Harland Williams on Half Baked, Disney and improvising with the Farrelly brothers
You probably remember him as the "grandpa's old cough medicine," urine-drinking cop from Dumb & Dumber, or the serial killer hitchhiker spouting "seven chipmunks twirlin' on a branch, eatin' lots of sunflowers on my uncle's ranch" in There's Something About Mary. But you may not know that Harland Williams improvised most of those lines on the spot, using that classic Canadian weirdness that has graced so many of his comedy compatriots to the north. He'll be bringing some of that on-the-spot wit to Comedy Works South this Friday and Saturday. In advance of those shows, we chatted with Williams about working with the Farrelly brothers, the cruelty of Hollywood, and why Canadians are allowed more creative freedom.
Harland Williams and Ben Stiller in There's Something About Mary
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Westword: There is no shortage of stoner, buddy comedies out there, but for whatever reason Half Baked has become one of the most iconic of that genre. When you were filming it, did you have any sense that it would end up being so memorable?
Harland Williams: Well, you never know how the public is going to react to a drug-themed movie. When it first came out, it definitely wasn't a smash hit, but over the years it found its way into every college dorm room in the country and developed a cult following. It had a really slow beginning, but made its way into the fabric of America.
With that movie, you were working with so many actors who went in wildly different directions, with Dave Chapelle becoming a comedy superstar, and Stephen Baldwin turning into an evangelical, anti-marijuana activist.
Well, I knew Dave was going to be a big star because we'd done our HBO specials together and worked a lot of clubs together. You can see when guys are going to emerge, so it didn't surprise me that he ended up where he did.
The Baldwin kid . . . I just didn't know what would happen with him. I felt like that was a family-name kind of thing -- there was more pedigree than talent. I think his brother, Alec Baldwin, is amazing. What's interesting about Stephen Baldwin is that me and Dana Gould were originally cast for Bio-Dome -- but Pauly Shore and Baldwin ended up doing it. So there's a little movie trivia for ya.
You also ended up working with the Farrelly brothers on Dumb & Dumber and There's Something About Mary. A while back I heard Bill Murray talking on NPR about how little he knew about the film he made with them, Kingpin -- since all of his scenes were pretty tame, he took his kids to see it, and was shocked at how filthy it was. Was that your experience with the films you made with them?
[Laughs] Well, here's some more trivia for you: I was originally offered the role of the Amish kid in Kingpin, the one that Randy Quaid took. But I was shooting a sitcom at the time and couldn't do it. I was going to take the role that Bill Murray played but I still couldn't manage it with my schedule and had to pass on the whole movie.
But the thing is, you never know with any movie how it's going to turn out. It's always a mystery -- you'll do pages and pages of scenes that will never make it onto the screen. And if you're not in a scene with another actor, you never know what they're going to change during the shoot.
In There's Something About Mary and Dumb & Dumber I ended up improvising quite a bit of my scenes, and later I didn't even remember what I'd said because I just winged it. When I went and saw the movie I was as stunned as everyone else was.
Did you improvise that whole seven minute abs scene when you were the killer hitchhiker in There's Something About Mary?
About 50 percent of it. After Ben says, "What if someone invents six minute abs?" I just went off on the whole tangent. It wasn't on the page and it doubled the length of the scene, so they put it all in. All that stuff about chipmunks and gorgonzola time and you're fucking fired, I just made all that stuff up. Same in Dumb & Dumber with the grandpa's cough medicine and pumpkin-pie haircutted freak stuff. So you just never really know what the movie is going to look like.
Was there something about working with the Farrelly brothers that inspired you to be more improvisational?
They told me to be improvisational. We'd do four or five takes off the script, and then they'd come up to me and say "Okay, Harland, do it your way." So I just went off, and we'd do four or five more takes with me improvising. I'd love to see the footage that never made it.