Don Stark, best known for his role as Bob Pinciotti on That ’70s Show, spoke with Fan Fest about his 44 year-long journey in show business. Stark pays tribute to former roles while discussing upcoming projects.
Fan Fest: How did you get started in acting and how did that lead you to the entertainment industry?
Don Stark: I was an athlete in high school and one day I was in a forensics class where I wrote my own speeches and competed in competitions. The teacher that I had, turned out, was Phil Berk – later on, flash forward, to when I did That ’70s Show, Phil Berk was the president of the Hollywood Foreign Press. And while we were interviewed the first season we did it, all of a sudden I hear this voice that’s like, “Don, I just wanted to know, how is your mother?” And, it was like a shock. But, how I’d gotten into it was one day he was out [of class] so we went to the drama class, basically there to be babysat. And, somebody was up on stage and, being the jock that I was, I started laughing. The teacher, Victoria Francis, who was amazing, said, “Oh, you think that’s funny? You think you could do better?” And I said, “yes.” So I got up and got a lot of laughs and thought, ‘Great, this will be a fun class and I’ll take it the next semester.’ While I was in there, I got a dare from a friend of mine to try out for a play and I tried out for Dark of the Moon and got [the role of] Marvin Hudgens. Then throughout high school, I played Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls and my last role was playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof; there was an agent that came that night. I had started Cal State Northridge as a business major and I walked over to the theater department and the ladies were much more attractive in the theater department and I never looked back. I started in the theater department and started studying with Lee Straussburg, he was teaching on Hollywood Boulevard. Then an agent got me on and I got my first job and I thought, ‘oh, man, now my career is really going to take off’ and now here I am 44 years later.
FF: How did you then transition into film and television?
DS: Well, the agent sent me out, and it may have been the first or second audition that I had; it was for an ABC Movie of the Week starring Robert Culp. It was to play this character that runs him down and I got the role. Then one role led into another but, what I thought was going to be a clear path to taking off took a lot longer than I thought it would. And, through all ups and downs, I was in LA at the time and went back to New York between ’80 and ’85 and was doing some theater and then I came back after that. So, I got a lot of work, and probably up until 26/27 I was still playing teenagers. I did Police Story [episode “A Chance to Live”] with David Cassidy and was still playing a high school kid. Then it was coming to that point where I was in between playing high school students and I was too young to play dads. So, that’s when I went to New York and did theater, then came back and have been slugging it out. I’ve been fortunate; it’s been a long, long road. There’s been lots of other jobs that I did in between, before things took off. And, the last job that I had was being an emcee and a DJ for a company that did weddings and corporate parties. Then I got my first series called The Man in the Family with Ray Sharkey, it was an Ed Weinberger project. I’ve done five series, the longest being That ’70s Show which lasted for eight seasons.
FF: Am I remembering correctly that you were on Welcome Back, Kotter early on in the show?
DS: I was. There’s so much heartbreak in show business. This was way before the days when there were cell phones, or even pagers. The only thing that they had was answering services. I was supposed to have a callback to go in and for them to mix and match different characters with James Komack [producer.] And my agent didn’t get me the message; I got the message at the last minute, showed up, they were already done and so I didn’t get a chance [to audition again.] I was up for the part of Epstein. I never got to audition in that arena and Bobby Hedges got [the role] and he was wonderful in it, but I was just devastated. But, in the pilot, they asked me to be in it to be an extra, which I didn’t really want to do. Then they asked me to come back after doing that, and, I was young, I was 19 years old, I didn’t know what to do – so, I didn’t end up staying [as a recurring extra.] I’m sure I would’ve wound up getting a speaking part. But, that was the only time I worked being as an extra in a show.
FF: You’ve played many different characters in many shows and films. What is like to take on so many roles versus playing the same character for a long time?
DS: It’s great. That’s what acting is really all about. I’m a character actor so I play different characters. Having that one persona…actually, after That ’70s Show, it took a while to kind of recover from being Bob because it was such a specific kind of character. But, the truth is, I’ve played as much drama, if not more, than comedy throughout 44 years in the business. Maybe if I had only had one kind of niche that I was in, I may have worked more. For me, it was taking on different roles and that’s the thing that makes it really interesting and a lot of fun to do.
FF: Do you have a preference when it comes comedy or drama?
DS: No. I just love the work and if it’s a good, fun character to play, that’s what I’m attracted to. Especially if it’s something where the words are on the page and it’s good people to work with. I just finished working on two projects back-to-back. One was called Walk to Vegas where, on the page, it was a supporting role; but, they were looking for somebody who could improv and bring stuff in. So my role ended up [being] great and it was an ensemble piece. Then I got called in to do this little short, I read the script – it’s called Holiday Hostage and was directed by D.W. Moffett. Maggie Wheeler plays the mom in it and I play this kidnapper that comes in on Thanksgiving holding the family hostage. (*Interviewer note: without giving away the plot, the story has a good message.) So, it really was a project of love. There’s jobs that you do for money and there’s jobs that you do for love. A character actor that I worked with early on said, “If you’re one of the few, the fortunate, you’ll get some jobs where it ends up to be both.” Here was something where I had a lot of creative freedom. Then there’s other shows that you do that are specific, you’re there for a certain reason, there’s not room for a lot of creativity. You’re serving a function for the service of the script. It’s nice to be able to do things where you can be creative. That’s what you do – if you’re an actor, you act, if you’re a writer, you write – it’s just what you do. It’s not like I need more film, it’s for the love of the game, I guess.
FF: Speaking of creative freedom, I’m reminded of a role you had on Curb Your Enthusiasm and I know that show required a lot of improv.
DS: It was formatted very, very tightly. There was no information ahead of time. So, before the scene, they may give you two story points that come up in the scene. Unless you shot something before that related to it, you had no idea what it was about except for those story points. Then if you kind of stumbled onto something when you were doing the improv, they would give you some information about that. You could shoot a scene for 10 minutes and they would cut it down to a minute, minute and a half, and you would swear that it was written that way. And, Larry David, I asked him, “Well, is this easier for you?” And he said, “No, it’s much harder. I can write a script in a short amount of time, but acting in it…I can’t act in it as freely because I’m listening to the words that I wrote as opposed to just being able to be in the moment with being surprised by what’s going on.” That [show] was great fun. And, now they’re coming back with another season, I think they’re shooting.
FF: It’s funny how things come back after time. Speaking of longevity, That ’70s Show premiered almost 20 years ago. Can you talk about the show as a whole and why you think it still means something to people?
DS: We did the pilot in the spring of 1998 and then began filming that summer. You know, the first thing I realized when we were shooting it was the audience had an immediate reaction. The way that it was written, and the characters that they had in it…some shows need time for you to know who is who and recognize what characters are what. Here, it was clear in the pilot already; you didn’t need any other information. You knew each one of these people. Either you were them, they were friends of yours, they were parents that you knew, you knew every single person. And the beauty of it was, there was a lot of seventies stuff in the pilot, but, it could’ve been in any period of time. What it was about was coming of age, it was about kids having their first cigarette, their first drink, their first experimentation with drugs. Then there was the one set of parents that I was apart of that still wanted to hang onto youth and be cool. Then there were the parents that were from the fifties that were conservative. Although there was seventies stuff that was in it, it didn’t depend on that and that’s why I think it’s lasted so long. It’s just all about the same thing that kids go through today and the same things they were going through there: first kiss, first love, trying to break away from the parents. It had the seventies but it didn’t rely on that. The further the show went on, even that seventies kind of language melted away. That’s why I think it’s so relatable.
FF: You mentioned how the audience took to the characters immediately. How was that related to the casts’ chemistry?
DS: Terry Hughes directed the pilot and, once we were picked up, we had one director. David Trainor directed all of the episodes for the eight seasons, other than the pilot. Mila [Kunis] had worked before and Danny Masterson had worked before, and the adults had. But all of the other young people on the show, this was their first thing. They became very famous very fast. Having one director that “knew them when” from the very beginning; and having that stability held it together. And, they’re all very close. Danny, Ashton [Kutcher] and Wilmer [Valderrama] are still very close. Danny and Ashton are doing a series together; and Ashton and Mila are married! The chemistry happened early on and it was great. And shooting in front of an audience was great fun, it was a great time.
FF: Do you have a favorite episode?
DS: Oh, boy. There’s so many episodes that were so fantastic. I think one of the pieces of one of the episodes was where they had me reveal that I was wearing a toupee. The reason that happened was, when I started the show, I was heavy and I had lost a lot of weight. So they wanted my character to really be that guy who hit the jackpot and was with Midge. They came up with that [by doing] the wig, and that was a very funny episode. Another episode, which I’m going to take a little bit of credit for. I was at the upfronts and I’m sitting with Terry Turner [producer] and this is when networks were all doing their pitch to advertisers. And I said to him, “You know what I’d love to see? I’d love to see Red high.” Maybe they had thought about it before, but that episode where we have the “special brownies” with the special ingredients of love, I thought was a very funny episode. I had a bunch that I love. The episode “The Pill” [has a scene] where it’s like, “Bob, do you realize your daughter is on the pill and she’s ‘open for business’?” I thought that was fun. I mean, [the episodes] were great! We did a musical with Roger Daltrey and he didn’t even perform. We had a lot of great stuff.
FF: That was something unique about the show were those “fantasy moments” that they featured in every episode.
DS: They had a great style in how they did it. There was always something in the show. Even the little bridges in between where you see people jumping up and down. Or you see the wall moving in the episode where Eric is high and Kitty and Red are talking to him before they give him the Vista Cruiser; the wall behind them, you see [Eric’s] POV. They had a lot of great, creative ways to adding additional scenes. And, in the basement scene, was classic. Every episode had one scene in the basement. So that was very unique.
FF: How did those 360 camera shots affect your performance?
DS: My character was only in two. The hunting episode and the one with the parents in the garage. They way that they did it, it was always pre-shot and played back for the audience because you needed four walls to be able to do it. The camera would be in the center, the actors stayed, and the camera just moved. It was a difficult thing to do but it was always funny; and sometimes the camera would move back in the other direction. But, having that camera in the middle and being able to block it out and know when it hits you, you gotta do what you gotta do. I think it’s one of the big things that’s kind of an identifying feature of the show.
FF: How is performing in front of a live studio audience?
DS: Oh, it’s great because you get energy and feedback from the audience. The show starts out – it’s written, it’s rewritten four or five times before you get to the final showtime. Then right before [we shoot] there’s a warm up person and we do a speed run-through a half an hour before the show. Then we would go backstage and kind of huddle and do a “word of the night” before cast introductions and then we were off and running. It was a well-oiled machine. We didn’t have late nights where it’s rewritten 20 different times, they might make small adjustments, but it was really like clockwork. And having an audience to respond is a wonderful thing. You think certain things are going to be funny and sometimes you find that you’ve got a hole when you think the laugh is in one place but find that the audience is ahead of you already. It’s just being in the moment of what’s going on. At the end of every episode we would do a curtain call, and we would stay and sign autographs for the audience. It was very rewarding. It’s that immediate payback of knowing if it’s working or not working. They’re not faking it. It’s great fun!
FF: Could you tell us a little bit more about Walk to Vegas?
DS: Walk to Vegas is Vince Van Patten and he does a lot of shows on poker. So he wrote a script that is about that period of time where Hollywood poker and poker rooms in Los Angeles became very, very hot. Through his experience, he met a lot of different people and was involved in that. And, out of that, people would make all kinds of different bets. At one point, we want to bet on something else and it’s brought up, “Well, let’s bet on if you can walk to Vegas in seven days.” We then negotiate back and forth and at one point early on, a very famous poker player now, Doyle Brunson, it was an original bet that was made way back but never wound up happening. So it’s about these guys, and Vince Van Patten’s character is going to walk to Vegas in seven days. They’ve got all kinds of money on what’s going on and there’s RVs and all of these different kind of rules. That with all the mayhem and the conniving, and the manipulation of how everybody is trying to get an advantage on the bets. It was a great ensemble and it was a lot of fun. Eric Balfour, it was his first time directing; he’s a terrific young actor and a great director. It was wonderful. We got a chance to really play and improvise and a lot of funny stuff came out of it. I know it was a great experience doing it, we got a lot of great stuff, and once they get in and they edit it [we’ll see] what movie gets put together, because they’ve got a lot of choices. It was very exciting to do.
FF: What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into the film industry?
DS: The first thing – and this isn’t meant in a negative way – don’t do it unless you have to. What I mean by that is, there’s no casual way of being in the business [like] “Oh, I’m just going to give it a try.” Unless you’re all in, there’s too much disappointment, too many obstacles you go up against. For anything that you’re doing, get training – understand what you’re doing. Whether you’re a cinematographer, whether you’re an AD [assistant director], whether you’re a writer, or whether you’re an actor – work. And train yourself to be the best that you can be. For actors, you don’t get the job until you go to the audition. “No” is going to be the thing you hear more than anything else in the world. It’s a strange thing where our sensitivity is usually what brings us to want to be actors; how do we keep that alive when there’s so much disappointment of not getting roles? So much of it, most of it, has nothing to do with you. You could give the most brilliant performance in the world and it could be that they need a name to do it. You’ll never know the reasons, they’ll never tell you, and it doesn’t matter what the reason is. [You have to find] the next thing. And that’s a difficult thing to do. You can’t do it if you’re thinking about “Oh, I’ll give it a try.” Be a professional. Learn your craft so that you can be the best you can be and you can be prepared when things happen. If you love it – even though it’s really hard – then you can sustain yourself mentally, emotionally, psychologically through the rejection of it because there’s nothing else in the world that you want to do. Unless you’ve got that kind of commitment to it, then don’t do it…because it’ll break your heart. I’m a parent and that is my best and greatest joy in the world. I think the worst thing that can happen to a kid… and I’ll tell you, Mila Kunis is an exception, she and her parents are amazing. She is an exception to the rule of a kid being in the business and growing up and getting through it. Worse than being rejected as a kid, is making it to such a high level and people resent you. And now at 10 years old, you’re as famous as you’re ever going to be in your life. So it seems “isn’t that wonderful?” My way took a lot longer, and I’m not suggesting that’s a great way to go; but, it’s a difficult road and it’s a business. You need to understand that it’s a business but you need to do it because you have a passion for it and keeping working at what you’re doing. You sit around waiting for that next opportunity…I think today it’s even easier because of iPhones and YouTube and all these venues where you can create stuff that doesn’t cost any money, and you can shoot stuff. It wasn’t like that in the past. So, shoot something. Do something. Write something. It’s not for the faint of heart. Life is difficult, there’s challenges; people are out of work. When I started out, there were alternatives where you could make a living. Today, people end up with degrees and graduate degrees and come out and still can’t get a job. With the time we live in, if you’ve got a passion to do it – do it. I mean, unless you’re going to medical school or to law school or you’re in one of the very few fields where there’s guarantee for work…if you love it, then go for it. But, if you don’t, don’t bother because you’re not going to be happy.
FF: Are there any other upcoming projects that you wanted to talk about?
DS: I played a very bad guy on a show called Hit the Floor. It just got picked up, it was on VH1 and BET. I don’t know whether or not I’m going to be in it because I just haven’t gotten any word on what the network wants. That’s always a possibility. I have a project that will be out on NBC’s [streaming channel] Seeso. It’s comedy stuff and I’m in the show called There’s… Johnny! which is written by Paul Reiser. It takes place in the seventies and the backdrop is The Johnny Carson Show. But, they just use film clips of Johnny and it’s a fictional story of behind-the-scenes of what goes on. I play a big-time manager with big-time appetite for extracurricular activities and my daughter is one of the people working on the show. And, it’s really funny and it’s really dark. That’s coming out in August. Now we’re just looking to see what the next projects are after that. The actor’s life is always what the next project is going to be. Business should be starting to kick back up after the Fourth of July with shows back in production. So, I’m looking forward to that next thing that is going to be coming up. It’s been a good year for me. I had five episodes on Maron, and a really terrific role on the TV show The Strain where I played a character at 50 then I played the same character at 80. Just keeping working, that’s what actors do. I don’t know what the next job will be; but I’m looking forward to the next chance to go play.
[All photos courtesy of Don Stark and IMDB.]