In “The Hurricane,” David Paymer plays a criminal defense attorney, a small but typically pivotal supporting role. In the film, which opened Wednesday, the respected actor again plays a character key to the film’s plot, but one who doesn’t catch the bad guy or get the girl, and it’s emblematic of why some moviegoers know Paymer’s face more than his name.
Based on a true story, the film stars Denzel Washington as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer wrongly convicted of three New Jersey murders in 1967. Paymer, 44, portrays one of several people who believe in the imprisoned middleweight’s claim that he was framed, and who are volunteering their time to try to get him released.
As a character actor, Paymer has delved into many corners of the world, from boxing and corrupt politics to fixed TV game shows (“Quiz Show”) and out-of-control cattle drives (“City Slickers”). On one multiplex screen he might be in a character-driven ensemble drama, on another a big-budget summer blockbuster. Paymer was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role as Billy Crystal’s brother and agent in 1992’s “Mr. Saturday Night,” and he earned a Golden Globe nomination for HBO’s “Trial of the Century” in 1996, playing the prosecutor in the Lindbergh kidnapping trial.
In his busy career, Paymer has worked for some of Hollywood’s top directors (Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Oliver Stone, Barry Sonnenfeld), and the pace doesn’t slow for him in 2000. He’s in at least four films scheduled for release next year, including “State and Maine,” the latest from writer-director David Mamet, in which he plays a “high-powered movie producer,” a part filled with Mamet’s distinctive, screen-chewing dialogue. In “Bounce,” about a plane crash, director Don Roos (“Opposite of Sex”) cast him as a corporate attorney alongside stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck.
Paymer is polite and soft-spoken with a gentle demeanor, which makes his wry humor and off-color one-liners that much more wicked and unexpected. He pokes fun at Hollywood one minute, and the next acknowledges how lucky he feels to be part of it. A baseball fan, Paymer appreciates his role as a utility player in the industry playing field.
“Sure I prefer to tackle the meaty roles, but let’s use a baseball analogy as long as we’re here,” says Paymer, sitting above the third base line at Dodger Stadium toward the end of this season, watching the Dodgers play the Giants. “If I have to be the 10th man, I can come off the bench and crack a single. I don’t mind doing it if it’s with the right people. There are a lot of actors out there who aren’t working and they’re brilliant.”
The Recognition Factor
Though frequently recognized, the balding Paymer has more of a familiarity that’s hard to put your finger on. “It’s not like I’m Mel Gibson here,” he chuckles, looking around the stadium, eating a giant soft pretzel.
“Excuse me, what TV show have I seen you in?” asks a young man who’s wandered down the stadium aisle. “It’s driving me nuts.”
Paymer was seen earlier this year as a heroin dealer with Gibson in “Payback,” and as a psychologist in writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s “Mumford” this fall.
“It’s probably a movie, ‘Payback’?” Paymer guesses. Blank stare, so Paymer tries again. “ ‘City Slickers’?” He was one of the novice cowboys driving cattle in the 1991 comedy, also starring Crystal.
“ ‘City Slickers,’ that’s it. Thanks.”
“Sometimes you get kinda desperate,” Paymer says after the fan walks away. “You mention a couple of movies and nothing. I’ve even said, ‘Well, I did an episode of “Jake and the Fat Man” back in ’84.’ Suddenly it’s turned around, like you’re trying to convince them you’ve been in something.”
In “Quiz Show” (1994), directed by Redford, Paymer played network TV executive Dan Enright, his first “bad guy” role. Stone said he cast Paymer as press secretary Ron Ziegler in “Nixon” (1995), starring Anthony Hopkins, because of a “certain anonymity combined with his understated charm.” Paymer appeared in Spielberg’s “Amistad” (1997), also starring Hopkins, and he played a presidential advisor in Rob Reiner’s “An American President” (1995) with Michael Douglas.
“He’s a gentle actor with a great deal of power,” said Crystal, who directed “Mr. Saturday Night.” After Paymer’s Oscar nomination was announced “he called me and said he felt bad I wasn’t nominated too,” Crystal said, “and I said, ‘Hey, dope, I’m taking some pride in this too you know. I was your director.’ ”
Paymer, married and the father of a 5-year-old daughter, considers that film and “Quiz Show” (1994) the 1-2 punch of his career so far. " After ‘Mr. Saturday Night’ I got to eat at the grown-ups’ table. But I was in makeup and played a 70-year-old man for part of the movie. In ‘Quiz Show’ I was the villain and it showed the industry another dimension of what I could do.”
Building Confidence and a Career
Paymer is working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, and it gives him a sense of having arrived, but when he was a younger actor, carving a career path was a process in confidence-building, especially for someone without traditional leading-man looks.
“For me the guy who changed it was Dustin Hoffman,” Paymer recalls. “He really proved that a character actor could be a leading man. I used a fake ID to sneak into ‘The Graduate,’ well, to see Anne Bancroft’s breasts, but to see Hoffman’s performance too, of course. That gave me the message that you didn’t have to be the square-jawed, great-looking guy. You could be short and have a big nose and you could still play lead roles.”
Though he’s never worked with Hoffman, Paymer has worked with Al Pacino, another of his acting idols, in “City Hall” (Paymer was the scheming mayoral chief of staff). And some of the directors he’s worked with have been his heroes for years.
“To work with the legends like Jewison [director of “The Hurricane], who made ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ I’ve been lucky. ‘Body Heat’ [directed by Kasdan] is one of my favorite movies. I saw it as a relatively young actor. I never dreamed I’d ever work with him. Spielberg offered me the role in ‘Amistad’ out of the blue. You don’t even realize they know who you are.”
Paymer is grateful his resume and reputation are growing, and he prefers focusing on his craft, not the business side of Hollywood. But he says his continued success hasn’t always translated into bigger paychecks. Studios are scaling back production slates, and when overhead gets cut, he said, choosing his words carefully, it’s usually not from the top.
“There’s an inclination to cast the major stars who will probably get their quotes and then not be as concerned with filling out the cast with well-known supporting players,” said Paymer, who feels lucky he’s never had to use his fallback plan: being a shrink. "[Studios] are . . . trying to hit home runs on the special-effects movies. That does have an effect on character actors.
“Sure you want to work with Spielberg and Redford and, yes, you want a script that’s about something, like ‘Mumford.’ You don’t often get to act in a script that’s about people, so you’ll take a pay cut to work with some of the legends and to play a great role because they’re making fewer of those movies. When Mamet says, ‘Paymer, I’ve got this great role,’ you don’t say, ‘You better meet my price.’ You say, ‘When do we start?’ ”
Paymer, who’s also been in dozens of television shows, is actively trying to create his own film opportunities, and draws inspiration from other actors turned writer-directors, like Stanley Tucci and Tim Robbins. He’s optioned “Social Deviants,” a black comedy he may produce, direct and/or star in, and he’s attached to direct “Grace,” a coming-of-age drama.
“If I’m lucky, Mamet calls, or Redford. But I’m saying I can find roles like those too. That’s why I’m on this new path. This is a way of taking control.”
“He’d be a great director,” said Kasdan, whose movies include “Body Heat,” “The Big Chill” and “The Accidental Tourist.” “George Lucas said to me a long time ago it’s not anything about the technical stuff; it’s what kind of person you are. [Paymer is] one of the loveliest guys I’ve met in the business.”
Though he’s seeking new creative outlets, Paymer is clearly most proud of being a character actor. He feels a link to the great character actors of the past, such as Walter Brennan, Ward Bond and Martin Balsam, and of the present, like Jack Warden.
“Jack Warden and Martin Balsam were both in ‘Twelve Angry Men,’ ” he recalls of the 1957 film. “Jack Warden was the Yankee fan, remember? [He’s] still at it. I just think that’s something to admire.”