Hold Up Your Head, Paul Dooley

A celebration today of comic character actor Paul Dooley (Paul Brown, b. 1928).

It is interesting to learn of Dooley’s humble West Virginia origins. Because of his Second City/ Compass Players background, and because of the kinds of characters he usually plays, I had him pegged as a Chicago guy. While he has some similarities as to type with, say, Ned Beatty, Dooley never went for good ole boy characters. He always reads as midwestern to me. He even chose a mildly ethnic stage name. Was he a fan of Chicago humorist/journalist Finley Peter Dunne and his Irish Mr. Dooley character? The fact that he had worked as a cartoonist in his hometown makes me think such a thing is possible.

At any rate, by the ’50s, Dooley was working in New York as an actor and a stand-up comedian. In 1954 he appeared in the legendary production of Threepenny Opera with Scott Merrill, Beatrice Arthur, Lotte Lenya, Charlotte Rae, and John Astin. In 1958 he performed stand-up on The Jack Paar Tonight Show, followed by spots on such programs as The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Garry Moore Show. In 1965, Mike Nichols cast him as Speed in the original production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, where he also understudied for Felix (Art Carney). This led to a bit part in Simon’s The Out of Towners (1970). By then he had already had bit parts in lots of other films and guested on many sitcoms and dramas.

In 1971 he created, was head writer and performed on The Electric Company for Children’s Television Workshop. That’s pretty major, eh? Yet so accomplished is his career, that it’s just one on a list! The Electric Company lasted until 1977. He also co-founded a production company that turned out hundreds of commercials for TV and radio. At least one of these starred Buster Keaton! A voice-over role in the animated film in Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977) was one of his last credits just prior to a major turning point in his career.

That turning point was Robert Altman’s discovery of Dooley’s talents. Altman loved Dooley’s persona and ability so much he made him a key member of his stock company. For Altman, Dooley played the father of the bride in A Wedding (1978), the male lead in A Perfect Couple (1979), co-wrote and appeared in HealtH (1980), was Wimpy in Popeye (1980), and was also in O.C. and Stiggs (1985), and The Player (1990). (More on these films here). Dooley’s improv/ Altman background also made him a natural for Christopher Guest, who put him in Waiting for Guffman (1996) and A Mighty Wind (2003). He was very memorable as the exasperated dad in a favorite comedy of my youth Breaking Away (1979). He was in two comedies with the SCTV gang in 1983, Strange Brew and Going Berserk. For John Hughes he appeared in Sixteen Candles (1984), as always, as a dad. He’s in John Cassavetes’ last film Big Trouble (1986) opposite his old Compass cohort Alan Arkin. Other notable stuff included White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd (1991), in which played Hal Roach, Shakes the Clown (1991), Runaway Bride (1999), Insomnia (2002), Hairspray (2007), and most recently voiceovers for the animated Cars movies. This is just a selection of highlights of course. This lovable man has had an amazingly productive life! As has his wife, Winnie Holzman, creator of the tv series My So-Called Life, and co-writer of the Broadway musical Wicked, whom he married in 1984, also worth celebrating.