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From Memphis to 'Deadwood': William Sanderson Tells His Own Tale

“That Guy” tells his own tale, from law school to E.B. Farnum.



William Sanderson starts the interview out with a caution: "Don't let me lie about anything."

There was no thought on my part that he'd ever do such a thing, but now that he brings it up, I start to worry. After all, he's an actor, a professional fabulist. It is indisputable that he's got a long list of film and television projects, more than 130 to be found on, so we can be fairly certain about that.

And it's no exaggeration to itemize his best-known roles: the unctuous E.B. Farnum in the Deadwood series as well as the recently released HBO movie, Larry in the 1980s sitcom Newhart, toymaker J.F. Sebastian in the original Blade Runner, and Sheriff Bud Dearborne in True Blood.


Furthermore, Sanderson has just published his autobiography, Yes, I'm That Guy: The Rough and Tumble Life of a Character Actor, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt that he's told the truth all the way through, from his upbringing in Memphis to his career in film and television. It has that veneer of veracity given that he's pretty hard on himself, detailing the "rough and tumble" parts of his life that bring him no esteem. "This book is more about defects than virtues," he admits.

But in both autobiography and interview, Sanderson comes across as humble — grateful for a career that brought him recognition and good notices, and for his marriage to Sharon who has been strong, capable, and loving.

"The book is about me going from Memphis, Army, college, law school, to New York to do the acting apprenticeship," he says. "And then 36 years — I might be bragging — just surviving L.A., and we live in Pennsylvania now."

Sanderson was into sports in school and sometimes was in the larger circle around Elvis Presley. One of his good friends in school was Charles Burson, who would go on to be Tennessee Attorney General and Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff. But Sanderson was too shy to consider theater although he was fascinated by it, inspired by George Touliatos and later Barry Fuller who would direct him in Marat/Sade.

So he had a taste of acting in Memphis, but he knew if he was going to make a living, he had to go to New York to get on the stage. His was a tale of tending bars, going to auditions, and gradually getting some parts. He says he was "something of a go-to guy if you're looking for a misfit, outcast, or downtrodden type."

Throughout all this was trouble. In junior high, he hot-wired cars and went on joyrides. As a bartender, he'd sample too much of his own product and start fights. Later on, he'd be a customer at bars and get into more fights. He lost girlfriends, risked his jobs, imperiled his health. He admits he was lucky to have survived.

But he also developed his acting chops, playing to his strengths and landing more film work. In his book, he talks about the work he booked and the celebrities he met. Some he befriended, some were jerks, and some relationships were, as they say, complicated (looking at you, Tommy Lee Jones).

Around 2004, Sanderson landed his role in Deadwood. His Farnum was carefully crafted by series showrunner David Milch and given a brilliant treatment by another writer on the set, Regina Corrado. The movie, which premiered last Friday on HBO, brought back most of the cast and crew to more or less wrap the storyline up.

And now Sanderson will tell you that Deadwood "is probably my last hurrah." Maybe. He did just have a role in a recent episode of American Gods. But he's quit drinking and has found contentment in Pennsylvania with his wife and her family. And he carries with him an abiding love of Memphis: "That's where you form your dreams."

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