Patrick Warburton Likes To Diversify

The “Seinfeld” scene-stealer dishes on acting, comedy, and getting high at Rush’s final show.
Patrick Warburton Likes To Diversify
Courtesy of Bobby Quillard

The time of my scheduled phone interview with Patrick Warbuton came and went. When we finally connect, he apologizes for being the “consummate geek,” missing our allotted window because he was watching a Rush documentary. “That’s pretty ‘High Times’ right there,” he quips. As we dive in, Patrick seems at ease with the way his life and career have unfolded, and takes a particular joy recounting his earlier years. One interesting nugget is his mention of “The Woman Chaser,” a 1999 film in which he stars that never really saw the light of day despite playing at the New York Film Festival and Sundance. 

2020 marks the twentieth anniversary of the motion picture, which was supposed to entertain a few screenings at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival. “It’s a pretty unique movie, film noir, based on a [Charles] Willeford novel that’s been described as everything from a student film to a masterpiece, and anywhere in between. It’s started to develop a cult following, especially since it’s now streaming on Amazon, but nobody’s really seen it.” For an actor who’s all about doing something different, some newly acclaimed buzz from a decades-old project must feel like it’s happening right on time.

Growing up, did you always know you wanted to be an actor?

Patrick Warburton: I think so, but I didn’t know if acting had real potential or if it was just a pipedream. I grew up on Huntington Beach with a father who was a surgeon and a mother who was an actress. Although [my mom] got out of the business professionally to raise a family, she continued on with community theater. I remember going to watch her perform, which inspired me. That, and Jerry Lewis movies.

Seeing your mother perform on stage made the acting “dream” more tangible.

Patrick Warbuton: I just wasn’t an academic. I went to Orange Coast College where I rode crew, but it didn’t look like I was going to get into any worthwhile universities. In the midst of my sophomore year at Orange Coast, I dropped out and started pursuing acting full time. I’d go up to Los Angeles to perform in plays here and there and would go on commercial calls.

Was there a specific event that triggered your gear shift into full-time acting?

Patrick Warbuton: My early-to-mid-twenties were that period where you’re partying a lot, drinking, not taking anything too seriously. I remember going to South Africa when I was twenty-two to shoot a couple of films with Oliver Reed. They’re horrible, unwatchable movies. Reed—even though he’d start drinking whiskey at 10am on set—is the only watchable thing in those pictures. I’m the worst thing in them. But I still remember it as one of the great experiences in my life because I was twenty-two, in Africa, making films with Oliver Reed and going out drinking every night.

When I came back [to the states], it wasn’t like I had anything from my reel that I wanted people to see, so I was back at stage one. I was living in an old house in downtown Los Angeles with a bunch of actors and writers. It was a cool little enclave of people in the industry. We all paid two-hundred-and-fifty-dollars a month to rent rooms in this house. Then the politics in the house got weird, so me and my buddy Greg—an actor from New York—decided to get our own joint.

We went down to Santa Monica and got an apartment right across from the beach on Chautauqua Boulevard. For two years, all we did was hang out at the beach, drink beer and shoot pool. All we’d have to do was knock out a commercial or two a year and that would pay for rent. Life was just so easy. A year later, I was married, living in Van Nuys, with a mortgage and a child. I look back, and as difficult as that transition was for me, it was probably a saving grace because it made me get serious about work. You can’t just go out and drink every night and shoot pool. You’ve got to actually focus and develop your career. I figured I’d better take things more seriously if I expected to make a career out of acting. The responsibility of being married and having a child…it got me walking the straight and narrow a little more. It was gradual, but then I sort of found a niche in sitcoms.

I’d audition for guest spots on sitcoms, and oftentimes, [the show] would want to take that character and make it a regular. I’d done an episode of Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom, she liked me, and I came back for another episode. I did an episode of a show called “Dave’s World,” where I was the washing machine repair guy. They liked me and made me recurring, and then made me a series regular. When I did “Seinfeld,” I was Jerry’s mechanic. They liked that character and brought me back. That was sort of my in: guest spot on a show, [producers] would like the character, and then they’d bring me back.

You’d get the opening, do your best, and it would click with everybody.

Patrick Warburton: I always think that’s your responsibility [as an actor], to come in and bring them something. Give them everything you got. If [producers] like what’s going on, then maybe they’ll integrate you more. That’s how I got a little busier on shows. I’d show up on time, hit my marks, try to get my laughs, and then they’d say, “Yeah, let’s bring him back.” 

I knew how fortunate I was whenever I got invited back to “Seinfeld.” I’d once mentioned in an Australian interview that “I avoided Jerry Seinfeld like the plague.” That comes across as, “Good lord, why?” Well, it was simply this: I wanted to show up at work, hit my marks, get my laughs, and get invited back because I knew how lucky I was to be there. As sweet and kind and as much of a gentleman as Jerry Seinfeld is, I did not want to invade his space, I did not want to have any awkward moments with him, nor did I want to ask him something stupid. I just wanted to be out of his way. That’s all. He’s a very charming, enigmatic personality and I didn’t want to put my foot in my mouth. I just wanted to be a nonissue.

I initially read for the guest spot with Jerry and Larry David. [What I was doing with the character] seemed to resonate with them, so I wanted to go as far as I could with it. I only did nine regular season episodes, ten including the final, but I think it would have ended up being more. I had done my first two episodes during the sixth season, so for season seven and season eight—when they called to see if I could come back on the show—I couldn’t because I was [a regular] on “Dave’s World” on CBS. “Seinfeld” was on NBC. Then, “Dave’s World” was cancelled and I was able to come back on “Seinfeld” during the ninth season. It would have been fun to do more shows.

How did working on “Seinfeld” and your character ‘Puddy’ impact the trajectory of your career?

Patrick Warbuton: The door to sitcom gigs has always been open, so I’m always trying to do something different. For example, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” with [Barry] Sonnenfeld was a great experience and a departure from comedy.

I have sort of a love-hate-relationship with sitcoms. You work four or five hours a day, you’re not on location, you’re at home with your family, and you also get one week off every month. It’s a great lifestyle. At a certain point though, you feel you’ve done enough of something and want to do something else. I’m always trying to diversify.

You’re only as good sometimes as the writing on the page. It can be frustrating if you’re working on a show and you feel like the writers are just phoning it in. Ultimately, it’s your face, your voice out there, and that becomes your legacy as an actor. And if the show is mediocre, that’s not terribly inspiring. That’s why you balance it all out and go, “Well, great lifestyle.”

In terms of your lifestyle, how is cannabis and/or CBD part of it?

Patrick Warburton: I use CBD on my shoulders, which I trashed bench pressing for many years. [The shoulders] keep me awake at night and the CBD oil definitely helps with the pain. However, I’ve always been the guy who gets paranoid when he smokes weed.

I remember I hadn’t [smoked] in fifteen or twenty years when—speaking of that Rush documentary—I was going to the Staples Center for Rush’s very last show ever. Alex Lifeson is a friend of mine, and I was in the backseat of a car with Robby Krieger—also a friend of mine. We had a driver, so I made myself a martini. Robby had a little pipe, and I thought to myself, “If I was waiting for the right moment to toke up, this is it.” I took a hit or two, and it became an epic night. One of those nights that takes you back to when you’re thirteen-years-old listening to “Twenty-One-Twelve” for the first time. Then you “come to” in the present moment and you’re backstage with the band on their last night together.

How long have you known the band Rush?

Patrick Warburton: I met Alex at an East Lake golf tournament in Georgia about ten or twelve years ago. Golf’s great because all of the musicians play charity events. That’s how I’ve met so many great ones throughout the years.

I think golf saves rock and rollers’ lives because some survived addiction and [golf] becomes their healthy obsession to do everyday. If you’re a sober rocker, you play golf for five hours, you come home, you’re tired, you eat something, you watch something, you go to bed, you wake up, and you repeat.

But yeah, Alex is such a wonderful man. He’s so cool. The whole band—they’re all family guys. They’re very grounded, which you don’t find [too often], and I think that’s part of the secret to their longevity and their closeness. They’ve always kept it real. They focus on their families, their friendships, and they maintain them.

For you, what has been one of the keys to your success?

Patrick Warburton: For me, it’s certainly been a marathon and not a sprint. I just sort of survived throughout the years. As an actor, one of the things that always drives me is that there are certain things that I still want to do. It’s always good to have that [desire]. Acting is something I love and I’ve managed to have some great opportunities and I feel pretty fortunate that I’ve been able to work and provide for my family. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.

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