Picket Fences is quirky family sitcom and serious small-town drama and it touched a nerve with audiences in the Nineties. What was it about the show that kept it going for five years — an extraordinarily long time in television?
Well, it's the kind of show that got away with a lot for five years! We, or should I say David [E. Kelley, the famous TV producer], was testing a lot of controversial issues going on here in the United States, some of which really were not issues that people in a small town would deal with. For example, the Pope showing up and not being able to leave town because he'd witnessed a killing and had to be a material witness.
You know, the wonderful absurdity of all that because it’d always sit within the parameters of possibility and people will always respond, not necessarily to the incredulity of things but to the possibility of things and I think David really had both of those — incredulity and the possibility of it all.
1993 | Picket Fences trailer . . .
I think anyone’s going to be touched by his writing brilliance at the time; this material he found every time he read the paper, every time he read an article about some controversial issue. Like cow flatulence and how the methane would affect the atmosphere. These are serious issues for the government to pursue. Although at the same time you can’t deny the humour of it! That to me, and the cast and the crew, all of that made it just an extraordinary time. It really was.
Picket Fences is the kind of show that got away with a lot for five years.
You got to direct three episodes. How easy was it to land that gig?
Well, I landed it mainly because I am a director as well as a writer. And David knew that so he didn’t have a problem with me doing it. But the issue was really a matter of acting in something you’re directing. I’d rather do one or the other, not both. Because the issue is always subjectivity or being objective, one way or another.
It’s hard to be objective when you, well, let me see if I can put this right: It’s hard to be objective when you’re acting in something you’re directing mainly because sometimes I was waiting for the other actor to show up so we could rehearse the damn scene — and it was me! So, that perhaps was the largest challenge I had with it. Everybody was just, you know, it was just a wonderful company to work with overall.
How do you monitor your own performance when you’re directing?
I guess the director’s gonna have to help me [laughs]. I think once you get a sense of your character over a number of years you know him pretty well and I don’t mean, well, you never walk through a scene, the work is such that you never walk through it, but you can position yourself.
You play a character, you rehearse it as an actor and you move around, in the way that actors must in terms of reacting and interacting and acting, all that sort of thing. So you have a visual, a frame, which you can see and adjust to as a director. You come back out and you get your stand-in to stand where you are and position him accordingly as to how you want to frame it.
That’s basically what I would be doing, dealing with how to position myself in a visual frame. I’m also a painter and I do a lot of photography so I’m kind of nuts about how you frame a picture.
By the way, Ridley Scott [with whom he worked on Alien and The Good Wife] taught me a lot about that, how to frame. As much as you can, you’re looking through a viewfinder as a painter might, looking at composition. I hope that answers your question.
Some things I’ve done were dreadful. I’m embarrassed when people say I loved ya’ in such-and-such a film that I’d totally forgotten and don’t want to remember! It’s very awkward when they want to discuss something you know is crap.
You have the most amazing body of work — pretty well every hit show from the moment you began (Laramie, The Real McCoys, My Three Sons, Wagon Train, Combat, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, My Favourite Martian, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Fugitive, The Time Tunnel, Cheers) to now (The West Wing, SVU, Brothers & Sisters, The Good Wife, and they're just highlights). You’ve become a part of everybody’s life. It must be very hard to be anonymous, or maybe you don’t want to be.
I live in Seattle and have very little association with what goes on down in Los Angeles. Occasionally I have to fly down there and deal with business but up here I can live in anonymity and I prize that above all.
I’m not comfortable with being recognised, though when I am I'm cordial and responsive, recognising someone by giving them the time of day and a response to whatever the person’s comment is. It makes them feel good. That’s the only value of recognition really.
On Brothers & Sisters I did not have a contract that I would absolutely be coming back. I'd get a note a couple of weeks in advance asking if I'd be available for a certain week.
Other than that, Woody Allen said it gets you a good table in a good restaurant. Otherwise I really have absolutely no need or interest in being recognised.
On the other hand there are some things I’ve done that are just dreadful. Not only were the films dreadful but I was dreadful.
So I’m embarrassed when people say I loved ya’ in such-and-such or such-and-such a film that I’d totally forgotten and would rather forget and not discuss. It’s very awkward at that moment when they want to discuss something you know is a piece of crap, you know.
That’s the only awkwardness I ever feel when something comes up and I feel their taste is not quite up to my, ah . . . [laughs].
I won’t ask you to nominate the crap you’ve done [he laughs] but among your highlights I was intrigued you’ve been married to Sally Field twice. She’s an institution. You did pretty well to be killed off in episode one of Brothers & Sisters and then go on to do another six episodes! How does that work — are you contracted to be available whenever they want? Or how much notice do they have to give you because that will have an impact on your availability for other work.
Well, in that case I don’t recall that I had a contract but I did not have a predetermination that I would absolutely be coming back from one day to the next so I would get a note perhaps a couple of weeks in advance asking if I would be available for a certain week. And they do tend to write these scripts as much as possible two to three weeks in advance of the time you’re gonna shoot it.
For example, I was just in The Good Wife [this year — as James Paisley on episodes The One Per Cent and We, the Juries], with Julianna [Margulies], an absolutely wonderful actress.
I did one, and one thing led to another and after I did that they said ‘We may come back to you at some other time’ so I have no idea and I don’t put that in my box of things I must remember. There’s just too much flexibility in this business to ever take it seriously.
2014 | Tom talks to this writer about his current TV work . . .
And I’m just grateful to get whatever work comes along but fortunately I’ve been in some, as you pointed out, I’ve been very fortunate to be in some of the really lasting classic films, going back to M*A*S*H and Turning Point and Alien and Top Gun and A River Runs Through it and even Steel Magnolias where Shirley MacLaine, by the way, was my next-door neighbour; I played her husband in Turning Point.
So, you know, I never know [laughs]. I never know! I’m just here doing what I love, here in Seattle which does remind me in some ways of Sydney I suspect. I have a seven-year-old little girl and that’s my life.
1986 | Toms Cruise and Skerritt in Top Gun . . .
1979 | Tom in Alien . . .
You came to Sydney in 1982 to make the film A Dangerous Summer [aka The Burning Man] in the Blue Mountains. Can I raise that with you without worrying that it might be crap?
Um. Let’s just forget that you brought this one up, OK? [laughs] I will say this, I have travelled to other countries, including Italy, and made films that I never saw and don’t want to. I realised it during the making of the film. You sense when you're making a film whether it’s something you wanna see or not. I’ve had that experience and some of these films overall, from Italy and otherwise, and another one I did in the Philippines, it was just really, ah, we don’t, er, need to talk about them [laughs].
But I loved doing Picket Fences. I never mind talking about that. ❏
■ Win a copy of Picket Fences: Series 1 personally signed by Tom Skerritt.
■ Picket Fences on IMDb.
■ Read Ian's other interviews and reviews:
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