If you’ve watched television in the past three decades, you’re aware of the work of five-time Emmy Award winner John Larroquette. The New Orleans-born actor burst to stardom as womanizing but oddly loveable lawyer Dan Fielding on Night Court. After nine seasons in the hit show, he starred in three other sitcoms and played a more serious lawyer, Carl Sack, on Boston Legal. A sought-after TV guest star, Larroquette began putting out feelers a couple of years ago in hopes of fulfilling a longtime goal: Broadway. Now, at age 63, he’s playing World Wide Wicket Company president J.B. Biggley opposite Daniel Radcliffe as J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Midway through previews at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, the 6’5” star displayed his bone-dry sense of humor while chatting about the challenge of co-starring in a musical that’s as big as he is.
After a long and successful career, you’ve made it to Broadway. Are you enjoying working on a big stage, with an audience of 1,400 cheering people?
It’s a drug that I hope to get addicted to. Most of my career has been in front of a live audience, but certainly not on this level. All my sitcoms had an audience, with four or five cameras, so working this way has always been appealing to me.
This may sound funny, but you seem to have incredible chemistry with Daniel Radcliffe.
I don’t think it sounds funny—we do! He and I hit it off immediately. He’s a remarkably hard-working and talented young man. And considering his age and his success, he’s phenomenally well grounded. He is a workaholic, like myself, so we get along very well.
Part of the fun is just seeing the two of you standing side by side.
There is definitely a distance between our heads. [Radcliffe is 5' 5".] I guess we are both above and below normal. I’m not a giant, but you don’t see too many 6 foot 5 actors around. We’re having great fun. Once we get through the “Grand Old Ivy” tune, it feels like we’re hitting on all pistons for the rest of the show.
Did [director/choreographer] Rob Ashford ask about your dancing ability before casting you?
No. I think there was just an assumption that I was smart enough to learn what I didn’t know. I’ve used my body a lot in my comedy, and I had a small taste of [stage choreography] last year when I did a short run of How the Grinch Stole Christmas [as Max] at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. There was some dancing in it—nothing remarkable, but enough that I became aware of how much precision is involved.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you?
Probably the singing. I’m usually very comfortable in my work—once I know the lines and figure out the “business,” I feel free to run to the edges of the frame I build for myself, with no fear. I can do it with my eyes closed, in a way. But singing was something that is not at all familiar for me, so concentrating on trying not to sound like a stuck pig, as we say, was the most challenging. Luckily, my character’s load is not too heavy in the singing department, and I’ve been taking voice lessons for the past three months. I was a musician, so I know pitch and I can read music, which was an advantage.
Are you enjoying being part of a big Broadway company?
Yes. I must say, there’s not one person who I try to avoid [chuckles]. I’m a loner by definition, and my dressing room has always been a sanctuary in my career. I like to close the door and just be there, then go out and do the work. But spending so much time together in the rehearsal space, you become familiar with people and you do start to feel like you’re part of this group. I like them all very much. I was a little shocked one day to realize that I was the oldest in a room of 25 people. The dancers are all eight or nine years old.
Hey, you’re keeping up with them out there, hoofing through “Brotherhood of Man.”
Yes, indeed, and “hoofing” is the right term. But yes, it’s a great company and Rob Ashford is a great guy to work for, and also [music director] David Chase. Everybody has been phenomenally giving and at the same time demanding, which is a good combination.
Should we be surprised that it took you so long to make your Broadway debut?
I don’t have much history in New York, other than as a talk show guest or hosting Saturday Night Live. I moved to Los Angeles to become an actor and started in the theater and on TV sort of simultaneously. When I wasn’t working on TV, I’d do six or seven plays a year at the Colony, the theater company I helped start. As I became successful in television and developed a reputation as being a relatively funny actor, great playwrights approached me about coming to New York. Herb Gardner wanted me to revive A Thousand Clowns on Broadway; Neil Simon wanted me to be the original Jake in Jake’s Women, but I never had the time. When it looked like Boston Legal was going to leave the air, I had a series of meetings with people who do theater, and those seeds started to sprout last summer with the Elizabeth Meriwether play [Oliver Parker] at the Cherry Lane. And then, all of a sudden, I was sitting at my house and this came through.
It’s hard to believe you’ve never worked here. Your deadpan sense of humor makes you seem like a native New Yorker.
I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, but when anybody tries to guess where I’m from, almost inevitably they say New York. I think that’s partially due to the fact that there was a huge migration of New Yorkers and New Jersey longshoremen to New Orleans in the early 1900s. The accent came with them: The New Orleans accent is very similar to a New York accent, and the New York attitude is part of New Orleans culture, mixed with the strong “mañana” attitude New Orleans has.
You won four Emmys in a row for playing super-flirt Dan Fielding in Night Court. What was it like to create such a memorable character?
If you watch the first few episodes of that show, the character is very, very different. He’s sort of conservative, and not nearly what he became. The creator of the show, Reinhold Weege, and I hit it off; he saw my bizarre, freaky sense of humor and started writing to that. The character just grew from there.
What’s the secret to your long and happy marriage [to actress Elizabeth Larroquette]?
I don’t know. She has an enormous amount of patience. We met in 1974 in a play called Enter Laughing, which is a good philosophy for life. I got an agent from that play, and a wife, and she’s been willing to put up with me for 35 years.
Have your kids followed you into the business?
Both of our sons have. Our youngest, Benjamin, graduated last May from the Berklee College of Music; he’s the most serious musician of all of us. His brother, Jonathan, who is 10 years older, has an album out and also has been doing a podcast [Uhh Yeah Dude] for five years that’s very, very popular. He’s about to film a pilot based on his podcast.
Are you and your wife looking forward to spending 2011 in New York?
I haven’t really thought about that yet. Being an actor, I’m always convinced that the job is going to end tomorrow. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that I will be New Yorker for a period. I have a big life in Los Angeles, but that’s in hibernation at the moment, which is fine. My wife and I want to get out in the country and see what upstate New York looks like. And I look forward to the time when Daniel and I can start just having fun with each other on stage rather than concentrating on making sure we’re doing the show correctly.
Admit it: Being on a Broadway stage feels right.
Very. It feels very right.
See John Larroquette in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.