HERE’S THE SCENE; NAME THE MOVIE. Two kids walk up to a frat house as “Louie Louie” is blaring. They’re green: They’re wearing blue blazers and high-waters—obviously virgins, obviously … freshmen. They enter the decrepit house accompanied by a slovenly drunk who’s been urinating in the front yard. There’s a party going on inside; in fact, it’s utter mayhem. Beers are being slung about like fastballs. The air is smoky. People are everywhere. Suddenly, the front door bursts open and a motorcycle roars up the stairs and stops on the second-floor landing. The biker is a dark-eyed young man sporting a handlebar mustache and wearing combat fatigues. He produces a beer, opens it, and hands it to one of the dumbstruck kids. Then he tilts his head back and thumps the William Tell Overture on his throat. Stumped? Here’s a hint: “Toga! Toga! Toga!”
If you don’t know the movie, you’re not only not cool—you’re seriously lacking in cultural literacy. Animal House, which turns twenty this year, is the sort of cinematic benchmark whose significance is only apparent upon reflection. It was the Ur-college film, the ultimate in frat-rat frivolity, and its peculiar mix of irreverence, debauchery, and subversive wit spawned numerous offspring, from Meatballs to Porky’s to Revenge of the Nerds. But it also launched the careers of many Hollywood fixtures. The two freshmen were Tom Hulce, later seen as Mozart in Amadeus, and Stephen Furst, an early cast member of TV’s acclaimed St. Elsewhere. Other future stars who got their first real taste of the big time included Kevin Bacon, Tim Matheson, Karen Allen, and Peter Riegert. (The urinating slob was, of course, John Belushi, who died four years after Animal House was released.)
But what of the guy who played D-Day, the biker with the mustache and the musical throat, whose epilogue before the closing credits reads simply, “Whereabouts unknown”? That was San Antonio native Bruce McGill, whom you’ve no doubt never heard of and whose whereabouts you might similarly assume are unknown. Only they aren’t. Do a little research and you’ll discover that the 48-year-old actor’s whereabouts are in fact very well known. You won’t read about him in movie magazines, but you’d probably recognize him from something you’ve seen recently. This decade alone he’s appeared in fifteen feature films and ten made-for- TV movies, acting alongside such A-listers as Bruce Willis, Sissy Spacek, Sylvester Stallone, Tommy Lee Jones, Dennis Quaid, and Joe Pesci. He’s also appeared on such TV shows as Miami Vice and Home Improvement and had a recurring role on MacGyver from 1987 to 1992. Such is the plight of the character actor: Bruce McGill is a name with no face and a face with no name—everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
New York Times critic Mel Gussow once described character acting as “a kind of artistic self-effacement. This is not to suggest that [character actors] lose their individuality, but through an exercise of a chameleonlike talent, they can change markedly from role to role. This is the opposite of a star appearance by a performer who has made an impact … and continues to play a variation of that persona.” Think of M. Emmet Walsh or the late, great J. T. Walsh—two character actors who have never gotten top billing but seem to have been in every movie ever made (actually, 120 and 58, respectively). Think of Harry Dean Stanton and Wilford Brimley or, if you prefer a hipper example, Steve Buscemi. Texas has produced its share of character actors too, from Rip Torn to Barry Corbin to G. W. Bailey—all undeniably talented and memorable for being, well, not particularly memorable. “The character actor,” Gussow continued, “has sometimes been regarded as a lesser artist, the theatrical equivalent of baseball’s relief pitcher. If he had his choice, he would prefer to be a starter—or star.”
Bruce McGill says he wouldn’t refuse stardom if it were thrust upon him, yet he sees why it’s not bad to be a supporting player—or “an undercover actor,” as he calls it. “When I was a kid looking at the problems of being an actor, the biggest fear was working steadily,” he recalls. “I was playing some leading roles on the stage in college and high school, but it was clear to me that that was not going to be it. It’s such a crowded racket, and there’s only one per movie. So if you’re not in the top ten or fifteen guys, the only scripts you get to look at are second-rate. But if you’re a character actor, there are three or four roles worth your time in any good movie. Your odds of making a sale are three or four times increased. And I enjoy incarnating so many different souls.” To date, those souls range from a Southern sheriff ( My Cousin Vinny) to a gay Elvis impersonator ( Into the Night).
Born and raised in the Bel Meade neighborhood of San Antonio, McGill was eleven when he acted for the first time, earning a standing ovation as the lead in a school production of Johnny Appleseed. After graduating from MacArthur High School, he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, where he performed in plays and had private tutorials with legendary drama professor B. Iden Payne. His energetic pursuit of stage work landed him in New York City, where he won roles in the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the Park productions. In 1977, after several years of working in the theater with actors like Richard Dreyfuss and Sam Waterston, McGill landed a part in his first film, Citizen’s Band, which was directed by Jonathan Demme. The next year, McGill got Animal House.
The 31-day shoot of Animal House on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene was a seminal experience for McGill.