With scripts by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau and direction from Robert Altman, the 1988 cable mini-series, Tanner ’88, stands among the highlights of modern television, a political series with undisguised politics, floating between Trudeau’s left-liberalism and Altman’s left-anarchism. The telling of the stories proved even more unusual: cluttered, unfocussed frames of characters all speaking at the same time. Altman’s contrapuntal orchestration of his ensembles, a signature of his feature films, was transferred intact to television.
The mini-story? Jack Tanner, liberal congressman from Michigan, ran for President in the 1988 Democratic Primary, challenging Jesse Jackson and Mike Dukakis. As the primaries continued, Tanner felt increasingly alienated, a private-minded intellectual troubled by the sound-byte persona he was forced to construct. He realized ultimately that he lacked the fire in the belly of a real presidential campaigner. Among the disappointed: his radical-minded daughter, Alex, who tried to pull his campaign to the activist left.
It’s 2004, and, happily, Tanner is back, with Altman and Trudeau in the trenches for four newly-made half hours, Tanner on Tanner, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on the Sundance Channel starting October 5. The bad news: Tanner (Michael Murphy) isn’t in the race this time, watching the Democratic campaign from the sideline. The new mini-series is dominated by the exploits of his now-thirtyish daughter, Alex (Cynthia Nixon), a radical indie filmmaker.
Why the switch? Nixon, who played Alex in 1988, is now a major acting star because of Sex and the City. Murphy, who headlined as Tanner in 1988, is back where he’s been, reliably and comfortably, for forty years, as the co-star par excellence. He’s the superb actor whom everyone recognizes by face but can’t quite place. You know, the Kennedyesque guy who played the advance man in Altman’s Nashville, Woody Allen’s pal in Manhattan, Jill Clayburgh’s husband in An Unmarried Woman.
Here’s a typical off-screen happening for the relaxed, ultra-friendly Murphy, which he told me over lunch at this September’s Toronto Film Festival. Earlier at the Fest, he’d taken a limousine with the other actors in John Sayles’s Silver City, heading to a theatre for the premiere. "I got out of the car, people were looking through me," he said. When publicists finally realized he was in the movie, Murphy was ordered to get back in the limousine and exit a second time, so photographers could take his picture! "I’m in this fun position where people don’t really know who I am," he chuckled. "It’s a good look at life. You get a perspective."
Robert Altman knows. He’s cast Murphy in seven films, besides the Tanner roles. "I was right out of the University of Arizona," Murphy recalled, "and a friend said, ‘Go to Bob. He’s using young guys for this army thing.’" It was the World War-II TV series, Combat. He and Altman chatted, and Altman said, "Yeah, we’ll do something together." Without even an audition, Murphy was placed in Combat uniform. "Bob took me under his wing." Murphy said. "He told me, ‘You’re never going to be a movie star. But you’ll do some interesting things.’ Bob was maybe 35 years old when we met. He’d never play it safe. He has amazing fortitude and guts." Murphy has seen Altman’s temper on display, but never towards him. "I may be the only person [in that category], and I was even hanging around him in his bad drinking days. I adore the guy. If you’re getting married, divorced, or someone dies, you want to talk to him about it. He’s so strong, sees the big picture. An extraordinary man."
Could Murphy discuss his better-known non-Altman roles? "The husband in An Unmarried Woman was maybe the first of the whining yuppies, and that movie was the first chick flick. In Manhattan, I was that guy cheating on his wife. In The Year of Living Dangerously, I was another scumbag white man, though in Australia. Sleazoids. I think Tanner bailed me out. He’s a nice guy. Ineffectual, but nice.
"For the new Tanner, they weren’t going to run me again. Garry didn’t want that. It would have entailed going on the campaign trail, a tough job now for Bob. But we had an obligation to the first batch of Tanners. You do a crappy rerun, you denigrate what you’ve done. Is the new series saying ‘Vote for Kerry’? Garry, Bob, I too, we’re all ‘pinko commies,’ but Bob is showing the nastiness behind all campaigns. I don’t think it’s a polemic. In Bob’s case: you vote for the Democrat, but be careful of what you ask for. Bob is very cynical."
(Boston Phoenix, October, 2004)