And now, an economics lesson from John Goodman. “You get up two and a half million dollars, any asshole in the world knows what to do,” says our man, our nutty professor, our absolute favorite large adult son, playing a bald, hulking, whimsically menacing loan shark in 2014’s The Gambler. He is staring down a nonchalant Mark Wahlberg in a seedy bar where the waitresses keep dropping by with more giant pieces of scenery for Goodman to munch on. “You get a house with a 25-year roof, an indestructible Jap-economy shitbox, you put the rest into the system at 3 to 5 percent to pay your taxes, and that’s your base, get me?” Goodman continues, in that inimitable baritone-sax growl. “That’s your fortress of fuckin’ solitude.”
Wahlberg is unmoved, but you, the mesmerized viewer, are leaning forward, grinning maniacally, and maybe taking notes, as though this were a viral TED Talk delivered by a national treasure who, come to think of it, really ought to play Teddy Roosevelt someday. “That puts you, for the rest of your life, at a level of Fuck You,” Goodman growls. “Somebody wants you to do somethin’? Fuck you. Boss pisses you off? Fuck you. Own your house. Have a couple bucks in the bank. Don’t drink. That’s all I have to say to anybody at any social level.”
You want to borrow a ludicrous, life-ruining amount of money from this man just so he’ll keep talking. “A wise man’s life is based around Fuck You. The United States of America is based around Fuck You. You’re a king? You have an army? Greatest navy in the history of the world? Fuck you, blow me. We’ll fuck it up ourselves.” He really ought to start a cult, or at least a podcast.
The Gambler is a minor movie, and this role is meant to be minor, just another neo-noir underworld ghoul reeling off badass loan-shark threats like “You jump off a bridge, you can do it knowing I will kill your entire bloodline.” But John Goodman does not do minor and never did. Whether it’s an Oscar contender or a cheesy monster movie, an embattled sitcom or a deadly serious Peak-TV drama, he has spent the 2010s huffing rarefied air, basking in his own grizzly grace.
Tuesday night, he wrapped up the first season of The Conners, ABC’s Roseanne-minus-Roseanne blue-collar soap opera, which involved a great deal of crying and a pointedly thoughtful subplot about illegal immigration. As Dan Conner, a first-ballot TV Dad Hall of Famer, Goodman’s been doing some of his subtlest and best work lately, mourning the death of his famous TV wife, and by extension the infamous real-world circumstances that led to his TV wife getting killed off. Starting Friday, he will costar in the Netflix series Black Earth Rising, a five-ton BBC-originated drama about Rwandan genocide where Goodman offers a precisely calibrated mix of profound gravitas and feather-light comic relief, tap-dancing, sometimes literally, through a very wobbly show about a tremendously weighty topic.
You trust him implicitly through all of it, just as you trusted him in 10 Cloverfield Lane, Atomic Blonde, Argo, and hell, even Kong: Skull Island. John Goodman is 66 and somehow both reliably hulking and alarmingly frail. But his booming, honeyed roar has not yet betrayed him, and he has not betrayed us. He’s worth watching in anything: He rescues the bad stuff and turns the good stuff into something singularly transcendent. He has spent 30-odd years in show business at a level of a Fuck You so warm and endearing and enveloping it feels like a bear hug. Even at his most whimsically dangerous, this is a guy who will always keep you safe.
My sincere wish for you, dear reader, is that in your life you meet just one person who gets you as thoroughly as the Coen brothers get John Goodman. This is how you do an origin story.
He emerged, roaring, from a prison-break mud pit in 1987’s Raising Arizona, as though the very earth had given birth to him fully formed. “Look upon me!” he roared in 1991’s Barton Fink, toting a shotgun and rumbling demonically down a burning hallway. “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” More roaring: “Do you see what happens, Larry, when you fuck a stranger in the ass?” he inquired in 1998’s The Big Lebowski, smashing up a sports car with a crowbar, inviting us to enter a world of pain we never wanted to leave. He roared through a brief, cartoon-villainous role in 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, squishing a beloved toad in one mighty fist and meeting a judicious, slapstick end at a Klan rally. He was last seen in this universe poking Oscar Isaac with a cane, bagging on folk music, and issuing ornate Santeria-based threats in 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. But he could’ve played a half-dozen roles in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and I wish he’d played all of them.
Instead, Goodman spent most of last year in Dan Conner mode, first in the outlandishly successful Season 10 revival of Roseanne, reprising a beloved character that ruled the sitcom landscape from 1988 to 1997, and ruled it even harder in 2018, until one abhorrent Roseanne Barr tweet got the show canceled and that whole 10th season all but memory-holed. The Conners debuted in October with a pilot that picks up three weeks after Roseanne, the beloved fictional character, died offscreen from what turns out to be an opioid overdose. The political subtext aside, it’s a grim and melancholy and perfectly fine show starring an uncommonly large crew of beloved characters, with Darlene and Dan now the de facto leaders, filling a gigantic vacuum and tiptoeing through a gigantic sociopolitical minefield with less than half the ratings but one-tenth the off-camera drama.
Dan spends the whole of The Conners in mourning. “I’m 66 years old, and I get to spend the rest of life without the woman I love,” he blurts out to a grief support group just before fleeing it. In the pilot, he angrily confronts a neighborhood woman, played by Mary Steenburgen, who gave Roseanne drugs, and breaks down on his porch when he realizes Roseanne had multiple sources for the drugs she had stashed all over the house. Soon, he is awkwardly rebuffing the advances of Katey Sagal, playing a blues singer turned bartender who tempts him with lines like, “Every time you walk in here, I am staring at you like you’re a deep-dish pizza.” He blushes, fingers his wedding ring, and says simply, “I still have a thing for my wife.” Across the lifespan of Roseanne, Goodman got plenty of Emmy nominations, but no trophies—Laurie Metcalf, as Aunt Jackie, was the show’s designated award-winner. He deserves another look now.
In the 21-year span between seasons 9 and 10 of Roseanne, Goodman concentrated on being a movie star, a sly scene-stealer even when he’s merely serving up expositional softballs to the likes of Charlize Theron in 2017’s Atomic Blonde or, uh, King Kong in that same year’s Kong: Skull Island. He is the guy you want to gravely deliver gilded-cheeseball lines like “Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind, and if we keep our heads buried in the sand, they will take it back.” He deserves to be in more movies where his last line of dialogue is “Oh, shit.”
He had a great 2012, too. I love his preppy sweater in Argo; I love his ponytail and also everything else about him in Flight, silencing the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack with a barked “Do not touch the merch, motherfucker!” and hoovering cocaine with Denzel Washington while murmuring, “The Banana Boat’s comin’.” But the most well-rounded and uncomfortably intimate John Goodman performance this decade is his no-bullshit starring role as a volatile doomsday prepper in 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, ruling over his underground bunker and vindicated by the arrival of what appears to be actual doomsday. Is he right? Is he delusional? Is he a savior? Is he a monster? You hire a beloved actor who contains multitudes when you want to imply that he might be all four. “Luckily, I prepared for this,” he tells a horrified Mary Elizabeth Winstead, running a hand along the bunker’s reinforced ceiling and flashing a terrifying and adorable grin. This is how you elevate a B-movie to an A+.
Versions of that grin pop up all over Netflix’s Black Earth Rising, where they are wildly inappropriate and somehow very necessary. This is a deadly serious and impossibly convoluted show; Goodman, playing a soulful semi-alcoholic and war-crimes lawyer in the U.K., stars opposite Michaela Coel as a Rwandan genocide survivor uncovering dark (and convoluted) secrets from both her own past and her country’s. The theme song is Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker,” and trust me, you don’t.
This show is not great: It’s slow and odd and confusing in ways that undermine its righteous heaviness. But Goodman is fighting in every scene to breathe air and life into it with even the smallest of gestures. The theatrical sweep of his hand as he leaves his comatose daughter’s hospital room. The contented way he eats multiple ice cream cones. His scrunched-up face when somebody awkwardly jokes, “He has more enemies down there than I have uterine fibroids.” The way he tosses a towel into the sink after confirming that he’s still urinating blood. (I told you you don’t want it darker.) And the way he turns multiple, extremely unlikely romantic scenes into near pratfalls, blushing anew and stammering and theatrically slapping his own head even as you slap yours.
It’s all a mess he can’t clean up, but he can keep it afloat, and keep you quietly riveted. The Coens and Roseanne aside, Goodman has gotten few roles truly worthy of him, but through sheer animalistic charisma he makes all of his parts worthy of his time and yours. In genre schlock or awards fare, in roles tiny and massive, in screwball comedies and unnerving dramas, his is a fortress of solitude large and inviting enough to shelter the whole world. Take whatever advice he’s willing to give you, even if—especially if—he’s roaring it.