Interview with Jim Piddock who has recently published his autobiography, “Caught with My Pants Down – and other tales from a life in Hollywood”, a story about his life and career, from his humble beginnings in the UK to moving to America and acting in Hollywood.
Please can you introduce yourself and your book.
My name is Jim Piddock and if you don’t know the name you will almost certainly know my face and if you don’t know my face you will absolutely know some of the things I’ve either been in or written in because there are about 150 of them. I’ve been in Hollywood for the last 40 years and I’ve worked all over in showbusiness and my book, which has just come out is called “Caught With My Pants Down – and Other Tales From a Life in Hollywood”. It is part tell all, part confessional and I name names! It’s a light, breezy, irreverent romp through four decades of show business.
You’re now in America but you started out in the UK.
I worked for a couple of years as an actor in the UK and I left at the age of 24 in 1981. I left with $100 dollars in my pocket to take a job directing two plays for the drama school that I had been to in London when they opened a branch in California. I just went to have a nice little jolly and I did a one man show while I was there (Boy’s Own Story) that took off in a big way. A few months later I ended up starring on Broadway with George C. Scott. So my career went very, very rapidly in the early days. Then as I explain through the book there have been lots of ups and downs and branchings out. I stopped doing theatre and I started writing as well, so it’s been quite a hell of a ride, a hell of a ride.
What were your 1st jobs in the theatre and how did they prepare you for your career.
After drama school I got a job with a children’s theatre touring and my first professional role was a garden gnome, which was not quite Richard III or Hamlet but a lot funnier. Then after that I was working in weekly rep, which I don’t know if that exists anymore, so I cut my teeth by being thrown in at the deep end. I was playing these leads in plays and the play would change every week, so you would be rehearsing one while you were playing the other in repertory. It’s nuts, it’s absolutely bonkers but you learn how to learn lines quickly, how to be fearless on stage. The things that go wrong are nuts and I relay some of the stories in the book. So that was how I started and then this opportunity came up at a low point in my life. I’d been an actor for probably two and half, three years, something like that and then I came to America for 3 months and they still can’t get rid of me!
Was it really a difficult choice to stay in America?
It was, I mean I love England, I loved London living there, so it was difficult to go. So over the course of the next few years it was always a point of do I go back now or what do I do? But I really did reach a point of no return probably after my 3 years in New York where I was pretty much on Broadway non-stop, different shows and I was exhausted. I mean 8 shows a week is a lot of acting and theatre energy. I really wanted to do film and TV but I wasn’t getting any roles in New York and a lot of people I knew were, they were all being plucked out of the theatre, thrust into movies and TV shows. So I decided to move to L.A.. I could have gone east or I could have gone west. I went west and I had to almost start all over again because in those days being on Broadway meant nothing in L.A.. I had to sort of start from scratch and finally I started to pick up roles in TV and film and it sort of started to snowball. As I say I branched out probably 5 or 6 years after I came to L.A. started writing and then I sold my first screenplay for a fairly large sum of money that propelled me into a parallel career that I’ve been doing ever since.
You had success on Broadway as an actor and you did your first one man play “The Boy’s Own Story”.
That was the thing that took me to New York that got me from a small theatre in San Francisco that had 99 seats and had 4 people in the audience one night. It got me into New York because it got a lot of notoriety and they wanted to do it off Broadway, which I did. Then as I say I kind of auditioned for this play that George C. Scott was directing and starring in and I got cast in it and it became a huge hit and it had all sorts of great actors in it: Nathan Lane (his first ever Broadway play), Christine Lahti, Kate Burton, Dame Ivy all making our Broadway debuts, it was a great kind of springboard into the theatre world and I was pinching myself to believe that it happened. But I never wanted to be just a theatre actor, I always wanted to do film and TV and so I knew I had to make that decision. It wasn’t coming to me so I had to go to it. It was a little hard at first but I gradually got my foothold, more than a foothold and I’ve been incredibly lucky that I’ve worked now pretty consistently for 40 years.
You seemed to get consistently lucky throughout. What was your secret?
I’m not going to say anything you’ve not heard before. It is 10,000 hours. You know consistently lucky, first of all luck doesn’t come consistently. So it is pretty much an oxymoron, consistently lucky. If people were to say you’ve been so lucky throughout your career, yeah, I’ve had moments of luck and I’ve had moments of things where I’ve been on so many TV pilots where I could have made a fortune by the time I was 30 or 35 and become a major star but I just happened to be in ones that didn’t get picked up for whatever reason and that is a total lottery, so the luck goes both ways. It’s absolutely about work ethic and grounding and theatre gave me a grounding. So I think it is work ethic as much as anything. Anyone will tell you I have worked really hard to be lucky.
I’ve had probably I don’t know 7 films made as a screenwriter, I can’t remember 6 or 7 and I’ve had a number of TV series on the air, episodes of TV shows, but not massive amounts, that have got made. If you look at the shelves behind me, which you can’t do because this is not visual, but for everything I have made there are probably 8, 9, 10 scripts sitting on these shelves that have not been made, so that’s what I’m talking about the 10,000 hours. Malcolm Gladwell’s book about how you get any kind of skill is 10,000 hours of practise and so I have all these scripts and screenplays, some of which are infinitely better than the things that got made. Infinitely better. But they haven’t. So the luck goes both ways.
You mention in the book one of your dear friends that you competed with.
It’s one of the more serious chapters in the book. I’m actually glad you brought it up, because most people don’t talk about that. A friend of mine who was a British director, writer who I met when I first came to L.A.. We played in the same football team together and he was incredibly competitive as a soccer player … a football player and as a writer and we would literally like outsmart each other. He’d say, “Alright, how are you doing? I wrote 15 pages today,” which is like ludicrous. And I’d say, “Oh yeah, yeah, me too. I’m going to finish this screenplay in 3 days.” We would out do each other to the point where it became like the 4 Yorkshire men sketch, the Monty Python thing, but what was great about Duncan was that he was like, in racehorse terms, he was like a pacemaker for me. If we were running a marathon, I would have to keep up with him because I would have slowed down or had a breather. It was brilliant because that helped me engender a work ethic. Most writers write for 3 or 4 hours a day and that’s it, and I to this day because of Duncan write 7 or 8 hours at least a day, when I’m writing, when I’m really into it. Now would be the moment to find out that he was just bullshitting the whole time, he wrote 2 hours a day but sadly he can’t because the story is about how at the age of 41 he sadly passed away in a fire in Malibu Canyon. He was one of 3 people that died in one of the terrible fires that happened in 1993, he died because he went back to try and save his cat and got caught in a 70 mile an hour blaze that swept through the ranch he was staying at and sadly died and it was a horrendous experience, I had to go to the hospital and you know, whatever … the story is all there in the book in detail. The ASPCA which is the equivalent of the RSPCA in America actually named their highest award for people that performed heroic duties to animals after him, which was lovely. But it was a very tough time, a very tough time but I wanted to do that chapter as a tribute to Duncan Gibbens.
You seem to meet a lot of incredible people, is that fate?
There is a bit of fate, I guess I’ve been lucky. In the first film I was in, Lethal Weapon 2, that was my first film role and I had one scene but my one scene is with Danny Glover and Joe Pesci. My line, one of my lines became the catch phrase for the movie. They are trying to pretend that Danny Glover wants to emigrate to South Africa, which was in the time of Apartheid obviously and I suddenly see Danny Glover walk in and I say that you can’t emigrate and he says why not and my line was “Because you are black,” which Joe Pesci found highly amusing and kept repeating it throughout the movie afterwards, so it became a bit of a catchphrase and until this day I have people say to me, “But you’re black,” and very often they are themselves black, which is doubly amusing.
So that was good and then the film thing really started to happen and I’ve been in big films, big studio films. Two films which were top grossing movies of the year and I’ve been in a lot of independent films. I’ve tended to do small cameos in big films and big leading roles in more independent films so that’s the 2 parallels I’ve had and I’ve worked with god knows everyone, it’s a whose who. One chapter starts with 10 A-Listers I’ve worked with and I list the 10 names and 9 I love and one was a ‘four asterixis’ and you can put whatever word you like in the four asterixis. It was the one word the publisher made me take out! That chapter explained why I loved the 9, exactly why and for whatever reasons and then I really, with both barrels, give it to the person who I thought was horrendous and I don’t care. I’ve reached a point in my life and my career I can say what I want. I don’t care because I’ve earnt that and I’ll do it kindly or with humour but I think bad behaviour whether within showbusiness or outside of showbusiness has to be called out by people who are mature enough and old enough to be able to do it and are allowed to do it.
In that chapter I actually rehabilitate some people because some of those candidates for those four asterixis are what a lot of people would think would be the choice and I say in my experience, they may have had a terrible reputation and I was dreading the worst, but they were delightful, here’s why they were delightful. One can judge a book by its cover too much, sometimes you catch people at a bad time in their life. In the people who I do go after I don’t think that is the case otherwise I wouldn’t have gone after them. I actually left out a couple of stories of where I thought that’s not fair, I don’t know for sure the reasons.
You’ve also worked with a lot of top writers. Do you see yourself as an actor or writer?
I’m an actor, writer, producer and now an author. I wrote a film that was with Rupert Everett and Sharon Stone, those are pretty big names. I wrote a film ‘The Rock’ with Julie Andrews, Billy Crystal, Stephen Merchant and Seth MacFarlane, all sorts of people were in it. They’ve all been different experiences. I had no interest in writing a Jim Piddock resumé, that’s of no interest to me, what’s interesting is the philosophies and the things I learn from the stories and the fact that half the stories or more than half, two thirds of the stories are funny, and they are crazy and they are insane stories and I thought they would be entertaining so that’s really why I told them. The fact that there is a more serious deeper side to the book emerged as I was writing and a ‘what does this all mean?’ came through. The fact that I was actually searching for a family and I don’t mean in an ancestry.com way. So they were the more serious themes that emerged through the writing but essentially it is still a very very irreverent romp and brutally honest romp through four decades in show business and outside of showbusiness. I mean there are a lot of stories about my other big passion football.
Who’s been the most influential out of all the people you’ve met in the industry?
Towards the end of the book I talk about, because my father died quite young, that I’ve had a lot of father figure friends, very paternal male friends who are a bit older than me and I list who they are and I say probably the greatest is my 25 year friendship with Eric Idle of Monty Python. I grew up adoring Monty Python, they changed the way I thought about comedy because I didn’t realise you could be very smart, very cerebral and also very silly and rude at the same time. I just thought that was an incredible blend. I just thought it was revolutionary and I know why people think of them as the Beatles of comedy. So when 25 years ago I got cast in this movie and I had seventeen scenes with Eric Idle and Naomi Campbell the supermodel, I was thrilled. I was nervous about Naomi because she definitely has a reputation and Eric was a thrill to work with. We hit it off immediately. We have an awful lot in common. We were both sent away to boarding school at a young age, we both love football and cricket and writing. We spend a lot of time together on the phone and a lot of time in the South of France together where he’s had a place for many, many years.
I did a wonderful stage show with Eric that he wrote called “What About Dick?” which you can find on Netflix. The cast was Russell Brand, Billy Connolly, Tim Curry, Eric Idle, Eddie Izzard, Jane Leeves, Myself, Tracey Ullman and Sophie Winkleman. That was an amazing event. That I felt was a real privilege to be a part of. You are on stage with those people, you are on the same playing field and you’ve got just as big a part. You’re going wow this is amazing and the audience is going wow I can’t believe we are seeing all these people on stage. It was just four nights, it was taped and filmed and is on Netflix now. If you like double-entendres and people doing silly things, in silly costumes I think you’ll enjoy it.
It is a real ‘Boy’s Own Story’, you went to America and lived what many would consider the American dream.
I suppose that’s true. One never thinks of life in those terms. I remember hearing when I was a very young actor, it could have been Rod Steiger but I may be mistaken, saying someone asked him what success meant and he said, “In showbusiness success is survival.” That’s it survival. So I never set out to do all the fantastic, wonderful things I’ve been allowed to do, I just set out to have a career that would be in showbusiness as an actor and I haven’t been kicked out yet. I think at the end if I’m brutally honest I’d say I have had a spectacularly mediocre acting career and a very lucrative writing career. If I had been a footballer, I would have played for 20 years and had a great career in the championship and a short spell in the Premier League probably, here and there and now and again dropped down to the third level but I had a twenty year career. People would probably remember or maybe not.
Fortunately, I’ve been very lucky in that 36 celebrities have endorsed the book in a wonderful way, lovely, lovely reviews. They are at the beginning of the book of course, but I’ve had people say, this should be a handbook, this should be a bible at drama schools, which is lovely. It’s rude and crude in ways and it’s philosophical and highfalutin in other ways but it is from the horses mouth. It is not cerebral about the academics of acting, so on that level it is good. People who kind of love showbiz gossip like it.
What advice would you give to any writer or director looking to break into America?
I don’t know about breaking into America specifically, I can’t address that. Breaking in anywhere because if you make it big in any country now you’ll have a chance in America. So I’m going to answer that more generically and that is just do it, just do it, just do it. Write, write, write. Just finish it. Whatever it is. Get it out there. Director, filmmaker make a short film. You can do it for nothing on your i-phone now. It’s easier than ever. Make what you want to make. What you believe in, passionately. Then think, how the hell do I sell this? What’s my marketplace, who do I go to? Be ruthless about that and put as much time and energy into that as you have the creative side. It is showbusiness not showshow.
That would be my advice and I think that applies to anyone in England, in France, in America, in Canada, Australia wherever. You’ve got a global market already now at your fingertips on a computer. You don’t have to come with $100 in your pocket to have success in America anymore. You can do it from wherever you are and I can only wish you the best of luck and can only hope your journey be as exciting as mine.
Caught With My Pants Down and other tales from a life in Hollywood will be available in print, digitally and via audiobook from 23rd March!
Pre-order your copy now: https://amzn.to/3stS52j
(A large percentage of the royalties will go towards supporting Jim’s favourite charities BAFTA’s US Access for All program in America and the Palace for Life Foundation in England)
The interview in full is available here: