The Oscar-winning legend is heading to the small screen and placing his bet on HBO's high-stakes horse-racing drama, Luck.
Is this really your first TV role since The Simpsons?
Yes. And my real name isn’t even in the credits! I told them to put down Sam Etic; in other words Semitic, my attempt at humor.
What drew you to Luck?
Michael Mann and I had been trying to work together since the ’70s, and now, all these years later, he calls me up and says, “You probably don’t want to do TV, but this is one of the best scripts I’ve ever read.” I agreed. It shows the reality of horse racing, and it is far removed from the Kentucky Derby with everybody wearing those fancy hats. There’s a sordid underside and a brutality in terms of the animals.
Are you a gambling man?
No, but my father-in-law was a gambler—a self-declared degenerate—and initially I tried to bond with him by betting pro football. Once I started doing it, I became semi-addicted to it.
You’ve been in close to 50 films, but you didn’t get your break till you were 30 with The Graduate. Was there ever a time you imagined doing something else?
I did get one acting job at Sarah Lawrence College, which was an all-girls school, and I remember the drama teacher always had a bevy of girls following him. I thought, If I can’t get anywhere by the time I’m 30, I’ll get a teaching degree, because this looks like a good life. So that was my plan, and then The Graduate defeated what could have been a really wonderful hedonistic life.
Were there any famous roles you almost had in your career?
There were some extraordinary parts offered to me that I turned down due to a kind of reverse snobbery if I felt like they were gonna be a big hit, like Close Encounters and Fatal Attraction. After The Graduate, the next job I took was Midnight Cowboy, a film that people found so offensive they actually walked out of screenings back in the day.
But you got that famous line out of it: “I’m walkin’ here!”
And that was an ad-lib! It must’ve been the 20th take, and a New York cabbie ran a red light. My brain wanted to say, “Hey, we’re shooting a movie!” but I realized I couldn’t say that on-camera. Sometimes it’s annoying when people repeat it to me on the street, thinking they’re the first to say it, but I have to play along. “Yeah. That’s pretty good.”
Do you have any wild New York stories of your own from living with Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall in the ’60s?
Well, Gene had a certain kind of energy. Sometimes we’d be on the street talking, and I’d say, “Come on, let’s go see a movie,” and he’d smile and say, “No, I gotta go to a bar and get into a fight.” Where Gene was a fighter, Duvall was a lover. One time he came home when a girl and I were taking a shower, and the next thing you know he had taken off all his clothes, got in with us, put his hand out, and said, “Hey, I’m Dusty’s roommate, Bob Duvall. Can I have the soap?”
You’re a two-time Oscar winner. Care to demystify the Academy Awards for us schmucks at home?
It’s boring! It lasts forever, and don’t think you’re seeing spontaneous behavior. You see couples who are suddenly smooching, and, well, there’s a guy sitting on the ground with the camera at their knees. There was one particular time I knew I wasn’t going to win, and when they’d train the camera on me as one of the losers, I wanted to be able to rip open my tuxedo shirt and just have stenciled on my chest, oh, shit. But my wife wouldn’t let me do it.
The cameras did catch your courtside smooch with Jason Bateman at a Lakers game, however. Is he a good kisser?
Oh, wonderful! But what I’ll always take with me is that after I parted from dear Jason’s lips, Adam Sandler was right there grinning from ear to ear, waiting to fist-bump me.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about women over the years?
I stand by what a friend of mine once said: “There’s only one way for a successful relationship to exist—at a fundamental level, the man has to be scared shitless of her or it ain’t gonna work.”
Who had more groupies during the making of Rain Man, you or Tom Cruise?
It was always Tom. Nowadays I still have the same number of fans that’ll scream my name on a movie set. It’s just that now they’re all over 75.