Marine corporal and well-known TV and film actor Tim Matheson spent a morning with We Are The Mighty. He discussed everything from growing up in Hollywood, to his service in the Corps in the late 1960s and 1970s, to his starring in many great, classic films.
Matheson is notable to audiences worldwide for his performances in John Landis’ Animal House, Steven Spielberg’s 1941, Mel Brooks's To Be Or Not To Be, with Chevy Chase in Fletch, as Vice President John Hoynes in the award-winning show West Wing and more recently as President Ronald Reagan in the TV movie Killing Reagan. He got his start in TV back in the 1960s on such series as Leave It to Beaver with Jerry Mathers; being the voice of Jonny Quest in Jonny Quest and guest-starring on Bonanza, The Virginian and Adam-12. His early film roles offered him the chance to work with Dick Van Dyke, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Debbie Reynolds and Jane Wyman in such films as Divorce American Style; Yours, Mine, and Ours; and How to Commit Marriage. He starred with Clint Eastwood, David Soul, Hal Holbrook, Robert Urich and Kip Niven in the second installment of the Dirty Harry series Magnum Force.
Matheson described coming up in the industry as: "I learned on the job as an actor. I took classes when I was younger, but most of it was OJT. I’d get a day job here and a day job there. I sort of got the hang of it and it evolved into me learning my craft. The most interesting show I did was Yours, Mine, and Ours with Lucille Ball. It was like my first big movie and it was a big part with Henry Fonda, and he played a Naval Officer. It was based on a real story about this family. My character had a draft physical and then enlisted in the Marines. I think I was 18 and the day I was to shoot that scene. It was the day I actually had a draft physical. Passed it of course and became 1A, which means I am available to be drafted. Then I am wearing a Marine uniform (for the scene), I remember walking and didn’t know any of the etiquette or anything, I just knew I felt really strange wearing a uniform. I was actually out on the street. I had to walk from where I had lunch over to the studio, where someone yelled, ‘Hey Marine!’ I didn’t know what to do."
Shortly after that experience, Matheson enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve and went to bootcamp at MCRD San Diego. He kept his identity incognito during his bootcamp experience so as not to stick out as the “Hollywood” type in his platoon. During boot camp, he was chosen to be a squad leader and he picked up PFC out of bootcamp.
Matheson told a story while marching on base by the base theater which was showing a film he had worked on. The base was showing Divorce American Style with Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds as they marched by. He thought, “Oh dear, I don’t want to blow my cover now!” He considers boot camp the toughest time of his life. He described it as, “One of those things that you hated every minute of it and yet when you look back at it you learn so much. I think mostly about yourself and what you can do and what you are capable of doing. I was a Hollywood actor. I had never really done anything physically, I could run … there were these kids in my squads who were from the south and played football; I remember one kid, in particular, that would just break down. He couldn’t run. He’d just say, ‘I can’t do it,’ and broke down in tears. I would tell him, ‘Listen, look at me, if I can do it you can do it. I’m telling you seriously, you are in better shape than me. It’s all here (points to mind)…Get your mind right,’ and we nursed him all through that. That is the training that everybody gets. You all have your breaking point and you all have to learn how to get beyond it.
"There is a reserve and a resource inside you can call upon when is necessary and you can go farther than you think you can.” The Marines offered him the opportunity to compete for a slot at OCS. He declined the offer and was happy with being enlisted. He was stationed at the Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center in Chavez Ravine, which is close to Dodger Stadium. It is now the Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center and run by the LAFD. He would go to 29 Palms with his reserve unit in the summers. He was part of his unit's press department that would put out a paper even though he served in an artillery unit. Matheson made good friends in the Corps and enjoyed going through training with fellow Marines. He said, “There is a bond there you created that will never, ever go away. You have gone through something together. You’ve supported each other. You are there for each other….such a memorable time.”
One of Matheson's funniest moments in boot camp was during pugil sticks training. His platoon fought against one of the platoons that was mostly made of up inner-city tough guys from Chicago. The tough guy platoon had a recruit named “Melson”, who looked, sounded and acted like Mike Tyson. Melson was considered the baddest guy in all of the platoons. While waiting for his pugil stick match, Matheson realized he was about ten recruits back from the start in which case Melson was about seven back, so he was in the “clear” or so he thought. He had not been paying attention when he realized he was six back and Melson was six back. His fellow recruits had been peeling off and going to the back, so they didn’t have to face Melson. Matheson was too close to the front of the line to get out of it. At the time he weighed about 160lbs and Melson was, “formidable.” His DI’s suited him and wished him luck in the pugil stick bout. Matheson said, “I’m just gonna go for it, I’m not going to just jab him. So, I go out there, KABAM! I hit him as hard as I could. He (Melson) looked at me, he throws down the pugil stick and dives on me. We have helmets on and he starts pounding my helmet. Everybody is laughing so hard.” The DIs separated the two of them.
Matheson found his way to the Corps through one of his industry friends, Mike Stokey Jr. Stokey’s family was in the Hollywood business as well. Matheson would take Stokey down to Camp Pendleton at times and his experiences of the Corps led him to pursue enlistment in the Marines. After boot camp, he did four weeks of ITR, which was that era’s infantry training. During ITR, the students of the school that ran the show were hardened street kids from Chicago. If other students didn’t go along with how things were being run, at night they would be chased through the billeting, likely en route to a beating of sorts. Matheson then went to radio school for his primary MOS of Field Radio Operator and was trained on the PRC-25.
While finishing up his time after radio school he was put on mess duty and then was sent to NYC to be on the “Ed Sullivan Show”. He shared, “...the Sergeant in charge of wherever I was….he said, ‘Matheson there is a car coming to pick you up tomorrow and you’re getting four days to go to NYC to do the Ed Sullivan Show for Yours, Mine, and Ours.'" Lucille Ball had called Bob Hope who then called HQMC to get Matheson permission to appear on the show. A car picked up Matheson and took him right to the airport. He had only one dollar in his pocket on the way to NYC; he didn’t have enough time to eat breakfast and couldn’t afford it arriving at The Plaza Hotel in the city. Until given some money, he was unable to eat. He said of being in NYC, “It was night and day different from being in training.” The Bee Gees were the guest of the week on the Ed Sullivan Show and he said, "It was a thrill to be on The Ed Sullivan Show (Matheson does his best Ed Sullivan impersonation).” Sullivan was filmed on Sunday and he was sent back to Camp Pendleton on Monday morning. By Tuesday he was back to swabbing the deck and he kept the visit to the show under wraps with Marines in his unit. He said of potential reactions, “Oh, here comes Hollywood, oh yeah, let’s get you down here. Scrub that toilet.” He made sure to fly below the radar most of the time, which made for a smooth enlistment.
When asked about Vietnam, Matheson shared, “I had mixed feelings about it and mixed feelings about what I should do, yet I did feel an obligation and sense of devotion to my country that I needed to do something. The Marine Corps Reserve was the perfect solution for me. If I am activated, at least I will be a Marine. With all due respect to the US Army, I did not want to be one of a huge number of people that was not seriously training. I knew the training in the Marine Corps was going to serve me well, so that if I ultimately ended up in combat I would be better prepared to handle it than I would if I had just been drafted and rushed through with the herd….it made me proud to be a brother of theirs (Marines that served and went to Vietnam), to stand alongside them and to feel that I had done a little bit for my country. And then it made me realize the obligation a citizen really does have in terms of service. It is so different today.” He said of the Corps, “I was proud to be part of that organization…I totally respected the price that was paid by all my brothers and sisters who did what they did and paid the ultimate price.” He shared, “It grew me up from being some kid in the valley…to seeing really what it was like to be trained and then shipped right over. Getting to know them when they came back or didn’t come back….You really learn the mettle of the men and women that you train with.”
Matheson retains a strong sense of pride, maturity and appreciation from his service. He carries over many values from his service such as, “Your word is your bond. It takes a team and you need leaders. Leadership was the thing I learned. I was a squad leader and then a guide at ITR. I learned how to take control and command. You couldn’t just stand in the back.” He credits the Corps with helping him ultimately become a director in TV and movies because of his leadership and initiative training. He believes running a film set is similar to running a military unit, especially in getting people to do things they don’t want to do yet need to be done. He was taught during automatic weapons training at Camp Pendleton if caught out in the open with no possible cover, to turn and to run toward the guns. His unit crossed paths in the chow hall with Navy SEALs and he was impressed with their toughness. “I had never seen any group eat as much and as fast as those guys. I thought we Marines were tough, and then I saw those guys! That was the first time I’d ever heard of SEALS. I never forgot them!”
Matheson is proud of his work with Clint Eastwood on Magnum Force. He said of Eastwood, “He was quiet, but filled with authority. He was the real deal.” He trained and qualified with the pistol for his role in the film. Matheson also did ride alongs with the police. He shared, “Clint always had a crew that just stayed with him through the years and they were the best.” Prop master Eddie Aiona on the film gave Matheson a .357 magnum to practice speed loading with to take back to his hotel room. Eastwood told Matheson of running lines and rehearsing before their scene, “No, I think there is something very special the first time that you hear those words and it should be on camera.” Eastwood’s comments surprised Matheson. He said of Eastwood, “He was the best listener I had ever worked with….he is totally listening to what I say and then I say what I had to say, and then he responded and changed one word that affected my next line…it was totally natural and totally spontaneous. I walked away at the end of that day saying, ‘This guy is the real deal; I mean wow.’ He was gracious to everybody and in public, he was very personable. Generally speaking, he had a way of moving around the city that you didn’t notice him. He just cut through all the blather. But if anybody stopped him, he would say ‘Hi’ and he would sign his autographs. He was the real deal and I just loved working with him.”
When asked who some of his more memorable colleagues were, Matheson shared, “Certainly John Belushi on Animal House was one of my favorites. He was one of the greatest guys, tremendous actor, wonderful improv. I remember the scene in the cafeteria where he is eating his lunch and stealing the food -- he did it in one take. ” Belushi invented a lot of his work on the spot. “He couldn’t have been more gracious and generous to me. It was my first comedy.” Matheson speaks of the rivalry between New York and Los Angeles actors with, "None of that with John. Belushi set the tone of the film. John was just generous and loving and supportive of everybody and just great. Heartbreaking that his multiple successes took his life…that was when drugs weren’t bad for you…he just couldn’t get away from it. It was just a tragedy that we lost him.”
Matheson as a young actor got to work with many Vaudeville performers turned actors; Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope. "I learned a sense of discipline and how professional they were. Lucy was like a DI. I remember one scene with Lucille Ball where there were 11 kids around and there is a prop guy hiding under the sink ... he has got to pop toast up that she’s gotta catch on a certain line. And at one point she looked around at everybody and she said, ‘Always rehearse with your props.’ It was just like a DI…it was one of those moments where this is what you do.” He is grateful for his good fortune in working with such greats and in the wisdom they imparted to their cast-mates.
Additionally, Matheson is grateful for having been able to work with great voice actors such as Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny), Dawes Butler (voice of Yogi the Bear, Snagglepuss, Huckleberry Hound, etc.) and Don Messick (voice of Papa Smurf, Scooby-Doo, Bamm Bamm Rubble, etc.). He got to see Mel Blanc perform a scene as two different characters/voices talking to each other, which floored Matheson. He said, “One of the finest actors I have ever worked with was Mel Blanc. Because he created the third-dimension voice, and you could see the character.” Matheson was a series regular on The Virginian, Bonanza and his own western with Kurt Russell called The Quest for a year each. His career was part of the waning time of western TV shows in the 1970s. He decided to start doing improv comedy to change the kind of parts he got which opened the door for doing Animal House, which opened even more doors for him.
He plans to keep on working as an actor with his current characters being more doctor roles now. "I must say the one thing I also learned from the Marine Corps was, 'Get your ass in shape.' I ran and ran and ran for years and did marathons until my knees started acting up. Now I am into spinning bikes and stuff like that. That was the main thing it instilled in me a sort of discipline; get up, work out…I see actors come to the set at 6:30 or 7 o’clock in the morning. They just woke up. I have been up for two hours, worked out because I want the blood flowing in my brain before I get to the dialogue -- film is forever and pain is temporary so you are not embarrassed when your kids look at it in 20 years.”
Regarding veteran stories in Hollywood, Matheson sings high praises of Rod Lurie’s work directing The Outpost. He said, “ I thought it was an exemplary piece of work.” Matheson has positive feelings for Eastwood’s film Letters from Iwo Jima, as well. He shared, “I thought that was a masterful film…that he just threw together….I actually liked it better than the other film (Flags of Our Fathers)…I just think that those personal stories like that show the valor, gumption, strength and what it takes to be a leader in the service.” He said of working with Steven Spielberg on 1941: “Steven was one of the most wonderful, giving….and was very collaborative and encouraged me and my directing life and was quite an inspiration. He is just one of those guys that thinks differently. He is a genius and I look at his films and just study them because I find I learn so much in simply watching how he does things.” Working with Lurie on Killing Reagan was a great experience for Matheson and he describes Lurie as, “What a gem…and a gift he gave to me and Cynthia Nixon who played Nancy…to create an environment for us to play in…it was a memorable experience….I hold him (Lurie) in the highest esteem.” He said of political candidates that have served in the military: "I want them in our government. I want them to run a lot of different things.” His faith in military service and the Corps is still intact.
The Corps provided him with the following leadership takeaways: “The buck stops with me and I should be there for people that need help….To create a team in whatever situation you are in to do it better." He is most proud of his kids in life and making them into responsible adults. He is glad to be in a position to keep learning his craft and is grateful to share the screen with great artistic craftsmen.
Feature photo: Creative commons & TimMatheson.com