurance salesman husband in Punchline, Dennis Quaid's lead blocker in Everybody's All-American, the spectacularly inept baby snatcher in Raising Arizona, and the traveling salesman-serial killer in Barton Fink, Goodman has made such an impact in such limited screen time that he has virtually redefined the term ''character actor.''

And yet, despite having costarred for four years on the top-rated TV sitcom Roseanne, Goodman has yet to weigh in as a superstar. As Bill Cosby, Shelley Long, and Cybill Shepherd — and for that matter Roseanne Arnold — could tell him, TV success doesn't always carry over to the big screen. The Babe is pivotal to John Goodman's career; either he's completely convincing in his role or the film stinks. As director Arthur Hiller puts it, ''People go to most baseball movies to see if the hero can hit a big home run. There's no suspense here; we know he's going to hit it. What the audience wants to know is, 'Can this guy be Babe Ruth?'''

John Goodman has at least one thing in common with the Sultan of Swat: They were both too poor to play in official ball leagues as kids. Goodman was born and raised in Affton, a small Missouri town just southwest of St. Louis. ''You could place it in any blue-collar area in just about any state,'' he says of the place, ''and it would fit right in.'' Goodman has no memory of his father, Leslie, a mail carrier who died of a heart attack in 1954 when John was almost 2, leaving his mother, Virginia, pregnant with his sister, Elizabeth Ann, to care for John and his 16-year-old brother, Les Jr.

The working-class grit Goodman displays on Roseanne wasn't learned in acting class; his mother and brother fought to keep the family just above the poverty line. His mom, he says, ''did everything from taking in laundry to waitressing at Jack and Phil's Bar-B-Q. She still lives in the same house in Affton and puts in a few hours a day in the high school cafeteria.'' (''John wanted me to move out and get a bigger house,'' she now says, ''but I'm holding out. This was my first home.'') Goodman manages a smile, but it quickly fades. ''I grew up poor, and I don't think that feeling has ever been far from me. I don't think I'll ever be secure in luxury.''

The man who would portray the most gregarious of American athletes was a skinny and bespectacled high schooler who had to be nudged into athletics by his brother. To Les Jr.'s surprise, young John bulked up and became a star lineman at Affton High School. ''I liked football,'' he says. ''I admit it — I liked the contact. I liked hitting people.'' But life after high school lacked direction. He drifted in and out of a community college, but then was drawn by the acting program at Southwest Missouri State in Springfield. ''John was always performing as a kid,'' says Les Jr. ''He liked to clown around, do different kinds of voices, act out scenes from movies he'd seen on TV.'' The school taught Stanislavsky, Lessac, Boleslavski, dance, movement, and singing — a kind of all-around basic training to turn natural hams into actors. Better still, students had the chance to appear in four major plays a year.

Confined to Springfield and often in dire economic straits — Goodman was on food stamps his entire college career — students tended to develop a genuine camaraderie. ''We'd chug a few oat sodas [beers]'' John recalls, ''and yell football kinda things like, 'Yeah, we can kick ass on those actor boys from fancy schools like Northwestern and Joo-lee-yard.''' There was a lot of talent at Southwest Missouri State (Kathleen Turner and Tess Harper were classmates), but Goodman stood out. ''You could see even then that there was an intense struggle going on in his characters,'' says Harper. ''And he was very handsome. He looked like the star football player cast in the lead for the school play.'' Howard Orms, his acting teacher, recalls that ''John had a quality of controlling all the space around him — the air seemed to move with him.''

The air may have danced, but casting directors in New York, his mecca after graduation, didn't budge. For nearly 10 years he hustled, auditioned, and hung on. His size — he was 6 feet 3 inches tall and more than 200 pounds — helped him get a job as a bouncer at the now-defunct Cafe Central on Manhattan's Upper West Side. But he immediately lost heart when a pro showed him ''all the great ways to beat someone up if you want to be good at the job,'' says Goodman. ''I said to myself, 'I don't think I'm ever gonna be that good at this line of work.''' But he continued to hang around the joint with fellow actor-bouncer- waiters Bruce Willis and Dennis Quaid. His Everyman face and curly blond hair got him commercials. If you watched TV at all during the early '80s and bought Crest, Levi's, or Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats, a congenial, athletic young man named Goodman probably sold them to you.

Still, he hated commercials. ''I thought I'd get trapped in them. The people were nice, the money was nice, but I just kept telling myself, 'I'm drowning here. This is not what I want.' I started to develop this snotty attitude so I wouldn't get cast. Sometimes I'd show up hung over.'' He pauses. ''I was drinking a lot back then.'' He was also putting on weight — nearly 100 pounds more than he carried in college. ''As my attitude got worse,'' he says, ''my weight increased.'' The irony is that it wasn't until Goodman put on the weight that he got his big break, the role of Huck Finn's hard-drinking father in the 1985 Broadway musical Big River.

Goodman is sensitive about his weight, which now hovers around 300 pounds. Compliment him on his grace (several films, such as Stella and Always, have allowed him the space to improvise a short dance number), and he'll shrug it off with, ''Oh, yeah, right — like the hippos in Fantasia.'' (His fans are sensitive to fat jokes too: When good pal Jay Leno ribbed Goodman on a recent Tonight Show, NBC got hit with angry calls and cards.) ''I lose it, I gain it back,'' he says. ''No big deal.'' But if it's no big deal, why does he keep trying to take it off? He smiles. ''I dance better when I'm thin.''

Maybe, but does he act better? John Goodman has to consider the very real possibility that his thinner self doesn't project that Everyman quality which is at the core of Goodman's appeal.

It's also a quality that Babe Ruth, who spent much of his playing career a good 30 to 40 pounds overweight, projected to the public. ''Yeah,'' laughs Goodman, ''but I'm the only actor around who had to lose 40 pounds to play Babe Ruth!''

Like the Babe, who was raised in a Baltimore orphanage and despaired of ever being taken seriously as an adult, Goodman hides his shyness behind a jocular facade. Where Ruth would call strangers ''Keed'' and ''Mac'' (as in ''How ya doin', Mac,'' as he reportedly greeted Al Capone), Goodman affects the bravado of a working-class hipster. He has an entire vocabulary for that side of his character, like calling beer ''oat soda'' or a display of temper as ''getting cheesed off.'' Referring to a period of depression, he'll say, ''I was a hurtin' boy back then,'' and when things got better he was ''born again hard.'' The lingo — a combination of New York street smarts and his Missouri roots — became a protection against ''advertising from two blocks away that I was a hick.''

Goodman recently built a new home in Southern California's San Fernando Valley for himself and his wife, the former Anna Elizabeth Hartzog — Annabeth for short — whom he met in New Orleans where she was a college student and he was taking a break from the set of Everybody's All-American to serve as the Mardi Gras Carnival King. In typical Goodman fashion, he was aloof when she first approached him — ''I thought, 'What could this lovely young woman possibly want with me?''' They were married two years later and had a daughter, Molly Evangeline, in 1990. He talks wistfully of someday moving to or near St. Louis when Roseanne finally ends, and flying out to the coast for film work. ''Maybe that's impractical,'' he adds. ''Let's wait and see how Roseanne does on her farm in Iowa.''

Temporarily back in St. Louis in late February to be the main course at Bob Costas' annual celebrity roast, Goodman seems a bit more like Huck Finn and a little less like the actor who once played Huck's dad. The occasion is a benefit for the Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital — and also a chance for St. Louis to indulge in a show of local pride for the city's most famous show-biz alumnus. (''I don't want to tell them this,'' Goodman whispers later, ''but I'm not actually from St. Louis. I mean, when I was a kid and someone talked about moving from Affton to St. Louis, it was like they were moving to Beverly Hills.'')

Goodman, of course, is a natural with the crowd, which is sprinkled with friends and family as well as Costas, Jay Leno, and baseball greats Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Ozzie Smith, and the local hero, Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial. Goodman's mother sits at one of the tables, watching the crowds that swirl around her son and politely chatting with well-wishers. ''John doesn't forget his friends,'' she says. ''Remember that movie Revenge of the Nerds? There's a scene where John [as a football coach] reads off a roll call. He improvised and called off the names of his friends from high school. Some of them are at that table now.'' When Goodman's turn comes to take the lectern, he gestures to the table where his oldest buddies sit. ''You saw my friends over there,'' he says. ''So you know that I could very easily be spending this evening in one of our state's correctional institutions.''

Fellow Missourian Costas says, ''Goodman is a hit with the crowd when he comes down here for something like this because in many ways he's never left, and people can sense that.'' They can also sense that he doesn't take anything for granted. At one point during a break in the ceremonies, Musial comes up to Goodman to ask for an autograph for a grandchild. Goodman looks stunned for a second — Musial, his childhood idol, asking him for an autograph — then embarrassed as he scrawls his name.

''I spent most of the evening in a daze thinking, 'What am I doing here?''' Goodman says later. ''When I was a kid I couldn't afford tickets to see these guys.'' He looks as if he's almost ready to fall to his knees and shout ''I'm not worthy!'' but Goodman's self-deprecation is no joke. While Babe Ruth always felt he was entitled to success (''Why should I worry?'' he once said. ''If I don't hit [a home run] today, I'll hit two tomorrow.''), Goodman behaves as if sooner or later everyone will discover he's just faking it. Read him a good line from a review and he'll reply, ''That's nice, but the truth is that I'm just a good journeyman slipping into hackdom.''

His humility sometimes becomes a kind of game with the press. ''There's a lot in me that's just swallowed and repressed,'' he told The New York Times last year. ''I should probably look into it, but I don't care to. It might be valuable to me as an actor.'' When asked about the quote, he laughs and replies, ''Jeez, did I say that? That sounds like about five pounds of baloney.''

But sometimes he gets caught in the game. He caused a minor flap when he recently told GQ magazine, ''I'm probably an alcoholic is what it is.'' Stan Rosenfield, Goodman's publicist, scrambles to explain: ''John sometimes makes fun of his own excesses, and he ought to realize that writers don't get the exaggeration in what he's saying — they take things literally. The tone of the statements he made about his own drinking were in the tone of self-mocking, like when he told Maria Shriver, 'I'm trapped in the body of a man!' I'm surprised that didn't pop up in a supermarket paper.''

But Goodman does talk about having ''hit the oat soda pretty hard'' on occasion, and privately some friends say they wish he'd slow down a bit. ''John drinks because he's insecure,'' says an actor who has worked with him, ''and | drinking makes him more insecure. The man's a teddy bear — your only worry when he drinks is for John himself. You want to tell him, 'John, we ought to feel insecure, not you. You've got it made.'''

He may very well have it made if The Babe is a hit. The film's reviews have been largely favorable, and critics have praised Goodman's complex portrayal of the insecurities beneath Ruth's bravado. But Goodman seems more interested in proving himself as an actor than in the additional clout commercial success might bring. After his years on Roseanne ("my day job," he likes to say) and the embarrassment of King Ralph (a movie he calls "a royal piece of crap"), he seems grateful to have a chance to dig deeper as an actor, to continue keeping hackdom at bay.

But Goodman still isn't sure. "I don't know if I got the largeness of the man," he says. "That sounds funny, but I don't just mean the size of Ruth; I mean the overall sense he conveyed of bigness. He once told a woman, 'Honey, I swing big, I miss big — everything I do is big.'" It took a few decades, but Hollywood may finally have found an actor big enough for the role.

Originally posted May 01, 1992 Published in issue #116 May 01, 1992 Order article reprints