Australian actor-turned-producer Steve Kearney’s experience shooting his American feature film debut wasn’t what you could call ideal. Within three weeks of filming ‘The Nutt House’, the director was fired. By the time it was ready to be edited, all four of the film’s writers (Sam & Ivan Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Scott Spiegel) had disowned it. And the film’s ‘premiere’ at Cannes, well; it wasn’t how you’d hope a film premiere would go. Kearney spoke to Another Film Nerd about ‘The Nutt House’, ‘Pistol Pete’ - the pilot he filmed with legendary ‘Simpsons’ writer John Swartzwelder - and the path that brought him back to Australia.
COMING TO AMERICA
You’d be hard pressed to find an actor with more surreal tales of working in LA than Steve Kearney. In nearly a decade, the Australian actor-turned-producer lived with, worked with and (in one instance) stole from a veritable who’s who of Hollywood that would make Kevin Bacon seem like a distant outsider by comparison. In the 80s, Kearney rose to fame as one half of the acclaimed Australian comedy duo Los Trios Ringbarkus, with Neill Gladwin. When the duo toured, Kearney saw the opportunity to take advantage of the situation and try to fulfil a lifelong dream - working in Hollywood.
“We went to Edinburgh in ’83, and I engineered that we would stop in New York on the way back and hang there, to see if we could get a show in New York because I wanted to hit the US,” he said.
“We’d met a guy named Eric Bogosian, who’s a big monologist. He looked after us, found us an apartment with nothing in it.”
The friendship with Bogosian, who would later go on to work with Oliver Stone in the drama ‘Talk Radio’ before forging his own niche on both big and small screens, came to an abrupt end, however, after Kearney took advantage of his hospitality.
“He gave me some blankets (for the apartment), and one of them was his grandmother’s quilted blanket,” Kearney said.
“Of course, I didn’t give it back to him, and that was the end of me and Eric Bogosian’s love affair evidently. I really screwed that one up.”
While performing, he managed to catch the eye of director Rob Cohen - later of ‘The Fast and the Furious’ and ‘xXx’ fame - who cast him as an arrogant TV commercial director in the popular drama ‘thirtysomething’.
“That was an education,” Kearney said.
“I wasn’t really an actor; I was a vaudevillian. That was my first foray into working with American actors, who were all basically scheming and conniving to get into the shot.
“I was like ‘Why are they all huddling over there? What are they doing?’ It’s a tough business.”
Soon enough, Los Trios has generated enough heat in the States, with both Kearney and Gladwin, landing multi-picture deals, which is how Kearney landed an audition for ‘The Nutt House’.
INSIDE THE NUTT HOUSE
‘The Nutt House’ (or, as it was eventually re-titled in some countries, including Kearney’s homeland, ‘The Nutty Nut’) tells the story of identical twins Philbert and Nathan Nutt (Kearney), who were separated at birth.
Philbert grows up to be a successful businessman and politician, and Nathan well, he has a mental health condition that has multiple personality disorder. Every time he hears a loud noise, he switches personalities. When Nathan manages gets out of the mental institution and tries to reunite with his long-lost brother, chaos ensues, culminating in an epic pie fight. The film was conceived by Scott Spiegel, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Bruce Campbell as a homage to the movie of The Three Stooges and Jerry Lewis.
Spiegel, who developed the story with the Raimis and had previously worked with both Campbell and Sam Raimi on the cult horror-comedy ‘Evil Dead 2’, was signed on to direct. For Kearney, who’d built his career on pratfalls and crazy characters, a role that required him to jump in and out of different characters at the literal snap of the fingers was a natural fit.
“I was a big Three Stooges fan, a huge Jerry Lewis fan. That style of comedy was my bread and butter,” he said.
Ultimately he credits his successful audition to one thing.
“I was cheap,” he said.
“I heard the actor they really wanted was Jim Carrey, and he was after a million dollars. “They got me for, well yeah, a very small percentage of that.”
Kearney said Spiegel had been keen to pay tribute to the films that had inspired him going so far as casting Stella Stevens (who had worked with Jerry Lewis on ‘The Nutty Professor’ ) and Emil Sitka (a regular from Stooges shorts and features who’d worked with Spiegel on ‘Intruder’ and Raimi on his similarly ill-fated ‘Crimewave’) in key roles.
“If Scott had kept going, he would’ve made a very particular version of that kind of film but that all went away when he was let go,” he said.
Also cast in a critical role, as Philbert’s mistress Miss Tress, was Traci Lords who was still in the ‘rehabilitation’ phase of her career after gaining notoriety as an underage porn star.
“I didn’t really know who she was at the time,” Kearney said.
“I was living with Larry Karaszewski (who would later win a Golden Globe as co-writer for ‘The People Vs Larry Flynt’) back then. We had a dinner where the cast got to go meet each other, and Larry said to me ‘This girl, Traci, she’s done some work. I can show it to you if you want.’ And I said ‘Okay. WHAT?!’ Oh. Thanks, Larry.”
Right from the start, Kearney said the shoot was “tough” and, to hear him tell it, his experiences were more surreal than anything ever envisioned for the wacky, mistaken identity comedy.
“The producers, they were clients of Heidi Fleiss,” Kearney recalled.
“So while we were shooting, they were going in and out, testifying and doing things like that.”
Besides, there were tensions between the two groups of producers - one side Jewish, the other German.
“They were fighting like cats and dogs,” he said.
“It was a real German-Jewish thing; it was not fun. I heard Brad (Wyman, one of the film’s producers) was actually flying over to Germany to try and have meetings with them, and they’d keep him in the foyer all day before telling him ‘Oh no, he’s gone.’”
It didn’t take long for the production to fall behind schedule - in part, Kearney said, due to some fairly hefty special effects requirements.
“We were right before digital effects; we had to do everything in camera,” he said.
“We had the great makeup artist Greg Nicotero, he was under the pump doing all these prosthetics; we had to do a lot of in-camera stop motion things. The sense was that we were falling way behind; everything was running late. We had the completion bond people coming in - looking very stern - everyone was fighting with each other.”
The tipping point came after Kearney injured himself on-set while performing a stunt.
“I wanted to do my own stunt, which was this cartwheel,” he said.
“I double-bent my elbow, I hyper-extended it ending up in an ambulance and stopping the shoot for a week.”
Coincidentally, Australian magazine ‘New Idea’ was on-set that day (“The only way I ever got into ‘New Idea’,” he joked.) When Kearney returned to the set a week later, Spiegel had been fired and was replaced by Adam Rifkin.
“All of a sudden, bam. He (Spiegel) was gone,” he said.
WHO’S MINDING THE STORE?
Kearney said he and Rifkin, who’d generated some heat with the surreal cult comedy ‘The Dark Backward’, did not get on.
“He hated me,” Kearney said.
“He was trying to get me replaced, but David Korda - who was from this family of big British producers - loved me, and I was doing an OK job, so they kept me on. They’d say ‘We’re going to put you in a straitjacket, you’re trying to break out, and you go from here to here and do pratfalls’ and I could just do it. I guess that’s how I stayed hired.”
Tensions continued to rise, Kearney said, with frustration eventually giving way to apathy.
“The vision Scott (Spiegel) had was more of a Three Stooges homage... that got thrown away and jumbled,” he said.
“It was just a chore to get through and shoot the script. It just kept going. The shoot went for three months. By the last month, nobody was even watching the dailies. Nobody. For some scenes, I even had to direct them because there was nobody there to do it. There was no support, there was no choreographer or acting coach there to help me figure it out, and the direction I got was just ‘you need to get from here to there and do something funny in the middle’. Nobody gave a rat’s.”
Making life even more difficult was the production hierarchy, which somewhat limited Kearney’s ability to play around with the material.
“There was a German representative on the set and, every time I wanted to change a gag, he’d have to call Frankfurt and, in German, tell them the joke I wanted to change,” he said.
“If he got the OK, I’d get the thumbs up, and we’d shoot it.”
The three-month shoot culminated in filming the epic pie fight sequence that was to finish up the film.
“That was the last couple of weeks - I’ll never forget it because they had to throw a lot of pies at me,” Kearney said.
“So they gave the pies to the crew, and for some reason, they threw them really, really hard.”
With principal photography complete, a new challenge emerged - the producers weren’t happy with Rifkin’s cut of the movie.
“I went and got a whole bunch of VHS tapes of the raw footage that they gave me, and they said ‘Well, you do a version over the weekend and, if it’s good, we’ll give you the cut. So Larry (Karaszewski) and I spent the weekend cutting together and a version of the film.”
Evidently, the producers were happy enough with the hastily assembled VHS cut - Rifkin was out, and Kearney was now officially in charge of the film.
“So there I was with the editors and the Steenbecks and hundreds of millions of feet of footage, and the editor’s just looking at me like ‘This is going to be a disaster, he’ll just want to show himself’,” he said.
Through the edit, Kearney got a glimpse of the film’s credits, which led to another revelation - the film’s writers had all taken their names off the film. Sam and Ivan Raimi were now Alan Smithee Sr and Jr, Scott Spiegel was now Peter Perkinson, and Bruce Campbell was now R.O.C. Sandstorm. The news didn’t exactly take Kearney by surprise.
“I was still friends with them; they were pretty grumpy about how it unfolded. It was their film, and they lost it,” he said.
Kearney, who was simultaneously preparing for the local release of ‘Garbo’ and Australian film he co-wrote and co-starred in with Neill Gladwin, worked to get ‘The Nutt House’ in a releasable state.
“It was a case of ‘how can we make this blancmange work’,” he said.
“I put a soundtrack to it with; there are a few Australian songs in there. And we eventually cut it down to about 84, 85 minutes.”
Kearney said he was even starting to enjoy the editing process when circumstances conspired against both him and the film.
“This was all leading up to Cannes, where they wanted to take it and show it,” he said.
“Reels were going everywhere, and I’m like ‘This is fantastic, this is fun!’ Then, the Rodney King verdict came down, and everyone just got up and left the studio - they went to protect their homes. This was happening all over LA. The film wasn’t finished, and I had to get on a plane over the weekend to get back to Melbourne to open ‘Garbo’. So I left a burning LA and an unfinished film, and I was going to meet all the German guys in Cannes about a week later. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
The intervening week wasn’t enough time to get the film to Cannes, and so when Kearney arrived in Cannes to launch two films, only one of them was ready to be screened.
“I think they were able to recut it, but they (the German producers) couldn’t get it into the country,” he said.
“I turned up in Cannes - they flew me there - and in the morning I had the ‘Garbo’ screening. There were two people in the audience. One of them was me. The other person - as soon as the film started - they got up and left. So that was a good start. Then I went to the ‘Nutty Nut’ where the German producers told me the film hadn’t screened because they didn’t have the movie; but they were still going to have the party.
“So it was me, three big German producers, a jazz band and around $10,000 worth of seafood on the Majestic Beach. Nobody; NOBODY came. So I just drank and ate as much as I could, walked out onto the pier, had a little spew into the Mediterranean and decided ‘I think I’ve had enough of movies’.”
Leaving the world of film behind, Kearney spent some time back in Australia doing theatre before returning to LA, where he opened up a store with his girlfriend.
“It nearly killed us,” he said.
“We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying clothes nobody bought, and then in three months, we had to buy more. It wasn’t working out.”
In the interim, Kearney put together a demo reel consisting of ‘Nutt House’, ‘Garbo’ and ‘thirtysomething’ material in the hopes of landing more acting work. I sent it out; it got no reaction, then about six months later, I get a call from a manager, Marco Cuadros, who said he was going through a box of reels and he found mine,” he said.
“So I go in, and he’s a really lovely man, and we started working together. He sent the demo reel off to Castle Rock (the production company co-founded by Rob Reiner, whose TV credits include ‘Seinfeld’). They called, said they loved it and wanted me in for a meeting. So my manager set me up with six writers, and we worked all weekend on ten ideas. We go in there to meet Glenn Padnick (another of Castle Rock’s founders), they begin their pitches for me, and he shoots them all down literally within seconds. We were all spent in three minutes. The writers are devastated, I’m thinking it’s going terribly. He says ‘Listen! I don’t care about any of that! What I wanna know is where does he work, and what’s his dream?’ We were like ‘Uhh... we don’t know’. He said ‘Thanks a lot. Thanks for coming in.’ I thought I’d completely blown it, but the next day my manager called and said they wanted to do a deal and a few weeks later, the script turned up for ‘Pistol Pete’.”
‘Simpsons’ writer John Swartzwelder wrote the script. He is regarded by many as one of the best writers on the long-running sitcom whose episode credits have included ‘Homer the Vigilante’, ‘Homer’s Barbershop Quartet’ and ‘Marge vs the Monorail’ to name just a few. It was set in the old west and was to feature Kearney as a dim-witted celebrity gunslinger summoned by the Mayor of Abilene (Brian Doyle-Murray) to help clean up the crime-ridden town. Kearney said that initially, he and Swartzwelder did not hit it off.
“He was this guy with a combover, tomato sauce stains down his pants and driving a 1974 dodge,” he said.
“And, to him, I probably just looked like another LA actor. I was going to the gym, wearing tight 90s clothes and dyeing my hair - as you have to do in LA. He was the hot ticket, and I was just some guy.”
Eventually, Kearney said, they overcame the initial first impressions and ended up getting on like a house on fire.
“By then I’d had a lot of ego beaten out of me, and so I was appreciative of the opportunity,” he said.
“In the end, I was able to show him I had the technique to pull stuff off. Also, I was excited by his intellect, which is just vast. And I think he calmed down because, well, I wasn’t crazy."
According to Kearney, Swartzwelder got everything he wanted when it came time to select the crew who could bring his vision to life.
“He (Swartzwelder) got John Rich to direct, who did the pilot for ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’, he did ‘Gilligan’s Island’, he did an Elvis Presley movie, ‘Roustabout’,” Kearney said.
“The guy was 85, and he could barely get out of his chair! He (Swartzwelder) wanted to hire a lot of crew that had worked on ‘Gunsmoke’. So we ended up with all these old guys from ‘Gunsmoke’ beat up old stuntmen. One of them was the guy who’d knock on my door and say ‘They’re ready for you, Steve!’ and I’d jump out my trailer and have to slow down and wait for him to catch up. And we had the shooting crew from ‘Murder, She Wrote’; so it was a weird combo.”
One of Kearney’s most significant concerns in the leadup to filming was learning some tricks to help him pull off the role of a gunslinger.
“My character was supposed to be able to do tricks with guns, but I’d never picked up a gun before in my life,” he said.
“You’d think that a big production would want to ensure I was on the ball and ready. But all they did was send me to Universal to watch their western show. The guy went through it and said ‘Well, you can do this or you can do that’. And I’m like ‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!’ They’re going to say ‘action’, and I’m going to go ‘I DON’T FUCKING KNOW WHAT I’M DOING!’ I was panicking like crazy and actually had a little panic attack. So I bought my own guns and learned enough to do something, but it was a bit disappointing.”
Kearney said Swartzwelder had high hopes for ‘Pistol Pete’ - and had already lined up half of his ‘Simpsons’ colleagues to jump on board if the show was picked up. And while Swartzwelder was pleased with the pilot, Kearney was less enthusiastic.
“My manager told me I’d get a call at nine o’clock,” he said.
“He said ‘If it’s the good call, there’ll be a limo outside and they’ll take you to the upfronts in New York, so pack your bags.’ So I get the call, and I can tell from his voice it’s not the good call. Sure enough, I looked out the window; there was no limo. So I went, unpacked my bags and did the washing I should’ve done the night before. About a year or so later, I was at a wedding in Italy, and someone there said ‘Oh yeah, I know you, you were in ‘Pistol Pete’’. I don’t know if this story is true, but this is what he told me. He said ‘I used to work at Fox, and we’d get all the pilots and show them to Rupert (Murdoch, in case that wasn’t clear) one after the other.’ ‘Yours was on at about four o’clock, and he was watching it but he started to get a bit tired, so we turned it off. He went to get a cup of coffee, and he never came back, so, sorry about that.’ I said ‘That’s it?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’”
But Kerney wasn’t done with the small screen just yet and - with some help from ‘ER’ star Anthony Edwards, his business partner Dante di Lorento and their production company Aviator Films - was about to get another shot.
HOLLYWOOD OR BUST
Despite the knockback, Kearney continued to eke out a living in LA.
“Even when you’re failing there, you’re succeeding,” Kearney said.
“I was still making deals, making movies. I ended up marrying an Aussie, who moved over to the States to live with me. She was a tap dancer, and she was getting a bit bored over there, as you do.”
The solution: develop a tap show for her, introduced by Kearney.
“The show went ballistic, everybody wanted to see it, and a lot of networks pricked their ears up,” he said.
“By this stage, I’d become good friends with Anthony Edwards (Goose from ‘Top Gun’ and, at the time, Dr Greene on the smash hit drama ‘ER’). He had a deal at Warner Brothers, so through them, we got together and got a deal with NBC. We had a little office on the lot, and while we were doing this, I was doing some spots.”
One spot Kearney made a concerted pitch for was a guest role on ‘Friends’ - playing an interpreter who catches Courtney Cox’s eye.
“I auditioned pretty hard for that one,” he said.
“For this small role, they got 12 duos together - because it was a duo kind of role (the story sees Lisa Kudrow’s character fall for a diplomat who can’t speak English. When Kearney’s interpreter keeps interrupting as things start to get romantic, Kudrow enlists Cox on a double date, only to have Cox fall for Kearney at which point Kudrow and her date can no longer talk because Kearney’s interpreter is distracted continuously). So they auditioned us all in front of the producers for hours and hours. They whittled us down - we’d come out, and there’d be a few more gone. Then it was just me, and they said ‘That’s it. You’re hired - get to the set right now.”
Kearney’s experience on the set of ‘Friends’ was somewhat mixed, with an unfortunate mishap proving too much for his scene partner.
“We’re talking, and I laugh at one of her jokes. I laughed through my nose, and out flies this giant booger that lands on my knee,” he said.
“Her mouth just dropped, she was aghast.
“I go ‘whoops’, and I put my hand on it to wipe it off. Then I’m wiping it off with both hands, and she’s just horrified.
“She never spoke to me again. We had two more days of rehearsal, and then we had to shoot the show. She’d be sitting beside me, facing the other way. They’d say ‘action’; she’d turn around and do her thing. Then on ‘cut’, she’d turn the other way again.”
By contrast, Lisa Kudrow - who’d done improv with Kearney years earlier - was far more enthusiastic.
“She was like ‘HEY!!! Let’s do some improv!!’,” he said.
“I’m like ‘Why would you bother? That’s what us losers do. We do improv. To each other. On a Friday night. To nobody. You’ve made it!’ She was still really sweet.”
While the guest work was flowing in, Kearney’s focus was developing the sitcom he was to star in with his wife at NBC.
“It was this kind of ‘I Love Lucy’ about Australians in New York,” he said. NBC was massive with their ‘Must See TV’ so it was a big play. We went in every week for months to take their notes.”
To help boost their profile, Edwards did what he could to promote the tap show in the hopes of getting execs familiar with both the couple and how the sitcom might play.
“We kept doing the tap show, and Tony kept bringing his mates in from ‘ER’ and was trying to get as many NBC people there as possible,” Kearney said.
“We handed the script into NBC, and they said ‘This isn’t for us.’”
The biggest problem, according to Kearney, was herding the various NBC execs that needed to be on board.
“It just takes one person not to have seen you, and not get the script concept,” he said.
“We missed one guy, Warren Littlefield (a Senior and Executive Vice President of NBC). He was the one who didn’t get it and said it’s not an NBC show even though we’d been working with the network for months.”
To try and salvage things, Warners pushed for readings for both NBC and other bidders. Warners asked Kearney to cast a then-unknown comic in one of the read-through roles.
“They asked if we could give this kid, Jimmy Fallon, a gig - because they’d signed him up for a year, hadn’t done anything with him and were about to lose him,” he said.
“Of course, he was going nowhere.”
Another actor brought in for the reading was William H Macy, whose reputation preceded him.
“It was William H Macy! I was thinking ‘How in the hell are we going to act against William H Macy’,” he said.
To fill out the rest of the roles, Anthony Edwards brought in some workmates.
“Tony got a lot of his friends from ‘ER’ to do the other parts… they just had to walk across the road,” Kearney said.
“They were fantastic. They were killing it. People loved them.”
Unfortunately, Kearney and his wife were struggling.
“It was hard to do,” he said.
“We weren’t really prepared. We were as wound up as tight as you could imagine - it was just a terrible morning for us. My wife - who wasn’t really an actor - was terrified that she’d ruined my career.”
Kearney said that by the time the readings came around, the die was cast and the show was dead.
“No-one ever greenlights a pilot once they’ve made up their minds,” he said.
“Of course, everybody passed we went home and drank as many martinis we could. From that day, around 60 or 70 per cent of the people we knew in LA never spoke to us again, because we’d lost the deal. We just said ‘You know what? We’re done here.’ We got pregnant over there, and within four months we left to go back to Australia.”
AN ODDBALL MOVE
For Kearney, returning to Australia was a somewhat humbling move, but his priorities had changed.
“I was ready to move on, and Hollywood had basically kicked me out - so coming back to Australia was massive humble pie,” he said.
“But I came back with the family, which was pretty great. I was really happy to have a baby; I didn’t have to look at myself any more and say ‘I’m going to dye my hair, go to the gym and try and impress people.’ You’ve got to pick yourself up and get on with it. That’s what a family does to you-you can’t just dodge and weave any more.”
While he was landing steady work on the Australian medical/legal drama ‘MDA’, Kearney said he was starting to look further afield to make a living.
“I started writing; I had a film that I was going to direct, but that fell over,” he said.
“The missus was looking at a watch going, ‘Time’s ticking… what are you going to do now?’ And I was like ‘AAARGH!’ I started looking for other producers, and they were saying ‘I’m busy.’ So I said ‘Fuck it. I’ll be the producer, I’ll produce it', and that took me on a very long journey.”
That long journey led Kearney to ‘Oddball’, the story of a farmer who trains his dog to protect an endangered penguin colony.
“I knew I had my little oeuvre of ‘Garbo’ or ‘Nutt House’, but this was really a Disney film that I wanted to make,” he said.
“So even after five years of rejection from people saying ‘We don’t want another penguin film, why would you want to make another penguin film?’ it was great to see it come out so well and to be a success.”
Ultimately, for all the setbacks and strange experiences, Kearney (who now has many feature production credits to his name and has his own production company, Kmunications) says he’s happy with where he’s landed.
“As an actor, you’re part of a big herd of sheep, where you have to do this, stand there, don’t do that, don’t talk to that person,” he said.
“It’s fun being a producer - you can go anywhere. It was a transition to something fulfilling for me. Now, I’m in kind of a really happy place of having gone through all that in LA and still come out the other end.”
Anotherfilmnerd's earliest cinematic memory was seeing Don Johnson throw up all over a suspect in John Frankenheimer's 'Dead Bang'. Ever since, he's devoted his life to searching out cinema that's weird, wonderful and features vomit in the most unlikely of places.