Arts & Culture

The Southern A-List: John Goodman

The veteran actor on fame, dogs, and the enduring mystique of New Orleans

Photo: Joe Pugliese

The actor at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, on January 14, 2014.

John Goodman may well be the hardest-working man in show business. In the last five years alone, the actor once best known for playing Roseanne’s husband has had roles in more than a dozen feature films (including back-to-back Oscar winners The Artist and Argo), played central characters in no less than five TV series, and provided voices for a half-dozen animated characters. He also hosted Saturday Night Live—for the thirteenth time. Clearly, there’s almost nothing he cannot do. “Besides being a genuine man of the theater, a serious Shakespearean and film actor, John is one of the most versatile and talented comedians of our generation,” says Dan Aykroyd, Goodman’s friend, former fellow New Orleanian, and costar in Blues Brothers 2000. The St. Louis–born Goodman has lived in New Orleans with his wife, clothing designer and arts philanthropist Anna Beth, and daughter, Molly, since 1995, but I caught up with him by phone in Los Angeles, where he was doing publicity for George Clooney’s The Monuments Men.

How was making The Monuments Men?
It’s pretty much the most fun I ever had making a movie. George is so organized and he knows exactly what he wants. So he gets set up and boom, we get done, wait for another setup, and sit around and swap lies and tell stories and just generally laugh our asses off.

Is Bill Murray as funny as he seems?
Funnier. And he’s so generous. He’d go up and hug everybody, from the people that made the coffee to the camera guys.

Why did you make New Orleans home?
So I can watch the tourists go by my front yard, be a zoo animal, read Willie Morris, sip a faux bourbon—in my case a Diet Coke—with some mint leaves. No, seriously, it all started in 1972. I came down for Mardi Gras with a group of Sig Eps from Missouri—I went to what’s now called Missouri State. I just flipped for the city, and I’m too lazy to define what it is, exactly. After that, every time I’d get a couple of bucks, I’d go down.

You made The Big Easy in New Orleans in 1985 and Everybody’s All-American in Baton Rouge two years later, which is when you met Anna Beth.
We came down for a Halloween party and I wound up at Tipitina’s, and this beautiful girl walks up to say hi. I was liquored up and I couldn’t pull up any Noel Coward–like ripostes. I think I said something like, “Duh, what?” She thought I was a jerk and walked off and then I kind of stalked her, but I finally asked her out the next year.

Once you got together, what prompted the permanent move south?
I’d kind of had it with show business and I wanted to get away from Los Angeles. The options were St. Louis or New Orleans. We got as far as buying land in St. Louis. But Anna Beth started designing a house that got to be the size of Buckingham Palace and I said, “This ain’t gonna work out.” So we chucked it and bought a haunted house [in Old Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans] instead.

Really haunted?
I’m a real skeptic, but I heard stuff that’s unexplainable and other people had experiences. My daughter used to play bells in the Isidore Newman School band and she practiced this one song over and over. My brother was in the house alone and he heard the song, so he went down to see where Molly was, but there was nobody there.

You sold that house not long before Katrina and moved to the Garden District. Then,
after the storm, you joined the cast of Treme. Was that hard?
I was playing a character that had a lot to get off his chest, and I had the same feelings, so I got rid of a lot of rage that way. It was great to tell the story of recovery—and to work at home.

Do you have a favorite among your roles?
I’m going to sound like an egomaniac, but yes [he puts on a pretentious British accent], I prefer Shakespeare. But it’s true. I think my favorite role was Falstaff at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. I was too young to completely appreciate it, but it felt good.

On those increasingly rare occasions when you’re home these days, what do you like to do?
I like going to the dog run at City Park. [The Goodmans have a Golden Retriever and a cocker spaniel.] I like going out to the Lakefront. I used to like going down to the Quarter just to peek around, but I can’t get away with it anymore. Everybody’s got a camera.

I know you also walk your dogs around the neighborhood.
I really like that because I always see something I’ve never seen before. It’s always an exploration. I like thinking about the people who built these places, who lived in them. The history of this place is so goddamn rich. I remember the first time I visited and I saw a ship go by above my head. I thought, This means something and I probably won’t ever figure out what that is.