While Chris Elliott is arguably best known for his television work, thanks to the numerous characters he played on Late Night With David Letterman, the cult comedy of Get A Life, and—on a more mainstream tip—his recurring roles on Everybody Loves Raymond and How I Met Your Mother, Elliott has had a presence on the big screen as well… and, no, not just in Cabin Boy. Elliott’s first film role was in John Sayles’ Lianna, and he can also be spotted in Michael Mann’s Manhunter and James Cameron’s The Abyss. Granted, his film roles since then have been decidedly less dramatic in tone, including performances in Groundhog Day and There’s Something About Mary, but that’s a career path of his own choosing, one which has taken him to his current role on the Adult Swim series Eagleheart, now in its third season.
Chris Elliott: My memory is that it was all Laurel and Hardy movies that made the most impression on me around that era, because I was watching those with my dad [comedian Bob Elliott] when I was that age. There was one short in particular that I was fascinated with when I was very little, and I still am to this day, I think, but that’s about when it started. It was called “Brats,” and it’s the one where Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy played themselves as little kids. They played themselves as well as themselves as little kids. I was fascinated by the sets. The sets were bigger when they played themselves as little boys. In general, I think Laurel and Hardy were sort of the foundation for my sense of humor when I was a kid, because my dad was such a huge fan of theirs.
It was sort of a family thing on Saturdays. They ran—well, re-ran—these short Laurel and Hardy movies, and we would watch them, and I’d see my dad laughing at them, and I realized, “Oh, they influenced him.” Now, looking back on it, I see they’ve influenced me through him. But, you know, everything is influenced by what has gone before. I don’t know who I was talking to about all these talk-show guys out there now, but it’s like, “Yeah, they’re all different, but it all goes back to Dave Letterman, and Dave Letterman goes back to Johnny Carson, who goes back to Steve Allen.” And I think some people reach a point where they don’t even realize who’s influencing them anymore. They just sort of take in whoever the last person was, and they’re influenced by them. They don’t realize the chain or the roots therein.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Elliott: At 10 years old, I was a big James Bond fan. I remember there was a birthday party, and going to… It was a double feature, but it was the first time I saw On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and that has become, since then, my favorite James Bond movie. And actually, George Lazenby is… [Laughs.] He’s kind of my favorite James Bond. I guess he’s grown in popularity, but there was sort of a visceral reaction to him when he first appeared as James Bond, and I know there was some controversy with his comments about playing the role, or not being as supportive of it, or whatever. But I remember when I was a kid, I was fascinated that they had cast this guy who… He didn’t really look like Sean Connery, but he kind of had the same swagger. He walked like him. And I actually loved the plot of that movie, and I loved that, you know, he got married at the end, and his wife, Diana Rigg, the villain shoots her at the end, so he’s not married.
But I’ve always been sort of fascinated with doppelgängers. He was not a double for Sean Connery, but I was amazed how, in certain lighting, they kind of made him look like him. Some of that was just the way George Lazenby is, but it did sort of seem to me that he was working a little to make people comfortable with this new James Bond, that he was still in Sean Connery mode. But I remember that first fight sequence, and even as a kid, I hated that one line. You know, where he says in the cold opening, “This didn’t happen to the other guy.” That was a corny line. But I also remember they kind of shot him in shadows in the beginning, and the fight sequence even looked like it could’ve been Sean Connery fighting, but then when he has his first close-up, you just realize, “Oooh, yeah, there’s a different look there.” [Laughs.] And I remember as a kid, being a little shocked by that. But it was, like, the first James Bond that had some emotion in it for me as a kid. So that is the one I remember the most. I remember I saw it at this birthday party with some friends of mine, and then they took us to a Chinese restaurant in New York City. So it’s just a really nice memory all around.
Elliott: Without a doubt, it’s Jaws, which changed my whole perception of movies. And also swimming. [Laughs.] And our summers up in Maine on the water, where my folks had a house. I was totally consumed by Jaws that summer. You know, spending summers up in Maine, on the coast, I had never really seen that part of the country portrayed accurately in movies or television. It always seemed a little like Maine—or the East Coast from Massachusetts on up—was always sort of the Pepperidge Farms kind of approach. You never really saw the way a dock really looked. It was always Hollywood’s version of it, and you could always tell, if you really knew what the real thing was. And Jaws was the first time the water looked like the water I swam in. The docks, the boats… It all looked like what I knew to be the real thing, so the movie really kind of… It felt like, “Oh, okay, yeah, Spielberg has caught it. That’s what the East Coast sea coast is exactly like.” And like so many other people that summer, I had a really hard time swimming again.
But even at 15 or 16, I also remember being impressed by the acting in the movie, which I’m still impressed by. I could watch Robert Shaw do that monologue anytime. There were so many great actors doing great things back in the ’70s that I think he was overlooked. If somebody did something like that today, if somebody pulled that off, that’d be an Oscar. For sure. Nowadays, it’s hard for anybody to stay onscreen for that length of time for a monologue. But I remember even at 15, being not just impressed with the look and feel of the movie, which just felt so real to me, but the acting as well. But I also remember all these articles about how the shark kind of looked fake in the final scene and all that, and, yeah, I guess maybe when it jumped on the boat, a little bit. But I totally bought into the whole thing.
Return Of The Secaucus Seven (1979)
Elliott: There were actually a lot of movies when I was 20, but, interestingly, Return Of The Secaucus Seven came out around the time I was 20, and I had spent the previous summer apprenticing in a summer-stock theater in North Conway, New Hampshire, that John Sayles worked at, and David Strathairn, and all of the people who were in Return Of The Secaucus Seven. I guess I was still 18 when they were shooting it, so I had to go back and finish high school, but John Sayles came up and shot Return Of The Secaucus Seven there. So when that came out when I was about 20, it was the first movie where I knew people in the movie other than my dad. [Laughs.] And it wasn’t just an actor. I knew everybody in the movie. And there were scenes shot where I apprenticed, and the place where I stayed was in the movie, and all that. So besides enjoying the movie and thinking it was great, that was pivotal in my life, because it felt like a bit of an entrance for me into the business, because John Sayles used me on Lianna after that, and I remain friends with some of those people. I maybe haven’t been in touch with them as much as I might like, but… That was a really pivotal time.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Elliott: Paul Reubens was always nice to me at [Late Night With David] Letterman and really encouraged me, and I loved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It was the first Tim Burton movie I’d ever seen, and it actually sort of started me on a crash course to working with Tim Burton. A few years later, when I was doing Get A Life, his office called, and I went in for a meeting, and he’d said he wanted to do a Pee-wee’s Big Adventure for the ’90s… and what came out of that was Cabin Boy. [Laughs.] Which he didn’t direct, but he executive-produced it.
As far as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, though, I just loved that it was a movie starring Pee-wee Herman, and that it was built totally around his sensibility and his sense of humor, and everything he’d been doing on Late Night as well as his own little show. To me, it was the perfect translation of what he was doing on television and in live theater into a movie, and that inspired me. I wanted to try and do the same thing. I was, uh, not quite as successful with Cabin Boy.
Quick Change (1990)
Elliott: There was a movie called Quick Change that my dad was in, that Bill Murray half-directed [with Howard Franklin]. I love that movie, and I think it’s a cool movie, but I also think my dad is really, really funny in it. And it was the first thing other than Get A Life that he had done without his longtime partner, Ray Goulding. You know, they were a comedy team together [known collectively as Bob and Ray], and Ray had passed away, but my dad’s solo acting was pretty impressive to me. I thought he was really funny.
But you know, when I think of that year, I also think of my big disappointment, which was The Godfather Part III. [Laughs.] I think that traumatized me, in a way, because Part I and Part II changed my life. I would’ve included them in this list, but they didn’t fall in the years we were talking about. Those are movies that are still really close to my heart and my psyche and everything else, and The Godfather Part III was just… You know, I could not understand how all the elements were there—the author, the director, the look, the actors—and yet it was just so awful. I assume that’s because it was essentially done for money, and not for art. I’m always amazed at people who look at that film and say, “It’s brilliant!” They see no difference between that movie and Part I and Part II.
Elliott: You know, the only thing that jumped out at me, really, was Casino, which is still one of my favorite movies. I can watch that anytime it’s on. I’ve seen it a thousand times. And I love Goodfellas, but Casino, I think it’s an even better movie. There’s more texture to it, and Joe Pesci… I think he won for Goodfellas, didn’t he? For Best Supporting Actor? Well, I think he’s just as great, if not even better, in Casino.
Elliott: I’m a big fan of biopics, and I really liked Pollock, Ed Harris’ movie where he played Jackson Pollock. I thought they caught the period pretty well there. Usually, art portrayed in movies just looks like prop art, doesn’t look right, looks like the prop guy did it. This was fairly convincing to me. And I thought Harris was great in it. Also, the soundtrack is really cool, so I downloaded that, and I enjoy listening to that from time to time. But I also like that he kind of generated the project himself and got it going, probably because he just thought he looked like Jackson Pollock. [Laughs.] And he does! And he’s pretty impressive in it.
Broken Flowers (2005)
Elliott: You know, nowadays, I kind of like—maybe it goes back to Pollock, too—movies that slow down, so I thought about Terrence Malick’s The New World. I love any Terrence Malick movie. It’s like poetry, basically, but with visuals. But Broken Flowers, I really liked because—well, first of all, because of Bill Murray. Anytime he acts, I’m glued to whatever it is he’s doing. I loved Lost In Translation, and Broken Flowers, it’s sort of the same feel to me. It’s him being funny and being able to be funny, but it sort of takes a back seat to his actual dramatic acting, which I think is pretty amazing. I guess he’s gone off and actually studied in France or whatever and honed his acting abilities, and that’s sort of inspiring to me, also. I sort of like any Jim Jarmusch movie, but I particularly like that one. I’ve thought about going the dramatic route, but that’s about as far as it goes with me. I don’t think I have the chops for it. I think it’s every comedic actor’s fantasy, and very few can pull it off. I mean, there are comedians I believe out there when they do drama. Robin Williams, I believe him. I believe Steve Martin when he acts. And Bill Murray, I believe him. But I don’t think anybody would believe me if I was trying to seriously act.
Elliott: This actually sort of goes back to what I was just saying about Jim Jarmusch, but Sofia Coppola, I really like her movies—like I said, I love Lost In Translation—so Somewhere is a movie I really love from that year. It has the same feel as Lost In Translation, but she has a way of slowing down a movie so it really feels like you’re not being rushed through the experience. You’re not being rushed like you are in every television show and most movies now, where the scenes are so short, and it’s like you’re jogging through them. That’s not the case with her. It’s like she stops and lets you watch the acting, and get the feel of, in that movie, the Chateau Marmont. She has a way, also, of getting into the male psyche that’s pretty unusual, that I think she’s better at than most male writers and directors. And I’m a fan of that.
Man, you know, this is a frustrating exercise! [Laughs.] I went online, and I looked, and I was like, “Well, wait, I haven’t mentioned any Woody Allen movies!” Because they all fall in years that we aren’t looking at with me, and the same with so many other movies that have actually influenced me. They’re not there! But at least I feel like what I’ve given you is a good cross-section from my life.