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Fans of the hit show, Frasier, that dominated the small screen from 1993-2004, will remember Dan Butler as the rabidly heterosexual radio personality Bob ‘Bulldog’ Briscoe, who teased colleagues and chased after anything in a skirt with energetic glee.
Butler’s shaping of the character, infusing him with characteristics he gleaned from his father, led to a successful stint as a recurring character on the award-winning series. It is a great testament to Dan’s acting abilities that an out and proud gay man could play so indelibly straight.
But Dan is a man of many facets and talents. He is at turns actor, writer, producer and director. In addition to Frasier, his one-man show, The Only Thing Worse You Could’ve Told Me… garnered critical acclaim, including Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk nominations during its off-Broadway run. More on stage credits include major roles on and off Broadway and at most of the major repertory companies in the United States, as well as numerous TV shows. Butler was also seen in such blockbusters as Silence of the Lambs, Enemy of the State, The Fan, Fixing Frank and recent indie favorite Chronic Town.
As a writer, Butler also penned the book and lyrics for the musical, The Case of the Dead Flamingo Dancer, which enjoyed two successful runs in England and will soon be remounted here in the states.
Most recently, Butler wrote, directed and starred in the just released DVD Karl Rove, I Love You, a farcical look at the seduction of politics, inspired by Butler’s irritation with the dissonance of America’s political landscape. Styled as a documentary, the fictional film finds Dan Butler playing himself, but this Dan Butler becomes obsessed with Karl Rove after researching him for a one-man play in which he will play Rove and hopefully expose him as “the architect behind a campaign of fear and divisiveness, a show that will appall the electorate and ensure a victory for John Kerry.” But the more deeply he embraces Rove’s persona and begins to see the world through his eyes—as any true Method actor would—the more he nurtures a romantic fantasy, much to the consternation of his friends and family.
The blossoming infatuation is captured on film in a ‘documentary’ by director Phil Leirness (also co-directing and playing himself in the film), who approaches Butler while he is on Broadway and asks if he would be the subject of a documentary on the value of character or supporting actors who never get the recognition they deserve. The ‘documenting’ takes an unexpected and delightfully unsettling turn when Butler decides to write a play centered on Rove after discovering who the man really is during the course of game night with friends.
The film, which made the festival rounds last year to rave reviews, has proven difficult to categorize, Butler notes in an interview from his home in Vermont, which he shares with his partner of 13 years Richard Waterhouse and an assorted menagerie that includes—but is not limited to—cats and pet geese.
“We set out thinking you really couldn’t compare it [Karl Rove, I Love You] to anything. It wasn’t really a documentary, although everyone and everything in it is real, and it’s not really a mockumentary, so it’s its own animal, I think. It just sort of hovers in between,” he says.
“I think at the time what inspired it, is that I was so bored and tired of the different sides screaming at one another, I thought maybe there was a fun way to come at it, come at the issues. And so I think I just dreamed it one time, the whole idea of falling in love with Karl Rove, and it cracked me up, so I just kept going with that… Because we could all use some yuks,” he adds with a laugh.
One of the greatest motivators for Butler was creating a film that he himself would enjoy watching, and one in which you can expect the unexpected. He recalls several comments at initial screenings along the lines of, “We thought we knew where you were going, and it changed. Then we thought we knew where you were going and it changed again.”
“That’s what you love about any story,” he says, “that it compels you in some way and when it’s dark and funny, I’m a sucker for that.”
Butler admits that although he could hardly be considered a supporter of Karl Rove’s politics and agendas, and certainly isn’t romantically stimulated by him, he still finds Rove fascinating.
“Who wouldn’t?” he asks playfully. “Even the people who hop on the bandwagon and just love to hate him, there’s still no one like him. Who wouldn’t want to play him? … So many things start coming into play. You have to be careful what you hate, because you can become it,” Dan waxes philosophically, contemplating what he learned during the process of creating Karl Rove, I Love You.
“I guess what I learned… I was able to have a palette and play around with a slightly fictionalized version not only of myself, but of all my friends. I was always poking fun at myself mostly, but them too….”
Butler says he also learned a lot about the art of storytelling. “The way it came together was really like a documentary,” he explains. “I mean, we had so much footage, it was like a mini-series … so to learn new storytelling talents—because I’ve never been a producer-director-writer-actor in a piece of my own creation—I guess it’s just the magic of what we can do when we let the boundaries down and just let the possibilities be open.”
Part of what makes this film so unique is the sheer innocence of some of the ‘characters,’ such as Rove’s mother, who thought she was part of an actual documentary about her son. Most of the people in the film never really knew how their individual bits were going to fit into the final picture, a technique that served Dan’s purpose well.
“I don’t know if it was from hearing years ago that Fellini never told anyone how it was going to turn out, or those Casablanca stories where they never knew who was going to turn up with who at the end, and it sort of kept them on pins and needles,” Dan explains. “But everyone was excited about the project and wanted to be a part of it. And I would tell them what they were after in the scene, but they didn’t know until they came to the screening how it all came together.”
Phil, his co-director, and Julia Miranda, his co-writer, were on it more than most but even Phil preferred to hold onto the element of surprise, choosing to be as little in the know as possible given his position.
And getting non-actors to act wasn’t as difficult as it might seem, according to Dan.
“It helped that it was a slightly heightened version of themselves. Like my mom and my college theater professor, who sadly is no longer with us, I really told them that it was a documentary about me. I didn’t want them in on this,” he says with a broad laugh. “I thought it would confuse my mom. I told them later and they were fine.”
In between having to pause to attend to some honking pet geese, Dan relates a humorous anecdotal story about his sister’s participation in the film. “My sister was in on it to a point. She’s a good example of what kept happening in wonderfully synchronistic ways—big ways and small ways—throughout the movie. For instance, she was a little nervous. She didn’t want people to know who she was or where she was living, so that’s what inspired ‘Dan’s sister, who wishes to remain anonymous,’ which gets a big laugh. Stuff like that just fed into the film. I mean, Alec [Baldwin] and I were doing the play on Broadway, and I had already written the scene I wanted him to play but I hadn’t approached him to do it. I told him about the project and the title cracked him up. I was literally opening my mouth to tell him I wanted him to do it, and he said, ‘So listen, you want me to be a part of it?’” Dan stops to laugh. “It was really cool.”
One has to wonder what Karl Rove thought of a film parodying a liberal actor who is so seduced by him that he changes his political spots—a gay actor no less. Butler did send him a copy of the DVD at his friend, documentarian Alexandra Pelosi’s suggestion.
Pelosi, who won an Emmy for her documentary Journeys with George, from which Butler borrows out-takes of the real Rove for the film, told Dan that she thought Rove would be “very flattered.” Dan laughs at this thought and says, “So I sent it to him, and didn’t hear anything. But I didn’t expect to. It was funny, one time, Julia was a little bit worried that they were going to come after us at some point—you know sue us … and Phil said, ‘Well if they did and Karl Rove brought some sort of defamation of character suit, you should do the same thing and claim that you come up MUCH worse in the film than he does.’”
Dan expels a breath and laughs some more. He’s a jovial kind of guy with a seemingly limitless cache of energy, not too unlike his Bulldog character on the sit-com that helped to make him a household name.
Since Karl Rove, I Love You is centered around Dan’s real-life career, it would be incomplete without some clips from Frasier to help illustrate the fictional premise of a documentary on the unsung supporting actor. And this interview would as well be incomplete without some memories from the inspired sitcom, which earned a record 37 Emmys over the course of its 11-year run.
Dan was actually involved in a one-man show at the time he was cast as Bulldog—a play called The Only Thing Worse You Could’ve Told Me…, which, Dan recalls, was about processing what being gay means from 14 different characters’ viewpoints.
“So it was just ironic that I was cast to play this heterosexual at the same time that was happening,” he remembers. But Dan has never made much of an issue about his sexuality—either way. “There may have been minor times where I didn’t really hide it but I just didn’t really talk about it, but they were very minor. I never felt I was in the closet, and I guess naively when I was doing the one-man show, I never even gave much thought about what it could do to my career, or what effect it would have. I wanted to have the experience of doing this one-person show and it just happened to be about being gay.”
Of course, he wasn’t the only gay actor in the cast. David Hyde Pierce, who played Frasier’s wonderfully witty and neurotic younger brother Niles, has since become very open about his sexuality. But for Dan—fully functioning gaydar aside—it’s a personal choice to reveal one’s sexual orientation, or not.
“I knew he was gay, but it’s tough,” Dan recalls. “You know, you wish more people were out so there’s a wide spectrum of celebrities, whether they’re political, sports, entertainment—whatever—leaders of the community. It frustrates you that there aren’t more out, but I do believe it’s none of my business, because I have plenty to take care of, keeping the focus on myself.”
Dan acknowledges that of all the Frasier cast members, David is the one he still has the most interaction with today.
“Probably of all of them, I see David the most because we both work in New York. We bump into one another and make sure we can have a dinner together periodically,” he says, adding that his relationships with others from the Frasier clan are no less treasured.
“It’s one of those things—I compare it to really rich friendships or really close relatives where the time between the moments we see each other is so relative that it’s as if time had not passed,” he says.
The synergy and genuine affection among Frasier cast members and crew was as real off-camera as it appeared to viewers each week.
“It was terrific!” Dan recalls joyfully. “Most of us knew each other in some way from our theater background. I knew David from New York, I knew Kelsey [Grammer] from, oh, ages ago … and knew of John Mahoney, we’d worked a little bit on a film together. And Kelsey, having come from the theater and then also having come from Cheers, whose strength came from the strength of the ensemble—maybe it was never stated, but the whole feeling was, well let’s all be great. He was very confident in his power and had already created this fantastic character. There wasn’t a lot of selfish ego ruling the roost. It was like, okay, you be in the spotlight now. Yeah, it was fun.”
As for the development of the irrepressible Bob ‘Bulldog’ Briscoe, it was a collaborative labor of love, says Butler. “There was a wonderful respect between the actors and the writers, and from my own experience on other sitcoms, that’s rare, because sometimes there’s like a Berlin Wall between them. So if we would say—we usually didn’t have to say it because they were such great writers—but if something wasn’t tracking or it didn’t sound like the character would say that or there was some issue, you were encouraged to bring it up.
“At the beginning it was just pure adrenaline … the character would lose his temper and go from 0 to 100 and then come right back. I was poking fun at the way my dad used to get angry, and aspects of how I used to get angry. But I think the character just reminded me to have fun, and just have a ball. It seemed to me that the character’s motto was, ‘Oh come on, you want to be me, don’t you?’ But it wasn’t malicious.
“In retrospect I think that was the key to it,” Butler continues. “I don’t know if it came from me or it was just an accident, but none of the things I said, though they could be really crass, I don’t think they came from a mean spirit, and I think that’s why people probably liked the character. He’s not someone who’s going to go out and slash tires.”
One of Butler’s most poignant stories from the show blends humor with bittersweet memories. It marked one of his last scenes for the series in which Bulldog tells Roz, Frasier’s lovable romantically-flawed producer, that he loves her. In the process of scheming to get Roz to physically reciprocate, she finds out that he’s resorting to some underhanded tactics so she pretends that she wants to go to bed with him, gets him to strip down naked and sends him out onto the patio and then promptly shuts the door, locking him out.
“And I’m rapping on the door, trying to get back in, and David Angell [one of the creators of the show] during one of the rehearsals, just said this line—and it wasn’t even in the script yet—he said it so mild-manneredly that you had to lean your head in to hear it, and it was, ‘Open up the door, Roz, it’s freezing out here, as you can plainly see.’ It’s hilarious because it’s slightly dirty but it’s so classily constructed. I think that’s the last time I ever… the last time I saw him alive was during the filming of that episode.”
David Angell and his wife Lynn were on the first plane that crashed into New York’s Twin Towers during 9/11.
“They were really terrific people and loved each other very much,” Dan continues. “She had been a big fan of my one-man show and came several times. David Angell was very funny, very quiet, but I remember that last experience on the show with him.”
Armed with the durability of Frasier and the critical success of Karl Rove, I Love You, Dan Butler is a man on a mission. When asked if he’s still got the writing bug, he laughs and says, “Oh yeah, it’s inspiring me right now! I am writing a play. The theater’s what I always find myself coming back to. I was raised in it, that’s where my first love of acting came from. Even Karl Rove, I Love You was about putting a play together. I’ve got another idea that’s been percolating over the years in many different forms ... so we shall see.”
The DVD, Karl Rove, I Love You, is available on Amazon.com and other outlets, as well as Netflix. Check out karlroveiloveyou.com for more.