Billy Bob Thornton brings menace to FXX’s Fargo

Fargo, which premieres Tuesday night at 10 p.m. on FX and FXX Canada, is not Billy Bob Thornton’s first time at the TV rodeo.
That came many years ago, before the 58-year-old writer/director/actor won an Oscar and other accolades for playing a string of memorable screen characters in films such as Sling Blade, Bad Santa and Monster’s Ball.
“It was either a show called The Judge—one of those things like Divorce Court—or it was Matlock,” Thornton told me last January when I asked about his first TV job. Despite his loose cannon reputation, I had a very pleasant chat with the actor at the Fox Network press tour party in Pasadena.
On The Judge, “I was the accused. I was a kidnapper,” he recalls.
He was hired in 1987 to shoot one scene on a Matlock episode. Years later, he got a phone call from Andy Griffith congratulating him on his Oscar nomination for Sling Blade. “I said, ‘I met you before, I did a Matlock,'” Thornton told Griffith. When the TV legend asked which episode, Thornton told him it was the one titled, The Photographer. (According to IMDb, he played a pawnshop clerk.)
“Oh–I hated that episode,” said Griffith.
Thornton was also a regular on the 1992-95 sitcom Hearts Afire, which starred John Ritter and Markie Post. Set in the rural South, the series was created by Linda Bloodworth Thomason and also featured Conchata Ferrell and Ed Asner.
“When I was coming up in the ‘80s, if you did television, that means that there was something wrong,” said Thornton. “Now if you do television, it means something’s right.”
He cited Matthew McCaunaghey in True Detective as proof the talent pool is tipping TV’s way. “They come after us now–television is coming after film actors.”
Fargo, inspired by the Coen brothers film from the early ’90s, is a 10 episode anthology series. Once this season is done, a whole new cast will tackle a second season. True Detective, which had McConaughey for eight episodes, was built on a similar model.
“When this one was offered to me, I sad, ‘Ten episodes, the Coen brothers, it feels like a ten episode movie—why wouldn’t you do that?'”
Well, maybe the weather for one thing. Fargo, which co-stars Colin Hanks, Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit”), Bob Odenkirk and Kate Walsh, shot in Calgary over the winter and Thornton says it was bloody cold.
Thornton did thaw out long enough to become a CFL fan. Attending a Stampeders game, he was blown away by the sight of Green Rider fans in the buff wearing watermelons on their heads.
On his transition to TV, Thornton said the usual thing certain film actors have been saying lately. That he’s “not the guy who stars in Spider-man and things” or a “25-year-old model who’s a vampire.” Benjamin Bratt said virtually the same thing last month on London on the set of 24: Live Another Day--another limited run series, with 12 episodes taking the place of the old 24-episode order.
“I tend not to do broad comedies,” added Thornton. “Those are the only three things you can do [in big budget Hollywood movies these days]. That’s sad in a lot of ways.”
Thornton says he doesn’t watch a lot of series TV–he mainly watches sports–but had seen The Wire, which he views as a game changer.
When he was offered the part of Lorne Malvo–a devilish stranger in town–on Fargo, he felt he better catch up with all the buzz TV shows he’d heard about.
“Saw Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Sopranos, Homeland…I could tell it’s a whole different world now,” he says.

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