Bobcat Goldthwait: One man and his dog

Bobcat Goldthwait's outrageous new film about canine love has caused a storm across America. Lassie, it ain't. But what would you expect from a hellraiser who shrieked to fame in 'Police Academy', opened for Nirvana and set fire to 'The Tonight Show' studio?
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While Bobcat Goldthwait was directing Sleeping Dogs, he received a visit from actors working on an adult movie at an adjacent studio. "These were seasoned LA porn stars," Goldthwait recalls. "They wandered on to our set. They asked me: 'Well - what is your movie about?' When I told them, they were like: 'Dear God that is disgusting. I am so glad I am not in that.' I actually succeeded in appalling them."

You may remember Goldthwait as "Zed", the hyperventilating, portly delinquent who appears in Police Academy 2, and is recruited to the force in sequels three and four. The vocal style he brought to that role - an unnerving shriek that conveyed a strange mixture of belligerence and despair - required little adjustment when an animation company cast him as a laboratory rat whose drug consumption left him troubled by side-effects which included spontaneous combustion.

There is no trace of that vaudeville psychotic in the man sitting opposite me in a Soho restaurant. Goldthwait, 44, is gaunt, softly spoken, almost diffident. That said, his history hardly contradicts the popular saying that the quiet ones are the worst. In 1994, he was fined $3,900 and sentenced to community service after he set fire to the sofa during a live interview with Jay Leno for The Tonight Show. Days earlier, he had trashed the entire set when he appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show.

"I threw the couches into the audience," he recalls. "Then I took these $5,000 monitors and put my boots through them." His ambition to projectile vomit over TV presenter and born-again Republican Kathie Lee Gifford would have been realised, had security staff not frisked him and discovered a vial containing a powerful emetic concealed in his jacket. Goldthwait offended many with his remarks following the actor Nick Nolte's arrest for taking the so-called date-rape drug, GHB. Nolte's defence, he suggested, should have begun: "Your honour, people have been telling me to go fuck myself for years. I decided I would, but I was afraid I might resist."

His reputation as a provocateur is unlikely to be impaired by Sleeping Dogs, a film which will introduce Goldthwait - whose admirers include Robin Williams, Michael Stipe and Terry Gilliam - to a wider international audience. The plot turns on an exchange between two young lovers: Amy and her fiancé, John. His curiosity fired by alcohol, John proposes that his intended wife: "Tell me a secret. Tell me the worst thing you've ever done. Something you would never tell anybody."

The film's British distributors have contacted journalists requesting that they withhold the exact nature of Amy's confession, which they say should be referred as "a sexual indiscretion". It's an edict dispensed more in hope than confidence, you have to feel, given that a Google search of the terms "Goldthwait" "dog" and "sex" brings up 21,500 all-too-unambiguous results. On Bobcat Goldthwait's MySpace page, there's a prominent link to excerpted footage that shows the heroine giving an ominous stare in the direction of her pet boxer, with the voice-over: "My name is Amy and yes, at college, I blew my dog."

It would be hard to deny that, given the chance to view one film from the noble tradition of canine cinema, most viewers are going to feel less comfortable with Sleeping Dogs than they would with, say, Lassie Come Home, Lady and The Tramp or Old Yeller. And yet Goldthwait's new film is anything but the queasily crass production that many - including some of his friends - had feared. Sleeping Dogs is an extraordinary film: ironic, beautifully scripted and deeply moving - especially in its ending, which is the one part that reviewers might reasonably have been asked not to divulge.

"I went to one of the first public screenings of the film," Goldthwait tells me, "with Tasha, my 19-year-old daughter. After a few minutes, a woman sitting behind us got up and announced she was going to walk out. Her friend convinced her to stay. Towards the end of the movie, Tasha says to me: 'Look at your friend now.' I turn round and I see the woman who'd been wanting to leave, looking up at the screen, in tears. My daughter goes: 'Yeah - you cry, bitch. You cry.' "

The "sexual indiscretion" on which the drama turns is presented as an unrepeated aberration on the part of Amy - magnificently played by the relatively unknown Melinda Page Hamilton - and is not shown on screen, but alluded to discreetly (if that word has any meaning in this context) in flashback. "I don't (omega) know why I did it," Amy says. "Maybe it was just some kind of dumb experiment. Like when you know something is boiling hot but you touch it anyway, and you're surprised when you get burnt. I am not into bestiality in any way. It was just something completely stupid." When she tells her fiancé, he shuns her in disgust.

"Everybody gets hung up on the idea of the secret," says Goldthwait. "But that's not what this movie is really about. The theme of this movie is unconditional love, and kindness - but if I heard me talking like that, I'd have to come over and bitch-slap myself."

Bobcat Goldthwait isn't the first writer to challenge moral assumptions with reference to inappropriate conduct with animals. As recently as 2000, Edward Albee, author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, considered by some to be America's greatest living playwright, won a Tony award with his play The Goat - a far more graphic and disturbing piece of work, about an architect who decides to leave his wife for a more sure-footed companion. Still, it's only natural that you should ask yourself where Goldthwait got the idea.

"You don't happen to know a woman who has confessed to behaviour of this kind?"

"I do now, unfortunately. Women have started coming up to me with these stories. I had a journalist approach me recently; she told me about an incident that involved herself, a dog, and a jar of peanut butter. There was no reason for her to repeat that to me. It was a terrible story."

"Well, what do you expect if you talk to the Financial Times?"

"She was British, actually. One of your comrades."

In order to complete the film on his minimal budget, Goldthwait says, he had friends steal costumes and props from other shows.

"We took all of our wardrobe from Desperate Housewives. We stole a lot of stuff from the Poseidon Adventure movie. Robin Williams has a credit at the end of our film. He asked me: 'What did I do?' I said, 'You remember that guitar you gave me?' He'd bought me this Stratocaster that was so expensive, I was afraid to play it. 'Well - I sold it.' "

Many scenes from the film, whose plot is a graphic reminder of American humorist Andrew Rooney's remark that "If dogs could talk, it would take a lot of the fun out of owning one," had to be filmed in the homes of cast members.

"Morgan Murphy is a comedian, who plays Amy's friend Linda. One day we were in her apartment; the woman who lives above her was mad with us because we didn't have a filming permit. She stole a copy of the script. Then she came up to me and said: 'This is the most obscene thing I have ever read in my life.' I didn't say anything. She could tell I was a little hurt. Then she said: 'Oh - I'm so sorry. You're just the director. You're only doing what you're told. You didn't write this filth.' Then Morgan goes: 'No, no - you're quite wrong about that. He wrote it too.' Thirty-five minutes later the Humane Society showed up. They sent this woman investigator who did not like the cut of my jib. She said: 'The dog can touch the actress. But if she touches the dog, that is bestiality and I am going to arrest the lot of you.'"

Goldthwait's great achievement is to take a story about oral sex with a boxer dog and turn it into a film which sensitively floats the idea that, were absolute disclosure to become the social norm, the length of the average marriage might be measured by the clock rather than the calendar; at the same time this is a film can make you laugh out loud. Sleeping Dogs is all the more remarkable in that its creator is a man whose strong suits, as perceived by most Americans, have been slapstick, practical jokes and the kind of gratuitous vulgarity typified by Police Academy.

"Interviewers tend to bring up Police Academy in the belief that it will annoy me," he says. "But you don't get involved in Police Academy and think: hey, this is really high art. I believe I was the first person to call Police Academy a piece of shit. Which doesn't mean I'm ashamed of those films. I'd compare having appeared in Police Academy with having a porn past. When people mention it, it's as if they're saying: 'You starred in Assblasters, didn't you?' "

"I knew you looked familiar."

"Right. But in my case it wasn't even Assblasters. It was Assblasters Two."

Robert Goldthwait was born in Syracuse, upstate New York, the son of a sheet-metal worker, Tom, who occupied his leisure time with two seemingly incompatible recreations: binge drinking and magic tricks.

"My dad gave up alcohol when I was a teen," says Goldthwait. "But even after that he was a really bad magician. He had to stop playing six-year-olds' parties because they could figure out the tricks."

Goldthwait did not distinguish himself academically at Bishop Grimes High School, concentrating his energies on his rock band, The Dead Ducks ("I sang. I sucked"), partying, and performing comedy with his friend Tom Kenny, who you may know as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants. They worked together as Tomcat and Bobcat, a billing that bequeathed to Goldthwait the zany nom de guerre he has outgrown but not managed to discard.

In recent years, Bobcat Goldthwait has established himself as a highly successful television producer for artists such as leading chat-show host Jimmy Kimmel, and widely revered comedian Dave Chappelle. Goldthwait sees his role with Chappelle and other comics as "essentially protective; warding off the many evil influences that can threaten their act".

His own stand-up career began to flourish in the late 1980s, after his last appearance in Police Academy. Goldthwait would appear on stage in character, using Zed's distinctively hysterical voice, and perform an act that drew heavily on the hedonism of his teenage years. He was one of the last people to speak to the legendary Bill Hicks before he died in 1994, aged 32, of pancreatic cancer. Goldthwait, like Hicks, became only too familiar with the punishing demands of touring comedy clubs in small-town America, and his life might have been similarly abbreviated, had he not given up drink and drugs at the age of 19.

"I was mouthy and stupid when I got drunk," he says. "They'd take me to jail because I wouldn't shut up. After I left school, I lived illegally in Boston, as a student at Emerson College. A friend had a room-mate who got thrown out two weeks in. I took his ID. I was even part of the meal programme there."

Goldthwait says he embraced abstinence so precociously - two years before he could drink legally in many states - "because I was continually fucking up. I don't really like to talk about this."

"Where were you 48 hours before you gave up?"

"Well, I... you know... I mean... all of that was almost a different life..."

"Were you in jail?"

"Yes."

"What for?"

"I'd been drinking for two days and taking mescalin. I was hitch-hiking in the snow with no pants on. I did," Goldthwait adds, in a moment of uncharacteristic primness, "have underwear on. This car pulled over. In Boston, the taxi cabs look almost the same as police cars. So I thought, 'Great - a ride.' I actually did think it was a cab." Things took a turn for the worse when he tried to converse with the driver, who appeared, in Goldthwait's altered state, like "a lava lamp with a hat".

"The reason that I stopped drinking and taking drugs wasn't connected with ambition. It was self-preservation. I rarely speak about it because I don't like it when other people do. Some people in showbusiness act like they deserve a medal for refraining from indulging in asshole behaviour."

He married Ann, Tasha's mother, at 24 - they divorced eight years later - but neither sobriety nor fatherhood could moderate his tendency to recklessness.

"The nature of your behaviour on The Tonight Show might lead some to assume it was chemically induced."

"It wasn't. It was premeditated, and that's what they brought up in court. I had to buy the accelerant; the lighter fluid. To ignite it I had what was not so much a lighter as... apparatus, I think would be the word, taped to my arm. So I'm working the container of accelerant fluid with my ass, as Leno is (omega) interviewing me, dousing the chair with lighter fluid. I guess I was very angry for a while."

"So you set Jay Leno's couch on fire because you were angry?"

"Yes. When I smashed up The Arsenio Hall Show I caused much more damage. He'd been dropped by Paramount. He got screwed over. I thought, well, let's not make it easy for the next guy."

"What were you angry about?"

"I was being a typical asshole. When comedians bitch about the world, what they are secretly saying is: I should be a bigger star. Not so secretly, actually. And the more pretentious side of me wondered what would happen in situations where I had no way of controlling what was going to happen - like, say, if I smash up a chat show, live on air."

Similarly self-destructive tendencies were evident in his live performances, during which he might gut a fish, or sing "God Bless America" while an old man sat up and begged, catching Frisbees with his dentures; the pensioner was a stand-in, Goldthwait used to announce, for his comedy poodle which had died tragically earlier in the day. He opened for Nirvana on one tour, at the request of another of his famous friends, the late Kurt Cobain.

"I had M80s [a highly dangerous form of firecracker] blowing up around my head. People would throw tape recorders, Bibles, rockets, hiking boots. About one in every three shows would go well. The rest of the time it was a bloodbath, to be honest. But it can be almost more fun to incite a crowd than to please them."

Goldthwait, I suggested to his co-conspirator Jimmy Kimmel, seems a little more stable and focused now.

"Erm..." Kimmel replied, "I'm not sure I'd go that far. This, don't forget, is a man who wants to change Hollywood's estimation of him by making a film about a woman blowing a dog. When he first gave me the script, I said, 'Please do not show this, or mention this, to anyone. I have done a lot to get you work with Disney and ABC. Nobody is going to make this movie.' And nobody was. He was only able to get it finished because he'd socked a little money away from TV directing."

These days Goldthwait is somewhat dismissive of his stand-up years - a shame because, undeniably gross though much of it is, the surviving recordings testify to his unique inspiration. The most popular CD collection of his work is called: I Don't Mean To Insult You, But You Look Like Bobcat Goldthwait - a greeting he says he received from a woman at an airport.

One typically surreal routine was inspired by Fabio Lanzoni, a bronzed male model who hoped to be the heir to Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but found a different kind of fame, advertising Mediterranean Spread with the slogan "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter." On 30 March, 1999, Lanzoni finally made the headlines, following an excursion to Williamsburg, Virginia.

"He got hit in the head, on a roller coaster, by a goose," Goldthwait tells the audience. "Fabio appears on the news, crying. The goose dies. Are geese more evolved than we give them credit for? Was this goose flying around, going: 'My life is a black void. Keats was right. Everything falls apart. Hey - is that Fabio? I've got a clean shot at the prick. Let's see if I can take out that margarine-selling whorebag, right now.' And then Fabio goes on the news, in tears, saying: 'Oh, these things happen to people...' A goose hit him at 65 miles an hour, and he's crying? If a goose came in here right now and cracked my skull open, I'd be laughing harder than any of you pricks. I'd be high-fiving the front row."

Robin Williams first saw Goldthwait in a small comedy club in San Francisco, in the early 1980s.

"I was just shocked and amazed," Williams told me. "One night, he came on stage and just took a shower. His performance was just extraordinary. But what was even better was to talk with him. That was when I realised how incredibly kind and brilliant he is, and that the character on stage was just that - a character. I have few close friends and he is one of them."

"There's an extraordinary contradiction," I suggested to Williams, "between the enraged exhibitionist and the thoughtful man you meet across the dinner table."

"There is. There was a lot of anger in him - generated, I think, by the fact that he was not more successful - and it was on stage that he let it out. That was where the demon could be freed."

Williams had a part in Shakes The Clown, the first of Goldthwait's three films as a director, which appeared in 1992. "It's often the case," Goldthwait says, "that the idea is funnier than the actual execution. Shakes was an example of that."

The movie's setting is immediately compelling - a bar-room filled with drunken, homicidal clowns whose only common ground is an instinctive and uncontrollable loathing of mimes, who they beat vigorously on sight. Shakes The Clown, in which Goldthwait plays the lead role, has many admirers, among them Martin Scorcese and REM: their song "Binky The Doormat", from the 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi, is a tribute to one of the film's characters. Shakes The Clown is a cult classic with wonderful moments, but doesn't exactly cohere as a narrative.

"It is a very angry movie," says Goldthwait. "I never took the story seriously. The story is crap. I recently saw the film at a festival in Los Angeles, with my friend Tom Kenny, who played Binky. Halfway through we leaned over to each other and we were like - what the fuck were we thinking?"

He's similarly candid about his acting career after Police Academy. In Hot To Trot (1988) his co-star is a horse that advises him on financial investments.

"You start making money in LA," Goldthwait says. "You get a business manager. He tells you to buy a home. The next thing you know you wake up one morning and you're in a terrible talking-horse movie."

He appears in Ted Demme's 2001 film Blow as a cocaine dealer, alongside Johnny Depp and Pee-Wee Herman [pornography enthusiast Paul Rubens, whose arrest record at that point related only to a charge of public masturbation in a Sarasota theatre].

"The three of us were in a scene together. I said: 'Is anybody here not on probation?' We were like the Community Service Players. Johnny Depp says, 'What did you do?' I said, 'I set The Tonight Show on fire. You smashed up that hotel in New York.' We looked at Paul Rubens and then we said... well... er, anyhow..."

Goldthwait, like his fellow stars in that film, has not been treated with unwavering kindness by the press. He was the subject of cruel jibes in 1999, when he got engaged to Nikki Cox, an actress 16 years his junior. Cox is best known for Unhappily Ever After - a TV series in which she was the sole point of interest for some male viewers, while Goldthwait played Mr Floppy, a stuffed rabbit. The couple, who never married, have separated.

"There were spiteful things written about your relationship, such as: 'Why on earth would a woman who looks like that go out with a man who looks like this?'"

"I could never understand that, because - trust me - I know that I am not a piece of ass. I feel way worse about my looks than the people who wrote those things. I wasn't so naïve that I didn't realise we were physically mismatched. I am not married now, or engaged. I'm in a steady relationship. But I don't like talking about that, because once you put those things out there, you run the risk of jeopardising them."

Goldthwait is sharp, perceptive, and never less than entertaining, but he admits that he's hardly straining at the leash when it comes to doing interviews. I'm not certain he would have put himself forward in this way to publicise his previous outing as a director, Windy City Heat, a dark, vicious satire on the film industry - brilliantly executed though it is. It's an indication of how deeply he cares about Sleeping Dogs that, in all the two hours I'm talking to him, he can never once bring himself to refer to the movie by that name. His original title - overruled for some reason - was the more poignant and appropriate: Stay.

Whatever name it goes by, his new film is the sort of work that, despite its controversial subject-matter, could win him awards in the United States.

"This movie will not win awards."

"Why not?"

"Because it's me."

Bobcat Goldthwait, says Robin Williams, "is a huge talent who has somehow passed under the radar. He is kind of hard to place in terms of American comedy and I think that's exactly what he wants. But behind the act there is a very powerful mind, and great intensity and honesty, and vision. All of these come together in Sleeping Dogs, which is a very sweet film: touching, sad and funny. It's a film about life, and he has grasped it all."

Goldthwait will concede, at least, that he has finally found his niche as a director.

"Since I stopped doing stand-up, I am so much happier. Like I said, I used to be so angry, but I have sort of stopped that war. I'm not bitter any more. Bitterness is a form of self-obsession. It took me a long time to learn that."

"What else have you learned?"

"That I was always hiding behind a persona. That being famous for being famous is vain and silly. That I would rather keep on living in an apartment than make things that I wouldn't want to watch. That I am really not happy being on camera. That directing for other people is the thing that makes me really happy. And I've learned" - he gives a playful and rebellious look - "how to shut the fuck up."

'Sleeping Dogs' is released in early March

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