Interview with Harry Northup - "Doughboy" from TAXI DRIVER
by Lee Sobel, 8/10/20
You may not immediately recognize the name Harry Northup (born September 2, 1940) but you've seen him in numerous iconic movies: TAXI DRIVER, MEAN STREETS, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, OVER THE EDGE and many others. He's always got a lot of presence -- you love to hate him in OVER THE EDGE as Sgt. Doberman! To date, OVER THE EDGE has not received a blu ray release which boggles my mind because it's a fantastic movie and needs to be seen by more people.
Lee Sobel: You have worked with Martin Scorsese numerous times, including his earliest movies. Do you have any interesting stories about working with Mr. Scorsese and any of the movies he directed that you performed in?
Harry Northup: As I was preparing to act in TAXI DRIVER, I thought about my character Doughboy who asks Travis (De Niro) if he carries a piece and asks him if he would like to get one. I thought if a fellow cabbie came up to you and asked if you would like to buy a gun, wouldn't you be a little suspicious, like maybe it's a set-up. I got the idea about trying to sell him a piece of Errol Flynn's bathtub. Make him think I am crazier than him. After rehearsing the first cabbie scene, I showed Scorsese the prop, told him the dialog, said I would exit, re-enter the scene and do my spiel to Travis and then exit. There would be no need for a new set-up, which would take a lot of time. Scorsese loved the idea and we shot it.
Peter Boyle, Harry Northup and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver
Travis listened to me, shook his head no and I exited. It had a nice feel to it. Scorsese always liked his actors to contribute. Later, when I saw the film, I saw that there were a lot of water images in it.
Lee Sobel: TAXI DRIVER absolutely nailed the scary vibe of NYC at that time. What are your memories of New York in the 70's?
Harry Northup: It was always exciting to work as an actor in New York City, especially with Scorsese and De Niro. It was the best time I ever had working on a film up to that time. It was one of the thrills of my life. I love TAXI DRIVER.
Lee Sobel: Do you have any interesting anecdotes about working with director Jonathan Demme.
Harry Northup as "Doughboy" in Taxi Driver
Harry Northup: Jonathan Demme hired me for eight films and two commercials. I never read for him except for BELOVED, and I think that it was because Oprah Winfrey, who played Sethe, was also the producer and she wanted to see me before she gave the okay. Demme starred me in FIGHTING MAD, a film he wrote and directed for Roger Corman. I worked six weeks on that film, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Jonathan called me from location right before I went there. He asked me if there was anything that I wanted. I said, "There is
Harry Northup in Over The Edge
one thing, but it's minor." Jonathan said, "Nothing is minor." I told him I would like my character, Sheriff Len Skerritt to have a shotgun with a silver barrel. He said he would tell props. Demme was always positive, loving and warm. I was, also, able to contribute dialog to that film. He liked his actors to contribute.
Lee Sobel: What kinds of fun memories of childhood do you recall that may have impacted on your choice of an acting career?
Harry Northup: When I was four or five I wanted to be a clown, a truck driver, or a firefighter. My family lived on a housing project, Ordville, that was for families who worked at Sioux Ordnance Depot, in western Nebraska. I have always loved the movies. There was a movie theatre on the base where I lived and the Fox in Sidney, 10 miles away, that I attended regularly -- my mother loved movies and we would drive to Sidney. She would sit down right in the center and I would sit on the left with my friends.
Harry Northup in Taxi Driver
Peter Boyle, Harry Northup and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver
Sometimes, I would go to the men's room and get my pocket comb out, stick it under the cold water and comb my hair like the hero in the movie, whether it be Presley, Alan Ladd, James Dean. When I was fourteen I auditioned for and got the part of Eddie in "Time Out for Ginger," presented by the
Panhandle Players, in Sidney, Nebraska. When I was sixteen, Connie Madsen, the director, cast me as George in "Our Town," another Panhandle Players production. I was the male lead in the Junior Class play, "Headin' for a Weddin.' " I also, wrote and won speech contests. I think the main things were playing sports and acting in plays. That gave me a sense of belonging, and then I was always wanting to be part of something in a creative way.
Harry Northup in Fighting Mad
Lee Sobel: What are some of the weird/funny things that have happened to you in show biz?
Harry Northup: At age twenty-two, in March of 1962, I quit college in Nebraska and hitchhiked to New York City to audition for summer stock. For four nights, I slept sitting up in the Greyhound Bus Station, at 36th and Eighth, or 50th and Eighth. I would shave in the men's room and go to auditions. I did not get a job, so I hitchhiked back to S.O.D. In early June after a big Sunday dinner, at noon, I put on my baseball uniform -- I started at third base for the town team Bunker Hill -- and was ready to go play a 2pm game when I received a phone call from Guy Palmerton, Producer of the Lake Whalom Playhouse, in Fitchburg, Mass. He asked me to be an apprentice in his company. I was thrilled and said yes. About a month after I was there, Guy came up to me and said, "You have been working hard and doing good work; I am going to give you $20.00 a week." (The original offer was a cottage to live in and all the macaroni salad you could eat.) Then he said, "You look like you had a mother and a father," which was one of the nicest compliments I ever received. These things are not weird or funny but they were certainly new to me, part of my journey to make a living as an actor which I did for 34 years, acting in 37 films.
Harry Northup in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Lee Sobel: Of all the movies you have been in, which is your favorite and why?
Harry Northup: It's hard to pick one. MEAN STREETS was cathartic for me: the violent action I did released something dark in my psyche that opened up things in my acting and poetry; TAXI DRIVER, was such a wonderful experience, working with Scorsese, De Niro, Peter Boyle, in New York City -- there's nothing better than acting in a film in New York City: OVER THE EDGE was the best part I ever did -- it was the only time that I ever got top billing in a film; playing Mr. Bimmel in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was a very moving part. If I had to pick one, it would be OVER THE EDGE.
Lee Sobel: I am a huge fan of OVER THE EDGE. What are your memories of making that movie?
Harry Northup: I auditioned for OVER THE EDGE five times. The first time I auditioned, the director, Jonathan Kaplan, came up to me in the waiting room, where there were several other actors waiting to audition, crouched down beside me, whispered in my ear, "I want you for this role. You have to go in there, be strong, look at the producer, George Litto in the eyes, be warm to him, and make him like you." Later, he told me that he had seen me in ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE and thought I wasn't an actor, just some guy who Scorsese found on the street and hired. He said from the moment he saw me, he had wanted to use me in a film. We shot the climax of the film in the first nine nights of shooting. I was really cooking. I knew this role. We were shooting in the midwest where I was from -- I grew up 165 miles from Denver, in Sidney, Nebraska. My family had lived in Denver. I turned 38 on the film, so I was in great physical, mental and emotional shape. I had played a deputy sheriff in BOXCAR BERTHA for Scorsese; Demme had starred me as Sheriff Len Skerritt, in FIGHTING MAD. My oldest brother was a FBI agent; he helped me add a little dialog to the excellent script by Charles S. Haas and Tim Hunter. My wife Holly Prado had taught school so she helped me understand the adverse affect of drugs on kids in school. I remember a few days before my final audition I was crossing a street in Beverly Hills and I thought I could get this role if I really want it. I want it, I told myself. My attitude was just right. The shooting was captivating. The young actors, Matt Dillon, Vincent Spano, Michael Kramer, Pamela Ludwig, among others, were the right age, authentic and all terrific actors -- they were the characters. The adult actors were all great, especially Andy Romano, who played Mr. Willat. I remember one time during the shooting, we moved from Greeley to Aurora. I was in a van with Pamela Ludwig. She removed her headphones, put them on me and Cheap Trick was playing "Surrender." I had never heard that group before. I loved them. The screenwriters were on the set and they were extremely helpful. One morning after a night's shooting in the first days, Kaplan and I were in an elevator going to our rooms in the Holiday Inn. He looked at me and said, "I love working with you." I said, "I love working with you." One day at lunch early in the picture I was eating with producer Litto and the associate producer Joe Kapp. George looked at me and said, "I am giving you top billing." That was a pleasurable shock because all of the main actors had favored nations billing, equal but at the producer's discretion. That was the first and only time I ever got top billing in a picture. I think OVER THE EDGE is right up there as a great teen movie, following REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. When I was doing ADR work on BAD GIRLS years later, I asked the director Jonathan Kaplan, "What is the best film you ever directed?" "OVER THE EDGE." "Why?" "Because it didn't even need me as a director; it just had a life of its own." Jonathan Kaplan is a brilliant American director.
Lee Sobel: You're also an accomplished poet with nine books of poetry. What can you tell me about your poetry?
Harry Northup: I began writing poetry in 1966 when I was 26-years-old. I learned the tradition which I am still learning. I received a B.A. in English from C.S.U.N, where I studied Verse and Structural Grammar with Ann Stanford. A lyrical realist, my main themes are family, love, loss, place, work -- in film. I, also, have a deep passion for the "long poem." In Late August 2020, Cahuenga Press will publish my twlefth book of poetry, "Love Poem To MPTF." (Cahuenga Press is a poets publishing cooperative that was founded in 1989, in Los Angeles. It has published 27 books of poetry. The
Jodie Foster and Harry Northup in The Silence of The Lambs
members of Cahuenga Press are James Cushing, Phoebe MacAdams, Harry E. Northup and the late Holly Prado (1938-2019). Cahuenga Press is one of the best indigenous small presses in L.A.)
You may purchase Harry E. Northup's new book, "Love Poem To MPTF," on the website at www.cahuengapress.com, or by sending a check for $25.00 ($20.00 plus shipping and handling) payable to Cahenga Press and mail it to: Cahuenga Press, 1223 Grace Drive, Pasadena, CA 91105, or order it from Small Press Distribution: www.spdbooks.org.