L.A. confidential: Patrick Warburton on "The Woman Chaser" — and "Dragonard"

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Patrick Warburton in "The Woman Chaser."

Patrick Warburton occupies his own special niche. He is a big (6 feet, 3 inches), hirsute, square-jawed kinda white guy — the kind who saved screaming ingénues from gorillas or Martians in 1950s B flicks — who's flourished parodying macho blowhards. Who doesn't love Warburton? People who don't know who he is, obviously.

They probably know him regardless, if not by name. First widely noted as Elaine's emotionally deaf boyfriend on Seinfield, in recent years he's starred in successful network sitcoms Rules of Engagement and Less than Perfect. They followed The Tick, a short-lived Fox superhero parody series everyone loved but the viewing public. He's voiced various characters on Family Guy (a man's gotta work), as well as loftier ’toons including The Venture Bros., Kim Possible, and Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, playing Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story spinoffs, as well as endearing villain Kronk in The Emperor's New Groove (2000).

The Emperor's New Groove reunited him with Eartha Kitt, also a costar in his screen debut: 1987's WTF Mandingo (1975) rip-off Dragonard, in which he played a race traitor Scottish hunk on an 18th century Caribbean slaving isle populated by such punishing extroverts as boozy Oliver Reed, chesty Claudia Uddy, and creaky Pink Panther boss Herbert Lom. This campsterpiece features steamy sex intercut with chicken sacrifice, a character called "Manroot," appalling homosexual caricatures, much library music, and other incitements to drinking-game joy. (Start trolling eBay for used VHS copies now.)

These days, Warburton is promoting a past project he'd rather remember: 1999's The Woman Chaser (opening Fri/25 at the Roxie), billed as both his leading-role debut (hello! Dragonard!!) It was definitely the first feature for Robinson Devor (2005's Police Beat, 2007's Zoo), one of the most stubbornly idiosyncratic and independent American directors to emerge in recent years.

Derived from nihilist pulp master's Charles Willeford 1960 novel, this perfect B&W retro-noir miniature sets Warburton's antihero to swaggering across vintage L.A. cityscapes. Sloughing off an incestuously available mother and other bullet-bra'd she cats, his eye on one bizarre personal ambition, he's a vintage man's man bobbing obliviously in a sea of delicious, droll irony. Warburton appears with Devor at the Roxie for The Woman Chaser's theatrical-revival opening night. I caught up with the actor via phone last week.

SFBG Did The Woman Chaser have a significant impact on your career?
Patrick Warburton It should have. We debuted at the New York Film Festival, an amazing experience, then went to Sundance. The film got a nice little art house release in 15 or 20 cities. But after that, there were ownership issues, [and] it never went to DVD. So the audience has been extremely limited.

SFBG Yet a whole lot of people here seem to know and love it.
PW Of course I've always known San Francisco and its residents to possess far more beauty and art and culture than this desolate hell-hole we call Los Angeles.

SFBG Were you at all familiar with Charles Willeford before?
PW No, my first peek was Rob Devor's screenplay adaptation, which was originally entitled King Size, then went back to the original [novel's] title.

SFBG A strange title, because the hero isn't chasing women. In fact, he's completely self-absorbed and alarmingly misogynist.
PW No, this isn't about a guy chasing women. I guess that's the way you sold a pulp novel back then, putting a man with a topless woman in a convertible on the cover of a paperback with a title like The Woman Chaser — even though Willeford's interests were much more psychological. I was [36] years old, playing this role had my sexual interest at an all-time low. I didn't get it. Meanwhile the actor, Patrick Warburton, was probably knocking one off in his dressing room once a day back then.

SFBG Once?
PW Well, I was eating whatever the fuck I wanted, cuz this guy is a chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking car salesman. I got heavier than I'd ever been in my life, about 250 pounds. My wife was not pleased. [This character] was certainly an odd fellow, a misogynist.

SFBG How did you get involved?
PW My agent said "Here's a script," I met Rob, and we clicked. What's interesting is it was right after the ninth season of Seinfeld. Anything else coming my way was because of that. But [Devor] had never seen an episode — I still don't know if he has.

SFBG The movie does an incredible job recreating 1960 L.A. on a budget.
PW It was a grind. We'd procured a handful of permits, but mostly just ran into locations with our guerilla crew and stole shots. Rob really did have a vision. When you're working long hours, you're not getting paid a dime, you're working with a director who has such a specific idea what he wants — he's going to be a little bit of a pain in the ass. But it's an experience I've come to appreciate over time. Because I've been on the other side, where you can't believe what a piece of garbage you're a part of. That movie was what it was wholly because of Rob. He's truly an artist. You don't get such opportunities very often in this business. We've talked about [working together] again, and the right thing hasn't come up. But I would love that more than anything.

SFBG On another subject, I must quote 12 words of dialogue: "Sometimes being a slave is a man more dignity than being free!" So ungrammatical, for starters. Please reveal every last thing about Dragonard.
PW Oh, God. It was the first thing I ever did, and I knew after that experience ... well. You have to be able to accept it. The most you can ask for [in this industry] are experiences where you learn and in the end get a great product. Like doing The Dish (2000) in Australia was great. I spent quality time with Sam Neill and Geoffrey Wright, then this delightful film came out of it. But with something like Dragonard, if you're going to grow as an actor, you've got to just shit it out. You've got to say, not only is this the most awful movie ever made, but I am the worst thing in it.

SFBG It doesn't even sound like your speaking voice in that film.
PW I tell people I was dubbed.

SFBG You were?
PW No. I just say that to minimize all responsibility. Going down to South Africa at age 22 for my first movie ... my very first day was with Oliver Reed, drunk on whiskey as usual at 10 a.m., doing a sword fight. Terrifying. I decided hey, I'm in prime drinking condition, I'll try to keep up, though I refused to start before 5 p.m. I ended up going on pretty much a two-month bender with him.

SFBG Plus Dragonard had the late Eartha Kitt, another famously trying person to work with.
PW Eartha Kitt was a fascinating woman. When I got back from South Africa, she was performing [in concert] and I went to see her. Afterwards she invited me to her hotel room. I really didn't know what the fuck I was doing there. I'm on the couch, she's on the bed, petting one of her cats like Cruella de Vil. "How are you daaahling." I must have been shaking. Years later we worked together in [Disney cartoon] The Emperor's New Groove. Looking at the relationship between [her evil queen] Yzma and [his clueless musclehead sidekick] Kronk in that, I had to laugh. It's so strange sometimes, how life imitates art, or art imitates life.

SFBG I believe there's an actual website for devotees of onscreen flogging, and you are the absolute champ. [Warburton's character is lashed for an onscreen eternity.]
PW I guess that was one way they figured to keep the budget down. "Hey, let's just kill five minutes watching this guy get whipped!"

SFBG It's funny, because making fun of the kind of heroic jocktard Dragonard takes seriously turned became your metier. Did you always see comedy as your strength, or did it just evolve that way?
PW No, it pretty much just evolved that way. After Dragonard I thought, "No one is ever going to take you seriously as an actor again — do something else!" [In recent years] I've watched it, with friends, after a lot of drinks. It definitely takes a few beers. But for a long time, I hoped every copy of that movie had been lost or destroyed, more than Paris Hilton or whoever wishes their sex tapes were just erased. Or maybe they don't ... anyway, I kinda went into hiding after that movie and thought: "OK, you asshole, are you going to be an actor or not?"

SFBG Yet you perservered.
PW I did. I did persevere.

THE WOMAN CHASER
Feb. 25–March 3, 7 and 9:15 p.m. (also Sat/26, 2 and 4:30 p.m.), $5–$9.75
Roxie
3117 16th St., SF
(415) 863-1087
www.roxie.com

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