Mr. Sanderson Goes to Harrisburg

William Sanderson from this season of “True Blood” – photo credit is Jaimie Trueblood/HBO.

Character Actor with Lots of Character Finds a Home in the Capitol City

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Story By Randy Gross –

William Sanderson, whose characterizations have ranged from roles in television shows like “Newhart” (Larry, the speaking brother) and “Deadwood” (E.B. Farnum) to movies like “Blade Runner” (J.F. Sebastian) and “The Client” (FBI agent Wally Boxx), moved to Harrisburg in 2015. But it wasn’t to further his multi-decades film career (he has since retired from acting) or to even enter public service like several other actors have done (think Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Clint Eastwood). Sure, he’s living in the epicenter of Pennsylvania politics now, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to filibuster like Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

So, why would one of the most recognizable character actors over the past 50 years decide to move from Los Angeles, population 3.967 million, to a city with just under 50 thousand residents? There are a couple reasons.

First and foremost, there’s William’s wife, Sharon, whom he met in 1989. Starting in 1990, they would live together in L.A. for the next 30 years. A native of Harrisburg, Sharon still had family in Pennsylvania, and so, in 2005, during the third season of the HBO series “Deadwood,” the couple decided to buy a house in the capitol city next to her aging mother.

“We’d come back [to Harrisburg] in the summer for a bit, or whenever he wasn’t working,” says Sharon, “so, we had a place to stay, and we didn’t have to get a hotel. But” she continues, “William was torn. He hated it [living in L.A.], and he loved it.”

“And I loved her,” exclaims William. And it was that profound love for his wife that led to his decision to move to Harrisburg for good.

“We had been talking about it,” explains Sharon, “because you start getting older and disillusioned with the business, and he was in Arizona working on a low-budget film, and he called me up one day and he said ‘I think it’s time. Start getting ready for the house.’”

Then, there was also William’s burgeoning love for the Keystone State. “I have always had an infatuation with the toughness of the Pennsylvania people … coal miners and steel workers,” he says. “My father drilled that into my head when I was a kid. I had tough friends [in Tennessee], but they’re not as tough as this bunch. And with these people – and I don’t want to get into politics, but – I feel safe. They like guns (he laughs), so the more I’m here, the more I love it. And the more proud I am of her,” he continues, nodding at his wife, “for keeping the priorities straight.”

Still, the decision wasn’t an easy one, considering it meant winding down a long film career in sunny California. “I miss winning. And getting the jobs. Escaping,” he says. “And I miss the weather. There’s a time for everything, and it was time to give it up and let a younger person have it. But it’s hard. It’s like taking a drug. You get high.”

Reminiscing & Reflecting

It was an unexpectedly snowy March day, but the lobby of the Best Western Premier was warm and inviting when William and Sharon joined me for a conversation. William was warm and welcoming himself, while reflecting on the highs and lows of an acting career which took him from Memphis (where he saw and met Elvis during the rock legend’s early days) to New York City (where he began playing “homeless bums” both on and off stage), and finally to Hollywood. His immediate success as a character actor in films like “The Onion Field” (1979), “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980), and “Raggedy Man” (1981) would lead to an iconic comedic role on TV’s “Newhart” (1982-1990): the part of Larry, whose brothers Daryl and Daryl never talked.

“Larry was based on a character that had true insight into the world,” says William. “He was drunk, but a little insane. I loved playing him.”

Around that same time, another role that William would love playing – perhaps his most memorable characterization of all time – would be offered to him: toy maker Sebastian in the sci-fi classic “Blade Runner.” After having played a variety of loathsome characters on the silver screen (think Calvin in “Raggedy Man”) being cast as the gentle Sebastian was a game-changer. Says William, “I attribute it to [director] Ridley Scott seeing something, I don’t know what. That changed the roles that I played. I played more sympathetic.”

Even so, the part of Sebastian was also somewhat of a disappointment. “It should have been a better role,” he explains. “I was supposed to die on screen, and they killed me off screen. The star [Rutger Hauer] didn’t want to kill anybody else on screen, because that would make him less sympathetic. So, he went to Ridley and said, ‘let’s cut that scene,’ and Ridley agreed with it. But I died pretty well,” he muses, “I practiced it. But, you know, that would have made a fleshed-out, bigger role.”

During the course of two-plus hours, William would also comment on …

His favorite role: “It’s really hard to say exactly. When ‘Raggedy man’ happened that was my favorite role, because it was the most money, and the most lines, and a major film.”

Most successful role: “Deadwood game me a lot of chance … he [creator David Milch] told the crew ‘William Sanderson has to be in every episode,’ and he managed that.”

Role he wished he could have had: The Bank Guard in “Batman Forever” (1995). Explains William, “Those movies bring in money for years.”

Role he wished he hadn’t taken: Joe Slaader in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” a 2006 adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story. Says Sharon, “one reviewer said that they couldn’t believe that William Sanderson was in this movie and that ‘they must have drugged him and dragged him to the set.’”

His brushes with the law when he was young: “It was just drinking and doing minor stuff …. Just stupid, stupid stuff. I wanted to be an outlaw. I wanted to play roles like Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson.”

Movie that he wishes more people could see: “Stanley’s Gig” (2000), mostly because it featured William in his one – and only – lead role. “On paper, I thought it was great,” he says, “but the director never directed before, and he’s never directed since.”

On whether he feels he deserved more recognition and awards: “No, I always wanted to be anonymous, and I don’t like to make a lot of money either.” (He had to be prompted to remove his tongue from his cheek).

On his longevity in showbiz: “I was lucky.”

His favorite word: Uxorious, which means having or showing an excessive fondness for one’s wife (which William definitely does).

The true “Character” of the man

As the morning turned to afternoon, and our setting changed from the lounge to a booth at the adjacent O’Reilly’s Tap Room – even before the Sandersons would generously offer to pick up the tab for lunch – it was obvious that William’s Memphis roots had earned him the aura of a true Southern gentleman. But it was more than that. In stark contrast to some of his early film roles (like the forgettable “Fight for Your Life,” in which he played a racist redneck), he is a gentle soul, often contrite, helpful, and kind to the extreme. In one breath, he was offering to help our photographer, Rick Snizik, to carry his equipment to his car, and in the next was digressing from our conversation to talk about his heroic brother-in-law, Charlie, a retired SERT team member who had stopped a bank robbery (says William, “I pretended to be something I wasn’t, but he’s got some real stories”). While being served our food and drink, he would pause to assure our waiter that he would be “well taken care of,” before sharing a memory, from the set of “Stanley’s Gig,” of how the cast wasn’t getting paid very well so he instructed Sharon to “go out and buy them bottles of wine and stuff.” When asked if living in Harrisburg provided him with any temptation to enter public service, he deflects to his wife, saying “I often wanted her to, because she knows what’s going on.”

“Besides,” he humbly reminds me, “I ran for mayor on the Newhart show … I played a mayor on Chuck Norris’ show [‘Walker, Texas Ranger’] … I played an ersatz mayor in ‘Deadwood.’ But it’s one thing to pretend.”

But there’s no pretending when it comes to William’s determination – and satisfaction – with making Central PA his final place of residence. And his Harrisburg Magazine interview his final official interview. “You know how actors often think ‘this is my last job?’ Well, I’m choosing to think that this is my last interview,” he remarks with a smile. Of course, I am grateful for the honor, and yet feel a need to provide readers with more of an explanation than the words “I’m retired.”

Again, William’s wry humor doesn’t disappoint: “Tell them ‘he’s bored talking about himself.’”

Without the “rush” or high of acting, what will William do during his golden years to stave off boredom? Though he doesn’t seek it, there’s always the thrill of what his former co-star Harrison Ford calls “mind candy” – or, in layman’s terms, “getting recognized in public.” Like for instance, the time he and Sharon were at Progress Grill and the waitress didn’t want to believe William was on “Newhart.” Or the shopping excursion at Walmart when the couple was followed from aisle to aisle by a man who finally popped the question “are you so-and-so?” 

“I can make it happen if I want to,” says William, “but, as a friend of mine said, there’s no value in it.”

Adds Sharon, “I think a lot of people suspect it’s Bill, but when he talks, then they’re sure. Then they put it together.”

Of course, William hasn’t completely stopped working. There is still the occasional guest role or appearance in an independent film, plus voiceover work in animated projects (“they can be lucrative,” he remarks).

But, better than anything else, William’s retirement plans can be summed up with just one sentence: “We want to see the grandchildren more.”

Try as you might, you just can’t top that.

Recommended reading: “Yes, I’m That Guy: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Character Actor” (2019, BookBaby),