By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Going from an actor from a well-received series (The New Addams Family) to being an all-around media personality in Vancouver, British Columbia, Michael Roberds certainly is not resting. He appears on television as a movie critic for Global TV and he is sometimes found in the background of many a Vancouver production. When on the spotlight, fans will remember him in the season four Supernatural episode, “Yellow Fever,” where he played Mark Hutchens, a reptile lover. He also has a notable role in The Further Adventures in Babysitting, a made for TV movie due in 2016. When considering that being an extra keeps him occupied more often than any other job, there’s a certain pleasure to know that he was requested by a casting director to appear in the X-Files miniseries that’s also broadcasting next year.
Although Roberds has not gotten a new role in today’s pop culture scene to guarantee him regular appearances at media conventions, he’s still looking. He still enjoys working on the side-lines and there was a time in his life where he also helped a talent agency geared specifically for people just wanting to be an extra. “But ever since The CW came along with Smallville, the attitude became we don’t want anybody over the age of 30 and they have to be good-looking. I had an elderly couple and they were available 100% of the time. They were never a problem but I was lucky if I could get them work once every couple of months.” revealed Roberds.
In this game, networking is key to getting the part. To get a primer in what may come next in his career, I had the good fortune to chat with Roberds about his work. Both he and Taranto were scheduled to appear at Island Fantasy convention before recent announcements changed that.
ES: Will this be your first time coming to Victoria?
MR: No, I love Vancouver Island. I worked over there when I was in my early 20s, for a balloon decorating company and we traveled all over B.C. We did promotions all-over: in Oak Bay, at a car dealership and at the opening night of Return of the Jedi. I even considered moving over to Victoria at one point. The only thing that really kept me from doing it was all the work as an actor is really here in Vancouver.
I mean there’s more stuff happening, but when you consider you have to take your car to get anywhere to audition, it can get very costly. Take, for example, a friend of mine who lived on Bowen Island; it was a pain for him to come over and audition and go back.
ES: Do you keep tabs on what is filming around Vancouver Island and not just Vancouver?
MR: Roughly. I probably could do more. I mean I don’t have any friends who live there now but sometimes what you could do is work as a local so you don’t have to worry about transportation and stuff. If there is somebody you can stay with, then sometimes you can tell the agents, “You can submit me for this because I can work as a local,” and worry about getting myself over there.
ES: What could we have expected from you and Glenn at the panels of IFCon Victoria had it gone through?
MR: Hopefully lot of laughs as we share some of our behind the scenes stories. The cast of our show [The New Addams Family] is very lucky in that we quickly became good friends and have all stayed in touch over the years. In fact, I’ve babysat Ellie Harvie’s (Morticia) son on occasion. I don’t think the cast of Friends ever did that!
MR: I’ve met Felix at another convention about 10 years ago. He’s a great guy and I’m really looking forward to meeting Lisa. From my experience, our show was barely a blip on the cultural radar in the U.S. while it was a big hit here in Canada and in other parts of the world. I don’t know what to expect when they meet us.
ES: I see that this show is two years away for a 20th anniversary celebration. Will anything happen?
MR: I would love to see something happen to commemorate this occasion. I think we could get everyone together again and maybe hit certain conventions in a tour across the country. We could even show the series’ blooper reel — which has never been shown in public!
ES: What made you decide to be an actor/entertainer? I know it all started with you playing the role of Big Bird at a local production of Christmas at Sesame Street, but what was the clincher that made you settle in on making that your profession?
MR: Even as a kid, I was determined to become an actor. But it’s been a hard road. I did plays in high school, joined a community theatre company after that, got an agent and began doing commercials. I also got small roles in TV and movies. Over the years, one of the elements I loved about acting is in getting to go to places you’ve never been to that the average person doesn’t get to see. I’m thrilled when I get to do it.
Like you might be inside the workings of a dam or located deep inside an actual mine. We did a show at BC Place in costume for The New Addams Family for Variety Club and where they kept us was the dressing room for the Vancouver Canucks. I’ve been in dressing rooms before but I thought this is really nice. Not many people get to go in there.
ES: At what point in your career did you decide that comedy is the way to go?
MR: I don’t know. I’ve always been a “class clown,” so it’s only natural that I would go for the laugh. But I think in general, my work has been pretty much 50/50 comedy/drama.
ES: Can you tell me more about your theatre work?
MR: Well I was fresh out of high school. At that time, I didn’t know [my direction]. I joined a theatre company in White Rock and started auditioning/performing there. Right away, I was in this core group of amateur actors and we were doing three or four plays a year for about the next ten years — which was really sort of my acting school. And at the same time I was doing some writing and we were trying out comedy stuff.
ES: What were some of the shows you did?
MR: I was in a Agatha Christie mystery where I played the detective and I did a show called Loot by Joe Orton. It was a dark comedy but my character was deadly serious. I was appearing in a lot of comedies, old plays (My Three Angels, Night of the Iguana for example) mostly …. I kind of stopped appearing in theatre for a while because I was concentrating on film.
ES: Compared to now, where you are also a movie critic for Global TV, radio host and a member of the Almost Midnight comedy troupe, how do you manage to balance all this work? I’d love to know more about your work with this troupe.
MR: Being an actor in Vancouver — for many of us — is a part-time job. You really need other jobs to survive most of the time. For me, it’s been writing and doing radio. I’ve always had a number of part-time things going on, so somehow I just make it all work.
My old comedy troupe Almost Midnight hasn’t been together in its original incarnation in decades, but I still write comedy skits and I’m working with some other people to maybe film them and get them up on YouTube. You can see some of our old work up there now!
ES: After seeing on the Internet Movie Database that you were in Doctor Who: The Movie, I had to dig up my copy to watch it again. It’s a small role, you appeared as the security guard when Grace and The Doctor left the parking lot. When looking at that appearance and including all the roles you’ve played throughout the years — which includes television shows like Once Upon a Time and Police Academy: The Series — how does it feel to be part of the pop culture lexicon?
MR: Yes, that’s my connection to Doctor Who — but not my voice! They dubbed someone else in later!
I’ve met some people over the years and they’ll be saying now that they’ve gotten to know me and gotten to see my work that they’ll be watching something like Doctor Who and just going “Was that you?” or like watching an episode of Highlander, “Were you the bartender in that?”
I replied, “Yes I was [laughs].”
I probably did 500 days of extra work over the years. So I mean some stuff is really prominent and other stuff is just like I say, you know that Harrison Ford movie Firewall, I’m just driving my car around. You’d never spot me in a million years.
I love being in all these great genre shows, but I still don’t feel that I’ve nailed that seminal role — aside from Uncle Fester — that will cement my place in pop culture history. Maybe this year!
ES: In getting the role of Uncle Fester, was it easy following in the footsteps of the movies and previous show, either in reputation or with the actors who played the part earlier?
MR: You just try to take your inspiration from those that have come before you while trying to make it your own and not tarnishing the legend for those who might follow you. As the show went on, I kept finding more of myself slipping into the role, which was interesting, as the lines would blur.
One of the greatest moments of my career came one night after filming with the great John Astin (the original Gomez Addams). We were having our make-up taken off and he turned and said to me “A few times today, I felt like I was working with Jack again” — referring to Jackie Coogan. I was thrilled and honoured to hear that. What a compliment!
ES: How much of the original source material did you know before coming in?
MR: Oh everything. I was already a fan of Charles Addam‘s original books and even the first TV show. I remember watching it as a kid. I think I was more of a fan of The Munsters because the humor appeals more to kids, it’s a little sillier. The Addams Family is a little more mature, satirical, you know. Our version, however, was definitely for kids.
ES: What defines you, as Michael Roberds — or rather, just how much of Uncle Fester is there in you?
MR: I think the more you get to know me there might be just a certain thing that just comes across. It’s kind of hard to define but it just comes across as that’s exactly how I, as Mike, would’ve just said it like it wasn’t enough of the character and I think it was just with Fester that it blended that sort of way.
I sometimes found myself trying to play Fester in a scene and the director would say, “There was an awful lot of Mike in that,” and I had to apologize. And now, I might work with certain other directors and all they want is a Fester-style delivery. I delivered a joke and that’s how I would deliver the joke.
I think another cool thing was when I appeared in Bratty Babies with Lisa Rinna and Harry Hamlin, which was a cross between Look Who’s Talking and Home Alone. In the movie, something had to explode or something happened. [As a result] I had to fall like Fester. Harvey Frost, who also directed a few New Addams Family episodes, called the stunt the Fester Fall — I could hang [in the air] for like a moment before I’d fall flat on my face (onto an off-camera mat). Frost wrote this stunt into the script that my character, Wendell, had to do it and Lisa had to recreate it. So he brings me in and says “Teach Lisa how to do the Fester Fall.” So I went up to go “Yeah, you know somehow you just hang and then you go down.” It was a fun afternoon.
ES: What makes the Addams Family enduring? When compared to The Munsters, which was competition between the two networks in the 60’s, what’s your take on it?
MR: I think we’ll see other incarnations of [The Addams Family] over the years but it’s interesting — I think the quality has always been there in these things that it won’t lessen the other ones if you know what I mean. There’s a lot of people who hated our version of the show and there’s a lot of people who really liked it. You know, I think my biggest issue or sort of my biggest support with reboots and remakes is when somebody says, “They can’t remake Casablanca” and then change their minds to say, “Sure they can.” If a young audience isn’t willing to go and watch that movie, then they should go ahead and make it again. It isn’t like they’re saying we’re going to destroy every copy of the original one and this will now stand for it, no, so who cares.
One of the great things about The Addams Family, in any incarnation, is that [the material] is timeless. Unlike other shows like The Brady Bunch where hairstyles and clothing date the show, our series and The Munsters were never dated material. For The Addams Family, it helps that the characters continue to pop up in other mediums: film, animation, Broadway and that the characters have become synonymous with their appearances: Cousin Itt for any longhaired person and Fester for any baldy!
ES: Have you seen The Addams Family Musical?
The only thing that was really weird about the production I saw was that they decided that Fester was gay. The performances especially the leads were awesome but I had the program guide with one of Charles Addams drawing on it and had to point out how Fester is supposed to look like. The young actor who played him looked like Carrot Top. He had bright red curly hair instead of being bald. I told him you were very good but this is what he looks like. It’s right here on the program you can’t miss it.
I have a bit of a protective thing over the Addams Family. I feel very honoured to be only one of four actors to have ever played Fester on film or TV. So yeah you become part of a very small club.
ES: If The New Addams Family did not come along what do you see yourself doing instead?
MR: I’d still be where I am today. I would be auditioning and getting occasional roles. I’ve been doing more indie stuff lately and I want to continue. I also have some scripts that I’d like to polish up and maybe produce.
ES: If you had to list a top five films that has influenced you profoundly, what would they be?
Nil By Mouth for making me realize that I am nowhere near the actor that Ray Winstone is — yet.
ES: When considering the series had a great list of guest appearances, starting with Jerry Van Dyke, who would you have liked to appear?
I think when John Astin got word that we were very respectful [to Charles Addams vision], he agreed to come on and do it. The producers wanted him to appear in more episodes and maybe even become a semi-recurring character. When we did the flashback episode to when Morticia and Gomez met, I believe the producers were very close making a deal with Phyliis Diller coming to play Morticia’s mother. Even Scott Baio was considered!
E: If you had a dream list of comedians / actors to appear in the show, who would that be?
MR: I’m a huge fan of British Comedies so there’s John Cleese and Rowan Atkinson — but I don’t see how they would fit in. I was developing a series for myself and when I was kind of putting together characters I was going all British; They might want to come to Vancouver and I thought of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson.
In closing, what would you like to say to readers?
MR: As much as you may be looking forward to meeting us, we’re looking forward to meeting you [at IFCon or any other show we are invited to attend]. How can anyone not want to spend the weekend having people tell you how much they like you? That would brighten the darkest mood.