Bill Irwin is a perhaps unique multi-hyphenate in an entertainment field full of people who claim to do multiple things. Sure, plenty of actors have co-written scripts or directed an episode of a TV show, but how many of them worked as professional circus clowns? Or followed up a MacArthur fellowship with a long-running stint on Sesame Street, in turn followed by blockbusters like Interstellaror juggernaut TV shows like Law & Order: SVU?
I’m going to lead you through this story of Bill Irwin on the same path by which I came to “discover” and respect him as an actor and performer. It was some time last year, when I was zoning out while my kid watched Sesame Street, that I noticed, during the recurring segment “Elmo’s World,” the actor playing Elmo’s childlike, mute neighbor, Mr. Noodle. He had a very specific physicality to his performance that caught my attention, similar to the way improv actors pretend to hold imaginary objects. (Please bear with me if you can’t stand kids’ stuff, it’ll be over soon enough.)
Mr. Noodle seemed to move very differently than how I would expect an actor doing these trivially silly performances to move. I couldn’t really put my finger on it. I had already spotted Lin-Manuel Miranda’s name in the Sesame Streetcredits, so I decided to google Mr. Noodle, on the chance that he was a known quantity as well.
Once I started reading Bill Irwin’s bio, I not only confirmed my suspicions, but realized I had seen him before, several times in fact. His most prominent pre-21st Century role was probably as one of the three characters in the video for Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
It’s fitting that he’s alongside McFerrin and Robin Williams in that video, since, like them, Irwin is a misfit. After graduating from Oberlin in 1974, he attended clown college for a year. Yes, real-life clown college. Irwin learned the broad gestures, slapstick style, and costume and makeup techniques that Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey had been using for decades. Other alumni of this clown college program whom you may have heard of include magician Penn Jillette, Oscar-nominated actor David Strathairn, and Jackass guy Steve-O.
Irwin was offered a job with Ringling after completion, but opted instead to move to San Francisco and help launch the Pickle Family Circus, a nontraditional outfit that is credited with helping launch the modern circus revival. I don’t know much about that, and frankly I’m pretty sure Cirque de Soleil should get most of the credit. But the point is, Irwin worked as a clown for five years.
Several of the Pickle Family Circus’s performers got roles in the 1980 Popeyemovie, which is probably what turned Irwin on to the idea of combining his talents as a clown with acting. Throughout the 1980s, he created several one-man and almost one-man shows that ran on Broadway and off-Broadway, and often appeared on PBS Great Performances and similar programs. It’s not easy to find videos of these original shows on YouTube, but here are a few more recent clips that give you the general idea.
These shows were part of the vaudeville revival movement that happened briefly in the 80s and 90s, and Irwin was one of its main proponents. He was named a Guggeinheim Fellow in 1984 and awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” the same year. But even with that free money, there’s not a lot of cash in vaudeville. I assume this is why Irwin started taking occasional trips to Hollywood to act. He played stick-up-his-butt infielder Eddie Collins in Eight Men Out; a federal agent in My Blue Heaven; and Charlie Sheen’s dead father in Hot Shots!
He continued to work in theatre, opening the 1987 Tony awards broadcast, and appearing next to Williams and Steve Martin in the 1988 Lincoln Center revival of Waiting for Godot. But true stardom continued to elude Irwin. Interest in the vaudeville revival he’d pioneered was waning, and while he was working consistently, he hadn’t broken into many larger roles, either on stage or in Hollywood.
I recently attended an event where Morgan Freeman was speaking, and I chatted with a D-level actor-producer who was hanging around in an effort to get some face time with the legend. This guy and I talked about a lot of things, and one idea we hit on was that the best roles for men are typically for middle-aged or even older actors. I had never really thought about this, given that Hollywood is obsessed with youth, but I realized there’s a lot of truth to that. Morgan Freeman was a great example; his first Oscar nod and breakout role was in the now-forgotten 1987 thriller Street Smart. Freeman was 50.
The same ended up being true for Irwin. He just had to wait—for Elmo to come calling. He’d already done occasional segments on Sesame Street, but when the show added the separate segment in 1998, they hired Irwin, and serious roles started appearing for him as well. Jonathan Demme cast him in a small role in The Manchurian Candidate, which probably led to his larger role in Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. He was the depressed shut-in in Lady in the Water, but also Cindy Lou Who’s father in the live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
In 2008, he was cast as Nate Haskell, a recurring serial killer character on CSI, who stabbed and was eventually killed by Laurence Fishburne. I find it interesting that Irwin’s biggest successes as an actor have come from polar opposite attitudes: the goofy, clownish takes on one side, and on the other, dead-serious roles like a murderer, or Mariska Hargitay’s therapist on SVU, a recurring role he’s had for four years now.
Comparing him to Robin Williams is apt; Williams trained as a mime, learning techniques of physical storytelling to go along with his verbal insanity. Irwin’s gestures and facial expressions always seem distinct and deliberate to me, the way a dancer lowers herself into a chair, as opposed to you or I just sitting down. Even his stone-faced roles convey purposeful stillness, a conscious elision of affect rather than the neutral default setting of no emotion. I know some critics have said the same of Williams’ serious roles.
In 2014, Christopher Nolan’s casting director for Interstellar contacted Irwin about being in that movie. You may not remember seeing him, because he was wiped from the screen. He played the robot Marine TARS, not doing only the voice, but also puppeteering the 200-pound device around Matthew McConaghey and the others, with the exception of a few CGI scenes. His experience with physical comedy and clowning was a key selling point for Nolan.
Today, Irwin is a regular for one-off or recurring guest television roles, appearing on network stalwarts like Blue Bloods, Sleepy Hollow, Elementary, and The Good Wife. You probably know him as Cary Loudermilk on Legion. That character’s twitchy nervousness as he flips switches in a 1970s(?)-era MRI control room, re-enacts a fight scene alone in his office, or argues with his Native American mutant other half when she’s absorbed inside him (it makes sense on screen), fits Irwin’s skills perfectly.
You can read Irwin’s thoughts on some of these roles in Will Harris at the Mothership’s Random Roles on him from two years ago. Unfortunately, it ran short due to limited time for Interstellar press junket interviews. He’s set to appear in the upcoming Ed Helms-Owen Wilson laffer Bastards this year, and I heard Legion got renewed, so there’ll be plenty more of Bill Irwin to come.