• U.S.

SECOND BANANA ON TOP

5 minute read
John Elson

Not many moons ago, Tom Arnold’s Hollywood career was so deep in the toilet you could hear the water running in his hometown of Ottumwa, Iowa. It was bad enough that Roseanne, his soon-to-be ex, had fired him as executive producer of her eponymous ABC-TV hit series. Then, after she and he had grabbed five years of scandal-sheet headlines as a white-trash version of Taylor and Burton, Roseanne had filed for divorce, badmouthing Arnold as a no-talent wife beater, a charge he denied. And thanks to the successive failure of two dud TV sitcoms, The Jackie Thomas Show and Tom, he had dropped to Tinseltown’s F list. He might have had a better chance of getting a waiter’s job at Spago than snaring a reservation there for brunch.

Then luck struck. Director James Cameron cast him in what could have been a no-impact supporting role in True Lies. Thanks in part to his sly, scene-stealing comic turn as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s loud, loutish best friend, the movie was boffo in 1994 ($146 million gross). Arnold instantly became one of filmdom’s most wanted second bananas–a kind of low-rent Tony Randall for the age of Beavis.

Arnold cloned his good-buddy shtik for one of this summer’s emerging hits, Nine Months, starring Hugh Grant. Next up on screen this fall is Big Bully, a dark comedy co-starring Rick Moranis. Down the line is his dream job: Arnold playing Ralph Kramden, created by his boyhood hero Jackie Gleason, in an updated big-screen version of The Honeymooners.

“I’m really happy and grateful,” says Arnold, resting in his trailer between scene changes on the set of The Stupids, which is currently filming in Toronto. As well he might be. On July 22, Arnold, 36, married Julie Champnella, a 22-year-old senior at CalState-Northridge. And with his asking price soaring to $4 million a picture, Arnold can easily afford the sprawling, Mediterranean-style home on 20 acres in the Agoura Hills section of Los Angeles that has just become the new couple’s new abode.

Not bad for a wise-ass roughneck from a broken home–his mother was a seven-times-married alcoholic–whose teen years were, to say the least, troubled. He was into drinks and drugs, worked days at the local Hormel meat-packing plant and fitfully attended night school. He did some stand-up at the Student Union while attending the University of Iowa and after two years dropped out to pursue a career in comedy.

In 1983, while bartending in Minneapolis, he opened the show for a visiting comic named Roseanne Barr. She needed jokes, and he wrote enough that worked, so she kept asking. Five years later, she invited him to move to Los Angeles to provide material for her new TV series and play an occasional supporting role. The professional rapport got personal, but Roseanne refused to marry Tom until he checked into rehab to break a growing, even life-threatening dependency on alcohol and cocaine.

Then came the wild years of shock schlock that included Tom and Roseanne’s mooning a stadium of baseball fans before a World Series game and announcing a joint “marriage” to their nubile young assistant. Meanwhile, Tom was throwing his considerable bulk around the Roseanne set, improving the show, by many accounts, but making enemies. “It was an odd situation,” he says now. “I was the boyfriend, then I was the fiance, then I was the husband. People just will not respect that.”

Arnold’s people and hers are still haggling over a financial settlement (“It’s close to being worked out,” he says). There is a blurry smudge on his chest that was once the site of a Roseanne tattoo (“Two more laser treatments and this is gone”). Their marriage, he says, “was a learning experience for me. There were mistakes I made that I don’t plan to make in my second marriage.”

On the set, fellow actors attest that he is relaxed and totally pro these days. “He’s an incredibly hard worker,” says Nine Months’ director Chris Columbus, who was impressed that Arnold could hold his own in improvising bits with Grant and Robin Williams for the film’s hospital delivery-room scene. But in interviews he is constantly squirming, endlessly restless. He has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Ritalin might help control the symptoms, but he won’t take the medicine, on the (unproven) theory that it could lead back to his drug addiction.

Arnold’s nervousness may have another source: his sense that show-biz careers wane more easily than they wax. “Good things don’t always last,” he says. “Even great stars like Schwarzenegger have had some very rough spots in their lives and their careers.” The stand-up comic who went from Mr. Roseanne to Mr. Who? has more reason than most to heed that lesson–even from the top of the heap.

–Reported by Andrea Sachs/Toronto

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