Actor and director Tim Matheson is probably best remembered as Otter in National Lampoon's frat boy flick "Animal House" in 1978. He had a long career in television before his big screen success, appearing in "Bonanza," "The Virginian," "My Three Sons," "Leave It to Beaver" and later "The West Wing," to name a few. He has honed his craft well, and at 64 he continues to love his work. He currently stars on The CW's "Hart of Dixie" and sometimes directs the show. It's about a transplanted New York doctor, played by Rachel Bilson, who takes over a medical practice in Bluebell, Ala. The season premiere is 8 p.m. Oct. 2. He has been married twice and has three children.
How did your life change after you were in "Animal House"?
Well, it was like my first sort of adult role. First opportunity to be in a comedy and it was a turning point I guess from the early part of my career, which was like old Hollywood, you know, with Lucy and Bob Hope, sort of the old studio way. I was under contract and doing a lot of TV. "Animal House" was sort of the first real contemporary, youthful voice of the baby boom generation. It spoke to that audience and it spoke to that part of me which was saying out with the old, in with the new.
Was the atmosphere as loose on the set as it was on film?
Yes it was within the context that it's still a movie and everybody has to know their lines. There was a lot of goofing around and partying and hijinks and fun. I didn't partake in much of it because I had a lot of dialogue. As an actor you still have to be very responsible. But it was loose. [Director] John Landis kept a very loose spirit on the set, which was sort of anarchic anyway, because the movie was sort of about anarchy and revolution. Universal said you can only print one take, so John would never cut. He would just say, "Keep rolling, keep rolling. Go in there and do it again." To get around the rules you just sort of bend them a little bit.
Where do you find you are most creative? Is it directing or acting?
You know, they are such different things. They are such different sides of the brain. Acting requires emotional flexibility and demands, and directing is more cerebral and managerial and a tactical kind of thing. How do you try and finesse working the crew and politically so they are two different skill sets. With "Hart of Dixie" it's such a treat to be able to do both and not have to isolate them and have to make a choice. It's kind of the best of both worlds.
Do you find that difficult at all to keep switching hats?
It can be [laughing]. When I'm in a scene I can't really look at it and be objective, but I worked with two guys who did it better than most. Hopefully I picked up some stuff from them. You know, I did a "Magnum Force" with Clint [Eastwood] early on. Clint Eastwood is sort of John Wayne and John Ford rolled into one. Before that I did the last season of "Bonanza" when I was a kid. I got to work with Michael Landon, who was writing, directing and starring. The sort of ease he did that with was monumental.
Tim, is that when you thought you wanted to get into directing?
You know what? I actually started [with] directing. I was directing as a kid in movies, and that was always my strongest interest. When I was under contract at Universal I conned an editing room out of them and spent my money to rent a camera and shoot film and make some movies. I actually applied to [a performing arts school in California] when it first opened up to try and get in their film program. But I was rejected [laughing]. My grades probably weren't good enough. I mean, I was working so much as an actor in high school I really didn't focus on my grades that much.
How do you think the audience experience has changed from when you started out in the "Leave It to Beaver" days?
That's an interesting question. I think with social media, film which you put it out there and nothing came back, maybe a review here or there, now we can have more of the traditional feedback from Twitter and Facebook, blogs, chat rooms about how people like this character in that situation and this and that, on "Hart of Dixie" or whatever show. I think that is beneficial although I don't tend to dwell on those because I have to trust my gut about what I like is going to work. I have to trust my instincts that if I tell a story well, in a truthful manner and you know what the tone of it is and the author's intentions are and you deliver that, the audience will be there.
Do you think audiences want to be in control?
I think they want to be entertained and they want to be involved. There are always people who say, "Let the audience choose if this character does this or that." I don't think that quite works. The crass mercenaries of the corporate world who say, "Let's get them involved and maybe if they are more involved they can choose A, B or C ending and it will work better" -- I don't think so. You tell your story and you bet your chips on that.
What about your own expectations since you embarked on this career? Have they been met, exceeded? Have they changed?
I'm just so lucky to have found my calling at such an early age. There have been days, moments, years when things didn't go the way I thought they would. You know, the phone rings and the call takes you in another direction. What you didn't know would work out, worked out. There was a period of time where it wasn't what you thought it would be, but I've been doing this like 50 years, and I am so excited to get up every day and go and do it again. It's really a thrill to be able to say that and do that.
What were your expectations when you were a young guy starting out?
I think I came to this ... my parents were going through a divorce and I used to go spend all weekend at the movies to get away from it all. There was something about the sameness of the movies. It was a place for me to go to express my emotions, you know, and let it out. Then when I started acting I had a lot of emotions inside of me and it was a place for me to go and let it out. It was therapy, you know? So early on it was a place I felt safe and comfortable. In all my years in Hollywood, no one has ever made an inappropriate approach to me. No one has ever touched me in any inappropriate way. Which I can't say about, the same as, I was molested at a church. I was a kid in the sixth grade. I can't say there's any safer place than my experience in this town and the creative community. [Acting] is where I felt comfortable and trusting and it's been a blessing in that regard.
So because you were molested as a young kid, did this whole Jerry Sandusky thing hit you hard?
Oh, yeah, hang the guy. Hang him. Joe Paterno really failed the big test. I don't care what else he did, he failed. You have to protect the kids. You always protect the kids. You protect the innocence you know. Nothing is more important than that. I don't care what you are doing. It's shameful, just shameful.
What about the superficial side of acting? Do you think vanity is an inevitable part of an actor's life?
It can be because part of what you project, your look, your wardrobe, the way you comb your hair, the way you do those things is part of your work, so yes. For me I think it's healthier to look at it as the character rather than the person. But I'm sure I've fallen prey to vanity [laughing].
And have you ever used your acting skill off the set?
Yes, yes. I remember it helped me deal with business situations in real life. Usually you have agents and people who do that, but I remember an early negotiation with Universal where they were stonewalling me in an unfair way. I went into an executive's office with my agent, who was just mute. I was 18 or 19. I took over the meeting. I passionately pled my case about why I should get this extra money. At the end of the meeting the guy said all right, all right. So yes I did use acting. It's usually the other way around -- you simulate real life to achieve acting.