Playing Second Fiddle to TV Wife Roseanne Barr, Big John Goodman Finally Gets a Taste of Fame

updated 11/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

John Goodman isn't really the Big Star type. Take his tiny new Hollywood apartment. Sparsely furnished in basic bachelor drab, it has no hot tub, no screening room and no Porsche in the driveway. It does, however, have a hummingbird feeder on the porch, and Goodman gets a big kick out of that. "Every once in a while I'll leave some roast beef out there for them," he says. "Or some ribs. They love that."

The lonely guy's life, right? Things are pretty much the same at the pad he keeps in the inelegant Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan. His bathroom is in the hall, his bathtub is in the kitchen, and he used to have bugs everywhere. "It's kinda like a hunting lodge," he says, "in that you go there once in a while and open the windows to let the mustiness out. But it's got cable and a great brick view."

All right, despite this dangerous tendency toward bicoastalism, in nearly every other way Goodman, 36, a beefy bear of a man dubbed "Big John" by his friends, is more like your average Joe than like Joe Celebrity. Which probably explains why he is so good at what he does: playing regular guys. He was Huck Finn's drunken "Pap" in the 1985 Broadway musical Big River, a lonely Texas guy searching for a wife in 1986's True Stories and a bumbling baby-thief in 1987's Raising Arizona. The critics loved him in all three. At the moment movie audiences can see him playing Sally Field's churlish insurance-salesman husband in Punchline and Dennis Quaid's college football buddy in Everybody's Ail-American. And this fall ABC-TV is providing him with his steadiest—and highest-profile—regular-guy role to date: Dan Conner, the intermittently employed contractor husband in Roseanne Barr's new hit sitcom, Roseanne. With his shlumpy 6'2" body and a face that looks like one of Roseanne's unmade beds, Goodman is stardom-bound, the perfect hero for the Age of Cocooning, Everyman Triumphant.

It's a fact he tries not to think about. "I'm apprehensive about fame," he says, sitting in his Barcalounger. "I've known people whom it bothers a great deal, and I'm kind of a shy person. Lately people are starting to put my face with my name, instead of thinking I'm either somebody they went to high school with or did time with."

Goodman has no qualms, though, about the role that has transformed him from character actor into leading man. "I like Dan Conner," he says. "He's like a lot of guys I know. In the wintertime they don't work because construction is sporadic. I don't want to have to stand for the American workingman, but if this guy's gonna be one, I'd rather have him be semi-intelligent, not a dumb beast who sucks down beer all day." Far from it. Goodman's Dan is warm and witty, the ideal mate and verbal sparring partner for the wisecracking Roseanne. Goodman says he and Barr play so well off one another because the real-life chemistry is right. "We got along right off the bat," he says. "We made each other laugh. That's one of the keys to the characters: They really adore each other." Barr returns the compliment, and tops it. "I've learned a lot from John, and he's a lot of fun," she says. "And I think he's definitely sexy."

Goodman roars at that one. Back home in Missouri, it seems, few people were bowled over by his animal magnetism. What they did notice was his comedic skill. The second child of three born to Leslie Goodman, a St. Louis postal worker, and his wife, Virginia, a drugstore saleslady, John had developed a slew of celebrity imitations by the time he was in the seventh grade. (Gomer Pyle was one of his most successful.) He didn't begin a serious pursuit of acting until he reached Southwest Missouri State University, from which he was nearly bounced for frat-boy pranks and skipping classes. ("They pick on you for stuff like that," he says in mock indignation. "I still get nightmares about college. 'Wait a minute—I got a test?' ") He discovered theater after they wouldn't let him play football (he hadn't taken his SATs) and was instantly hooked. After graduating in 1975, he headed for the footlights of New York.

Instant discombobulation. "Coming from the Midwest," he says, "New York was like stepping into a Waring Blendor set for puree or chop." He managed to stay in one piece and began landing off-off-Broadway parts and commercials. "I was working constantly and I was fairly comfortable," he says. "I never thought of making it, or any big break."

And so, of course, he got one. He couldn't read music and only danced, he says, "at gunpoint, though I used to try. People told me I should take tap lessons, but all I had were cowboy boots, so I whaled away in those." Somehow he won a breakthrough part in Big River. After that came the movie deals and then, last summer, the chance to audition for Roseanne. Goodman was the first and only actor to read with Barr. Says Caryn Mandabach, president of the show's production company: "When I introduced them, Roseanne's face lit up. Together they gave off the feeling that they'd been married for 15 years. Also, I thought he was sexy."

There's that word again. Women just seem to react to Goodman that way. Says Punchline co-star Sally Field: "John is a great big sexy man with the soul of a puppy." But romance, curiously enough, is the one area of Goodman's life that hasn't quite come together. He had a five-year relationship that ended in 1977 and has "nothing serious" happening right now, though he dates a few people. "Marriage is just something that hasn't happened yet," he says. "It's nothing I've pursued or tried to avoid. But any time you're in a relationship, wedding ring or no, there's still friction. I'm married on TV, so what the heck."

Off TV, he is enjoying bachelorhood. He spends his free time socializing with pals like Bruce Willis ("I love 'im"), Dennis Quaid and the high school friend with whom he temporarily shares his Los Angeles apartment, aspiring actor Ken Kells. And he makes frequent trips back to the old St. Louis neighborhood, showing up for major events like the Labor Day Picnic or simply to toss down some beers with his buddies from ninth grade. "He's down to earth, the same as he was back in school," says his younger sister, Betty Horvath. Goodman intends to stay that way. This fame thing, after all, is something a regular guy doesn't count on. "Oh, I've got that straight," he says. "I've been knocking around for a few years, and I know the score by now. I just kick back, put my dough away and enjoy it, one day at a time."

—Kim Hubbard, and Lois Armstrong in Los Angeles

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