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The Warren Awards: William Sanderson

October 29, 2009 | 11:59 am


Second in a series of profiles that pays tribute to the men and women who personify the backbone of the acting craft – the character actor – and explores their creative process and experience. Their work, though never less than memorable, rarely receives the credit it’s due, so we’ve framed these interviews as an award for their efforts, named after the quintessential character actor, Warren Oates.

William Sanderson

Inveterate scene-stealer for over two decades in film and on stage and television whose drowsy visage and genial, understated delivery belied a knack for wickedly sly humor and, on occasion, dark villainy. He displayed a talent for assuming characters during his early years in Memphis, Tenn.; once, that skill gained him entrance into Graceland to visit that city's other favorite son, Elvis Presley. Acting eventually overtook a career path in law, and after training with William Hickey and Herbert Berghof, he began appearing off-Broadway and in indie features in the late '70s. Sanderson soon accumulated his share of Tobacco Row-style heels, most notably in "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980, his first of many projects opposite Tommy Lee Jones), but his turn as the wistful genetic designer in "Blade Runner" (1982) indicated that he was equally suited for more sympathetic parts. His widest exposure came on "Newhart" as the conversational brother in the triumvirate of Larry, Darryl and Darryl; steady work in film and television followed, most notably as E.B. Farnham, duplicitous hotel owner and Shakespearean fool to Ian McShane's Al Swearengen on "Deadwood," which earned him an American Film Institute Award and Screen Actors Guild nomination for Best Ensemble, and the infinitely patient Sheriff Bud on "True Blood." He also made a memorable appearance as a Dharma Initiative interrogator in the fifth season of "Lost."

The Circuit: What is your definition of a character actor?

William Sanderson: To me, it's one who won't win a beauty contest. Literally, it's a person whose features who make him different from another one. 

The Circuit: Of the many roles that you've played, which have had the most resonance with you?

Sanderson: I love the word "resonance." I guess J.F. Sebastian, who was a genius-type character in "Blade Runner." It generated a lot of work for me, and it's awfully nice to be in a cult film. Also, E.B. Farnham in "Deadwood" is still getting me work, and (series creator) David Milch is a joy to work with. I'd also add "Stanley's Gig" (2000), where I played opposite Faye Dunaway. I played a guy who works in an old folks' home and turns his life around -- he finds his salvation in helping other people.

The Circuit: Playing a "type" is part of being a character actor, but have you dealt with typecasting in your career? 

Sanderson: All the time. In regard to it, I steal from my friend Tracey Walter (best known from "Repo Man" and "Erin Brockovich"), who said, "I'd rather be typecast than not cast at all."

The Circuit: Are there character actors whose work you enjoy?

Sanderson: There are so many. I like Edward G. Robinson -- he started as a character actor and became a lead, which is probably why I like him. I also like Alfred Molina and Charles Durning, with whom I worked in "The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains" (1987). Personally, he's a hero -- I'm a vet, and he's a highly decorated veteran of World War II. He's also a very generous man, and he can do it all, acting-wise.

The Circuit: What is the best piece of advice you've received about the entertainment industry?

Sanderson: The best came from my martial arts teacher, who also taught Elvis. He said, "Your ego will get you killed." Also, William Hickey said, "When one comes off the stage, you can't have a lie detector strapped to your hand." You can't go over every beat, every second and worry about how you can do it better -- it'll eat you alive. I also like what Jackie Gleason said: "Live, love and lose gracefully."

-- Paul Gaita

More from The Circuit:

The Warren Awards: Robert Forster

Photo: Russell Baer