Sunday, 25 January 2015

All Grown Up - An interview with Michael Fishman

Still no answers to my ad... 'Wanted large house for large family and extended family, Illinois, Ladford area'... Not much to ask I thought.

I sipped my coffee and scoured the sales and lettings pages in the Tribune, but all I could find were 2 bedroom apartments and a dodgy looking 6 bedroom place that I swear was that hostel where all those kids died... sigh...  I just needed 4 bedrooms, a good sized outhouse and, in my dreams, a pool, was that too much to ask for?

Suddenly I felt a vibration in my pocket... what the hell?... Ah, it was just my phone, I didn't recognise the number and it was out of state, it couldn't possibly be one of the hundreds of real estate agents I had called, but you live in hope.

I answered with a confident 'Hello!' - you know, just in case - and asked how could I help and if it was to do with a house... And, oh my goodness it was! And not only that, but it sounded perfect! The family who had lived there had 4 kids... Like us... and an extended family of, what sounded like, eccentrics... Yep, that all sounded very familiar! It was in the perfect area and well within our budget, so what was the catch? There just had to be a catch, there always was... No heating? No bath tubs? No windows?!  
But it was still worth a gambit, so I took down the address, but as I was writing something came over me... Why was this guys voice so familiar? Why did this whole situation seem familiar? A home, a family, 4 kids, a mom and dad and a family of misfits and crazies? in Illinois? In Landford? Why did that all seem so familiar?

Should I ask for a name? Maybe that would give me a clue as to why these bells were ringing so hard in my head...

... And as soon as he told me the bells had stopped and a familiar tune started playing in my head a very, very familiar tune...

"If what doesn't kill us makes us stronger,
We're gonna last longer,
Like the Great Wall of China
Or that rabbit with the drum..."

And then it all made sense, the family, the address, the madness, his voice!... I was talking to Michael Fishman, the second youngest of the Connor clan from the monumentally successful 'Roseanne' show!

Wow, this was an opportunity not to be missed...  So, making small talk, I dashed to my car, fed the zipcode into my Sat-Nav, put Michael on speaker phone and started off... Man, I needed to see this house, not only did it sound perfect, but it was a famous landmark in it's own right! 

After I had safely pulled away, I started to ask him some questions... 

You were only 6 when you started on Roseanne, did you truly realise what you had gotten into?
"Being six when we started, I never could’ve imagined how amazing and life altering the experience would be."

And how did you get the job? How did you hear about it? 
"My sister Robyn had been auditioning for commercials, usually I went along with her.  It seemed fun to me so I asked if I could try doing it too."

So, what? You didn't have any experience?! 
"Truthfully, I was brand new.  Never taken an acting class, barely started auditioning."

Wow... You'd never know!
" signed with an agent but there was no work due to the Writer’s Strike of 1988.  The first audition for Roseanne came up and my parents didn’t want me to try out for Television or Movies.  (Nothing long term)  After seven auditions spanning about months I earned the role of D.J."

I hope your sister wasn't to jealous!

Now I hear that you were the second DJ? How did they tell you that you had got the part after all?
It wasn’t until after I was hired we discovered Carsey-Werner had already done the pilot episode."
"Roseanne was already picked up by ABC, and the decision to re-cast D.J. was already made long before I ever auditioned the first time.  All of this I learned later."

So, what did you have to do to audition? 
"It was a series of pages with about three or four lines usually.  Each time I went back for another round there were less kids in the running but more people in the casting room."

And your parents, did they encourage your drama ambitions? They weren't in the industry themselves, so how did it all start… so young?
"My sister had been approached by someone who introduced kids to agents.  She pushed to do commercials because even that young she wanted to earn money for college.  My parents both worked very normal jobs and no one in my family had any experience in the entertainment industry.  We were totally na├»ve."

Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold are such dominating and larger than life figures, what did it feel like to meet and work with them?
"I initially met Roseanne during the audition process. We immediately hit it off. She and I had a very close relationship from the start. John on the other hand is a mountain of man. We first met after I'd been hired and we didn't quite know how to interact besides general pleasantries. John is very quiet if you don't know him. Once you do he's loyal, kind and strong. John and I really grew together. When he was training to play Babe Ruth he had to learn to do everything left handed. We spend hours playing catch, it solidified our bond."

Do you think they would really make good parents together? In 'real life'?
"Roseanne definitely took a maternal role in my life.  

But did you learn any parenting tips from Roseanne?! 
She remains a huge supporter and caring influence in my life.  I was lucky most of my adult co-workers embraced me."

Now it must have been fun on set but, being just a kid you get told of much?
"As a group we were pretty well behaved.  It’s a professional environment so while you can have fun, you know what’s expected."

But I bet it was fun!?
"The set was a fun, playful, wild place.  Unbelievably talented writers, producers and performers all got their big break on Roseanne.  Legendary performers came through, while a powerful creative vision was being forged.

Among my favourite memories are during mistakes, or goofy characters our cast would break off into to make each other laugh.  Great writers and comics pitching jokes, teasing each other or telling stories."

But were you babied? 
"I wouldn’t say I was babied.  My co-workers expected a lot out me.  From the beginning I took interest in everyone.  Wanted to know what they did, how they did it, what their beliefs were.  It became like having two hundred aunts and uncles each helping to shape me as a young man.  My female co-workers tried to make a gentleman, while the men tried to instil skills and values they respected.
           .... And how did you, and the others, handle puberty moods? 
I wasn’t moody on set that I know of.  I was profoundly happy on set."

'Turn left at the next junction and keep going straight for the next 10 blocks...' Instructed the Satnav, I turned as it said, looks like the house wasn't as far as I had thought. 

How did your parents... your real parents react to the show? Did they imagine for a second that they were signing you up to a series that would last so long?
"If my parents had any idea the show was a long term commitment they never would’ve let me do it.  
And were they on the set much?
My parents, grandfather or a nanny brought me each day.  They took turns as each shifted their full time work schedules to accommodate my busy show schedule."

Did your parents ever object to anything you were asked to do?
"No because when a difficult episode idea came up usually Roseanne and the producers would talk to my parents first, then to me to make sure I was comfortable."

Now you had soooo many amazing stars guesting on the show... when were you last star struck? 
"For the most part I was never usually star stuck with fellow actors.  I always had great respect for fellow performers.  My co-workers always tried to make me aware of beautiful history unfolding around me.

We had so many great guest stars. I could name drop for days. Red Buttons, Debbie Reynolds, Milton Berle, Shecky Green, Tony Curtis, Ed Asner, Cher, Bruce Willis, Bob Denver, Bob Hope…

A lot of up and coming greats who were unknowns: George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire,  James Pickens Jr., Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dan Floreck, Stephen Dorf, Zoe Perry, Frances Fisher, Brad Garrett, Ashley Johnson, Ellen, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Tucker, Chris Farley

The only time I remember being star struck at a fellow performer was in the early 90’s at the Golden Globes.  I introduced myself to Robin Williams...
Robin Williams?! Wow, What did you say?
... you don't really say much. Robin goes a mile a minute, you try to keep up and hear through all the laughter.

For me I was more awe struck by old baseball players."

Oh yes, George Clooney! What was he like? Did you ever believe he would be as massive as he is today?
"I think all the cast felt George was a star!  Some of the producers missed his talent.  He was cool, kind, and authentically him, meaning a loveable scamp who did good work, enjoying every minute.  
He used to call me, “The Fish MAN”
His varied career, humanitarian work, and ability to stay humble while driven are all hugely inspiring to me.  Remembering when he was a young guy chasing his dream keeps me motivated as I chart my course as an adult in the industry.  I’d like to emulate many of those traits.  We both love this business and feel lucky every day we work."

And now you're the star! How does that feel?
"Being recognized all the time definitely alters things, usually subtle things.  It was impossible to go anywhere anonymously most of my life.  In some ways that was good though because I knew I couldn’t get away with bad behaviour without embarrassing my co-workers, employers and family.  In my case not having anonymity likely made me more responsible."
And at the time how did your peers see you?
"It was a mixed reaction.  Some didn’t care, those usually were my friends.  Many tried to use it to criticise or tease me."  
"At times there has been jealousy.  More than a few people tried to bully or starts fights but truthfully every kid gets teased or challenged growing up.  I loved what I did so much it was always worth it."

But surely it interfered with everyday life? I mean how did you do your school work? 
"I had just started local public school when the show started. My parents not knowing how it would turn out, and desperately wanting me to keep normalcy kept me in that same local school.  I’d take the work from class with me and do it with my studio teacher Lynn Raines.  Then on days and weeks we didn’t work I went back to public school all the way through high school."

But did you ever want to just be a "normal kid"?
"Growing up living a very public life comes with a lot of responsibility but I never wanted a different life.  To this day I love being on set! Collaborating, taking chances, making the editors life difficult by doing good work.  For me I chose this path and have loved my experiences."

And how does it feel to watch yourself now?
"It’s surreal to watch the show now.  It feels like home movies.  I’m transported back, remembering things that occurred behind the scenes. 

Mostly when I watch now, I’m studying my cast mates.  Easy today to be star stuck by the talent of John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Roseanne, Estelle Parsons, Shelley Winters, Martin Mull, Sara Gilbert, Johnny Galecki… on and on.

I watched masters work every day.  Not only were they my co-workers, they were my friends and family."  

'Make a U turn at the earliest convenience'  the Sat-Nav cried, oh dear, I must have missed my turn. I pulled up to the side of the road and paused the Sat-Nav, I think I better concentrate on one thing at a time and this conversation was definitely more important right now! I turned off the engine, put my feet on the dash and carried on with my questions.

During the 5th and 6th season, Becky changed...  she left for college and I know that it changes you... But this college seemed to change her for a totally different girl! Well actually the actors that played Becky changed from Alicia 'Lecy' Goranson to Sarah Chalke... What was it like when the change over happened? 
"When Lecy left for college it was sad, but we all wanted to support her decision.  They waited a year in case she changed her mind.  Finally they decided to recast the role.
How quickly did she fit in?
Sarah came in a bundle of positive energy.  That was a tough role to step into and she was tremendous." 

And can you say who you thought made the best sister?
"For me they’re both amazing, just in different unique ways.  You can’t pick between siblings."

Good answer... Very diplomatic...

Now, I heard the Roseanne had a crush on John Goodman… Did you notice anything?
"John Goodman is an energizing and engaging person.  I think the whole cast had an electricity that drew us all together."

How did Roseanne describe DJ to you? Or were you just yourself? Are you just DJ?
"We never really sat down and defined characters.  They grew from week to week.  D.J. clearly was an odd kid at times.  Like any actor glimpses of me shine through him but he and I were very different.

I was more of a rough and tumble, athletic sports enthusiast.  D.J. was more introverted and socially awkward.  I’m more of an optimist.  We have very different ways of showing emotion but I think D.J. and I share a very gentle open heart."

Did it feel like a real family after all that time? And after 9 years, it must have been such a strain to leave them all?
"Being my first job, spanning nine years the cast and crew definitely were a second family for me.  Six to fifteen are very formative years.  It was a lot like having two hundred extended family members all with very unique perspectives and views.  I was like a sponge soaking up everything I could from everyone.  When the show ended it was a very hard transition for me because I legitimately loved our cast and crew."

And when was the last time you go together with the cast?
"Roseanne, Sara Gilbert, Lecy Goranson and I were all on “The Talk” for Roseanne’s birthday in November.  I’ve talked to Goodman via email.  Laurie and I usually text. 

I’ve tried really hard to stay in contact with co-workers.  Actors can sometimes be nomadic moving from project to project but I believe it’s important to be accessible to people who are kind to us in life."

And I couldn't not ask... Why was corn shown or mentioned in almost every episode?!!! 
"Not sure if it really is every episode but I know they fight over Dan making dinner in the pilot and he picks up cream corn.  It just became a standard inside joke for us.  The chicken shirt was much the same way."

So, did you hang around with other celeb kids? 
"I always did a lot of charity events.  Groups like RADD, DARE, and UNICEF meant events, parties and traveling with other child actors."

Now, I thought... Onto something other than DJ… Well sort of...

Did you ever feel typecast as DJ? 
"Undoubtedly someone will call me D.J. when I’m old but I’ll never regret that.  As for being typecast it does weigh in others people’s minds.  Truthfully though, even if someone does hold it against me it’s my job to do exceptional work and overcome it."

So, would you do it all again?
"My beautiful experience playing D.J. helped shape who I am today.  I wouldn’t trade that experience for a little easier path now." 

When you appeared in Seinfeld, was that a very different experience?
"Seinfeld was a great experience but a much quieter set.  I was lucky enough to get to do a scene with James Spader who is tremendously talented.  In hindsight I’ve worked on two iconic sitcoms." 

On other projects, do any actors ever quiz you about your time on Roseanne?
"As actors we frequently talk shop.  I’m always humbled by how impactful Roseanne was in so many people’s lives. 

Working on Hitz with Reno Wilson and Andrew Dice Clay we talked about the show, and cast quite a bit.  Recently while shooting the film Undrafted many of my cast mates had questions.  It’s an honor to have been involved in a project that people are still so passionate about."

Now you have been lucky to have escaped the ‘Hollywood kid actors ruining their lives’ syndrome… How did you think you dodged this bullet?
"Life is about choices.  My parents and co-workers always strived to keep me from being a negative statistic.  There’s a lot of good child actors who’ve grown up to be productive adults.  We all make mistakes, being public with additional opportunities comes with greater responsibility."

What’s your favourite celeb story?
 "It’s hard to share stories, so many, and they all sound like bragging.
In the mid 90’s I was on the red carpet at the Gold Globes.  Somehow I ended upbehind John Travolta, and before Christian Slater.  They had just done Broken Arrow together.  We are walking the red carpet and Christian Slater and I started talking, joking as we take hundreds of still pictures.  We caught up to Travolta and Christian introduced me to John as Fish.  It remains a surreal cool moment.

We taped an episode of Roseanne with Milton Berle, who came up to me and said, “Saw you did a show in drag. If you can do that now you can do anything”.

My first time on the Tonight Show Johnny Carson suddenly couldn’t do the show.  The fill in host was Jay Leno.  As if that wasn’t humbling enough I was on before Jerry Seinfeld.

In 2003 I attended ABC’s 50th Anniversary as they brought all the former personalities from ABC productions on stage (it took a while) I was one of the first people backstage.  Sitting mid stage with the curtains closed in a wheelchair was Muhammad Ali.  I immediately introduced myself.  We talked for fifteen minutes.  Then as celebrities joined us back stage they’d come up to meet the champ, say something and leave before he could get a response out.  His smartass remarks were brilliant."  

That was better than I had hoped for! Fabulous!

You're also a bit of a dare devil... I mean you even performed your own stunts in Walker, Texas ranger did you? 
"I was so excited to work with Chuck Norris.  After I was hired reading the script I was shocked I had a fight sequence with him.  I begged to get to do it myself.  How many people get to fight a legend like Chuck Norris?!
I know I wouldn't fancy squaring up to Ground Chuck!  Wasn’t that scary? I mean, there were knives!
When the scene came first take they said try to resist.  My adrenaline was off the charts.  We do the first take, I’m hand checking and resisting. Take ends, the stunt coordinator came up to me and said, “this time try to stab toward him and then just stay relaxed”. The next three takes Chuck Norris tied me in knots and threw me around like rag doll"

Actually you appear to be far less than lazy anyway! Coaching baseball and softball and working with underprivileged kids must be so rewarding? 
"I love to coach.  So many kind people took an interest in me in my life that didn’t have to.  I try to be a positive helpful force for others paying it forward."
And you managed a Korean Team?! Was that in Korea?
"Almost all my playing and all of my coaching has been here in the U.S."

I suppose the kids know you as Michael, rather than DJ, but what’s the reaction when you tell them who you are… From them - and their parents?!
"I’m surprised how many of the kids know the show.  It makes sense though because many of the parents are around my age and are sharing the show with their kids.

In the beginning it’s a fun quirky fact, but when you’re coaching it quickly becomes about how you treat them and what knowledge you have to share."

You also acted in A.I...
"It was an exciting set.  Spielberg adopted the film from Kubrick it was a huge film with more footage than two films.  Working with Jude Law and Adrian Grenier was awesome.

Again I admire Steven Spielberg so much.  I’d met him a few times over the years and he’s on everyone’s wish list.  Actually he’s one of those people in this business I’d just love to sit down with and learn from.  I’m so hungry for another opportunity with him partially because I don’t feel like I had an opportunity to reward him hiring me enough.

It must have been such fun working on Jay Leno's show? 
Jay Leno might be the best joke for joke comic in a club I’ve ever seen.  I wish I could have him mentor me in stand-up.  I’ve also known a number of crew members who’ve worked for him on his shows and I cannot say enough about the way he treated them.
And what was he like? Was he encouraging?
His work ethic is something I try to emulate.  Each time I was on the Tonight Show he really supported me and made sure I got credit.  He was very kind to me."

In 2005 you ranked # 52 of VH1's The Greatest (1998)"100 Greatest Kid Stars of all time". That must be a thrill to know?! Who do you think would make a good DJ if the series was made today? 
"If they were casting a new D.J. I’d hope they’d pick a new unknown.  I love when a dream gets his chance."

What is the best acting tip you have received? Or you can give? 
“Don’t judge your own work”, “Lead with your heart”, “An actor should never shrug anything off”

I checked my watch, Darn, I had to be at school to pick up the kids in 45 minutes... I decided, how ever much I was enjoying this, I really had to get on. Putting my feet back on the peddles, un-pausing the Sat-Nav and moving the stick into drive, I pulled off, but the questions didn't stop...

Would you encourage your kids to get into acting? What if it was you in your parents position?
"I’ve had a predominately positive experience acting.  If my kids wanted to try it I would whole heartedly support them.   I believe in chasing dreams, believing against the odds and hard work.  It is a job, it does come with challenges and responsibilities but if you are passionate about go for it and find out." 

And then only 2 minutes from where I'd stopped the Sat-Nav spoke again telling me to pull into the left and 'You have now reached your destination'... I've never wanted a journey to last longer in my life, ah well... But maybe I could squeeze another question out before I went to check out the house.

And what do you think you’d be doing now if you hadn’t been an actor? 
"I’d love to lie and say Major League Baseball Player but I wouldn’t have been that good.  Likely I’d be a veterinarian."

Good choice of vocation I thought, Michael seemed a very caring man so I could really see that happening... 

I turned off the engine and got out, there it was, the house... That yellow painted porch, the door, the garden, the shutters... It was unmistakable! I noticed the realtor standing out front, ooh maybe I could catch her, but as I made my way up the path, I just had time for one last question...

Finally, In the fall of 2008 Barr said, on what the Conners would be up to now, "I've always said now that if they were on TV, DJ would have been killed in Iraq and [the Conners] would have lost their house."… But what do you think D.J. and the others would be up to now?
"I actually wrote a script about where I think D.J. would be now.  Obviously I don’t own any of the rights so I cannot share it but when I started writing I felt it was a good practice with characters I knew well.
I love Roseanne’s idea that he joined the military. Obviously if he died in Iraq I wouldn’t have much of a character to play.  In my mind he’s a Dad with a few kids carrying over some of the lessons he learned from Roseanne and Dan to be middle class loving parent."

I waved to the realtor, unmistakable in her red jacket and saying a giant thank you to Michael before hanging up, requested to look inside property... 'Not that I really need to' I joked... 'I mean I watched that living-room every week for years after all!'

She smiled sweetly and opened the door... But what was this? This wasn't the Connors living-room?! This wasn't how I remember it! What? How...? Oh.... 

That was the moment when realisation set in and I suddenly understood why the interior of this house didn't seem right... Because the interior of this house was not real at all, but was actually just a TV set in the CBS studio centre, hundreds of miles away in California!!!... What an idiot! 

Ah well, I suppose it's back to the newspaper ads for me... 

For more info on Michael go to: his Wikipedia page, IMDB or his Facebook page.

Oh and in case you're wondering, the actual house is at 619 South Runnymeade Avenue, Evansville, Indiana, USA and I do not advise driving whilst on the phone - speaker, or otherwise.