By SCOTT VOISIN
Featured in Autograph January 2010
“Hi, I’m Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.”
With that line on the classic ’80s sitcom Newhart, actor William Sanderson officially became a pop culture icon. Although he would become forever identified as one of the dim-witted, backwoods siblings, the character of Larry is the polar opposite of the actor who portrayed him. “After high school, I went into the army for a couple of years and then came four years of college and three years of law school,” Sanderson says. “During my last year in law school, I had begun to get my nerve up to do some plays. Without taking the bar exam, I moved to New York for an apprenticeship in acting.”
After brief appearances in such critically-acclaimed movies as The Onion Field and Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sanderson landed a memorable supporting role in the 1982 sci-fi film, Blade Runner. “Up until then, I was playing a lot of renegades and derelicts,” he explains. “I like to think J.F. Sebastian was a sympathetic character and it was fun to play. I was just so thrilled to be there shooting a major film on the Warner Brothers lot and anytime you can be in a film with that cast you should feel grateful.” Although the film is regarded as a classic today, it failed to make much of an impact during its initial release. “Since Harrison Ford was in it, everyone expected it to do as well as Star Wars. I read some nice reviews, but the one that always stuck in my mind—I think it might have been Pauline Kael—said it was a fascinating failure. It’s quite ironic that it’s become a cult classic. I’m not wise enough to know why it’s stuck around, but director Ridley Scott is somewhat of a visionary, and I think some of his vision came true. He’s a genius.”
That same year, Sanderson made his first appearance on Newhart. Although the role was originally intended to be a one-time guest shot, the show’s creators quickly changed their plans. “The audience applauded the first time we appeared, so that encouraged them to bring us back again,” Sanderson says. “In the second season, I think they doubled the number of episodes we were in. The third year, the show went down in the ratings, and I don’t want to sound self-righteous or anything but they decided to make us regulars, and lo and behold, the show went back up in the ratings. Bob Newhart has said that we gave it a shot in the arm, but it was the two brothers—John Voldstad and Tony Papenfuss—that made the group work. I learned years later they originally wrote the character for a friend of mine, Tracey Walter, who’s a great actor. He had to go in and audition for it even though the writer wrote it for him. I mean, can you imagine: they write my friend a role, he goes in and auditions, and they give it to me? I think if success comes to you, you should consider yourself lucky, and I definitely got lucky with Newhart.”
Since then, Sanderson has parlayed that success into roles on such high-profile projects as Lonesome Dove, Deadwood and the current HBO hit, True Blood. Looking back, he has no regrets about choosing to work on a soundstage instead of in a law office. “Personally, I think it’s very difficult to make a living as an actor,” he says. “There are over 100,000 actors in the union and only 2,000 or 3,000 work regularly. We chose it, so we can’t really complain, but the rejection is hard, at least for me…. I don’t want this to sound like self-pity because when it’s fun, it’s fun. The adrenalin is akin to playing in the Super Bowl, and I’m addicted to it. I’m just a journeyman actor with an obsession to keep working and keep learning.”
Autograph photos are available from Sanderson’s Web site, www.williamsanderson.com. Signed photos start at $20 and signed Newhart scripts will cost you $35. Prices on eBay for signed photos range from $15-21.