Profile : Wonder Dad : Dan Lauria Is Parental Again In NBC’s Movie About ‘The Big One’
I’ve never been married and I have never had any kids,” said Dan Lauria, “but Ikeep getting these parts.”
Over the last three years, Lauria, along with Bill Cosby and Homer Simpson, hasbecome one of the best-known TV dads in America thanks to his memorable role asthe grumpy, larger-than-life Jack Arnold, the father of 14-year-old Kevin Arnold(Fred Savage) on ABC’s “The Wonder Years.”
The Long Island native is portraying another husband and father in NBC’stwo-part miniseries, “The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake,” which airsSunday and Monday.
Lauria plays the landscape architect husband of a U.S. seismologist (JoannaKerns) who believes a major earthquake is about to hit Los Angeles.
“I am a nice guy and I support her. I am not a grump like I am on this show,” hesaid over lunch at “The Wonder Years” set in Culver City.
The actor said the miniseries bears no resemblance to the 1974 film"Earthquake.” “I see this as a protest film,” he said. ‘Seismologists feel nowthat in a 48-hour period they can predict major earthquakes. The governmentpolicy is not to inform the people because they fear panic will cause moredeaths. A lot of seismologists feel that if people were warned they could be insafer places. That’s the issue of the movie.”
Lauria may be the prototype ‘60s dad on “The Wonder Years,” but before theseries he was usually cast as a killer or policeman: “I played a killer pimp on’One Life to Live.’ ” My claim to fame is that I am the one who raped Judy Light(Judith Light of “Who’s the Boss?”) on television.”
Lauria was also kicked off the air by the Rev.Jerry Falwell. “It was 1981 and hecomplained about violence on daytime TV,” he said. So without a warning, ABCgave Lauria his pink slip.
“It all worked out for the best,” he said. “The following year they brought on anew bad guy and he needed a henchman, so they brought me back. So I was atwo-year bad guy.”
While a fledgling actor in New York, Lauria found it difficult to get an agent."They said I was a hard sell because I wasn’t anything,” he said. “I wasn’ttall, I wasn’t short, I wasn’t fat, I wasn’t skinny, I wasn’t handsome, I wasn’tugly. I just didn’t fit anything. I was really depressed and my teacher said,'How lucky you are.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said when they find out youcan act, that means you can play anything. So now, I am getting a chance to playanything.”
Lauria receives letters from fathers after certain episodes of “The WonderYears.” “The one where I brought little Fred to work with me I got 50 fanletters, all from older men saying, ‘Thanks a lot. Now I know why my son thinksI am a such a jerk.’ ”
Lauria doesn’t think Jack Arnold has changed, but “the kids, especially Kevin,are starting to see the practicalities of life and how his father deals withthat,” Lauria said.
Lauria’s own parents were wonderful. “It’s a real handicap in L.A.,” he saidwith a laugh. “I have no hang-ups. I don’t have to go to psychiatrists. Theywere really nice people. My father was a very quiet, gentle guy and my mother isjust funny. So I had a great childhood.
“We weren’t rich, but I played sports all of my life, which I really thinkhelped me with acting as far as discipline. Jack Arnold is not like my dad. Inever saw my dad growl. Where Jack growls, my father would have probably laughedit off.”
Despite his success on the series, Lauria’s main love is the theater. Last yearhe produced the hit play “A Bronx Tale” in Los Angeles and sold the film rightsto Universal. “Robert De Niro is directing and starring in it,” he said. “Theyare supposed to start shooting by August, 1991, and we got paid, so if theydon’t shoot we still keep the money.”
Lauria has been trying for years to persuade the film and TV industries tosupport theater as a form of development. “It costs about $30,000 to do one ofthese waiver (small theater) plays for five weeks,” said Lauria. “But you knowwhat? It cost us $30,000 to do ‘A Bronx Tale,’ and we made a deal for $1.7million. It’s a very cheap form of development. The head of development’sexpense account at any studio is going to exceed what it costs for us to put onfour plays.”
He hopes to finish “The Wonder Years” early this season so he can get back toNew York City and the stage. “I haven’t done a play in two years,” Lauria said."I was always very happy when I was in a play. Half of them I didn’t get paidfor, but I didn’t care. We were doing good work.
“My agents were the ones who said I had won enough awards and now it was time toget national recognition. The only way to do that was to get on a series or do afilm, and that’s why I came out here. Now hopefully, when ‘The Wonder Years’ isover, I can go back and do theater. No good actor stays away from the theatertoo long.”
“The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake” airs Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m.on NBC. “The Wonder Years” airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.