The Dallas Decoder Interview: Mitch Pileggi

Mitch Pileggi as Harris Ryland

Mitch Pileggi

Mitch Pileggi has become the man to watch on TNT’s “Dallas,” where his venomous character, Harris Ryland, loves to torment the Ewings. I spoke to Pileggi recently about working on the show.

Harris is so mean. Is it hard for you to play him?

No, I like playing him because he is such a jerk. He’s bitter. He’s angry. Ann broke his heart, and whether or not he still loves her is my secret. I think it’s pretty obvious, though. [Laughs] She crushed him — not only his heart, but his huge ego too. But I think there’s going to be some new things you’re going to find out about Harris next season.

Ooh. That sounds exciting. Anything you can tease us with?

No. [Laughs] There were a few hints dropped last season. If they go in the direction that they’re thinking about, it’s going to be pretty interesting. I’m anxious to see what they come up with.

Do you have anything in common with Harris? How are you alike? How are you different?

We’re pretty different. That’s why it’s so easy for me to play him. I can be cranky at times, but not mean-spirited. I would never hurt people the way he does. He definitely has a tender spot in his heart for his daughter, as I do with my daughter. But then again, he also uses his daughter, and that’s something that I would never do. So as far as similarities and differences, I think that’s really it. I look like him. [Laughs]

I’m glad you brought that up. I love the beard. Did you grow that especially for this role?

No, I went to the audition with the mustache and goatee, and then I grew out the whole thing. I just like it. I like the shaved head and I like the beard. I’ve had people who want me to shave it. I tell them: I think this is the way I’m going to work.

The dragon at rest

The dragon at rest

Do you get to collaborate with the writers over Harris’s direction? Or do you get the script and do what you’re told?

Pretty much [the latter] — and that’s the way I’ve always worked. I’m not a writer. I don’t have the discipline it takes to write, so I have a lot of respect for the writers because it’s brutally hard. There are times when they’ll write certain dialogue and I’ll say, “Can I say this instead because it flows out of my mouth better?” And they’re always so receptive to that. Or I’ll throw in a “Rylandism.” Harris always feels like he’s got to have the last word, whether it’s a grunt or an “Alright then.” So they started writing a lot of that.

There’s a great line in Season 2 where Harris is ending a call with Cliff and you call him a paranoid old coot. Is that something you ad-libbed?

That was definitely written. It’s his attitude toward Cliff. He kind of needs him but he hates having to deal with him. He does think he’s a paranoid old coot.

I don’t think he’s wrong about that!

I don’t either. Ken [Kercheval] did a stunning job with that character the last two seasons. When he tells his henchman to go ahead and blow the [rig] even after he knows his daughter’s on it? I thought it was such a powerful moment. You could see how he was agonizing over it, but ultimately he had to make that decision and so he just went to this dark, sick place. Ken was wonderful in that scene.

The way you’re talking, you sound like you’re a fan of the show too.

I am. I love the show and my character. But I think more than anything, I’m a fan of the people I get to work with. I adore Linda [Gray] and Patrick [Duffy] and everybody else. I really wanted to lock horns with Larry [Hagman], but it didn’t happen. The producers had big plans for that. And having had a history on the show from the first go-round, it’s like it’s come full circle.

Let’s talk about that. You did four episodes in the early ’90s as Morrissey, the bad guy J.R. tangled with in the mental institution. What do you remember about that experience?

I actually pulled up one of the scenes the other day. It was really fun to watch myself working with [Larry]. That was really early in my career and I learned so much from just being around him and working with him and watching him. He was such a wonderful actor and person. Especially now, watching myself [acting] with him back then is pretty special.

Did you get to spend much time with him on the new show?

Not really, unfortunately. One of the few conversations I had with him, I went up and introduced myself and we were talking for a bit and he looked at me and says, “Aren’t villains the best?” And I said, “Yes, sir, they are.”

You know, Harris reminds me a lot of J.R. There’s a little bit of gleefulness to your villainy, and I think that’s why so many fans love Harris.

Well, thank you. He doesn’t have quite the twinkle in his eye that Larry gave to J.R., but he’s probably a little — well, I’m not going to say meaner because J.R. did some pretty dastardly things! [Laughs]

Would you like to see Harris become … I don’t want to say softer, but maybe a little more vulnerable?

I think I tried to do that a little bit with [Harris’s daughter] Emma, to bring some humanity to him so he wasn’t just a beast. And of course his relationship with his mother is just so bizarre — and so much fun to play, especially when I’m standing across from Judith Light. She’s such a giving, wonderful actress. I don’t want to be a cardboard cutout of a mustache-twirling villain. Both [executive producers] Michael [Robin] and Cynthia [Cidre] have made an effort to not take him in that direction, and I’m trying not to do that either.

Mama’s here

Mama’s here

I’m glad you brought up Judith Light. What did you think when you found out she was going to be playing your mom?

Well, I thought, “We’re the same age!” [Laughs] And then when she came onto the set for our first scene, we immediately hugged each other. I said, “Mama?” And she gave me sort of a sideways look and said, “Mama’s here.” We just took off from there. Hopefully, the performances made the audience forget that we’re only a few years apart in age.

Well, by golly, I think it did. I was as skeptical as anyone when I read she was going to be playing your mom. But after her first scene, I thought, “OK. This works.”

I think the first scene we had, she comes in and finds me after I’ve been shot. And we were rehearsing the scene and I’m on the ground and she steps over me and says — with a little smile on her face — “Don’t you look up my dress.” [Laughs] I thought, “This is going to be fun.”

So what do you think is going on with Harris and his mom?

Judith Light has her own ideas about this, so I don’t want to speak for her. But I think they’re both just emotionally jacked up. I think he’s been controlled and dominated throughout his life and it definitely affects the person that he is now. And now you can see him doing the same thing with his daughter.

I hope they bring Judith back next year.

I do too, man. I love the fact that she’s on Broadway and doing so well. I’m jealous of that. But to be standing across from her again would be gold. I just want to watch her as a fan. At the beginning of the season, when my character was in bed in the coma and she had that long speech, it was a monumental effort for me to keep my eyes closed and to not watch her.

Let’s talk about the other women in Harris’s life: Ann and Emma, played by Brenda Strong and Emma Bell. You seem to have great chemistry with every actress you’re matched with.

I guess that’s because of who they are. I adore all of them, so we have fun. It’s like the scene where Harris goes to Southfork to take Emma home and Ann tells him to go away. We were shooting that scene and the camera was over her shoulder, filming me. Well, you know when two guys are confronting each other and one of them makes a false move toward the other one? Brenda kind of did that me, right in the middle of the scene. And after they yelled, “Cut,” I said to her, “Did you just do that?” And she says, “Yes, I did!” [Laughs] She does wonderful little things like that.

Do you think there’s any chance that Harris and Ann could ever reconcile?

I don’t know. In this world, anything could happen. But I think she would have to have a pretty good crash and burn to get the point where she’d ever go back to him.

Family court

Family court

Well, after she shot you, I thought, “How are they ever going to redeem this woman?” But I’ll be damned if they didn’t do it.

She did an amazing job with her testimony on the stand. I had to do mine right after she did hers. And when she finished, all of the background actors immediately started applauding — as did I. And they were like, “OK, Mitch, you’re up.” And I thought, “This is great. I’ve got to follow that?” [Laughs]

So what was your favorite Harris scene this season?

The Komodo dragon speech would probably be my favorite. That was written to cut away to other scenes, but after we shot it, they realized that they didn’t have enough dialogue so I had to go back and do more in [post production]. Most of that speech — or at least half of it — is stuff that I recorded later, just standing there and speaking these new lines that they added in. It became even richer than the way it was initially envisioned. The great thing is, you can still hear him crunching on the almonds.

Almonds! That was going to be my next question: What were you eating in that scene?

They were almonds. Initially, they had a bowl of them next to where he was sitting, and I said, I’d like to put some in my hand and hold them up like a Tyrannosaurus Rex shoving food into his face. When we were shooting it, the sound guys were saying, “The crunching is killing us!” I was like, you know what? I think the crunching is part of it. This is a Komodo dragon eating. [Laughs] We ended up leaving a lot of it in.

OK, last question: You’re now part of two huge franchises: “Dallas” and “The X-Files.” Do you still get recognized as Skinner?

Well, there’s this whole new generation of “X-Files” fans now. My daughter’s friends are watching the show. She had a couple of them over to the house, and they were really kind of quiet the whole time they were here. So when they left and I asked her, “Did your friends think I was weird or something?” And she said, “No, Dad! As soon as they walked out the door, they turned to me and said, ‘We didn’t know your dad was Skinner!’” [Laughs] These are 14- and 15-year-old girls. And I’m thinking, “OK, that’s really cool: a whole new generation of fans are discovering the show.” It’s really gratifying.

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The Dallas Decoder Interview: Lee Majors

Lee Majors

Lee Majors (Photo by Dana Patrick)

Lee Majors is coming to “Dallas”! Majors, the iconic star of “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Fall Guy,” will begin a multi-episode guest stint on the TNT drama on Monday, March 25. (DVR alert: Majors will also appear on Fox’s “Raising Hope” later that week.) I was honored to speak to him recently about what it’s like to tangle with the Ewings.

Let me begin by telling you I that had two childhood obsessions growing up: The first was “Dallas,” but the second was “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

Oh, you put me in second place?

Well, actually, you came first because your show came first. So I spent a lot of my childhood running around the backyard in slow motion making the bionic sound effect.

As long as you didn’t jump off a barn or something and break anything.

No, never tried that.

I’ve heard that story before.

Oh, I’m sure you have. So tell me: How did you get the role on the new show?

I think Larry [Hagman] did it.

The Man

The Man

No kidding. How did that happen?

Well, Larry and I were friends for many, many years. We lived a couple of doors down from each other in Malibu. We used to see each other all the time on the weekends when we were both trying to recover from our week of work. And when TNT picked up “Dallas” for a second season, I was surprised because he gave me a call and said, “Lee, guess what? They picked us up and for 15 [episodes]!” He was like a little kid. He said, “You’ve got to do one.”

Oh, wow.

So I said, well, if it happens, it happens. I didn’t hear from him for awhile because we weren’t neighbors anymore, but he did text me about a month before he passed away and said, “I’m working on it.”

Wait, J.R. Ewing sent Steve Austin a text?

Yeah. All it said was, “I’m working on it.” I assumed he meant the show. So while I was at Larry’s memorial, I ran into Michael Robin, the exec producer, and he said, “Yeah, Larry mentioned you.” And I said, “That was sweet of him.” And that was about it, and then a month later, my agent got a call about availability. So I kind of point to the sky and say, “Thank you, Larry. Thank you, J.R.”

What kind of neighbor was Larry Hagman?

Larry was out there. All fun and games. You never knew what he was going to do next. He didn’t talk on Sundays because he once did a play and lost his voice. The doctor said, “Well, just don’t talk on Sunday.” So he did that, but he kept it up for years. He’d have a party at his place on the beach, but he wouldn’t talk. He would serve you champagne with a wink or write things down on a chalkboard or something. [Laughs] But he was just a great guy. Everybody loved Larry.

And you mentioned his memorial service. You went to the one at Southfork, right?

Yeah. That was the first time I’d been out there. I didn’t get to see much of the ranch, but it was wonderful. It was just happy. It was the way he wanted it. They had big screens up with all of his past endeavors. It was just all very cool.

Well, what can you tell us about your character on “Dallas”?

I can tell you a little. His name is Ken Richards and he had a past relationship with Sue Ellen. We were probably lovers or had an affection for each other. And then she calls me out of the blue for a meeting, and she needs a little help in a manner that I can’t discuss. [Laughs]

This sounds like so much fun. All I’ll say is you better be nice to Sue Ellen.

I’m very nice.

Oh, good!

If I want to survive I have to be. [Laughs]

Well, on this show, being bad is sometimes the way to get ahead.

Yeah, I know. I tuned into some back shows. I’ve been trying to keep up with who’s doing who and what for. That Josh [Henderson], he’s in and out of the bed every minute. And I was shocked when Brenda Strong’s character shot Harris. [Laughs] I saw her on the set yesterday and I said, “Are you still in jail? What’s happening?” And she says, “I don’t know! I’m trying to get bail.” I said, “You can’t get bail. You’ve been convicted already!”

The show seems very top-secret.

Well, they leave every show with a cliffhanger, so if you talk about the next episode, you get in trouble. They’re very tight-lipped. They gave a script to me and it’s got my name blazed across every page so that if they see one somewhere, they’ll know where it came from. You’re supposed to shred them.

Have you gotten to know the other cast members?

Some of the younger ones I haven’t worked with. I did do a scene with Jesse [Metcalfe] yesterday. There was a little scuffle is all I can say. [Laughs] I’ve known Patrick [Duffy] for a long time. Of course, Linda [Gray] and I hadn’t met, but when we did our first scene there was a chemistry there, which was good. And she was very happy with it and they seem to be very happy with me and the character so we’ll see what happens.

You know you’re not the first bionic secret agent to have a fling with Linda Gray.

I hope the first wasn’t Lindsay Wagner! [Laughs]

[Laughs] I was referring to Monte Markham, who was Sue Ellen’s college sweetheart and a bionic bad guy on your show.

I remember that, yeah.

And Martha Scott played your mom on “The Six Million Dollar Man” and Sue Ellen’s mom on “Dallas.”

You’re decoding everything here.

Sorry, I can’t help myself.

Do you know, though, that Lindsay Wagner is Linda Gray’s niece?

No kidding?

Yeah. My agent, who represented Lindsay for awhile, told me that when I went to do the first episode. And actually, she brought it up too. So there’s a tidbit that’s unique.

It’s very “Dallas”! Everyone is related to everyone else. Speaking of which: Were you a fan of the original show?

Yeah, but it was on during the ’80s when I was busy doing “The Fall Guy.” And of course, I’d see Larry on the weekends but we never talked business. We never talked about our shows. We just wanted to forget it for the weekend. When you’re working all that week, I never got to watch his show and he probably never watched mine.

It would’ve been great if you two could’ve done “Dallas” together. Do you feel his presence on the set?

Yeah. They still have his trailer with his name on the door and his name is still on the call sheet every day. You can certainly feel it. And I do because I thank him every day for the job.

So I’ve got to ask: Would you want to see “The Six Million Dollar Man” come back with the original cast, the way “Dallas” has?

No. [Laughs] Unless I could play Oscar Goldman.

You don’t want to be Steve again?

No. I would like to sit in an office and point my finger and talk on the phone: “Now, Steve, I want you to go here….”

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