Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Welcome Back, Dan Fielding

“Night Court” is back and so is John Larroquette as Dan Fielding, the character that won him a ton of Emmys in the first iteration.

In 1985, John Larroquette won the Emmy for best supporting actor for his work in “Night Court.” Larroquette, a New Orleans native with a double bass voice and a 6-foot-4 frame, played Dan Fielding, the smarmy prosecutor assigned to the graveyard shift at a Manhattan municipal court. (Here is Entertainment Weekly’s appreciation: “Rarely has horny smugness been so convincingly portrayed.”)

Larroquette won again in 1986. And in 1987 and 1988. Then he declined to be considered for further awards.

“I didn’t want to outstay my welcome,” he said on a recent video call, from the study of his home in Portland, Ore., a black-and-white diptych of the playwright Samuel Beckett behind him. (Larroquette collects rare books, particularly Beckett first editions.) He had taken the character, he felt, to the limits of what the network would allow. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences should give someone else a chance.

“It was a high-class problem, my God,” he said.

“Night Court,” an affable workplace comedy with a rich vein of absurdism, ran from 1984 to 1992 as part of NBC’s vaunted Thursday night bloc. Enjoying the stability and the camaraderie, Larroquette put in the hours until the end. But when the network offered him a spin off, he declined. His nine seasons as Dan had defined his professional life; he wanted to try other people on for size.

“I thought, I’ve done this for a long time,” he said. “If I let him die his natural death, maybe I can do another character elsewhere.”

But Dan Fielding didn’t die. On Tuesday on NBC, he approaches the “Night Court” bench once more. In the show’s reboot, a multicamera passion project for Melissa Rauch (“The Big Bang Theory”), Larroquette reprises his role — bearded, grayer, less able to leap a courtroom’s railing in a single bound.

[…]

On the original show, Larroquette had a talent for going big without ever seeming to show the strain. Marsha Warfield, who joined “Night Court” as the bailiff Roz in its fourth season, remembered his effortlessness, no matter how absurd the jokes. “He was fully committed to the insanity and all of the gags and things,” she said. “He made it look easy.” (How absurd was the original? “We had an episode where a ventriloquist’s dummy committed suicide,” Larroquette said. “Not the ventriloquist, but the doll.”)

While making this new version, Rauch noticed a similar facility. “It’s almost like watching a jazz musician riffing,” Rauch said, describing a scene in which Larroquette had to deliver his lines while shooting backward in a swivel chair. “He’s never not funny.”

But this reboot had gravitas, for Larroquette at least. Almost every major member of the core cast has died — Anderson in 2018, Markie Post and Charlie Robinson in 2021. While filming on a set that mixed pieces from the original production with recreations, he said, he sometimes would look over and see his old castmates as they had been.

“So it was sad,” Larroquette said. “It was. It hurt.”

Larroquette won’t do another nine seasons on this new “Night Court.” But revisiting the show seems to have helped him to accept the progress of his career and to acknowledge the original as a high point. Though a serious man, he has accepted that he is best loved and best remembered for portraying a pervy fathead. He joked that he looked forward to “Entertainment Tonight” setting his obituary to a slowed down version of the “Night Court” theme.

He is, he said, a clown, which he meant both in the Beckettian sense, a witness to the absurdities of life, and in the red nose one. The idea of going out the way he came in, making jokes about men arrested for lewd conduct, had started to feel pretty good.

“I was born a clown,” he said. “It was easier to make people laugh, and usually they wouldn’t beat you up if they were laughing. I’ve tried to live by that, just trying to make people laugh. You can’t think of your troubles if you’re laughing.”

“Night Court” was must-see TV for me and Allen.

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