Timothy Busfield Interview January 2004

Questions from Bob Fahey


1) The premiere episode sets the tone. Elliot tells Michael he had an affair. The marriage is in trouble. Contrast that with the Michael and Hope relationship. Good couple/bad couple. Early on, they do the "Rashomon" episode, where Elliot and Nancy's bad night is seen from several different views. Just 12 episodes in is the intense Therapy episode. What was it like starting out a new show as the "bad marriage" guy, who had to be funny and likeable but at the same time be doing things wrong in his marriage?

Tim: Good question.  I had divorced my first wife in May of 1986 and much of what I experienced informed my performance.  Patricia Wettig and my ex had done a play and I think that Patti knew that anything she could do to be like her would make me crazy.  There were moments in “Therapy” where I would call her by my ex’s name.  We laughed a lot when things got real intense.

2) First season, Whose Forest is This, the one with the cool story that's a little like Where the Wild Things Are. And it's a thing that really the father and son created together, but now they're not together. Can you talk a little about what it was playing a guy who is trying to be a good father and who is intensely sad about not living in the same house as his kids? Also, it seems like Luke Rossi, who played Ethan, was an excellent child actor.

Tim: Again, my son Willy and I were separated and Marshall and Ed (show creators) wrote right into it.  Playing Elliot was easy when dealing with things close to home.  Luke Rossi was fantastically minimal.  Like many kid actors how we shot him and what the audience gets were two different things.  He could only work 5 hours so we would get his stuff when he wasn’t in school.  He let me pick him up and kiss him and that was fantastic.  I that the Elliot would be likable if he was a good dad.

3) During the first season and much of the second, the audience has never seen this couple in good times. They don't know that the writers will eventually let them repair things. But they DO repair things. Toward the end of the second season is Courting Nancy, with the Fine Young Cannibals music video sequence, and in the fifth episode of the third season, Legacy, they officially get together. How did that feel to complete that long story arc?

Tim: First we shot the Separation episode, then the producers felt they wanted a Therapy episode to air before it.  We talked about what would be a good arc for the character of Elliot.  I thought it would be cool to play a guy who looks for something in single life that doesn’t exist and ends up coming back after realizing how dumb he is.  I thought the reverse arc of leaving a marriage for better times and then bottoming out was something we hadn’t seen on television yet.

4) Elliot gets Nancy back and, seven episodes later, the writers give her cancer, beginning another long story arc that lasts almost until the end of the show. Elliot and Nancy can't seem to catch a break. Is this more of the good couple contrasted with the bad/unlucky couple?

Tim: I don’t know why they did that but it was so fun to play.  Patricia Heaton was our doctor and I remember thinking this stuff could be good.  And of course Patti was brilliant.  We would see each other in the morning and start to laugh because it was so heavy to act.  Whenever scenes got to heavy or when we would fight we would always crack up.

5. I read an interview where the producers said they considered giving Elliot cancer. As an actor, would you have liked to see it go that way?

Tim:  Patricia Wetting won an Emmy and much admiration from cancer survivors. I’m glad that they didn’t give me cancer.  I always saw Elliot’s problems as being common to everyman.  A man/boy who didn’t want to grow up.  Making him a victim would steal from that.

6) One of my favorite episodes is the fourth season's Sifting the Ashes, where Elliot visits his hometown and deals with his recovering alcoholic mother (well played by Eileen Brennan) and his faded Catholicism. I love Elliot's remark about "once you've been through The Program" and Father Tierney's (Richard Brestoff) line about the church not being a buffet: you can't pick and choose; if you come back, you come ALL the way back. Are you Catholic or do you know much about it? What did this episode mean to you?

Tim: In the meeting to establish Elliot’s arc in the first season the spiritual twist at the end was discussed.  I give Marshall and Ed many kudos for following this through to the end.  I won an Emmy for that episode and it will always be one of my favorites.

7) Short descriptions of the characters always have Elliot as being childish and irresponsible. But this guy actually had some very profound moments on the show. I like in Fighting the Cold (the funeral episode) where Elliot and Michael are in the basement with the furnace and Elliot waxes philosophical to Michael, saying something about how we don't really have any choice, so try to enjoy the times between the funerals.  Can you talk about that a little?

Tim: Elliot was based on Marshall and Marshall is profoundly observant.  Elliot was as smart as the boys when guys wrote the show, and dumb as the boys when the girls wrote the show.

8) Back on that furnace scene, Michael says something like, "It doesn't make any sense. The furnace is working, so where is all the heat going?"  This always felt like it was supposed to be a metaphor for something, but it eludes me. What is that line and this episode about for you?

Tim: I didn’t remember the line until I just read it.  I don’t know what it means but it’s good isn’t it?


9) I'm 41 now and STILL don't feel grownup, so I empathize with you being in your thirties and getting a shot at directing. Can you talk a little about what it's like to get on the other side of the camera and give directions to your costars? To jog your memory, here are the three episodes you directed: "Her Cup Runneth Over" - In this Winnie Holzman-penned 3rd-season ep, Jeffrey leaves his wife for Ellyn, and Ellyn suddenly meets an enormous dog and a sad, smart, unhappy daughter. "The Difference Between Men and Women" - 4th season, also written by Holzman. Rival bachelor/bachelorette parties for Billy and Ellyn.  "A Stop at Willoughby" - 4th season ep penned by Joseph Dougherty. Michael battles with Miles over an actor-spokesman's unpopular stance on the Gulf War and its effect on a beer campaign. In short, Michael realizes what Elliot realized several episodes earlier, and quits.

Tim: The opportunity to direct under Ed and Marshall was huge for me.  I learned so much.  I wish I had done a better job with the first two.  I think that Willoughby was the best of my work at the time.  Marshall and Ed ran the show like an extended film school adult course.  We all learned about film and story telling from them.  I took much away from my time on the show, but nothing greater than learning to direct.  I’ve always had a good relationship with actors and they tend to trust my direction.