He’s been Dan Conner. Walter Sobchak. James P. “Sulley” Sullivan. And now acclaimed actor John Goodman holds an honorary doctorate from his alma mater.
John Goodman, in person, is less goofy than super-dad Dan Conner from “Roseanne.” He’s not as imposing (or weapons-happy, thankfully) as Walter Sobchak from “The Big Lebowski,” Gale Snoats from “Raising Arizona,” or Big Dan from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” He’s far more self-effacing than Sulley from “Monsters, Inc.”
In fact, the man known for creating big personalities as one of this generation’s best character actors was humble and soft-spoken during a visit to his alma mater.
John Goodman, a native of Affton, Mo., came to Missouri State in the 1970s to play football. An injury cut his sports career short.
“That was the bad news,” said Missouri State President Clif Smart. “The good news for all of us was that he changed his major to drama.”
Goodman, a 1975 graduate, was on campus Aug. 18 to accept an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at the New Student Convocation. He also held a meet-and-greet lunch and a Q&A with dozens of theatre and dance students.
At convocation, Smart introduced him as an actor with “a great work ethic and incredible range of roles.”
But he’s about more than fame, Smart said.
“We honor John today not only for his acting career but for his willingness to use his celebrity status to help others. He has appeared in public service announcements about several important causes, including the oil spill near his home in New Orleans. Maybe most notably, he has been one of the leading voices and major contributors to rebuilding New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.”
Goodman has also supported the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (he has a cocker spaniel and a golden retriever) and has contributed to athletics and theatre programs at MSU and his high school alma mater.
Goodman’s convocation speech was candid, encouraging and funny.
Among his first words: “Does this doctorate make my butt look fat?”
But he quickly became introspective.
“My fellow Bears, faculty members, leaders — thank you. That’s what I came here for. I wanted to say thank you because I owe this school so very much. Huh, I’m a big-shot doctor. I don’t feel like a big shot. I’m more scared right now than I was when I came down here in 1971.”
That year, he loaded up his buddy’s 1957 Chevy clunker and they “barreled down (Route) 66 from St. Louis.”
After the injury his first semester that kept him off the football field, “I kind of spun my wheels. Didn’t look good. … I didn’t know how lucky I was because I was in the right place.”
The next semester, he was cast in a small role in a play.
“I was smitten. The next year, I lost myself in a passion that I didn’t know I had. And I was so fortunate to find that passion here, where there were great, caring people to teach and guide me, to open doors for me, to unlock secrets and guide me to open my eyes and ears and observe life, to awaken and really have an honest look about what was going on around me so I could apply it to my craft, and, later, my life.
“And I’m so very grateful for the friends that I made at this school. Friendships that were forged through endless hours of rehearsals, study and work — except it really didn’t feel like hard work because we were having so much fun.”
Goodman didn’t shy away from discussing the difficulty of making it as an actor.
“When I went to New York City, all I wanted in the world was to be able to make a living at what I love to do. That’s not asking much, is it?”
He came to realize “that’s the lottery, man! That’s the Powerball. That’s asking for everything.”
He also didn’t hesitate to talk about the problems, such as alcoholism, that followed on the heels of his success.
“I got what I wanted. And it wasn’t good enough. I wanted more. I wanted more. And it was about this time that my brain started to try to kill me. My brain and I had never gotten along. … And what my brain has done to me is better documented elsewhere, and it’s subject to a whole different kind of meeting than we’re having here.”
He described drinking to fill a hole that could not be filled, feed a hunger that could not be sated.
“Maybe that’s because I had been given so very much and it felt like it came too easy. It doesn’t really matter what happened. But it was comfort and a relief to face that hunger for what it was, and know that it could never be fed, and to realize how much easier life was to be grateful — to say thank you for what I already had.”
He got sober in 2007 and has been practicing gratitude ever since.
“Be thankful for the small blessings we are given every day. Be grateful for the tender mercies that we are shown.”
He ended as he began, again urging the students to appreciate each day and each positive person in their lives.
“I wish you everything. I wish you fun. I wish you love with each other. And I wish you the future. And thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”