Offbeat actor savors successes
He was inspired by a lawyer, but remembered best for Darryl and Darryl.
By LUAINE LEE
When William Sanderson did all the talking for his two brothers, Darryl and Darryl, on "Newhart," he had little inkling that it would lead to a bonanza of great character roles.
Parts in films like "Last Man Standing," "Lonesome Dove" and "Monte Walsh" have already registered in the public eye.
But it's his latest role as the lace-collared, slimy opportunist, E.B. Farnum, on HBO's "Deadwood," that matches his well-honed skills.
Sanderson's enormously grateful to the show's executive producer, David Milch, for hiring him.
"I think he's a genius if you define it like this," Sanderson said. "Talent's doing what other people want to do. Genius is doing what talent wants to do."
Courtroom calling denied
Sanderson studied for the law, inspired, he says, by Adlai Stevenson.
"He said he thought law was still the most noble profession because it was saving somebody's life," Sanderson said. "So I entertained thoughts of being a flamboyant criminal lawyer. Maybe I had a basic fascination with crime. But once I started acting, there was a release. Can I say simply I love the adrenaline?"
As a teenager, Sanderson was an athlete, but he got into trouble with the law for stealing cars when he was 15. Later, at Southern Methodist University, he was tagged for what he calls, "public drunkenness and disorderly conduct" and put on probation.
After college, he chucked the law and headed for New York.
"Six years in that cold water flat, I didn't see it as struggling," he shakes his bearded head. "It was the most exciting city in the world to me, maybe Paris was the most beautiful in my limited travels. But some of the most intelligent people were living in the village and I'm always in awe of writers and artists, so I got to be around them."
He had a drinking problem, but still landed the first independent movie he tried out for.
"The agent said, 'This is a movie, Billy, you're going to have to try to impress them.' I rode the subway up and put a cigarette in my nose and had barefoot flip-flops on and turned my jacket inside out. And I looked kinda crazy and scared them to death ..."
Sanderson, 57, always managed to impress in spite of being "kind of a conservative, plodding, slow-climbing-a-hill Capricorn."
He played memorable roles in "Blade Runner," "The Onion Field" and "Coal Miner's Daughter." And though he doesn't elaborate, he still suffered the service of a probation officer when he was costarring on "Newhart."
After some stormy times he quit drinking. His second wife, Sharon, is largely responsible for that, he says. He credits her with most good things in his life.
"She could be president or CEO of a corporation. I say, 'You're the CEO of William J. Sanderson, Inc.,"' he said.
Sanderson has a 24-year-old son by his first wife who lives in North Carolina.
He dreams of being a good husband and father, he says, with a far-off glance. While he was straightening his life out he went through analysis and recalls his darkest hour.
"I was driving home from Northern California and thought about killing myself. I'd talked to my mother on the phone -- it's just a nightmare -- she said, 'Think about Andy.' That's my son. And it was the best advice I ever had."