Here's how my conversation with TV comedy legend Jeffrey Tambor began: I was told to call a cell number. I did, and a man's voice answered, but then the phone cut out. I called back, and this time it was Tambor's unmistakable baritone on the line, the one burned into my memory uttering countless classic lines from shows like Arrested Development and The Larry Sanders Show. He informed me he was at Trader Joe's buying bananas—"nineteen cents each!"—then asked me to hang on for a second as he got into his car. Then he hung up again.
An hour later, I finally connected with Tambor at his home in Pacific Palisades. He was extremely apologetic, explaining that his phone had died in the Trader Joe's parking lot, and that he had asked the store if he could use their phone to contact his agent in order to get my number. Picture that for a moment: Jeffrey Tambor, holding a bag of bananas, calling his agent on a Trader Joe's office phone.
And that, readers, is where our conversation with Tambor, who currently stars as Walt, the out-of-work actor dad on NBC's Bent, began. It got better.
JEFFREY TAMBOR: I love shopping. It’s a great cleanser. I run my lines while I do it. I love shopping and I love Trader Joe’s. I was a fan of TJ’s before they became big.
TV.COM: So what are your favorite TJ’s products?
My wife and I love the iced tea. We’re sort of addicts of Arnold Palmers. One of my favorite things is the hummus, and the tzatziki. Can you spell that?
So how do you spell it?
T - Z - A -
I’m already wrong?
T - Z -
Tzitziki? I think it’s tzatziki.
You know what? I don’t care anymore. But I love that. And we like their yogurt. We have five kids, four at home. So we love their yogurts. I just like it there. The people are very friendly. They must have a good training system. My character defect is I try to find a crack in people’s personalities, and I never catch them eye-rolling. Not even today, when I had to use their phone. This is the most boring interview I’ve ever given, by the way.
Not to me. I just dropped a couple hundred bucks at Trader Joe’s yesterday. So I’m fascinated.
I’m far more interested in the banalities and the routines than the big stuff, because in the banalities and routines are usually people’s lives.
I couldn’t agree with you more. So what’s your typical day like?
I’m usually up very early, getting the milk warm for our twin boys. I pour the milk for the other girls and boys and get the kids ready for school. We have breakfast, and then I take them off to school.
How old are they?
73 and 72. Just kidding. Mimi is 5. Hugo and Eli are twin 2-year-old boys. One more and we’re going to do The Sound of Music and tour. I have an older daughter, Mollie Tambor, who is an eminent history professor in Long Island.
So what are the differences between new parenthood when you’re younger versus older?
It’s a little more hard on the body when you’re older. But I love it. They are my best teachers. My life has never worked so well. My acting has never been so good. Nor has my career ever been stronger. They’re like little magic beans. I thought I’d be reading in some public library in my 60s but apparently not.
Since you mentioned your career, let's talk a bit about Bent. Any idea where the show stands after the first six episodes that were already shot?
No. I haven’t heard a thing. I know that people like it. People come up to me. I hear that we’ve gotten pretty good reviews. I think Tad Quill s a genius. Amanda Peet and David [Walton] are out of sight, we have one of the best supporting casts I’ve ever seen. I liked what what reviewer said: “You like it the first two, you’ll be hooked by four.”
What can you tell us about Walt, your character?
He’s an out-of-work actor who plays piano at Nordstrom. How can you pass up a role like that?
Do you know guys like that? Is there any aspect of you in Walt?
I like that he’s an acting teacher, because I am one. So I poke a little fun at the overzealousness of that whole field, but lovingly. I think Walt’s a good actor. I hope that comes out, and I think that he loves acting. I’ve done a lot of regional theater, and I’ve known a lot of guys who are better than Academy Awards actors who have never even been in Hollywood.
By now you must be sick of hearing questions about Arrested Development, but I have to ask.
Here’s what I know: I know we’re doing the ten episodes for Netflix. I think we start sometime this summer, and I think that’s going to act as a prequel to a movie, and I said, "Hurry or I’ll be in a walker." It would be a foolish misstep to miss this opportunity. People old and young now are eager for this. I think it’s even more popular now than when we originally did it.
Was it just too ahead of its time? Why did it never connect with a broader audience?
I have no idea. I do know once we were the talk of the watercooler, if there is such a thing anymore, I think it was a hard show to pick up midstream. It’s like when I watched 24, I was too late into it and I just couldn’t get it. I think that was part of it. People didn’t watch. They didn’t get it, and I have no idea. But now we have another chance, and I love that we’re coming out on Netflix. I think that’s so cool-school. We were at the New Yorker festival, and the audience was just so appreciative. There were lines around the block and apparently the venue was sold out within the hour. So it’s time. I seem to pick these things, like Max Headroom. That was way ahead of its time.
It does seem like you fall into these "cult favorite" shows.
Well, it’s not like I say to myself, “Let me pick a cult show that will fail in three years.” I am semi-inclined to the edge. I like edgy shows. But then I also did The Ropers, so I wouldn’t hang me on edgy all the way.
That was its own form of edginess.
I loved it. I had no idea what a sitcom was. All I knew was that I was a New York stage actor, and we premiered on a Tuesday, came out of the subway on a Wednesday and someone said, “Hey, look! There’s that television actor!” It was overnight. Very powerful thing. I enjoyed it. I’m not a huge fan of multi-camera, I don’t think I’m particularly good at it. My background is in the theater; I’m more relaxed with just one camera than being in the mix of three cameras or four cameras. In Yiddish there’s an expression, “nisht ahin, nisht aher.” It’s neither here, neither there. I don’t know how to play it.
I was watching one of your early appearances on Three’s Company on YouTube. It was pretty hilarious.
If you look at my eyes, you’ll see I’m pretty panicked. I made John [Ritter] laugh on camera. “Boom boom diddum.” He was one of the nicest guys who ever walked. Super-talented, one of the great physical comedians, but a heart as big as the great outdoors.
In thinking about cutting-edge shows that changed TV, Arrested Development was one, and The Larry Sanders Show was another. Going in, did you realize just how big either of them was?
I did. I knew more than anybody. I think I knew more than Garry [Shandling]. I read it and I remembered thinking, "Oh boy, this is the game-changer." What I liked about it is what I love about Garry. Garry validated how I felt about comedy: It was a little messier and more human. You write for character. That show was one of the proudest moments of my life. And I loved Hank. Hank was very real to me.
Was he based on anyone you knew?
Yeah, me. There’s an adage in acting, “You’re stuck with the character, but the character is also stuck with you.” So yeah, I’m kind of like that. I’m kind of sensitive like that and childlike like that. People called Hank a buffoon, but I never thought of Hank as a buffoon. He was a little lonely, he needed a little company. Who doesn’t?
You’re in David Mamet’s Phil Spector biopic for HBO. Are we going to see that this year?
It’s done. Bette Midler hurt herself and wasn’t able to continue, so Helen Mirren stepped in after a hiatus. Al Pacino plays Spector and I played [defense attorney] Bruce Cutler, and it’s one of the best times on a set I’ve ever had. Al and Helen, those two are in the pantheon of great actors. [Pause] I swear to you I am looking at a parrot outside my door. I wonder if it escaped from a house.
Maybe it’s just a colorful bird?
You know—you’re wrong. It’s a parrot. Man, that is something. But, uh, yeah. I hope Bette is okay and healed well. But Mirren and Pacino are acting gods, and David Mamet writing and directing I can’t speak well enough about. I adore that man, and I got to play this wonderful role. I just did the additional dialogue recording for it, so I imagine it will be on pretty soon.
Anything else on the horizon?
I’m catching cold. No, actually, there is one other thing I’d like to talk about. I’m touring around the nation doing a one-man show called “Performing Your Life,” a half-seminar, half-bio thing that runs about 90 minutes. I’m really enjoying doing it. It’s sort of a “what’s keeping you?”-type thing. People go, “Oh, you’re a motivational speaker,” but that’s the last thing it is. It’s sort of “getting back to the fork in the road,” if that makes sense to you.” Do I sound like an idiot?
No, it sounds cool. I want to see it.
Look it up on YouTube. I just did it at South by Southwest. And you know that guy Marc Maron? I did his “WTF Podcast” down there. I love that guy. We had so much fun. I didn’t know how cool-school that is. I am so cool now, between that and Yo Gabba Gabba!, give me a break. I like their whole aesthetic. And the Muppets.
Were you in any of their movies?
I’ve done two. Muppets in Spaceand the Christmas one. I’m formidable! You know, honestly, I’m messing with you, but this is the career I’ve always wanted. I’ve always dreamed of having this, being able to get up and do Yo Gabba Gabba!, then go off to do Phil Spector. And I love being somewhere around number four or five on the call sheet. It’s great. I get to play all these roles, I work hard, I work a lot, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.
There's always money in the Trader Joe's Bananas. Bent airs Wednesdays at 9pm on NBC.