The versatile William H. Macy has an impressive list of credits as an actor, writer, director and producer. Now, Emmy-nominated for his role as Frank Gallagher — possibly the worst father on TV — in Showtime’s Chicago-set “Shameless,” his career has come full circle, at least from a logistical point of view. It was during his days producing plays in the Windy City back in the ’70s that he earned his first mention in Variety.
How did you land the project?
We’d started the St. Nicholas Theater up on Halstead Street. We were too dumb to know that’s not possible — a bunch of 22-year-olds just can’t rent a space and open a theater. It’s pretty clear, though, that if you’re going to pay for that kind of real estate, you’ve got to keep it full and earning money. The idea of a children’s program came up, and I said “OK, I’ll write one, we’ll do ‘Captain Marbles.’ ” I love music! We’d try to keep it for actual kids, though there were a lot of adult references.
How did it end up in Variety?
Beats the crap out of me. Guess it was a slow news day. It’s sandwiched right between the news from Rome and the news from Paris. And then there’s the news from Chicago: William H. Macy is doing another episode of “Captain Marbles.” A lot of people were smoking a lot of weed back in those days, and I’m guessing maybe your editor had a long lunch.
How did it feel seeing your name in Variety for the first time?
It’s a fractious relationship actors have with seeing themselves reviewed. Some actors don’t read them at all, steer clear of them. Me, I’ve always been sort of bold about it and I read the reviews. I think even the bad reviews secretly thrill us — at least they’re talking about us. But they do sting. It’s a little like getting a shot and sometimes you just watch the doctor give you the shot and you’re not afraid.
What was the best thing about that time in your life?
It was the ’70s. I had the keys to the theater. It was the good old days. In fact, I was self-aware enough to say to my pals, these are the good old days. I wrote plays. I produced plays. I acted in plays. I directed plays. I taught classes. Anything I jolly well wanted to do in this business, I did it.
What was it like for you at that time?
I look back with great fondness. Chicago was special in those days. Which is not to say it’s changed. Chicago is special. We all hung out together in this bar across the street from the theater and we talked about the work. We challenged each other. And it wasn’t about getting a movie or getting into a bigger theater. We were in the center of the country. We didn’t have our eyes on anyone but ourselves. We thought, fuck New York. I don’t want to do movies. I’m pure. And I’d give up the business before I’d do television. And I’d push a Ford before I’d drive a Chevy.
Who were your heroes at that time?
Dave Mamet taught me everything I know. He was the mayor of that town. He was in a very prolific time, and he was doing stunning, stunning work: “American Buffalo,” “The Water Engine,” “The Woods.” And I always wanted to be Gene Hackman. And if I couldn’t be Gene Hackman, I at least wanted him to adopt me.
What did you learn from the experience?
Our philosophy basically was make your own fun. You can sit around waiting for the phone to ring, or you can just take over the asylum. We were all very proactive. We wanted to do good new theater that pleased the audiences. Our goal was to be very popular, to do stuff that audiences flocked to without pandering to anyone. Sometimes we were right.
What lessons have you learned about showbiz?
There’s a line in a Mamet play: Tell the truth — it’s the easiest thing to remember. I’ve discovered that’s true.