The Text and Subtext of a Joker

By Colleen Sell, for Biblio.

"And life in his mind gave him pleasure, such pleasure that pleasure was not the word."
--Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)

Just as creating Waiting for Godot enabled Samuel Beckett to "come into the light," finding on the stage the "habitable space" he craved, so did discovering the works of Beckett illuminate the dark, inhabitable spaces of John Larroquette's life, leading him to the stage, where he found the attention he craved, and to the world of books, where he found healing light. Best known for his role as the endearingly lewd and lascivious prosecutor Dan Fielding on the television sitcom Night Court, Larroquette first entered Beckett's theatre of the absurd at the age of fourteen. He has since devoured virtually every work produced by the Irish writer and today owns one of the world's finest private Beckett collections.
Although Larroquette considers Beckett to be the "Olympus" of writers, his literary interests run wide and deep -- from Faulkner to Pynchon, Steinbeck to Styron, Bukowski to Ondaatje.
Larroquette is a study in contrasts. The only child of a financially strapped, broken home in New Orleans; devoted husband of Elizabeth and father to Lisa, Jonathan, and Benjamin, comfortably ensconced in a Malibu mansion. Southern gentleman; sarcastic showman. Introspective extrovert. Sixties rebel; influential film executive. Cultured intellectual with only a high school education. Recovering alcoholic with an unquenchable thirst to explore the underbelly of humanity. Vulnerable; powerful.
When the six-foot-five-inch actor of French-Irish descent enters a room, it is not his size alone that commands notice. Nor is it merely his resonant voice, articulating each word with liquid precision, that holds attention. It is a palpable presence that exudes a razor-sharp intelligence and an imploring, compassionate soul, attributes that carried the rebellious youth from a lonely childhood in New Orleans, through a decade of drunken despair, to a rewarding personal life and successful acting career.
"I've always said I am an actor, hence I have no real personality," Larroquette quips with his trademark smirk, then pauses to reflect. "I don't know why I became an actor. Maybe because it's the only thing I thought I could do well. Maybe because I've always been an exhibitionist. Maybe it's a reflection of a less than ecstatically happy childhood, the wish to disappear into another world." He found the same escape in books.
His parents divorced when he was two, and John and his mother went to live with his maternal grandparents, never to see his father again. His mother worked in a boys' clothing store in downtown New Orleans and stopped nearly every day at a newsstand on her way home to pick up two comic books for her young son, who would sit on the front stoop awaiting her nightly homecoming.
"I'd wait so anxiously for her return and for her gifts of pictures and words. And I'd devour those two comic books that same night," he recalls. "To get really Jungian, I guess that my desire to surround myself with books represents good things coming home again."
With a book the young Larroquette had "only to show up and observe" and never had to worry whether it would desert or disappoint him, knowing he could always close it and pick up another one.
"It gave me control," he explains. "So did acting, which allowed me to assume a reality in which I knew what was expected of me, how to relate to other characters, how it was going to turn out."
 At twenty-one, after working several years as a radio disc jockey, Larroquette left New Orleans to pursue acting in Los Angeles. He started out doing stage productions with local theatre groups. Then came his head-turning stint as the narrator in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), his television debut on Doctor's Hospital (1975), and his movie debut in Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976). Numerous TV movies, guest appearances, and hosting gigs (including Saturday Night Live) followed before he landed his breakout role on Night Court (1983- 1992), for which he won four consecutive Emmy awards for best supporting actor in a comedy series. Since 1979 he's made more than two dozen films, notably One Small Victory, Stripes, and Madhouse, and in 1993 he got his own show, The John Larroquette Show, which ran through 1997. His latest project is a half-hour TV sitcom, Royal Payne, in which he stars and serves as executive producer.
"John had a rough beginning," acknowledges Fred Roy, an administrator of Holy Cross School. "He's certainly come a long way. He's our most famous expelled student." Although Larroquette completed only his freshman year at Holy Cross School in New Orleans, it was apparently long enough to make a lasting impact.
"One thing I can thank the Catholics for is showing me a world wider than New Orleans," Larroquette says. "A couple of my teachers were very worldly and introduced me to art, music, literature. One brother, an English teacher who was Irish, turned me on to Beckett and Joyce. I became totally absorbed in their worlds and thoroughly enjoyed their work. Still do."
Now, as then, it is how a writer "interprets the world and shows me something of humanity and myself" that most attracts Larroquette. Judging from the assemblage lining his shelves, it seems he is especially drawn to fiction that examines the depravity and beauty of the human spirit in tragically comic, often twisted manifestations of the world: Beckett's Murphy, Footfalls, and More Pricks Than Kicks; Charles Bukowski's Tales of Ordinary Madness, Women, and Factotum; James Lee Burke's The Convict; Grace Paley's The Little Disturbances of Man; William S. Burroughs' The Naked Lunch and Junkie; William Styron's Sophie's Choice; Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird; Günter Grass's The Tin Drum.
"I guess I'm snobbish in that I don't read many best sellers or writers who just tell stories. Most of what I read has depth," he explains. "Then again, I love Martin Amis and he's a best-selling author. But I'd rather get lost in the myopic insanity of Beckett's trilogy."
John always keeps a Beckett book at his bedside. He regularly re-reads books by Beckett and other favorite authors, and typically has several books going at once. At the time of our interview, he was reading Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, and Saul Bellow's The Victim, as well as three or four chess books. (He explains, "I recently did a few episodes of The Practice with Dylan McDermott, who cajoled me into taking up chess again.")
But the royal game plays second fiddle to Beckett's Endgame, which holds special significance for Larroquette. In 1979, while on location in England for a movie, he went to see the San Quentin Players production of Endgame -- directed by Beckett himself -- five nights in a row, feverishly scribbling in a notebook all the changes the dramatist had made to the play. (Larroquette resisted the urge to approach his literary hero. "I mean, what would I say? your work!") A few years later, Larroquette starred as Hamm in a Los Angeles production of Endgame. Just before the show opened, he found two sixteen-volume collections of Beckett's works (Grove Press, 1970), one signed and one unsigned, in a knickknack shop.
"I couldn't afford the signed set, so I bought the unsigned one for about two hundred dollars, a lot of money for me to blow on books then," he recalls. "It filled me with such joy to have those books and to be doing the play. From then on, whenever I had an extra fifty or a hundred bucks, I'd try to find one of his first editions."
During that same period, Larroquette captured the career-launching part on Night Court -- and was forced to face down the internal demons that had driven him to booze. At his family's insistence, Larroquette quit drinking -- cold turkey -- and has remained sober since 1981. Through it all, books have been a constant.
"In my drunken days, reading was the only solace I had," he says. "I still have many of the books I read during those days. I'm going to pass some of them along to my son."
There are several sentimentals in Larroquette's massive book collection, which numbers in the many thousands, including a book of Salvador Dali's paintings he found when he wandered into a bookstore while hitchhiking across the United States in the 1960s. "I had to have it and spent half of the fifty bucks in my pocket on it, all the money I had in the world, and roamed all over the country with that book under my arm. It's torn up and pages are missing, but I still have it." He also still has a book by Stanislavsky that he "carted around" for years. These ragged volumes hold no less prestige than his thousands of prized first editions, most in pristine condition, many signed, others boxed or custom-bound in cloth or leather.
A self-described "obsessive but selective" collector, Larroquette often acquires multiples of whatever titles he fancies. In addition to books, he also collects photographs, art, pens, cameras, and computers. By way of explanation he says, "My wife read somewhere that people who collect have had emotional damage as children."
Perhaps. But collecting well, as Larroquette acknowledges, takes passion, smarts, money, and time. He has the first three in spades; it is time that poses the greatest challenge. "That's why God invented Ken Lopez, Ralph Sipper, Maurice Neville, and the other great bookmen of the world," he claims.
Larroquette credits "Red" Stodolsky, of Baroque Books in Los Angeles, with being his "Yoda" of collecting. "I wandered into this tiny hole of a bookstore in 1983 and was greeted with, 'Waddya want?' 'Um, this is a bookstore, isn't it?' 'Yeah. What kinda books you looking for?' 'I'd like to buy some Bukowski.' 'I only have first editions; they're expensive.' 'Well, can I see them?' I bought the books. In fact, I bought a lot of books from Red in the early days, and slowly but surely, he taught me how to collect."
For years Larroquette pored over catalogues from all over the world, attended bookfairs, and established a network of bookdealer friends. He claims a good dealer knows his client well and works like an agent, making connections and scouting for opportunities. That's how he gets around the time obstacle. Yet time continues to hamper Larroquette's collecting, according to Ralph Sipper, a thirty-year veteran and former owner of Joseph the Provider in Santa Barbara, who shares his interest in Beckett.
"John could be a great collector. He has the passion, the means, the knowledge. But sometimes he puts his whole life on hold for his work - like right now, while he's trying to get his new series underway," Sipper states. "But above all else, John is a reader. I don't know any great collector who is not. He reads all his books, and he only buys what he reads."
Ken Lopez, a Hadley, Massachusetts, dealer in modern fiction who also specializes in Vietnam War and Native American literature, agrees. "John's involvement with books goes beyond just the artifact," he says. "He's not interested in the fast-buck mentality that has pervaded modern and hypermodern collecting the last ten years or so. He wants special editions, but only of books that matter to him."
Lopez first met Larroquette at a Boston bookfair in 1984, although he didn't know who he was until after they'd talked at length, John had bought some books and left the booth, and an assistant said, "That was John Larroquette!" Lopez once hand-carried a gorgeous copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to Ken Kesey to have it signed for John. And Larroquette bought the best Pynchon book Lopez has ever seen, a signed and inscribed first edition of V.
Larroquette credits his book mentors with expanding both his collecting knowledge and his reading: "Because of the education I've received from these dealers, I've become aware of writers and works I probably wouldn't have otherwise." Sipper, for example, directed him to John Fante, who had inspired Bukowski, and to Henry Miller, who had read Fante, and to Knut Hamsun, who had inspired Miller.
Sipper describes Larroquette as "a genuinely nice guy who can talk books for hours, [and who is] unfailingly polite and very aware of other people's feelings. I've seen people come up to him for an autograph when he's got a spoon in his mouth, and he's so gracious."
Ironically, Larroquette's first encounter with Sipper was very Hollywood. At his wife's prompting, Larroquette went to a book auction at a local antique store. Within minutes, first editions of authors he collected went on the block at a fraction of what he'd paid for them. Unable to resist the chance of getting an eighty-dollar book for five dollars, he started to bid on copies he already owned, but he stopped as soon as the bids went over market value. Suddenly, much to John's agitation, people started bidding ten and twenty times what he knew the books were worth. Little did he know that the caustic remarks he thought he was sharing only with his wife, who was secretly rigged with a microphone, would be shared by millions of viewers on Dick Clark's Bloopers and Practical Jokes.
"They set up this whole fake auction, using books from Red and Ralph as props. I was completely fooled," he says. But no fool.
Afterward, he struck up a conversation with Sipper that has grown into a relationship lasting more than a decade. It was Sipper who netted the find of a lifetime -- a complete Beckett collection, hundreds of books and other items, including copies marked with Beckett's marginalia and a notebook full of his letters.
"The Beckett stuff is dear to me, because I think he's the funniest writer in the world. His bleak comedy inspires me," Larroquette says. "My wife just gives me this odd look, partly because she's English and he's Irish. But I think his work is spectacular."
One author in whom he shares an interest with his wife is Anne Tyler. "Though Elizabeth is not hung up on collecting, she probably reads more than I do. But we both love Anne Tyler, which gave me an excuse to go out and buy more books. I found as many first editions for her as I could, and she treasures those."
Books are everywhere in the Larroquette household. Although many are housed in custom-built, locked cases lining the walls, the books are always accessible, particularly to his children.
"For a while my older son was very opposed to reading, probably to rebel against being surrounded by books in our house. But he just read Anthem [Ayn Rand], which was one of the first books I bought years ago. Now he's reading The Crying of Lot 49 [Pynchon]. So he's on his way. He'll get hooked."
Larroquette plans to leave his collection to his children, in hopes they will pass it on to their children. Barring that, he'd rather they sell it and "make a great deal of money" than donate it to some library or university, where he fears the books would be locked up and less likely to be read and enjoyed.
"But in the long run, they're just books. If my kids are interested in keeping them, great. But if they don't have the visceral connection I have with them and selling them can benefit their lives, so be it."
He "couldn't care less" about the investment value of his collection. He says, "I've never bought a book thinking, 'Oh, boy, in ten years, what's it going to be worth; will I be able to sell it for ten thousand dollars?' Price doesn't enter my mind -- except when Ralph tells me how much something I want to buy is." In fact, he never sells his books and only occasionally trades a title he has several of for another book.
"That's why I could never be a dealer. Ralph and I have had conversations about how he's owned all the best books in the world for, like, a week. I want to keep them. I like having them."
In recent years Larroquette has curbed his collecting, though he's still working on a few scarce Beckett items he needs to complete his collection and is still interested in other important works. While his focus remains serious fiction, he also collects books on New Orleans and photography books. And he still spends as much time as possible reading and enjoying his beloved books.
"To be able to sit with new books and a big roll of Brodart, measure the book, cut the plastic, fold it, wrap it around the book to protect it. To catalogue it on my database and put it on the shelf. Just to sift through my books, to handle them. To know that when I'm holding a signed edition by Beckett or Faulkner or Burgess, I'm privy not only to their psychological and philosophical views of the world contained in those pages, but because they flipped through it, put their pens to it, rubbed their hands across the pages, their DNA, part of their essence, is on that book. That to me is a marvelous day."
Larroquette's passion for books inevitably spills over to his career. His ad-libbed literary references are sprinkled throughout the nine years of Night Court episodes. The John Larroquette Show is loaded with references to authors, titles, characters, dialogue, scenes, and plots. The lead character, John Hemingway, is a recovering alcoholic who manages the Crossroads bus terminal while trying to revive a writing career that never got off the ground. In one episode, John fawns over his favorite novelist at a book-signing party. In another, Thomas Pynchon, or rather, a dead ringer for the reclusive writer, makes a cameo appearance. In one of my favorite episodes, "A Moveable Feast," John enters a writing contest with a short story he thinks he wrote -- but can't remember writing - during his alcoholic days -- and is accused of plagiarizing Ernest Hemingway. Filmed in black-and-white, the piece has a wonderful old-movie quality and features hysterical performances by Larroquette and guest stars Dennis Miller and the late Phil Hartman.
Larroquette also says he often finds books he thinks would make great movies, and "I'm probably wrong most of the time." Sometimes, however, he's spot on. "Everybody's got their 'Yeah, I bought Coca-Cola when it was five dollars a share' stories. But many years ago, when it was first published, I read Forrest Gump [Winston Groom] and tried to buy the film rights. The studio thought I was nuts."
Though he owns the film rights to a few other books, he's not naming titles, because of the "crap" attended with letting people know what he's doing. Besides, he's been too busy acting to launch a book-to-film project.
He believes Jim Dodge's book Stone Junction: An Alchemical Potboiler would make a phenomenal movie, with a great leading role for a woman. He's also convinced that Beckett's Murphy, a novel rich with existential philosophy and gallows humor, would make a fascinating, surreal film he'd prefer directing to acting in.
Then there are writers who'd give a stack of signed first editions to have Larroquette play one of their characters on the screen or stage -- like fellow Southerner, the late Walker Percy.
"I received a letter from Walker Percy's nephew, who had spent quite a bit of time with his uncle just before his death," Larroquette recalls. "They had been talking about movies and actors, and Walker said, 'You know, if they ever make a film of The Moviegoer, John Larroquette is the only person who could play that role.' I was very touched. I happen to have a stunning copy of The Moviegoer, which is one of the best books I've ever read."
Rocking in a huge leather chair, dozens of cherished books piled on the desk in front of him, Larroquette stares dreamily into space, as if remembering his last marvelous book day, then turns with a look of wonder on his face.
"I find it amazing when writers share their views of the world, regardless of how demented they might be. I can read A Fan's Notes and know for all the money in the world I wouldn't want to be Frederick Exley. But I am so grateful that in his debauched, insane life, he sat down long enough to put some of that on paper for me to observe. It's such a missionary act. I couldn't do that."
One could argue that Larroquette does just that with his acting and directing. But he would protest. "I'm just a musician with someone else's score. Hopefully, if it's well-written, I represent it well, and if it's not that incredibly written, I can improve it by infusing it with my reality. But that's very different from creating out of whole cloth, wringing your brain out onto a computer screen or a page in the typewriter."
He claims that writing doesn't give "the alcoholic in me" the external validation and instant gratification that acting does, that no one is there to say "That sucks," or to pat him on the back and say, "Hey, that sentence is pretty good."
"I don't know whether I'll ever be able to write. But I'm moving my life in a direction of allowing myself the time so that I can at least work at it long enough to do it or to realize I can't.
"I've stood in front of this hurdle of being willing to sit down and try to communicate like that for most of my life. Maybe I've surrounded myself with books as a way of not having to face that hurdle. Hopefully, at some point, I'll use them to stand on and lower the hurdle."
One writing project he'd like to tackle is a one-man play about Beckett. "Just Sam talking -- with Peter O'Toole playing Beckett. To me, O'Toole on stage, crawling into the brain of Sam and just talking about being Beckett, would be the ideal of the world."
In the meantime, he's got his books, always his books.
"There's a seduction that happens with a good book that I don't find in most other forms of art," Larroquette claims. "It's compact enough that I can embrace and caress it, and I can control how and when it enters my life."
He believes that books allow the reader to assimilate information at a more effective speed than does film, which he says can overwhelm the brain with information and sensory stimulation. He likens reading to photography, his other great love.
"You can scan a photograph, then focus on one small section; think about it one way, then another; try to put yourself in the artist's place. Am I seeing anything close to what he saw? Am I reading anything close to what Fitzgerald or Faulkner thought when they wrote these words? It's almost like inhabiting another life, not just through the story created, but by imagining the life of the author, thinking of O'Neill sitting with his pen, his cigarette, and his glass of whiskey, willing to plow through his mind, his heart, his soul, his life, and regurgitate all that onto the page."
Larroquette contends that reading provides a tactile expression that is essential to humans, at least to those who feel a connection with books. "To call this my hobby would be misinterpreting how involved I am with these books. They're almost alive to me.
"My wife talks about how, after running twenty or thirty minutes, the endorphins kick in and a feeling of well-being comes over her. Well, I get that feeling instantly whenever I open a book."

Colleen Sell is the editor of Biblio.

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