San Antonian Bruce McGill has worked steadily since appearing in 1978’s Animal House; so why don’t we know his name? Such is the life of a character actor.
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. Besides the high visibility of the project (which he still calls “the gift of life”), he made important professional connections; the director, John Landis, would later cast him as Michelle Pfeiffer’s brother in Into the Night. He made personal connections too: He still counts fellow actors Matheson, Riegert, and James Widdoes among his friends. The Bruce McGill who materialized each day on the set seems from all accounts to have been an intense thespian. Although it was only his second film, he was one of the more accomplished actors around. But he was also a Texas wild man. “His room at the Roadway Inn, where we stayed, became party central,” Landis recalls. “I’m not sure how, but he got a piano in there. He was the king of the party monsters—much more so than Belushi.” Matheson remembers that in the days before filming started, some of the cast met up with a few sorority girls and went to a frat party for “research.” The local Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter didn’t take kindly to their arrival, however, and a brawl ensued that left McGill with a black eye and Widdoes in a dentist’s chair at eight on a Sunday morning to repair a broken tooth.
Despite the off-camera high jinks, the movie came together just fine, and McGill had a toehold in Hollywood. At the time, he was living in New York in an apartment on the Upper West Side that he would keep for sixteen years, but when he took a part in Delta House, the short-lived TV sequel to Animal House, he began to spend more time in Los Angeles. On the set of MacGyver in the late eighties, he met his future wife, Gloria, who was an assistant director on the show. In 1989 they moved out to L.A. for good.
His life today is a much quieter one. He answers the door to his unassuming but spacious house in Mar Vista (not far from Marina Del Rey) in bare feet, shorts, and a Hawaiian shirt. He’s shorter than you might expect from having seen him onscreen, and his eyes have a piercing quality that suggests pent-up energy. The public areas of the house are spare and clean, and McGill’s love of music is evident in the grand player piano and the six guitars that lean against a wall. In the back yard, next to the pool and a blooming avocado tree, stands McGill’s office, a small structure that he calls “an extension of my mind.” When he’s not on a set, he spends a great deal of time there, reading scripts at his desk and poring over his stock portfolio. The walls and shelves are strewn with memorabilia, including the hat worn by his recurring character on MacGyver and cartoon strips that refer to Animal House.
The Hawaiian shirt, it turns out, is standard dress in the McGill household (“Unless it’s a coat-and-tie affair,” he says, “why bother?”). He remembers first being introduced to the pleasures of tropical-print fabric while guest-starring on Miami Vice. Since then, the Hawaiian shirt has been his default garment as well as the iconic embodiment of his dream for the next phase of his life: to move to one of the islands and open a business after about five more years of solid acting. “I won’t quit acting,” he says, “but I’d like to get to the point where I don’t have to beat the bushes so hard.”
Indeed, the life of the character actor is often unenviably busy. McGill still hustles around town on auditions and is not always sure what his next job will be. “There’s a misconception that once they’ve seen you in a movie, especially if it’s a hit like Animal House, your life is easy, you’re sitting back reading scripts,” he says. “But acting is a selling job, and at the moment, it’s a buyer’s market—there are more people in it than ever before.”
McGill says he longs for choice parts that don’t just pay the bills but allow him to display his acting ability. He played one such part this summer: a tough trial lawyer named Ron Motley in Man of the People, the upcoming Michael Mann film about the tobacco industry’s smear campaign against a whistle-blower. McGill is clearly proud because the film is high-minded and will likely get wide exposure—it is based on a Vanity Fair article by San Antonio native Marie Brenner and stars Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, and Christopher Plummer—but it’s also a showcase for his talent. Motley “is a great character,” Brenner says. “He’s funny, a showman and a good ol’ boy. You couldn’t make a mistake in playing the role flamboyantly.” That’s just what McGill did: For an over-the-top courtroom speech, he went all the way back to his theater training to find just the right vocal range. “Historically, the great supporting actors could sing and dance and play an instrument,” John Landis says. “They could do drama, and they could do comedy. Now these kids coming up just don’t have the chops. Bruce has a tremendous background in the theater, and I think it shows.”
Though McGill insists he doesn’t ask for anything more than what he’s got, you can hear in the way he talks about the business a certain ruefulness that suggests he knows he deserves better and bigger parts. “Auditioning is tough; rejection is tough,” he says. “You’re selling yourself, and it’s harder in a way than selling vacuum cleaners because when you’re turned down, it’s easy to take it personally.” Eventually, he’d like to limit himself to a few select projects along the lines of the Michael Mann film and hone a reputation for serious acting in serious parts much like that of his idol, Anthony Hopkins. That attitude, James Widdoes says, “is probably the sign of mental health in someone of Bruce’s talent. If he didn’t want to show it off in better parts, I don’t think he’d be as good as he is.”
“Early in my movie career I saw John Belushi spin off into oblivion,” McGill says, “and with that, any dreams of being a Time magazine cover—type star went out the window. I’m very happy with my place in the business, and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of just trying to live a somewhat stable life in this crazy world.” Anyway, there’s always Hawaii.