Interview: Actor Paul Dooley on Getting to Portray Dad

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CHICAGO – After he reigned as the father in the classic 1979 film “Breaking Away,” actor Paul Dooley suddenly became everyone’s Dad – and by everyone that meant Molly Ringwald (“Sixteen Candles”), Julia Roberts (“Runaway Bride”) and Helen Hunt (“Mad About You”). He tells all in PART TWO of a comprehensive interview.

The former “Paul Brown’ was born in West Virginia, and studied acting at West Virginia University, before heading to New York City and a new career as Paul Dooley. He did stage work, stand-up comedy and the New York City version of The Second City. He got his big break in the original stage version of “The Odd Couple” in 1965, directed by the legendary Mike Nichols. While working the stage, he appeared in a number of commercials, eventually moving to Los Angeles to “be where the action is.”

Paul Dooley (right) Being Dad with Justin Henry and Carlin Glynn in ‘Sixteen Candles’
Photo credit: Universal Home Video

After doing a number of TV sitcom and drama parts, he made his film debut in “The Out of Towners” (1970), From there, it was a number of character parts, most notably for director Robert Altman, where he played – you guessed it – a Dad in “A Wedding” (1978). He would have roles in five other Altman films. He was reunited with this movie son Dennis Christopher the very next year in the classic, Oscar-Best-Picture nominated “Breaking Away.” With his catchphrase line of “REFUND,” he created an indelible character for the cinema ages.

Dooley followed up with another heartwarming Dad role, that of Molly Ringwald’s father in “Sixteen Candles” (1984), for director John Hughes. From the 1980s to the present, he’s been a steady player on TV and in the movies, with roles in “Runaway Bride,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Mad About You,” “The Player,” “Waiting for Guffman” (for director Christopher Guest), “Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ and a voice actor in “Cars.” He recently had a hit one-man show called “Upright and Personal,” which was named best of the “Hollywood Fringe Festival,” and was staged again for that honor. There were no “REFUNDS” given at that event, because it was a smash.

PART TWO of the Paul Dooley’s interview with explores his “overnight success” after being discovered by director Robert Altman in 1977, and how a small film shot in Bloomington, Indiana, led to movie immortality, a signature catchphrase and bigger and better things for the actor from that point all the way to today. How did you meet Robert Altman, and what do you think was his behind his decision to make you part of his ensemble?

Dooley: I was doing a show off-Broadway, and it was an evening of comic book characters come to life, based on the drawings of Jules Feiffer, and Altman was actually staying near the theater and popped in – that’s when we met. We talked for awhile, and again, the other people in the show was not pleased because he was giving me the attention. [laughs]

The next day, I went to his New York City offices, and that’s when he offered me ‘The Wedding’ with Carol Burnett. I made five more films with him. I actually told my friends at the time if I didn’t screw up, I would probably be in more than one Altman film, and it came to pass. I was in Bloomington, Indiana, near the summer and fall of 1978, when you were filming ‘Breaking Away.’…

Dooley: I love that town, and the stone quarries. So many of the buildings and houses there were made of limestone. The quarry we shot in was called ‘The Empire Quarry,’ because the stone from it built the Empire State Building. The expert worker job title was ‘sculptors,’ because they actually sculpted columns out of that limestone to go in front of courthouses and other grand buildings.

The scene where the character Ray goes back to the his old quarry mates wasn’t well received by the studio, they didn’t think it should be in the film – it didn’t have anything to do with the family or the race. The director Peter Yates told them, ‘yeah, but it has everything to do with this guy.’ He still wanted to be with those craftsmen.

The Pitch Man: Paul Dooley Does a Top Job in his Early Career
Photo credit: How much of that film came outside the script, and who came up with the way you were going to line read the word, ‘REFUND?’

Dooley: It was all written. When I performed this script, I didn’t suggest anything, because it was the best written script I had seen up to that point [Steve Tesich won an Oscar for the screenplay]. ‘REFUND’ was in there, and it’s become my hallmark.

Truck drivers to this day will lean out of their windows and say the line back to me. I think I said it maybe seven times in the film, and each line reading was slightly different. To this day, I will write it on pictures when people ask me for an autograph. You and Dennis Christopher – your son in ‘Breaking Away’ – had previously played father and son in Robert Altman’s, ‘A Wedding.’ How did that help you chemistry in ‘Breaking Away’?

Dooley: It was easy working with Dennis, because I did know him. We spent eight weeks on ‘A Wedding’ and spent time together. On ‘Breaking Away,’ it just made it easier to do scenes with him. We had a rapport. We are still friends, and see each other all the time. If he’s doing a play, I’ll go see it. Of all the cast of ‘Breaking Away,’ he’s the one I see socially – he came recently to see my one man show.

We played father and son one more time, as criminals on ‘Law and Order’ [laughs]. The last scene was of us being led out in handcuffs, together. What role do people come up to you and remember, and which role do you wish people would come up to you and remember, and why?

Dooley: Well, the role I wish is the role I did – it’s ‘Breaking Away.’ If they’re under 30 and female…they remember ‘Sixteen Candles.’ How did you like working with John Hughes?

Dooley: He was great, and really was a big kid. Generally on a film, once the day’s shooting is done, the director will go out with a producer or someone who is supervising stuff on the production, but John would always go out to dinner with the kid actors. I think of him of a big kid, because he had a handle on how kids thought.

An interesting sidelight on ‘Sixteen Candles.’ I had just done ‘Breaking Away,’ and got some buzz in the business from it, so got offered the part in ‘Candles’ based on that. But there was no real scene for me, I was just playing ‘The Dad.’ So I turned down the part. Well, when you do that they offer you more money. [laughs] But I just wanted a stronger part, so I turned them down again. What finally convinced you?

Dooley: John Hughes himself called, and told me he wrote a scene in the middle of the film especially for me and Molly [Ringwald]. He wanted me in the film. It turned out to be a very iconic moment in film, and beloved by the fans of it. People have come up to me and told me they wished I was their Dad, because I was so understanding during that scene. It came about because John wanted to drag me into the film. That’s when I said, ‘yes.’ Your wife, Winnie Holzman, is the co-Executive Producer of Showtime’s upcoming ‘Roadies.’ What is the origin of that show and how will you be participating?

Dooley Head
Paul Dooley, Actor
Photo credit:

Dooley: I did a bit part, because they needed a man of a certain age, so I did my three lines. The premise of ‘Roadies’ is about the younger guys doing a rock tour. My wife has always been a fan of Cameron Crowe [show creator], and he admired her for creating ‘My So-Called Life’ TV series. Crowe had the pilot in place, and reached out to her because he knew it would be writing intensive. He brought her in to be an intermediary with the cast and crew, and she also did show running duties, and worked on most of the scripts. What do you miss about the era of show business, and the way it was, when you were first starting out, and what do you like about show business now that you weren’t getting back then?

Dooley: Generally now I don’t have to audition, I just get offers. But back in the day, all I did for a living was audition. Looking back now, I probably went to 20 auditions for each job that I actually got. I spent fifteen years in the trenches, doing off-Broadway and a ton of commercials. Part of the reason was my type – I knew a lot of black and Hispanic actors, but they never used them in commercials back then. It was all lily white.

Since I was such a White Anglo Saxon Protestant [laughs] I could be the guy selling the car, buying the car, the neighbor or the uncle. I did tons of commercials, and made a great living while I was doing stage work in New York. As I said previously, I finally made the move to Los Angeles in the late 1960s, to where the action was. Okay, final question, I ask this a lot to show business veterans. Of all the people you’ve known in your career that have passed away, which one would you like to call and what would like to say to them?

Dooley: Well Alan Arkin hasn’t passed away yet, but I don’t get to see him that often, so Alan, give me a call. [laughs] But I really miss Bob Altman, and wish he was still alive. I got to be friends with both him and his family. His wife, Kathryn Reed, just passed away six months ago, and I shared many meals with her. I loved them, they were like family to me.

CLICK HERE for PART ONE of the Paul Dooley interview with, where he talks about his early days of his career, which includes the original Broadway run of “The Odd Couple,” directed by Mike Nichols.

Paul Dooley has upcoming roles in Showtime’s “Roadies” (his wife, Winnie Holzman, is an co-executive producer, with J.J. Abrams) and in the film, “Other People,” co-starring Molly Shannon. His one-man show, “Upright and Personal,” is looking toward a New York and Chicago run. For more information about Paul Dooley, click senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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