Xander Berkeley: One Man's Journey Through Pop Culture Television

 

If you're a fan of entertainment, you've likely seen Xander Berkeley either on television or in the movies.

His resume is lengthy. He was featured in the movie That Guy...Who Was in That Thing about character actors who look so familiar but whose name you cannot always place.

This summer you may be watching him in Zoo, or perhaps you'll catch him in Longmire Season 4 on Netflix, or maybe you saw him in 12 Monkeys Season 1 (that doesn't even scratch the surface!). 

Then again, maybe you caught him in one of the many series we talked about during a recent conversation we had after I spotted him first on an old episode of Hart to Hart from 1981 and then on Zoo Season 1 Episode 8 and took to Twitter to tease him about it. He's such a nice guy, this interview was born.

We don't ordinarily do interviews by way of slideshow, but part of the enjoyment of having a history such as Mr. Berkeley's is that we can see it all laid out before us on the internet. I hope you enjoy taking a peek at where he's been over the years!

1. Open All Night - 1981

Open All Night - 1981
This was a one season comedy about a convenience store that I happened to watch when it first aired. It always stuck with me, so I was really excited to find it on YouTube and chat about it with Xander. Until I rewatched it, I had never seen him do comedy.

"I was pretty fresh from New York, but I had a lot of street cred and she was looking for NY actors and there was this part and it was just such a fun part. They ended up changing the name to Medfly because the medfly was suddenly in and and they were spraying them and they thought that would be such a funny joke. I thought really, come on, that makes it so topical and the joke guys name isn't going to be Medlfy! Also it was kind of funny. I was hoping to do this recurring character. Joe Mantenga was in the same episode."

"The burned out hippie who keeps coming in and just needs to get stuff and just spaces out when he's in there and just getting to play a really physically strange character that you could bring your theater training to and do physical behavior with a sitcom in a way the most of the other work I had done and continue to do qualities some 30 years later all pretty much require hiding my bag of tricks from theater because you don't want to show those because it makes you look like an actor instead of the character. But in the case of a sitcom, you have the freedom to pull on the physical skills, especially for a character like that."

2. Intense Eyes of a Bad Guy

Intense Eyes of a Bad Guy
When he first arrived in California, he was on the fast track for comedy after his theater training, but he thwarted it because he was afraid he might be looked at as a clown and not taken seriously. "I kind of deliberately steered away from that. I wanted people to take me seriously and I kind of wanted to get training the way I had on stage in front of cameras. I said I would do it very mathematically. I'll play a bad buy on every episode of television ever week.

That's disposable income and a way to learn and earn at the same time. I have the skills, I can change the way I look – I was a makeup artist in the theater, and I'm a painter in real life, and I wanted to learn immediately in real life the skills of subtle makeup, so I would go into offices sometimes without them ever knowing I was wearing makeup. You know, breaking the capillaries here and there and making my eyes look more sunken to look like a psycho or a drug addict or an alcoholic or whatever it was to look like a bad guy," Xander said.

"They looked at me and they say, on one hand I was being brought in for a lot of young leading men, but then they'd look at my forehead and see I was beginning to have a receding hairline and then look into my eyes and say 'oh, intense eyes for a sweet young thing' it looks like he knows too much to be innocent. And so I could see the writing on the wall they were going to have a hard time putting me into those roles, like I had planned on stage, the sweet young thing.

And so I started to steer toward these character roles early on and the bad guy roles to get work from a really pragmatic standpoint. I would ask the agents to really scour and send me breakdowns and I would say I can guarantee them I am that guy when I walk into the room, and I did. And then a lot of the casting directors got these impressions of me from very early on that I was a very intense guy because I could manipulate my energy and my emotion state coming into a room because I heard, and it was true, that people would only believe you could do it if they saw it when you walked into the room." [photo above from Moonlighting, 1986, "Symphony in Knocked Flat]

3. Hart to Hart - 1982 - "Harts on Their Toes"

Hart to Hart - 1982 - 'Harts on Their Toes'
"Hart to Hart was the first episode back after Natalie Wood died. It was two weeks after she died. It was a month after William Holden died and Stephanie Powers had been going out and living with him, and he fell down the stairs and met his demise." He recalled it being a very odd situation, especially for a young man with a wild imagination working alongside two stars recently returned to work after a traumatic period.

"You know, Lionel Stander [Max] was kind of a hero of mine because I was obsessed with the movie he had been in with Jackie Bissett and Donald Pleasence, the Polanski movie called The Sac [Cul de Sac]. Put that movie on your list! He has one line in the movie that has just always stayed in my head, when he squeezed the hat off of Donald.

He's the gangster who has broken into a house and is holding Donald Pleasence and his young hot wife, Jackie Bissett, I think, hostage in their own home and Donald Pleasence keeps fussing at him about not touching this and don't do that and at one point at one point Lionel Stander squeezes the hat off his head and says [Xander does his voice] 'I'm bein' regular with you, and you're being snotty with me. Quit being snotty with me!' And he shoves him into the wall. I had to watch that movie a couple of times at midnight showings in New York City and oh my God he was fantastic. I had him sign an autograph for a friend of mine in New York."

4. Stars Get...Star Treatment

Stars Get...Star Treatment
"On Hart to Hart, I was supposed to be a ballet dancer, and I had some training. They brought an actual lead dancer from the American Ballet Theater in to double me. They thought a really smart thing to do would be, while I'm doing my exercises at the bar and Stephanie Powers comes in question me, they would have me blowing off the questions because I'm guilty as sin, and they have this guy behind me, butt up against me, raising his leg as though it were my leg in the scene, and he's got a big ol' leg so he can do the jetes and lift women on his shoulders while he's prancing on one leg, and so his thigh is as big as my torso and it just comes up out of frame as though it's supposed to be mine while I'm out moving my arm. That will always be my favorite and most amusing moment.

And also when they cut back to Stephanie, I remember they lit her with all this crazy warm, pink lighting with vaseline on the lens when they cut to her and 35 warm lights would break out and all this gauze and everything and then they cut to me and hard cold lighting, and I thought aren't we supposed to be in the same room? And who's this guy with the big leg behind me? I'm a little uncomfortable at the moment."

5. The Berkeley Lurk

The Berkeley Lurk
Xander learned to lurk on Hart to Hart. What, exactly is that?

"Lurking is where you stand in a particular angle and lean in and let the light catch your eye as you lift an eyebrow just so and it's creepy and it's known as the lurk, the Berkeley lurk, and I must have done it in at least ten shows per year on. 'Oh hey, can you lurk again?' It's my favorite thing to do."

6. Miami Vice - 1987 - "Like a Hurricane"

Miami Vice - 1987 - 'Like a Hurricane'
Xander was in an episode of Miami Vice with Sheena Easton, playing her music manager, in which he gets killed by cassette tape. He gets killed in a lot of his episodes of television! "I'm warning other actors, I think there are a few of them out there who think they have more, but I am working on a definitive death reel, and I just want to say that there is a lot of material to go on!"

The fellow who directed "Like a Hurricane" just won an Emmy for directing an episode of Fargo. "I remember when he came up to me, a very bone-dry Brit, and he leaned into me and he said 'so, you put the cassett into the cassett player and the car blows up. Do you suppose there's anything you might say prior to putting the tape in? Maybe we need to draw a little attention to the fact there is something strange about this tape, something that doesn't sit quite right with you? Hmmm? Not quite right before you put it in, a qualm you might have?'

And I said 'what if I pick it up, wave it around like it's heavy and say, 'What is this, heavy metal?' I always like a pun. He says, 'I love it,' and he walks away. We shot it and that stayed in the picture. What is this heavy metal? Kaboom! He always called him Tommy Blow as if he was addicted to cocaine and that's why he was behaving the way that he was. Always going out to an extreme behavior."

7. The Outer Limits - 1996 - "Falling Star"

The Outer Limits - 1996 - 'Falling Star'
"That's typical behavior for a music mananger. And then did you know? A little bit of pop culture puff, Sheena and I were rejoined by the fates in Outler Limits ten years later. Again for me to play her music manager, but this time as her philandering husband slash music manager. What did you think of that tangled web I wove?"

8. Miami Vice - 1989 - "Victims of Circumstance"

Miami Vice - 1989 - 'Victims of Circumstance'
"And you spotted that I was not only on that double episode, but because Colin and I were pals, when he was looking for opportunities to bring me back down and hang out in Miami again, he cast me as a different character altogether in a different episode and that was kind of fun," Xander said. [After I giggled at him for wearing one of the biggest, slouchiest 80s suits I've seen on TV lately, Xander continued].

"That concept was what if this was a guy who was really good at what he does but likes to go on a bit of a bender but ends up sleeping in his suits and doesn't have the opportunity to iron it and have it all pressed before he goes to work. What do you think? Think that could work for you? And of course, I was still young, and I had just done my Sid and Nancy run, and I took that one to the bank. I ended up sleeping in the suit and taking it home, hanging out on the streets of Miami in the suit, crinkling it up."

9. The A-Team - 1983 - "The Beast from the Belly of a Boeing"

The A-Team - 1983 - 'The Beast from the Belly of a Boeing'
"That began a kind of going back on the show as a different character, I remember doing that during the nadir of my career when I wasn't doing TV except for the cool shows (Miami Vice was a cool show), The A-Team, not so cool. I did a couple of them just because the casting directors liked me. I had been up for the role of Screaming Matt Murdoch. Right down to the network, and that was one of the ones I deliberately sabatoged because I knew that they wanted to make it a kind of family entertainment.

I remember Reuben the casting director saying. 'Just remember Xander, it's going to go into people's living rooms once a week, so don't be scary, let's not do anything, keep it funny, just do it both ways for me, and I know you want to do it the real way, but you gotta remember that people will have this in their living room, and the funny way is the way it's gonna go, and that's what they're gonna wanna see.'

And at the end of the day, at the last minute, I just made him scary crazy instead of funny crazy, and he appreciated that I was willing to sacrifice for my integrity instead of going for the big money behind Door Number 2, and when I needed a little money, he just threw these parts at me without me having to come in and read."

10. The A-Team - 1984 - "Showdown"

The A-Team - 1984 - 'Showdown'
"I remember the second time I came in and read, and the second time Mr. T. was sitting on top of me at one point tying me up, and he says, 'Say, didn't I tie you up about five, six episodes ago?' and I said, 'Yeah, I can't lie to you, yeah you did,' and he said, 'Well I gotta talk to the producers about this! Ain't no one gets away from Mr. T!' and I explained, 'No, no, no, you have to understand, hey, I had a mustache, I was a different dude, I was a cowboy, not military. Look at me now, clean shaven Mr. Military in a uniform and in that one I had a cowboy hat...'

'Oh, you was a different guy? Oh that's right. You was a different guy. OK. That's cool. As long as you was a different guy because ain't no one gets away from Mr. T.'"