Rick Moranis: Honey, I shrunk the career

He was Hollywood's archetypal nerd, star of 'Ghostbusters' and 'Honey I Shrunk the Kids'. Then Rick Moranis vanished. Some even said he was dead. For the first time, he tells the true, tragic story behind his demise - and unlikely comeback. Interview by Michael Park

For most of the 1980s, Canadian actor Rick Moranis seemed to be as ubiquitous as big hair, legwarmers and Duran Duran. Audiences around the world watched him play the wimpish nerd in films such as Ghostbusters, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Parenthood, Spaceballs, and Little Shop of Horrors. Then in the mid-1990s, and seemingly without warning, Moranis vanished. He stopped making movies and quit acting. Two years ago, rumours of his demise started bouncing around the web.

The rumours turned out to be untrue but, ironically, it is the internet that can now be credited with Moranis's resurrection and slightly wary re-emergence into the spotlight.

Last year Moranis unexpectedly recorded an album of comic country and western songs, The Agoraphobic Cowboy. What made Moranis's new opus extraordinary was not simply that he is known for being an actor rather than a musician, but that he doesn't have, and has never been offered, a record deal.

"I'm not a band. I'm not a country singer," he says from the depths of an enveloping sofa, in his well-decorated and obscenely spacious apartment overlooking New York's Central Park. "So I knew that if I was going to do anything like this it was going to have to be done at the garage level and put out over the web - which is what I did."

How the now 53-year-old actor ended up quitting a successful movie career, writing and recording a colourful collection of country songs, and latterly penning comment pieces for The New York Times, is a tale that has its roots in tragedy.

In 1991 Moranis's wife, Anne, died from liver cancer, leaving him to raise their two young children alone. It becomes obvious very early in our interview that Moranis prefers talking about his work rather than his family life (he won't divulge the names of his children), but after a bit of meandering he does reveal how he made the transition from movie star to widowed stay-at-home dad.

"For the first couple of years I was able to make it work - doing one and a half pictures a year for three months with no problem," he says. "But I started to really miss them. It got to the point where I was doing a lot of pictures with kids - really nice kids, but not my kids. So, I was like, 'You know what? I'm tired of talking to my kids from a hotel room. I'm going home.' So I turned down the next pictures that came along and the break just got longer and longer."

He says it wasn't always easy being a dedicated single parent.

"In the beginning the hard part is the technical part," he says. "The nap and the feeding and the schedule and the play dates and this and this. Then when they get older and when they can wipe their own behind and you're not busy with that, you're busy with other emotional issues and developmental issues. But I never viewed what I was doing as anything other than what my instinct was telling me. I did live every day believing that kids really need one good parent. I had had a very, very happy childhood. I had a mother who was home until I was in high school. And every day when I came home from school, the lights were on, music was playing and there was something on the stove and she was there and I just wanted my kids to have that."

He pauses for a moment then adds poignantly, "And, you know, if my wife had lived she would have done that for them and I would probably still have been making movies. But I decided if she wasn't going to be here, I wanted to do that."

Spending so much time with his children, Moranis says he realised how vital that part of his life was compared to movies.

"I didn't miss the work, I didn't miss the travel, I didn't miss the people. I didn't miss any of it," he says, and reveals he has made a conscious decision not to return to acting. He also acknowledges that experiencing the death of his wife and raising two children alone changed him.

"How can one's exposure to that evolution - if one is at all a thinking person - not turn you into a different person than you would be just going to movie set after movie set?" he asks.

Growing up in the understated suburbs of Toronto, Moranis never dreamt he would ever make a living from acting.

"In Canada you don't think that show business is an opportunity for you," he says. "You think it's something that happens across the border. I really thought I would just keep going to school until I became something my parents wanted me to be. I had no burning ambition whatsoever - and still don't."

Moranis was born in 1953. He grew up listening to the classical music his parents liked and then, when he got his first transistor radio, "to 50,000-watt stations coming out of Boston and Chicago and New York leaking into the Toronto atmosphere carrying big-sounding voices and Beatles music and that stuff."

While he was still in high school, Moranis got a job at a local radio station and started writing witty links for the presenters. He soon got offered his own show and began writing more and more material. He performed at a couple of comedy clubs but found he didn't like stand-up.

"I didn't like repeating the material and I didn't like the subculture," he tells me, leaning back on the comfy sofa. "There was nothing about it I enjoyed beyond the writing." He gave up performing and became a writer at the Canadian Broadcasting Company - but was soon asked to join the cast of Second City Television (SCTV), Canada's answer to Saturday Night Live.

Working with fellow comedians including John Candy and Eugene Levy, Moranis claims the experience was comparable to "lunatics running the asylum".

"It was as wild as the Monty Python stuff must have been because we could do what we wanted," Moranis explains. "It was all about making each other laugh."

Moranis left to make a spin-off movie of an SCTV character soon after, and landed his celebrated role in Ghostbusters a year later. More films followed including Brewster's Millions with Richard Pryor, Spaceballs with Mel Brooks, as well as Little Shop of Horrors and Parenthood with Steve Martin.

"I got into this rhythm of going from picture to picture," Moranis says. "In the early films it was very enjoyable because I was always hired and encouraged to write my own stuff, so all those scenes in Ghostbusters... I wrote them. When I did Spaceballs, Mel and I rewrote the script and every day it was fun."

He leans forward and talks animatedly about working with fellow comics.

"Working with comedians is a different experience from working with actors and non-comedians," he says. "You work with Mel Brooks, or Steve Martin or Eric Idle or Bill Murray and Danny Aykroyd and Harold Ramis - that's a very different experience than working with Actor X or Actor Y. Actors are much more loyal to the script - that's their training, that's their orientation - as opposed to the comedian, who's looking for, just by instinct, a way to undermine it, destroy it, come up with something better, torture everyone along the way, make his life more interesting and yet somehow come out with a better time."

Moranis says on a day-to-day basis working with comedians rather than actors made life more enjoyable, but as to its effect on the quality of the finished product he acknowledges, it is a "crapshoot. Total crapshoot".

By the time the final, straight-to-video films in the Honey I Shrunk the Kids series came along, Moranis felt truly disillusioned with Hollywood.

"When I just started being an actor for hire, it was lucrative and it fit into life, but it wasn't enjoyable to me," he says, as all the passion drains from his voice. "That's not who I am. It was just more travel: hotels, airports, locations..."

By 1996, Moranis knew that he had had enough. He withdrew to concentrate on raising his children, living quietly with them in Manhattan ever since. And while they have been the focus of his life for the past 15 years, they also played a part in their father's move into music.

"I used to play songs for my kids on this when they were little," he says, picking up a well-strummed, 1967, 12-string Martin guitar. He explains that after his daughter started dating a mandolin player, they began jamming together and songs started popping into his head.

"I wrote one and then I wrote another one and I wrote a third one and as I would write them I would sing them to a couple of my closest comedy-writing friends and get their reaction," he says. "I got on a bit of a roll and when I got to about six or seven, people started to say, 'You should do something with this.'"

After thinking about it, he sent a demo tape to a Nashville agent and an acquaintance at a record label. He got the same quizzical response from both people. "They asked me, 'Where is the movie these come from?'"

Realising the record company men were always going to be more interested in the marketing than the music, Moranis contacted an internet site, ArtistShare, which had only specialised in the internet distribution of jazz records. The site's owner, Brian Camelio, nevertheless believed in the project, helped Moranis find a producer, agreed to promote it and shortly thereafter The Agoraphobic Cowboy was uploaded into existence.

While Moranis insists it is an homage to the country genre rather than a parody, all of the songs seem to champion wit over wisdom. The lyrics to I Ain't Going Nowhere (sung to the tune of the country classic, I've Been Everywhere, recorded by Johnny Cash) include, "I go/Online, DSL, Amazon, buy and sell/eBay, layaway, last bid noon today/Plasma, Judy Judge, broadband, Matt Drudge J.Crew, B&N, dotcom, CNN/JPEG, email, pop-up she-male/Shower cam, filter spam, slam bam/I think it's ma'am."

He spent a lot of time crafting the album's 13 songs and a Grammy nomination earlier this year was a pleasant validation. Moranis says he is considering recording more songs and perhaps even performing live although he seems fairly relaxed about if and when. He can certainly hold a tune, and claims, "I would probably have tried to make a living as a musician, had I not been able to make a living as a comedian."

It appears from his grand apartment and his relaxed attitude to work that Moranis has already made his living and is now enjoying the fruits of his labour. He says that he spends his days writing, walking downtown to do the occasional voice-over, or golfing with his son on public courses - "I'm not a club guy. I don't have the social skills and I don't have the wardrobe."

I'm not sure what special clothes Moranis thinks are required to join a golf club. For our interview he has dressed in a perfectly acceptable light-blue shirt, what look like green moleskin trousers and comfortable, if not fashionable, brown shoes. His full head of dark hair has thinned quite a bit and he has certainly aged. Despite his size (he's under 5ft 5in) he looks grown up at last, but is still recognisable as "that guy from Ghostbusters", and is still prepared to pull funny faces for the camera.

After the ups and downs of his personal and professional lives, Moranis seems to have found a pace and a place that suit him. Looking out across New York, guitar in hand, he says, "I'm having the time of my life."

Download 'The Agoraphobic Cowboy' at www.rickmoranis.com

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