Interview: Actor Paul Dooley of ‘Breaking Away,’ ‘Sixteen Candles’

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionE-mail page to friendE-mail page to friendPDF versionPDF version
Average: 5 (1 vote)

CHICAGO – If there ever was a quintessential “Dad” in movies of the last generation, it would have to be Paul Dooley. The comedian and character actor is best known for portraying the patriarch in “Breaking Away” (1979) and “Sixteen Candles” (1984), but was also in director’s Robert Altman’s ‘ensemble’ and has had a stellar career.

The former “Paul Brown” was born in West Virginia, and studied acting at West Virginia University, before heading to New York City and a new career as Paul Dooley. He did stage work, stand-up comedy and the New York City version of The Second City (story below), before getting his big break in the original stage version of “The Odd Couple” in 1965, directed by the legendary Mike Nichols. While working the stage, he appeared in a number of commercials, eventually moving to Los Angeles to “be where the action is.”

Dooley Away
The Dad: Paul Dooley, with Dennis Christopher, in ‘Breaking Away’
Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

After doing a number of TV situation comedy and drama parts, he made his film debut in “The Out of Towners” (1970), From there, it was a number of character parts, most notably for director Robert Altman, where he played – you guessed it – a Dad in “A Wedding” (1978). He would have roles in five other Altman films. He was reunited with this movie son Dennis Christopher the very next year in the classic, Oscar Best Picture nominated “Breaking Away.” With his catchphrase line of “REFUND,” he created an indelible character for the cinema ages.

Dooley followed up with another heartwarming Dad role, that of Molly Ringwald’s father in “Sixteen Candles” (1984), for director John Hughes. From the 1980s to the present, he’s been a steady player on TV and in the movies, with roles in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “The Player,” “Waiting for Guffman” (for director Christopher Guest), “Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ and a voice actor in “Cars.” He recently had a hit one-man show called “Upright and Personal,” which was named best of the “Hollywood Fringe Festival,” and was staged again for that honor. There were no “REFUNDS” given at that event, because it was a smash. got the privilege to talk to this one-man history of show business in the last 50 years, and in PART ONE he talks about his early career working for director Mike Nichols, The Second City connection and the children’s show “The Electric Company.” What was the motivating factor for you when you first got interested in acting in your home state of West Virginia?

Paul Dooley: I got interested theater when I got to college. I didn’t start with a drama major, I started with Italian – of all things – but switched to theater while I was there. I did a handful of plays in college, but had no ambition to be a professional actor, I was just enjoying it. I got a summer stock job between my Junior and Senior year, doing everything – acting, stage managing, painting scenery – and learned more about acting in those 12 weeks than all of college. There is nothing like real experience. What were your influences at the time?

Dooley: I had some strange ones. I was in love with Vaudeville, which was dead. I was in love with silent movies, which were dead. [laughs] The closest thing I wanted to do was sketch comedy, the type like ‘The Carol Burnett Show.’ But even that was in decline at the time.

So after I decided to go to New York City I started doing theater and stand up comedy, and toured around doing that for awhile. I even did a gig at the Playboy Club in Chicago. Then I got hooked into The Second City gang, and I never looked back, because I’d much rather look into the eyes of another actor than doing stand-up by myself. How did you associate yourself with The Second City while you were in New York in the 1960s? Wasn’t that a Chicago thing?

Dooley: They were doing the best comedy in the country at the time – I read about them in a magazine. I couldn’t go to Chicago at the time to see them, but they came to New York to mount a show on Broadway, then in Greenwich Village.I hooked up with them in the Village, and it was a huge success, we never had an empty seat. I also loved [original member of The Second City] Alan Arkin, and when I first met him we said to each other simultaneously, ‘I dig your work.’ [laughs]

I was doing the pre-written sketch portion of the show, but wasn’t doing the improvisation portion because I wasn’t trained in it. But I was an understudy, and would observe it. One of the actors went back to Chicago, and I had to learn to improvise without knowing how. The only real rule I learned, was ‘listen and agree,’ the famous instruction ‘Yes…and.’ I learned it by working with them, and stayed with the show for two years.

Dooley Album
New York Days: Paul Dooley Cover Photo from his Comedy Album, ‘Booked Solid’
Photo credit: You were discovered by the great Mike Nichols. What kind of creative energy swirled around Mr. Nichols, especially when he was formulating the original stage version of Neil Simon’s ‘The Odd Couple’?

Dooley: When I was with The Second City in Greenwich Village, Mike and Elaine May [Nichols comedy partner] would stop by and watch our show. Someone backstage would say, ‘Mike and Elaine are here!,’ but I never met then at that time.

When I went in to audition for the ‘Odd Couple,’ and the first thing Mike said was, ‘there is a thing you do for The Second City…’ It was a part I inherited from Alan Arkin, portraying an evangelist. He wanted me to do a bit of that but I told him I needed the other actors feeding me lines. [laughs] But I got the job and portrayed one of the poker players [Speed] in the original run. My agent also wanted me to either understudy Walter Matthau and Art Carney [the original Oscar and Felix], so I chose Art Carney. What was the preview period like?

Dooley: We were out of town in Boston and Washington, and I paid attention to both my lines and Art’s lines. The first time he couldn’t do it, I went on as Felix. I knew all the lines, and got all the laughs. Once the Broadway run began, Art disappeared for awhile. It turned out later he had checked himself into a rehab facility, because of his drinking. Nobody knew in the production where he was for three days, so I took over Felix during that period. Art never came back to the role, but I got to play opposite Matthau for two months. What do you think you gave the character of Felix that nobody else gave him?

Dooley: Well, I didn’t try to be Art Carney…there was one bit he did that I couldn’t duplicate, it was a picking-up-the-crumbs one at a time moment. Essentially, he was doing Ed Norton. [laughs] I was a maven for comedy, jokes and timing – I know that skill very well. In my own way as Felix, I got all the laughs that were in the play.

Mike Nichols is a genius, many people I’ve met said he’s the smartest guy ever in show business. And while I was working for him what was remarkable was his lack of direction. He seemed to do nothing but be there. But early on he told us the play was by Neil Simon, who is a great comedy writer, yet we had to play it as if there were no jokes – we played it like regular dramatic dialogue. He always said, ‘The laughs will be there, just play it for real.’ Mike seemingly did very little, but he always kept us honest. It had to be a heady experience to do one of the greatest comedy plays in Broadway history in its original run.

Dooley: And it was the first thing I ever did on the big Broadway stage. Often I would peek through the curtain just to see who was sitting in the audience. I would see Frank Sinatra, George Burns, Jack Lemmon, all the heavy hitters. To see those famous people, it was thrilling. You worked as head writer on the groundbreaking show ‘The Electric Company.’ What was your philosophy about creating the sketches that would teach kids to read?

Dooley Head
Paul Dooley, Actor
Photo credit:

Dooley: When I started, they had hired seven writers, with no format, title or cast. The instruction was to write anything you want, as long as we would teach kids to read. We wrote sketch comedy basically – blackouts, bits and songs – and after a few weeks they looked at the output and said, ‘we’d like you to be head writer.’ Of course, immediately the other six writers hated me. [laughs]

The whole idea was for kids to learn reading without thinking they were being taught by a teacher. It was about the ‘light bulb’ that comes up over every young reader’s head, when they figure something out. That’s why it was called ‘The Electric Company.’ What direction did you take the show as head writer?

Dooley: I think what really got me the job is that whenever I created a character in a sketch, I would give him or her a funny name. And they realized they could make these recurring characters. One was the ‘Easy Reader’ portrayed by Morgan Freeman, based on Easy Rider, except he was a ‘junkie’ for words. There was a bit named ‘Julia Grownup,’ based on Julia Child. It was about making something standard for recurring roles. I said in my one-man show that I finally reached a point where I was using my talents for good, not evil. [laughs] Since you’ve worked on a lot of classic 1960s-1990s situation comedies and shows, which do you think was your most memorable television appearances, the one that you would re-watch if it ever came on as a rerun or on syndication?

Dooley: I loved working with Larry David on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’ I was his father-in-law, and I loved improvising the dialogue – which was similar to the films I did with director Christopher Guest.

For a brief while in the 1980s, I was featured in a show called ‘Coming of Age’ for CBS. I was an ex-pilot who retired too early, and hated everything about it. He was famously a curmudgeon, which was up my alley. It co-starred Alan Young of ‘Mr. Ed’ and Glynis Johns of ‘Mary Poppins,’ plus a young comic named Kevin Pollak. You talked about your recent one-man show. What did you learn about yourself in doing it?

Dooley: If you know my acting, I have a tendency to play Dads – grumpy Dads, cranky Dads, sometimes nice Dads – but a lot of my other work involves a deadpan and dry comedy. So I experimented with the one man form, and got a director lined up who is a friend of mine. He pointed out that my usual demeanor, the deadpan and dry part, wouldn’t excite an audience for 90 minutes. [laughs] So he advised that I be happy, enthusiastic and excited, which was a true character role for me.

My father was a man who never smiled his whole life, and that is a bit embedded in me. Although I’ve done every range of character, my father is the one I do naturally. All the Dads I play is my father. The show went really well, and the feedback was loving and positive.

CLICK HERE for PART TWO of the interview, where Paul Dooley talks about meeting director Robert Altman and becoming part of his ensemble, his signature Dad role in “Breaking Away” and how director John Hughes convinced him to play ‘Dad’ once again in the classic “Sixteen Candles.”

Paul Dooley has upcoming roles in Showtime’s “Roadies” (his wife, Winnie Holzman, is an co-executive producer, with J.J. Abrams) and in the film, “Other People,” co-starring Molly Shannon. His one-man show, “Upright and Personal,” is looking toward a New York and Chicago run. For more information about Paul Dooley, click senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

User Login

Free Giveaway Mailing


  • Manhunt

    CHICAGO – Patrick McDonald of appears on “The Morning Mess” with Dan Baker on WBGR-FM (Monroe, Wisconsin) on March 21st, 2024, reviewing the new streaming series “Manhunt” – based on the bestseller by James L. Swanson – currently streaming on Apple TV+.

  • Topdog/Underdog, Invictus Theatre

    CHICAGO – When two brothers confront the sins of each other and it expands into a psychology of an entire race, it’s at a stage play found in Chicago’s Invictus Theatre Company production of “Topdog/Underdog,” now at their new home at the Windy City Playhouse through March 31st, 2024. Click TD/UD for tickets/info.

Advertisement on Twitter

archive Top Ten Discussions