Jeffrey Tambor has been a professional working actor since the early 1970s — and he says that's all he's ever wanted to do.
He's done Shakespeare, Avis commercials, Hollywood Squares, Arrested Development and La Cage aux Folles. He's still often remembered as Hank Kingsley, the self-adoring announcer on The Larry Sanders Show. Now, he stars as Maura, a divorced, transgender parent of three in the Amazon series Transparent.
Tambor's new memoir, about his life as an actor, is called Are You Anybody?
On his childhood home life, and how it led him to acting
It just wasn't warm and fuzzy. It wasn't the Ozzie & Harriet show. ... I had a theater that was right across the street from me and I would just go there after school and just hang out and watch ... and everything seemed calmer there, and nicer there, and warmer there. ... But my book isn't casting aspersions and making any parent evil. It was a tough learning curve. But it made me an actor.
On doing repertory theater across the country for 10 years
Milwaukee for five [years], Actors Theater of Louisville, San Diego Rep, Seattle Rep. Everywhere ... I loved it. I had my little Greenbrier station [wagon], my wife and two cats and tchotchkes and we moved around. I think I made $55 a week and it was bliss. ... I was doing theater. It was all I ever wanted to do. It was so much fun, and you got paid for it, and you met people, and it's the greatest education in the world. And in my little Greenbrier station wagon I felt very much like a troubadour.
On playing Julius Caesar at a reparatory theater in Detroit ... and finding out he was allergic to the stage blood
They had this blood — and I don't know what they use for this blood — but I was allergic to it, and every time Caesar died, I would just puff up into this puffball fish and I'm completely unrecognizable in my curtain call in Act V.
On the role of Maura in Transparent
It's life changing. I almost should have a shirt made: "Jill Soloway has changed my life." ... Not only changed my life with the opportunity to play Maura, but the opportunity and the responsibility of playing Maura. ...
I think it has made me a better daddy. ... I think it has made me strive to be a better actor. ... I think Maura is so beautiful, and a great teacher. I think Maura is funnier than I am, wittier than I am, more intelligent than I am, and I think she's just floating me at this point.
Radio producer Ravenna Koenig, radio editor Jordana Hochman and Web producer Beth Novey contributed to this story.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Jeffrey Tambor is a star at an age which a lot of other stars have already burned out. He's been a professional working actor since the early '70s. He's done Shakespeare and Avis commercials, "Hollywood Squares" and "La Cage Aux Folles." He's still often remembered as Hank Kingsley - hey, now - the self-adored announcer on "The Larry Sanders Show." And he's now won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Emmy, so many other awards, for his role as Maura, a Jewish, divorced transgender parent of three in the Amazon series "Transparent."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
AMY LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Dad. I'm sorry. I'm just trying - can you just help me out here? Are you saying that you're going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?
JEFFREY TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) I mean, all my life - my whole life I've been dressing up like a man. This is me.
SIMON: Jeffrey Tambor has written a memoir about his actor's life. It's called "Are You Anybody?" And Jeffrey Tambor joins us from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.
TAMBOR: I don't think Hank - my pleasure. And your...
SIMON: I didn't - I didn't do a good Hank Kingsley.
TAMBOR: Well, I don't think that Hank Kingsley was self-regarded. I always...
SIMON: Self-adoring, self-adoring.
TAMBOR: I don't think he...
TAMBOR: No. I just think he was real sensitive and I always cavil at people saying he was a buffoon and this and that and blah, blah. And I always say I just think he probably could do The New York Times Saturday puzzle.
SIMON: You're loyal to him.
TAMBOR: I'm - not well, but do it, yes.
SIMON: You're loyal to him. I like that.
TAMBOR: Yeah, I am. I am very loyal to him, yes.
SIMON: Jeffrey - and for some reason I move to call you that...
TAMBOR: Yeah, don't call me Jeff. There's only one person who calls me Jeff.
SIMON: Well, instead of Mr. Tambor, I move to call you Jeffrey.
TAMBOR: How about Mr. Jeffrey?
SIMON: Mr. Jeffrey.
TAMBOR: Let's just split the difference.
SIMON: All right. That is, as we say in this business, a segue. I have to ask about your childhood in San Francisco, Russian-Hungarian Jewish parents. It sounds colorful, interesting, sad.
TAMBOR: Why does it sound sad?
SIMON: Well, could you tell us about your mother sitting at - your mother, your mother?
TAMBOR: Well, we had - you know, I mean, that's not the highlight of my book. Everybody has these stories around the Thanksgiving table.
SIMON: No, but I wonder if it's not - if it's not a key to your becoming an actor.
TAMBOR: Oh, I'm positive.
SIMON: You say that it sent you away, yeah.
TAMBOR: I'm positive. Just to brush over it lightly, it just wasn't warm and fuzzy. It wasn't the Ozzie and Harriet show. It was the...
SIMON: Oh, Mr. Jeffrey, it was worse than that. She would sit at the table and swear at you.
TAMBOR: She would, but, you know, I - that was her deal, and she tried as hard as she could. But more important than that was that I had a theater that was right across the street from me. And I would just go there after school and just hang out and watch these 90-year-old actors act. They were 17. And everything seemed calmer there and nicer there and warmer there and much more - but my book is not casting aspersions and making any parent evil. It's just like - it was a, you know, it was a tough learning curve, but I'm - it made me an actor, so here we are.
SIMON: Yeah. You were in - you were in rep theater across the country for 10 years...
SIMON: ...Milwaukee for five.
TAMBOR: Milwaukee for five, Actors Theatre of Louisville, San Diego Rep., Seattle Rep., everywhere.
SIMON: You loved it, too.
TAMBOR: I loved it. It was so - I had my little Greenbrier station, my wife and two cats and tchotchkes, and we moved around. And I think I made $55 a week, and it was bliss, bliss.
TAMBOR: Because I was doing theater, because this is all I ever wanted to do, and it was so much fun. And you got paid for it. And you met people, and it's the greatest education in the world. And I felt - in my little Greenbrier station wagon, I felt very much like a troubadour, and I felt that.
SIMON: Yeah. I have to ask you - you've got a list of your 13 most embarrassing stories.
SIMON: I particularly love the one about when you were playing Julius Caesar at the Hillberry Rep. in Detroit.
SIMON: Could you tell that story?
SIMON: And we know that, you know, to play Caesar is to be stabbed to death, right?
TAMBOR: (Laughter) It is to be stabbed to death by a wonderful actor Fred Coffin, who is no longer with us, and Richard Greene, some of the great, great actors. But they had this blood, and I don't know what they use for this blood, but I was allergic to it. And every time Caesar died, I would just puff up into, like, this puff-ball (ph) fish. And I'm completely unrecognizable in my curtain call in act five. I just - I was allergic to the blood.
SIMON: And it was hard to get the blood out sometimes, wasn't it?
TAMBOR: Well, yes because they had an - sort of an enema bag underneath their armpits, and they would squeeze it with their arms as they bloodied me. And I think opening night, or one of the nights, it got caught, and it turned into - have you seen "Arrested Development?"
SIMON: Yes but not in awhile. Of course I have, yeah.
TAMBOR: Well, we used to do a thing called the chicken dance.
SIMON: Yes, right (laughter).
TAMBOR: Well, that was our Julius Caesar chicken dance.
SIMON: (Laughter) Yeah.
TAMBOR: All that in $55 a week.
SIMON: You seem very moved in this memoir about what "Transparent" and Maura has meant to so many people who are transgender.
TAMBOR: Yeah. It's life changing. I mean, I almost should have a shirt made. You know, Jill Soloway has changed my life with this role, not only changed my life with the opportunity to play Maura but the opportunity and the responsibility of playing Maura, which I did not know was going to happen, and I'm much better for it. And it has changed my life. I think it's made me a better daddy. I think it's made me - and it's going to sound like I regard myself a little too highly - but I think it has made me strive to be a better actor just simply because the paints and the thing that I'm making is so - I think Maura is so beautiful and a great teacher. I think Maura is funnier than I am, wittier than I am, more intelligent than I am, and I think she's just, like, floating me at this point.
SIMON: Jeffrey Tambor - his new book, "Are You Anybody?" He is. Thanks so much for being with us.
TAMBOR: Oh, that's nice. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.