(On Examining the appeal of the Addams Family Franchise)
by Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Glenn Taranto loves the cinema from the Golden Age of Hollywood and the stars that emerged from it. During that time, many genres like German Expressionism emerged, and from that, film noir. The influences date as far back as the silent films, but it was the comedic greats that this actor/writer revealed an affinity for. He grew up watching a lot of them on television and film with his brother, and it’s no small wonder that the passion has influenced him in kooky ways that Charles Addams, the creator of the Addams Family comic approves of. Taranto is very familiar with the source material and it helped him prepare for the role of Gomez Addams when production for the New Addams Family began. This program ran on multiple networks (YTV in Canada and Fox Family in the United States) from 1998-1999.
These days, Taranto spends his time in Los Angeles, the entertainment hub of the world. The roles he often plays can be attributed to the fact that “it’s a family business.” To know the quirks needed to play these parts effectively only came naturally for him and he made use of this experience when he crafted his first feature-film debut as a screenwriter with the movie, Stolen.
“I say write what’s in your heart and don’t let your imagination be stifled. Never say ‘That can’t be done’ or ‘I can’t do that’. Just get it all out,” advised Taranto.
Balancing the best of both worlds is relatively easy because what he likes to write stems from his personal interests. He has a love for film noir and he would jump at the chance to appear in productions featuring a Sam Spade type of character. Pop culture enthusiast and journalist Ed Sum of Otakunoculture.com recently spoke with Taranto about his work. When considering both share a love for Abbott and Costello, Universal Monsters and Horror Comedies, they certainly had a good time talking about it.
ES: In your career as an actor or comedian, whose work would you say influenced you greatly?
GT: You know, I love all the old classic comedians: Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, I collect movie posters on a comedy team that are kind of forgotten now called Wheeler and Woolsey. Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey made 21 films in their career.
ES: So including Buster Keaton and Abbott and Costello?
GT: Absolutely! WPIX Channel 11 in New Jersey showed one of Abbott and Costello’s movies every Sunday and I grew up on that. Two favourites of mine are The Time of Their Lives and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
ES: I’m tempted to say the latter is one of the grandaddies that helped shape the horror comedy genre, but what else existed prior?
GT: I know that Bob Hope did a bunch of spook comedies in the 30’s and 40’s like The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers — as opposed to actually having Frankenstein and Dracula, who in the 1930’s caused audiences to faint. Now you’re trying to make fun of the genre. The Scream movies are very indicative of that kind of thing.
I think Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a certified classic. I know it’s considered sort of crossover movie for the two genres, but I think [the style from] those original Universal Horror movies have never really been duplicated. Hammer Films did a lot of stuff — they got the titles and the rights to the Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolfman movies — but I think that even with the great special effects of today, the original chills and horror of those movies from the 30’s could not be beat.
ES: Because you have such a passion for the old Hollywood films, I have to ask were there any specific performers that really inspired you to become an entertainer?
GT: I think I was mostly influenced by the comedies I grew up watching and with the people I’ve seen on television. But as I grew older and I got to understand movies, I think really it was the character actors whom I really came to respect. There are people like Eugene Pallette, Claude Rains, James Gleason. I mean these are just some of the actors who always played supporting roles. They probably never had too many leads in a movie or carried a movie but when I watch their performances and I see how good they are, there are names I could bring up that you’ve probably never even heard of, like Edwin Maxwell.
There are also comedians like Edward Everett Horton. You just watch these guys work and you know that they’re always there. These boys are always ready to go and they don’t get the praise Cary Grant or Clark Gable are always going to get. But Spencer Tracy is probably the greatest film actor ever. I love William Powell movies. Anything with Powell in it was good.
ES: If Turner Classic Movies approached you to be a guest or a co-host for a night, would you jump at a chance to introduce these past greats and the works they appeared in?
GT: Last April, a year ago, was that network’s 20th anniversary and they had 20 people on to introduce movies. I introduced a movie called Went the Day Well? It’s a British picture from the war that I thought was really terrific. And to play host was a great experience. As a side note, I actually auditioned to be a co-host when the network was looking about ten years ago. I don’t know how close I got, but Ben Mankiewicz got the job so there you go!
ES: Would you like to go back to do that?
GT: In a heartbeat!
ES: Have you tried out for the Addams Family movies prior to getting your role in the television show?
GT: I would’ve loved to be in them but I never did have a chance to audition.
ES: How did that work in the early part of your career? When I look at the Internet Movie Database, I see that you’ve appeared in bit parts, like in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. I pulled out my DVD and I looked for your appearance. You’re not all that hard to miss.
GT: Yeah, well that was actually one of my very first jobs. I find it interesting because that was the show I did where I knew John Astin was also in.
ES: Do you think it might have been serendipitous if you two managed to appear in the same episode?
GT: I guess it really would have been. But that was before The New Addams Family. I had said that if I were going to get on a sitcom, it would be because they are remaking the Addams Family. I always tell people you can believe it or not believe it, but I always knew that would be my thing — to be part of the Addams Family TV show however as crazy as that sounds.
ES: Just a quick aside, what was it like working with Chris Shyer who played Vlad? I remember that episode well.
Christopher Shyer is an absolutely brilliant and versatile actor. I thought he was sensational as Vlad. Far and away better than I would have ever been. I thought he brought a suave comedic elegance to the character I don’t possess. I wish they had written more episodes with Chris in mind. I really enjoyed working with him. The dynamic between him, Ellie and I was great fun.
[Getting back to the original topic,] I think the reason the other actor got hired first was because he had a little more experience in comedy than I did. One of the producers would later ask me “How did you get to be so funny? You don’t have any comedy credits on your résumé?”
Of course, she neglected to see all the theatre that I did. I had been in a lot of plays but I had just finished doing about 16 months in an improvisational comedy, Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, but no sitcoms. Apparently my stage work meant nothing to them as they obviously never even noticed that part of my résumé. I have often attributed this idea to the reason I didn’t get Gomez first.
ES: I was wondering about that. Being a comedian isn’t easy.
GT: Most of the time you’ll see that I’ve played cops. My dad was with the New Jersey State Police, my brother was with the New Jersey State Police, my uncle was with the Massachusetts State Police, and my cousin was with the New York City Police Department. I have another uncle who was with the New Jersey State Police … so it’s in my background but I always say I’m not a cop but I play one on TV.
ES: Yeah, and your latest one was in Marvel’s Agent Carter.
GT: Yes. I was so happy to be a part of that show. Just a terrific experience because I love everything from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s — here I was, I played a cop from that period!
ES: When you learned that you got the role of Gomez Addams, what did you have to do prepare?
GT: Well I got the call on Saturday to get there and I was in Canada on Monday. I remember my first day on set I had no idea what was happening or what I was doing. I can clearly remember thinking I’m not going to last here because I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m doing I don’t know where I am, my head was so turned around and that’s where I go back to Ellie who would calm me down and say, “There’s your key light, there’s your mark, there’s the camera, go.”
Ellie is absolutely the best. She complimented or brought out the best in my abilities as an actor. Without Ellie, there I don’t know how I would have done it if it had been anybody else. Mike is like my brother now. Everyone on the set was my rock.
ES: Was it easy to follow what the producer wanted for the character?
GT: Yes. In one sense, I don’t remember getting many directions because I came in prepared to play John Astin. That’s what they wanted and that’s what I gave them. And they seemed to enjoy it. I did put my own little spin on the role but I wanted to be as close to him as I could to be respectful.
When the producers were talking about making an episode featuring Grandpa Addams, I remember telling the production manager Victoria, “They have to get Astin. If they don’t get him in, then the continuity in series won’t make any sense. The fans will be highly critical. Why? Well, the man’s still alive!”
I don’t know what it would cost to get him but I said that if you don’t get Astin on board, it’d be a huge mistake. I don’t know how the deal was made, but the producers convinced him to appear in two episodes. And the continuity made all the sense in the world! If they hadn’t got Astin involved, I wouldn’t have felt good about it myself. When you’re under contract, all you can do is to do what people tell you to do.
ES: In what I recall in your take is that there’s a hint of Groucho Marx in your version.
I spoke to John about that and he said one of the original writers had written for Groucho Marx. So there was a connection.
We were working off some of the original scripts and I want to say were rewritten to bring them up to date with the times. We had access to all 64 episodes so you will see a similarity between the two shows. The only unique episode was the Halloween episode.
ES: What’s your interpretation of what went down in Charles Addams’ mind when he created The Addams Family?
GT: Well the thing I like about the original Addams material is that it’s whimsical. He has a very twisted view on life and I’m intrigued. One of my favourite drawings is “The Skier,” where there’s a tree in the middle of the picture and the ski tracks going around the tree and you just look at that and ask how is that possible? That’s Charles Addams’ sense of humour. I don’t know what his upbringing was like to make him see the world differently, but he is a unique individual.
My other favourite sketch that I think of all the time is the one where Uncle Fester is sitting in a movie theatre surrounded by people who are crying but he’s chuckling. That wonderful drawing is so evocative. I think it’s very indicative of what life can be like. Who knows why everyone is crying at the screen while one individual is simply laughing.
I do know he closely worked with Astin. They became friends when the [original] show was in production.
ES: Maybe I’ll have to ask Astin if I ever get the opportunity. I have to wonder if what Addams was presenting was a view on American post-Depression life when considering his works debuted in 1938.
GT: Could be. Coming out of the Depression and going into a war where things are very dark did not give anyone a chance to breathe. That one particular cartoon of Fester at the movies is a perfect example of how people can perceive life. You’ve got everybody crying because of the Depression and you have one person laughing about how insane it all is.
ES: In my opinion, the Addams Family simply lived in their own world. They didn’t have to answer to the outside society’s will.
GT: Right. And also the other part of the Addams Family is that they’re very open and loving. They welcome everybody into their home. Gomez is extremely generous with his money, it doesn’t mean anything to him. His family means the world to him. He became a businessman probably by accident and he’s amassed a huge fortune. In fact, we had an episode, where a relative of his visited just to steal his wealth away. I suggested that the story can be more interesting cause Gomez doesn’t care about the loss. There’d be no conflict. You want the gold? Then take the gold — I thought it would be funnier to have two make fighting it out to not have the money as opposed to wanting the money. I was overruled because they didn’t think that was funny. I don’t know, I just thought the concept of people not wanting money was better than the typical scenario [that screenwriters use.]
I enjoy writing and my sensibilities are very odd. Most people think that I am going to write something funny and I usually write something dark so when a comedian wins an Oscar or wins an award, it’s usually for playing a darker sad character.
ES: I remember seeing online that you’re working on a screenplay titled, Three Way Split.
GT: Oh yes. It’s an ensemble dark comedy about greed. I know the script is out there [still floating around, being read]. I know we’ve had some interests from Anna Paquin’s production company and we’re hoping to hear from other people.
ES: When did you finish writing Three Way Split?
ES: It sounds like an interesting combination.
GT: Well I wanted to write something very odd and different. I succeeded. As for whether anybody likes it, that’s a whole other question. But I’ve gotten a good response from the people who have read it so far.
ES: If the New Addams Family did get another season, would you have liked to write for the show?
GT: I would’ve definitely liked to have more input. I certainly at some point would’ve liked to direct, but certainly would love to have come up with story ideas and concepts for the show. There’s no doubt about it.
ES: And probably inject more of what you feel is important or influential to what defines the Addams Family?
GT: Influence is not the right word but maybe sensibility is the better choice. There are definitely ideas that I want to try exploring including paying homage to what I like. We had a scene where I played a mad scientist. I remember telling the hair/make-up people “I wanna have this streak of white for my hair like Humphrey Bogart!” I just thought that would add another element to what Gomez is about. Not only was it a throwback to what we were doing, but … I mean, I was yelling “It’s alive, it’s alive!” for 45 minutes.
That was a great moment for me because I told the Director George Erschbamer that I wanted to play that moment just like Colin Clive did in Frankenstein. The voice I’m doing there is sort of my impression of Clive. In fact, it was one of the most fun scenes that I got to do because it did call back to all the hours that I spent with my brother, my older brother Louis, watching all those Universal Horror movies from the past.
ES: So I have to ask, why were only 65 episodes made for The New Addams Family? I understand that the show was wildly successful, but yet it did not continue.
GT: The entire cast and I felt sorry the show only lasted 65 episodes, I could’ve continued playing Gomez for another 10 years.
At the wrap party, Lance Robbins [Executive Producer] told me that the studio executives decided to pull the show. They believed that they wouldn’t be making any more money if the show continued. In other words, they believed that they would’ve just broken even.
And my feeling, of course, was if you’re not losing any money then why not continue to employ people? Why not continue to make more episodes that you can bank so you’ll have your syndication package of a hundred. You’re not losing any money, you’re not making any money, and people can remain employed. But to them, it didn’t make fiscal sense. What I was told by a producer a year after the show folded was that it was hugely successful [in other markets] and Haim Saban wanted to put it back together. But the sets were torn down, the costumes dispersed, and nobody was under contract. It would’ve cost the company more money to put all that stuff back together. And so, subsequently, it never happened.
ES: That’s a shame.
GT: Yeah, I felt the same way too. I just thought the only thing you would’ve needed was new scripts. All we needed was 35 new original scripts to create a syndication package. We had two extremely talented writers, Arnold Rudnick and Rich Hosek, who were on board. Those guys did great stuff and they’re wonderful to work with. I know they’ve always been talking about possibly doing a series of movies or an update. Mike, Ellie, Arnold, Rich, Mike and I talked about what could we do and how can we get the gang back together. But the people in charge did not feel that it was possible. It all comes down to finances.
ES: When the time is right, do you think another iteration of The Addams Family will come back?
GT: Absolutely! You can mark my words. Whether it’s going to be a reboot of the movies or another version of the TV show, it will definitely happen. There’s no doubt in my mind.
ES: And you’ll be part of it somehow?
GT: I’d love to! You know I imagine that the producers will hire a different Gomez by the time it happens. If they want me to come back like John Astin did, then I’d be more than happy too.
ES: How about a reunion of the New Addameses? I see that we are only two years away for the 20th anniversary.
GT: Certainly I know that Mike and Ellie and myself would welcome that with open arms. I would love to see it, I don’t know where the rights issue stands with the Addams estate but certainly we’ve talked about it many times and we’re certainly open to it that’s for sure, I know that.
ES: In closing, what are you doing now that you can reveal to readers?
GT: I am working on a very big video game of which I can’t discuss in great detail because I have signed about 4000 non-disclosure agreements. But I am doing voice work and motion capture work for it, which I guess will come out in 2017.