The Hayseed Sage on Newhart, William Sanderson Leads a Life That Is Anything but Bucolic

updated 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

He's the idiot savant of laid-back Vermont. That is the sum and substance of Larry, one of the three hayseed brothers—Larry, Darryl and Darryl—who drop into Newhart's New England inn each week to dispense bumpkin wisdom, and the only one of the trio who speaks. Played by William Sanderson with the glazed-over gaze of a fellow who's spent a longish time in the cold woods, Larry is a study in almost terminal mellow.

Contrast this, if you will, with Sanderson at work on the show's set, frustrated as he repeatedly stumbles over a difficult line. The tension about him is so thick you want to step outside and get air. The crew is silent, anxious. He's ready to erupt. "Bill's the most intense person I've ever worked with," says Bob Newhart, the CBS sitcom's star. "I tell him, 'Don't put so much pressure on yourself. You're hurting yourself.' "

To little avail. Sanderson, 40, says he's been dogged all his life by a "demon"—his own agonizing insecurity. "I'm doing what I want, but I'm still frightened as hell," says the jumpy actor, frequently fighting off tears throughout the interview. "You could say I'm doing what Tennessee Williams recommended—I'm following my frightened heart."

He shouldn't be frightened now. Sanderson is in his fourth successful season on Newhart, and talk of a spin-off for his character abounds. A test case is the episode airing this Monday (March 14), described by Newhart's producers as the most ambitious show they've ever done. Larry dreams he's Johnny Carson, and for most of the episode he hosts The Tonight Show, interviewing Emma Samms and zoo lady Joan Embery while the brothers Darryl appear as a silent Ed McMahon and a muted Doc Severinsen.

Sounds promising, Bill, so why all the angst? Sanderson, his long straight hair tied back under a bandanna, bites off a wad of tobacco (like the good ole boy he plays in his current A&W Root Beer commercial) and ticks off the sore points in his biography. Born in Memphis, the second of Milton and Elizabeth Sanderson's two sons, William was raised in what he calls "a volatile household." His father's temper, says Sanderson, contributed to his profound fear of failure.

While earning a law degree at Memphis State, he was diverted by the drama department, and after graduating he moved to New York, then Los Angeles, to act. His first marriage, which produced son Andrew, now 7, was brief. Sanderson was cast in a few low-budget films, usually as a "rural crazy," but making a living was a problem. Sanderson was at turns bartender, longshoreman, 7-Eleven clerk—and destitute. "There were times I couldn't afford corn on the cob," he says. "I only got really discouraged once, though. I got fired from a big film, and I almost ran my car into an embankment. My mother said, 'Maybe you weren't meant to play another wife beater.' It was a mean role. But a quint-essential mean role."

His luck started to change in 1980. He delivered a critically acclaimed performance as Loretta Lynn's chicken-thieving moonshiner uncle in Coal Miner's Daughter, then earned more praise as a lonely engineer in 1982's Blade Runner. Newhart started the same year, establishing Larry, Darryl (Tony Papenfuss) and Darryl (John Voldstad) as instant cult favorites and giving Sanderson "the only security I've ever known."

Not that it's brought much peace to his personal life. Both he and Aprile, 23, a bartender at Ed Debevic's restaurant, admit that their three-year marriage is stormy. "Sometimes the strength of his emotion doesn't get left on the set," says Aprile, who shares a one-bedroom condo in West Hollywood with Bill.

Sanderson acknowledges that acting "gets me wound up, wired and crazy." So why does he keep doing it? One of his TV brothers, Tony Papenfuss, thinks he knows. "Bill is like a surgeon," he says. "He can't stand the sight of blood, but he loves the work."

—By Joyce Wadler, with Vicki Sheff in Los Angeles

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