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Television

Jeffrey Tambor’s gender-bending, genre-breaking career

Jeffrey Tambor
Jeffrey Tambor of “Transparent.”
(Christina House / For The Times)

“I love going to work,” Jeffrey Tambor said. “I’ve been very, very lucky. I’m in my 70s, so I’ve done a lot.”

The 72-year-old San Francisco native, who last Sunday won another Emmy for his lead role in in Transparent” — the third season of which recently premiered on Amazon — has a lengthy IMDb page filled with TV shows and movies you may have forgotten he was even in. For Tambor, every one of those opportunities has been a blessing. “If you consider the trifecta of ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ ‘Arrested Development’ and ‘Transparent’ — a quarter of that I would have been happy with, an eighth. A shaving I would have been happy with.”

The Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actor, who will appear in the films “The Accountant” and “Trolls” this fall, has appeared on shows from “Three’s Company” to “The Good Wife” and said he has found that “Transparent” has been his greatest creative work. The role of Maura Pfefferman, a family man who transitions into a woman, came to him like a gift from the show’s creator, Jill Soloway, and he said he is more and more interested in the character’s journey with each new season. “I love that exploration,” he said.  

Here, Tambor discusses some of his most pivotal roles. 

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Maura Pfefferman, “Transparent” (2014-16)

Amy Landecker and Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent.”
Amy Landecker and Jeffrey Tambor in "Transparent."
(Beth Dubber/Amazon Studios via Associated Press )

“I say this every day – and it’s true. Jill Soloway and this project changed everything for me. She gave me the role of a lifetime and the responsibility of a lifetime. There’s a wonderful advantage in playing Maura, in that Maura makes a lot of mistakes and Maura doesn’t quite know how to navigate her life or yet -- or even the day. That’s a wonderful object to play every day. There’s not one day where I don’t feel the tap-tap-tap of ‘Do it right, do it right, do it right.’ There’s a wonderful freedom in that Maura doesn’t know what to expect in these situations, and it’s a great feeling as an actor to play that, to not know how to play that scene.” 

George Bluth Sr./Oscar Bluth, “Arrested Development” (2003-06, ’13)

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Jessica Walter, left, and Jeffrey Tamborin “Arrested Development.”
Jessica Walter, left, and Jeffrey Tamborin "Arrested Development."
(Sam Urdank / Netflix )

“This role was not supposed to go on. I got off the plane from Prague, where I’d been doing ‘Hellboy,’ and my friend Mitch Hurwitz called and said, ‘Hey buddy, I’d love you to come by.’ It was to play George Sr. just for the pilot -- it wasn’t to go on. But they asked me to do it and said they were going to do 13 episodes, and asked me how many did I want to do out of 13. I yelled into the phone, ‘13!’”

Sid, “The Hangover” (2009)

Zach Galifianakis and Jeffrey Tambor in  “The Hangover Part III.”
Zach Galifianakis and Jeffrey Tambor in "The Hangover Part III."
(Warner Bros. )

“It was great. That director [Todd Phillips] has been so kind to repeat my character in the sequels too. I get off planes around the world and people say the movie title to me, and it’s got different names in every country. Or somebody will just sidle up to me on the sidewalk and say, ‘What happens in Vegas … ’”

Tom Manning, “Hellboy” (2004)

effrey Tambor in “Hellboy,”
effrey Tambor in "Hellboy,"
(Jay Maidment / Columbia Pictures )

“Oh, Guillermo del Toro. I just love him. An actor -- I’m not going to tell you who -- had turned down this role at a very late date and they came to me. Every time I see that actor he sort of cringes. I took the role and I had the time of my life. I had never read a comic book. We were not allowed to have comic books. So when they said ‘Hellboy,’ I had no idea what it was. But I like a high diving board. And who knew what a Comic-Con was? You go to a Comic-Con and people know who you are! I was astonished.”

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Hank Kingsley, “The Larry Sanders Show” (1992-98)

Garry Shandling, left, and Jeff Tambor on the set of “The Larry Sanders Show.”
Garry Shandling, left, and Jeff Tambor on the set of "The Larry Sanders Show."
(Robert Gabriel /: Los Angeles TImes )

“Garry Shandling was a great human being. I luckily had a chance to have lunch with him and Judd Apatow in Santa Monica about two months before his passing. I will count that as one of the luckiest and most blessed days of my life. My appreciation for him is boundless. Those were seven spectacular years. I remember every single moment of it.”

Judge Alan Wachtel, “Hill Street Blues” (1981-87)

Jeffrey Tambor in “Hill Street Blues.”
Jeffrey Tambor in "Hill Street Blues."
(NBC )

“I really did love playing Judge Wachtel.  That was groundbreaking.  That broke the mold a little bit. I just liked the edge that [creator] Steve Bochco had.”

Jeffrey P. Brookes III, “The Ropers” (1979-80)

“The first TV show I ever did as a series regular was “The Ropers.” I’d come from Broadway. I was not prepared for this. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. The fact that you did 20 or 30 pages in a week and you got a lot of money was great, but I just never got used to that dichotomy of rehearsing and then performing in front of about 200 people and yet it was going out on the air. I still don’t quite understand that.”

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Medical examiner, “Kojak” (1977)

 “I had about five lines. There was a camera malfunction and when they said ‘Action!’ about 20 minutes later, my mouth had frozen and out came this garble. This indistinguishable garble. You can still see it on television: A young Jeffrey Tambor in New York speaking garble with his eyes wide in terror. And then they said ‘Cut! Print! Moving on!’ As they drove away, I went, ‘Oh, there’s a lot to learn … ’”


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