John Goodman has long been the go-to guy for Joel and Ethan Coen when they need a big man to negotiate long, twisty monologues and blow his stack when necessary. (And it inevitably is.) In "Raising Arizona," "Barton Fink," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and, most memorably, as Walter Sobchak, the Vietnam vet who doesn't roll on Shabbos in "The Big Lebowski," Goodman added volatility and a good many decibels to a quartet of Coen brothers movies. (He also gave voice to a newsreel announcer in "The Hudsucker Proxy.")
After his turn as a Bible salesman in 2000's "O Brother," the actor and the Coens took, in the words of Goodman's character in that film, Big Dan Teague, a "conversational hiatus." They did a radio play together and saw each other occasionally, but nothing the Coens wrote in the intervening years quite fit Goodman's skill set.
"There's always a twinge of envy whenever they release a movie that I'm not in," Goodman says. "I enjoy them all the same, but, geez, I love working with these guys so much. I want it all the time."
The Coens' latest, a darkly comic take on the early '60s Greenwich Village folk scene, "Inside Llewyn Davis," provided the opportunity for a reunion. Goodman plays a drug-addled, jazzbo raconteur accompanying the film's title character on a surreal road trip to Chicago. "Sometimes you can just hear the actor in the language," Ethan Coen says of Goodman. "You write it and you go, 'I could just see John doing this and killing it.'"
The Coens have entertained that same thought before — writing each of Goodman's roles, save for their first collaboration — specifically with the actor in mind. We caught up with Goodman and the Coens recently, and they shared a few memories of their long-standing partnership.
"Raising Arizona" (1987)
The role: Gale Snoats, prison escapee intent on robbing a bank with his little brother and a baby in tow.
Information, man: "Their office was 200 W. 57th St.," Goodman says with remarkable precision. "I went there and saw pictures of other actors all over the place and started goofing on the process. We just hit it off. I didn't know these guys, but I felt like I grew up with them. They were like grade-school, Midwestern, Mad magazine-reading wiseacres that I knew in St. Louis."
"It was a little bit of a Mutt-and-Jeff team between John and Bill Forsythe," Joel Coen remembers of Goodman and the actor playing his brother, Evelle. "John could do comedy, but he was a real actor too. Everything he did was so vivid that we just kept wanting to do more with him."
"Barton Fink" (1991)
The role: Charlie Meadows, Barton's hotel neighbor who happens to be a serial killer.
Information, man: The film memorably ends with the hotel ablaze and Goodman bellowing to the cops, "I'll show you the life of the mind!"
"Not everyone can do that," Ethan Coen says. "You need someone you believe is both acquainted with the life of the mind but also, in a deeper sense, isn't having that life."
"He may not have had the life of the mind, but he knew what it wasn't and he knew a line of bull when he saw it," Goodman adds.
"The Big Lebowski" (1998)
The role: Walter Sobchak, the Dude's best friend, Vietnam vet, dabbler in pacifism (not in 'Nam, of course), capable of procuring a toe by 3 in the afternoon, if necessary.
Information, man: "People quote it to me all the time," Goodman says. "'Shomer Shabbos.' 'Shut ... up, Donny.' 'World of pain.' 'You're out of your element.' Thank God they've refrained from quoting that scene where I'm screaming at Little Larry while I'm busting up the car."
"'Is this your homework, Larry?'" Joel says, chuckling at the line. "If forced to choose, that's my favorite scene."
Goodman: "I'm out there tearing up a couple of Corvettes with a crowbar, screaming obscenities in the middle of the night in this tidy neighborhood. I thought, 'I don't want to do this. But I gotta do it.' Nobody bothered to tell me they paid for the whole block to be unoccupied that night."
"O Brother, Where Art Thou" (2000)
The role: Big Dan Teague, Bible salesman, frog killer, Cyclops stand-in
Information, man: Goodman: "He shows up. He robs them, and then he gets killed. Amphibians mean little or nothing to him."
"Some people might have to look far and wide for a Cyclops," Ethan says. "Not us. We had John."