An Interview With Actor John Savage

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An interview with John Savage.

John Savage showing a range of emotions on the show Seal Team.

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I was contacted by a PR company that asked if I would like to talk with actor John Savage for an hour. Heck, I would’ve jumped on a plane the next day to meet him in his birthplace of Old Bethpage, New York for an hour long chat. Fortunately for me, it was a lot more convenient than that. A few days later he called and we did the interview over the phone.

He called 10 minutes early and I was caught off guard. I didn’t want to geek out on how excited I was to speak with him, but told him about how his 1980 film Inside Moves is the first movie I saw as a kid that moved me. It’s the story of a guy who attempts suicide, and ends up crippled. He starts drinking, and soon befriends other disabled folks that frequent the bar. The bartender is David Morse (in his first film), a basketball player with a bum knee that’s kept him from playing at the pro level. Director Richard Donner was coming off the success of The Omen and Superman, and his agents were hoping he’d do another huge blockbuster. Instead he opted to do a film version of the book The Gimp. The name was changed to Inside Moves, and it was released by a studio that went bankrupt right before it hit theatres. It got a short, limited run (I caught it on HBO). You don’t have to feel bad for Donner. He went on to success with The Goonies, Scrooged, and the Lethal Weapon and X-Men films. And Barry Levinson, who co-wrote the screenplay — went on to direct Diner, Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam, The Natural, Bugsy, Wag the Dog, etc.

John Savage, who was in one of the biggest movies of the late ‘70s (The Deer Hunter), would garner more acclaim in the late ‘80s; in another movie that had his character involved with basketball — Do The Right Thing.

The first thing I said to Savage was how as a kid, Inside Moves was the first movie I had ever seen that emotionally got to me. I said, “The way you start out begrudgingly accepting the guys at the bar, and how your friendship grows with David Morse, and he stabs you in the back, and…that ending, where you to go support him in the basketball game, but before that…seeing his old girlfriend as a prostitute, strung out on a street corner. And what you say to her, and what she replies, and…that look on your face. Nothing is said for a few brief seconds, and your expression as you turn to walk to the bus. Just incredible.”

JOHN SAVAGE: That’s great! Sometimes emotions can be shown beyond the words. The images and the silence. Here’s an athlete, and he struggles. These people had character, they could be depressed. I love that watching a movie can do that to people. Films do that. It would be great if there were more movies for kids that could bring out those emotions. Well, there are good things that come out for kids but…

JOSH BOARD: And that movie isn’t really for kids that young. I was 12-years-old, and I was just excited to see these players on the Warriors. It was like…oh, there’s Jo Jo White, Robert Parish, and San Diego Clipper Henry Bibby.  And the movie was so much more than those brief basketball scenes. But going from movies to TV…since you did three episodes of the show SEAL Team…you’ve done powerful war movies. And as a successful actor in the ‘70s…well, there was a long time when it was looked down upon for a movie actor to go to TV, yet now…there are so many great TV shows and actors jumping back and forth.

JOHN SAVAGE: Well, there is a prestige when you’re doing good work in film, and you sometimes want to find other areas, whether that’s theatre or television. There is cable TV and the networks and a lot of good stuff out there. And you can sometimes get paid (laughs). Working on good stuff…that kept me going for a long time, the satisfaction. As a kid, I liked to read a lot, and pretending. It helped me. I was scared to death. I was sick a lot. I would read things and try to figure out how to get smarter like all those other people. That never stops. Sitting in a movie theatre, whether it’s with your girlfriend, wife, or your kids…and not doing anything except enjoying the time together. Even going to church, synagogue, or temple…you’re going to listen to somebody talking. You ask a kid, maybe they say they love the music. Even just a small thing like your kid saying they have to go to the bathroom, and your dad says ‘I’ll take you.” It’s all being together and experiencing these things. TV right now, has become a different element. There’s a tremendous amount of education that can be found. I used to watch black-and-white movies on a six or eight inch TV, with subtitles. Stories about people being caught in the middle, between two great powers. It’s all great entertainment. 

JOSH BOARD: And SEAL Team can provide great entertainment, while showing a variety of things this soldier goes through.

JOHN SAVAGE: I share gratitude for being part of this show. It’s such a pertinent representation of what our human race is going through. People in the service, and more than just the military, but in this TV series.  This shows the stress and challenges of men and women…in fact, more women than ever before, and dealing with the different challenges that some people might not really understand. They show this, and what it’s like to lose someone. And to have a team. It’s a good thing for every young person to play on a team and work with others. I’m working with a team of actors I admire — A.J. Buckley and David Boreanaz as Jason Hayes. Boreanaz is coming from a different context from his previous work. I’m involved with others in programs with veterans and recovery, that deal with different areas and issues with family and addiction, and more psychological stress that’s harder to get rid of. And look at our world today. This march and protests, had such a dichotomy. There were two sides of the coin, and all this rage and anger. Doing this show was very important for me. I’m a father, a grandfather, and have a grandson leading an effort with homeland security, who always flies out to California. He’s from a single mom family, growing up in a mixed community with different races. He’s 26-years-old and doing a lot of great things. One of them is taking me out to dinner once in a while, which I always appreciate. It all just takes a little bit of caring and compassion. In our little episodes of life…we might have difficulties with money, finance, romance…relationships with family. In the show, I’m getting up there in age, and the anger…it doesn’t really work for me anymore. Seeing who my son really is, and a little bit of support, not criticism or judgement…his lady friend brings us together. The script might be simpler maybe then real life, but it’s just as powerful as a movie, which is only an hour and a half that you see a story. Really, we’re all just like animals living together in a forest. People need a sense of hope. Putting these shows together on TV…it makes me satisfied with the work, and the effort that goes into all of this. We’re still young as a country, and we’re still dealing with the same challenges in this country, with our communities. This is one family. One team.

JOSH BOARD: Your dad was a Marine in World War II. Is that another reason this story resonates with you?

JOHN SAVAGE: My dad lost his squad. He was a big tough guy. A gunner. He raised all the kids. My grandfather was in the service, too. His wife took off, left him for a guy like in Gatsby. My grandfather was a quiet old man, and he had nightmares. So did my dad. He was a strong man, but cried sometimes. And just the struggle my dad had. He couldn’t get a job. The GI bill was helping someone get a car for $500. They were a little cheaper back then. He was trained as a Marine. He watched people go through terrible sacrifices. I was very young. We had a little house in Levittown with wheat fields. In a short time, around 1954, it became a thousand houses. And they’d get together in a house in a corner and all talk. People he served with, or were in the Pacific or wherever. They’d talk about Eisenhower. I couldn’t hear all of what they were saying. They’d tell me to ‘Go over there with your mom.’ One new guy had come back from Korea, and he had tears in his eyes. There didn’t always have to be a lot of talk. Just being there to show support for each other. He brought me to the VA hospital, and I saw people that lost their legs or weren’t mentally stable. Yet when he got out in public he was friendly. My mom was an educator, who took a little bit too much on without a lot of help. It was all a community effort, helping to bring teens together. My grandson…dad would take him to shoot baskets. He’s 6’2” now. They’d go to the golf course. I’m horrible at golf.

JOSH BOARD: Aren’t we all. 

When you mentioned the military, I thought of a movie you did last year, maybe two years ago. I can’t remember the name of it. Incredible cast…Ed Harris, Samuel Jackson…and some good performances. It also dealt with PTSD and things like that. It was sad that that was Peter Fonda’s last movie.

JOHN SAVAGE: Yeah. The title of the movie was also a hymn, and President Lincoln used it in his Gettysburg Address: The Last Full Measure. ‘That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain’. Oh, what a gift that movie was. Oh my God. I knew it was intense. Peter Fonda was terrific. His wife was such a wonderful lady. It was an incredible performance and he knew he was sick while we were making it. Every character in that movie was so human. All with different angles on the humanities. That’s why with this TV show [SEAL Team]…on the news you see bombing, shooting, and we don’t see what’s really going on in Iraq or overseas. But the people. Who are they? These men and women in the military. 

JOSH BOARD: Another movie of yours I wanted to bring up was The Crossing Guard, because…so many people in interviews probably bug you with questions about Deer Hunter. And this was a little film that I felt deserved more attention [Jack Nicholson plays a character wanting to get revenge on the man who killed his daughter in a drunk driving accident]. Did Sean Penn (director) know you and David Morse were in Inside Moves together, or was that just a weird coincidence?

JOHN SAVAGE: I was in South Africa when I got that. It was my second marriage, with a wonderful woman [Sandi Schultz], who just recently lost her second husband. I liked the script. The image of a crossing guard, and the effects of drugs and alcohol, but also the courage to overcome our challenges, which may not change and may not go away. How do we develop some kind of acceptance and move forward, and being stuck in a negative attitude or resentment. There’s anger and rage, which may never go away; but listening, looking, and taking this gift. I remember my mom dying, and she just sat up with her arms out and a smile on her face, with gratitude. That’s one of the greatest acts. I don’t know if it’s just common sense. Ya know, we’re here, and we can really figure out a better way. My friend Jeff Miller was shot and killed at Kent State. He was a funny guy, a wonderful student and leader. And a couple guys I had as friends at school, were always nice and supportive. He went to Kent State and was involved with other young men on campus in his college work. He was involved in solar power. We weren’t hippies. I use that in a negative way, maybe because of my father and his tough, republican nature. Although my father did love poetry, despite all that. He would go to church and sing, oh my god he was a terrible singer. But he admired my ability to sing and he supported my efforts and that got me going. I loved sports, too. He felt sports could bring peace to the world, among a few other things. My dad would take these big boys and men, who were having difficulties, and he’d say ‘Let’s go shoot some basketball courts’. He couldn’t sing but he could put that thing through the hoop.

JOSH BOARD: Speaking of hoops, as a lifelong Lakers fan, it pained me to see you wearing a Celtics jersey in Do The Right Thing.

JOHN SAVAGE: Yeah, that was irritating for me, too (laughs); but I had to do that. I don’t remember, but I think Larry Bird gave that to my sister. Spike Lee said that it was his shirt, and he got it from the great athlete. It was a drama going on all the time on the court, and the race thing going on. So…race. What’s wrong with it? It’s incredible. We have such incredible cultures in our country. We have 160 different cultures in Los Angeles. I didn’t think there were that many different countries! People get jealous and angry. People turn away from their community. It doesn’t work. You want to shoot yourself in the foot, put up a wall, or a gate, or door. Instead, get to know your neighbors, your family. That’s another little moment in our TV show. I say in that show, that I know my son better and I want him to do what’s right, and that the farm is just a pile of dirt, and it’s about heritage. 

JOSH BOARD: I liked the movie American Buffalo (Dustin Hoffman, Denis Franz). I’m a big Mamet fan. Since you did that on stage, were you bummed about not being in the movie? 

JOHN SAVAGE: It bugs me. But with different directors, there are different concepts. It was a different team that put that show up. When I got the part on stage (1977), I was recovering from an injury. It was a long time and no agents wanted to represent me. I had two young babies. I got a movie. Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland put me in their little movie [Steelyard Blues in 1973]. And they saw me in a play in Michigan. It was a gift. Robert Duvall saw me work as an actor and I met him in New York. He called and said he’s coming to L.A. and to cook him some spaghetti and that we’d have dinner. He directed a show off Broadway, with Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. I can’t remember it, but…he came over and was friendly, playing with my kids. He said ‘I want you to look at this and let me know what you think. Read it, and give me a call. I’m taking it to Broadway and thought you might like to be in it.’ It was the greatest gift in the world. To be in a good play with people you respect. I knew I was going to do this, but I was scared to death. And the director was just so specific and so good. I heard that he was a diamond cutter, and with this, everything was cut perfectly. On stage with Duvall. Remember his character in Apocalypse Now? That was him and his energy. Al Pacino came to the play a few times with this big goofy hat he’d wear so nobody would recognize him. His production of it was equally as brilliant, but completely different. I also loved doing musicals. 

JOSH BOARD: Since you love musicals, and you mention your dad was this big strong Marine…and you also mentioned the use of the word hippie…that all leads me to wonder, what did he think when he saw you in Hair?

JOHN SAVAGE: Oh, he was proud of me. He was watching it and would shrug, or nod. Maybe sometimes an eyebrow would go up during a scene. He thought it was pretty good. They changed the script. I didn’t even realize it at the time. I was doing the play with Robert, and Milos Foreman came to see it. He met with people, and then came into my dressing room. I had respected his films [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had come out a few years earlier]. I watched a lot of foreign films and knew of his work.

JOSH BOARD: And the idea of doing a musical didn’t worry you?

JOHN SAVAGE: You always get a little nervous, but I had done musicals and liked to sing.

[At this point in the interview, Mr. Savage talks a lot about the protest scenes in Hair, and about all the protests going on today. When I hear him mention something about police officers having a tough job, I figure that’s my way to get back into talking about his films and not all the riots going on today]

JOSH BOARD: Since you mentioned police officers, do you have a bit more sympathy for them because you played one in The Onion Field? (Ted Danson played the other officer, in his first film role)

JOHN SAVAGE: Well, I don’t get into debates with lots of people about all the things going on. I really make an effort with the people closest to me, friends and family, that we can all have different thoughts on politics and discuss the issues. I grew up in New York. There would be crazy stuff going on, like a company going bankrupt while someone puts away $100 million at the same time. I have buddies of mine, their families are immigrants. They kept their community tight. There were some in the community that people said were mobsters. Well…maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Maybe they’re just taking care of their community and getting help for the government with the police. The local government doesn’t always help communities on the street. The men and women working as police officers, work hard. My friend Bob, he was Captain of the harbor. He kept that up even after retirement. He was under the Towers when they got hit. He got the radio call, and knew they were going to get hit. They were going to send up jets to take those planes down. He saw a plane turn over Jersey, and he called his wife at 4:30. She called me, and I turned it on and couldn’t believe it. It was a commercial airline! A lot of people couldn’t come out of their apartment for months back east. They were scared to death. And look at our world now.

JOSH BOARD: Did you know your co-star of The Onion Field [and Salvador] James Woods, was on a plane with a few of those terrorists? He reported it a week before the 9/11 attacks, too.

JOHN SAVAGE: I remember that story. 

JOSH BOARD: I remember watching The Deer Hunter as a teen and during the credits, thinking of how cool the name Savage was. But your last name is Youngs. Why did you change it? It’s not like Issur Danielovitch Demsky changing his name to Kirk Douglas.

JOHN SAVAGE: I was doing off Broadway and theatre outside New York City, too. When Fiddler on the Roof came to town with a show, well…they needed someone in the chorus that looked like me. I got the part. Bette Midler was one of the leads. The union showed up and said it was a union production. Oh God, I was nervous, but I knew how to hustle. I told the guy I had my kids in the car and let me just do this audition and I’ll get out of here. But when I got the part, I never told anybody I wasn’t in the union. The union rep showed up and said ‘Mr. Young, you can’t go on. This is a union production.’ I told him I had five bucks in my pocket, I’d give it to him, and join right then. He said I’d have to come to the office and make up my mind. I went and gave them my family name, but they said someone else had that name. So I came up with the name Vandevere. I liked the sound of it. Nope. Someone had that name. So…I admired this guy when I was young. I was jealous of him actually, because my girlfriend was talking to him. His name was Savage, and that’s what they used to call Christians, as probably a lot of other words, when they were sacrificed to the lions. And this is what I’m doing, I’m going to be sacrificed on stage, for what? To make people feel good. I never thought I would make it to movies. I’m not good enough looking to make the big money, so I was just taking this name Savage from this kid to do theatre.

JOSH BOARD: Well, you got the last laugh on Savage, because…your girlfriend may have been talking to him back then, but now you’re dating Blanca Blanco. 

JOHN SAVAGE: (laughs for awhile) Yeah, I don’t need to try to get my old friends with something like that. I miss the East Coast. California is nice, but the traffic is terrible. Although lately you can walk and not have all these gas fumes, there were less cars on the road. Animals were even out in the street. It was like a coyote coming out and saying ‘Hey, how ya doing?’ Ya know, the Japanese have been wearing masks because of pollution for years. We need to adopt some of that. A bow, maybe an elbow, instead of a handshake. For thousands of years, people have acknowledged that if a person is sick and you go near them, you might die. We need better diets, food, water that’s not polluted, and even a healthy mind. My parents went to therapy back then, and even today it’s frowned upon. We need to be respectful to other people. We don’t want to resent everyone. People get so upset talking about politics and you end up with all this anger. My dad, who with one hand, could squash my head. But he would take that big hand, and place it on my shoulder and listen and be encouraging. If I said something, he would nod. We need to do more of that. I might be upset about something as a kid and he’d say ‘Why don’t we just get the mower out and do some hedging. 

JOSH BOARD: It sounds like he was encouraging you…to cut the lawn!  

Thanks so much for your time. If we weren’t doing this interview over the phone, like your dad, I would put my hand on your shoulder. But then I’d lift it over my head, and say your name the way David Morse did when he saw you in the stands at the basketball game at the end of Inside Moves

Side note: his girlfriend of over 15 years is Blanca Blanco, a beautiful actress that is 31 years younger.
You can watch Seal Team on CBS, Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. And if ya get a chance, find the movie Inside Moves and watch that.

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