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You may remember him as the backwoodsman Larry on the old Newhart show. But this U of M alum's latest offbeat role has TV critics talking Emmy.

Acting most peculiar
by Jamie Peters


Photo by Charles William Bush

The U of M alumnus, best known for his role as Larry ("Hi, I'm Larry, this is my brother Darryl and this is my other brother Darryl") on Newhart, has been touted as a nominee in the Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series category by TV Guide.

This is the life of a character actor.

In Hollywood, nearly every career begins as William Sanderson's did with auditioning, followed by many more hours spent waiting and hoping. Every job is a potential gateway to a better role in a bigger movie or TV show. Every job is a reason to stay in Hollywood a little while longer to give it another chance before you pack your bags and go home.

Memphis native Sanderson (BBA '68, JD '71), 62, has lived the tumultuous life of a character actor. He has cycled through these phases many times, passing each signpost in the closed loop of success and defeat.

This is what character actors do.

They work as bartenders as Sanderson has done. First at a T.G.I. Friday's in Memphis, then in Nashville and later in New York City at less-than-desirable watering holes. "I worked with half gangsters," says Sanderson. "Saw shootings at the bar."

Out of the innumerable aspiring actors trying to make it in Hollywood, a few create lasting places for themselves as character actors, filling supporting roles with nuance and emotional depth. After breaking into the business in his early 30s, Sanderson, who has law and business degrees from the University of Memphis, has become one of the successful ones.

"I think it's a classic example of how many years and how much frustration and heartbreak that many of these actors go through in trying to break in and get a break," says Thomas Boggs (BA '72), the owner of Memphis-based Huey's restaurants who worked with Sanderson at the Memphis T.G.I. Friday's in Overton Square in the early 1970s.

With his recurring role on HBO's neo-Western Deadwood since 2004, Sanderson has landed one of the richest roles of his career as E.B. Farnum, shady hotelier and self-appointed mayor of the eponymous frontier town. The actor spoke to The University of Memphis Magazine during a brief break from shooting the third season of the show, which he hopes will serve as the capstone to a rich career in mainstream and independent film, theatre, as well as TV shows, including an eight-season, 100-episode role as Larry in Newhart. "I have resigned myself that I am a journeyman and am blessed to have it," says Sanderson.

Sanderson's modesty belies the sheer range of his work as well as those with which he has collaborated. He has worked with such esteemed film directors as Ridley Scott (as the toy maker in Blade Runner) and Walter Hill. He has acted in movies and in television shows with Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon. He has been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for about 15 years. That means he has a hand in the Oscar nominees and winners each year as a voter for the awards.

But Sanderson says he also has taken roles in a "ton of bottom-feeder films," including his 1979 debut feature, the slasher film Savage Weekend in which he played the town crazy.

Laying down the law

A 1962 graduate of Central High School, Sanderson could have been a lawyer. But he prefers to play one as an actor. After attending Southern Methodist University for one year, Sanderson transferred to then-Memphis State University and earned his bachelor's in business. He earned his law degree here in 1971. But he never took the bar — by then he knew he wanted to be an actor.

"He got the acting bug his last year," says Mike Long (BBA '66, JD '71), a Memphis lawyer and former classmate of Sanderson's.

After acting in Memphis community theatre in his 20s, Sanderson headed to New York City.

"I don't regret going to law school," says Sanderson. "It taught me that I wasn't smart."

  Sanderson as E.B. Farnum

Photo by Doug Hyun

William Sanderson in costume on the set of Deadwood. "I believe fans of the show would refer to E.B. as a 'weasel,'" says Sanderson, on playing E.B. Farnum on the HBO hit show.

Sanderson first found work in regional theatre while taking acting classes, and then in off-off Broadway plays and several small films. Then he made the inevitable move to Los Angeles to break into TV and movies.

The All Movie Guide biography capsule on Sanderson states that the actor specializes in "Bubba roles." In response to that, Sanderson says: "I'll consider the source. They have their own problems. I guess I'd say thank you. But you know I'd rather be typecast than not cast at all."

Sanderson lives with his second wife, Sharon, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Toluca Lake. He has a 25-year-old son who lives in North Carolina and a second home in Pennsylvania. He recently completed an independent film, Disappearances, with Kris Kristofferson. He used the money to build a fence around his yard at his Pennsylvania home.

His priorities have evolved since he was a younger man. "You hear it all the time: [Acting's] a pretty good way to meet girls," Sanderson says. "I met some low women after I got a convertible and success."

Breaking into Graceland

As a student at Snowden Junior High who tried to look cool in the then-current fashion of pegged pants in the late 1950s, Sanderson began hanging out on Beale Street where he often would spot Elvis. The young Sanderson was so enamored with the King's music that he even bought a guitar that he never learned how to play. "When you're a youngster, you feel like you can do anything. That's what he made me feel. The music made me feel better. It still does."

One day Guy Lansky, the co-owner of the clothing store Lansky Brothers, was making a delivery to Graceland and asked if Sanderson wanted to accompany him. When he arrived Elvis was playing "Don't Be Cruel" on the piano to a small audience. Sanderson listened in awe from a corner of the room.

"He didn't know me from Adam but he didn't run me off," he says.

At weekly pick-up football games in Whitehaven, Sanderson and his friends even got to play against Elvis' team.

Later in his youth, Sanderson and a friend climbed over a fence at Graceland and went up to the front door. They were politely escorted out by one of Elvis' keepers.

At age 18, Sanderson volunteered for the Army draft.

"I was lucky enough to get out without going to Vietnam and to use the G.I. Bill," says Sanderson, who spent two years in the Army before going to SMU. He ultimately used the G.I. Bill to fund his law school education.

Memphis: Hollywood style

Sanderson returned to Memphis for the making of 1994's The Client, an adaptation of the John Grisham novel starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon. "Ironically I played a guy who had a law degree and didn't know what to do with it," he says.

Although Sanderson worked seven weeks on the film, he doesn't have much screen time in the final product. Jones dominated the scenes, and a character actor has to make room for bigger star's egos.

"If he can keep you from talking, he'll do it," says Sanderson, who also acted with Jones in 1980's Coal Miner's Daughter.

It's been many years since Sanderson left his hometown on the Mississippi River for the East and West coasts, but Sanderson still keeps in touch with some of his former classmates from the U of M.

During a visit to Los Angeles several years ago, Memphis lawyer Mike Long, his wife Rose, and their daughter met up with Sanderson, who took them out to eat in Beverly Hills. There was a wait for a table, so the three went to the restaurant's bar. The hostess called Sanderson's party before they ordered anything from the bartender. Still, Sanderson stuck around to tip the bartender, recalls Long.

"He said, 'Thank you. I don't have time for my drink,' and left," Long says. "He appreciated that the waiters work for their tips to make the money."

It was a small gesture. But it was one that says a lot about Sanderson not only as a person, but also as a professional actor, encapsulating the six words that Sanderson says have guided his career: "Never forget where you came from."

After all, if Sanderson has learned anything about his craft, it's that the small details matter most. They're what make characters human.

(Deadwood's third season begins in June on HBO. The series has won Golden Globe and Emmy awards.)

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