LOS ANGELES — Jon Gries made his first appearance on screen — at 11 — in Charlton Heston’s “Will Penny.”
Over 50 years later, the actor, writer and producer is still going strong.
Famously known for his role as Uncle Rico in “Napoleon Dynamite,” Gries’ ability to play various roles has served him well in Hollywood, with multiple movies and TV shows to his credit.
He also played funny disc jockey Shawn McDermott on the popular television show “Martin.”
Gries is currently writing a script of his own, while being featured in “White Lotus” and “Dream Corp LLC.”
Zenger caught up with Jon Gries to discuss his career longevity.
Zenger: You’re doing guest commentary at baseball games, writing scripts,and staying busy. How are things going?
Gries: Good. I just got back from Sicily about three weeks ago. I was there for over three months working on a show. I was in Midland Lakes in Michigan throwing the first pitch at a Dodgers A-ball game, minor league team, Great Lakes Loons. I’m going to do another one over at Fort Myers at the end of this month. It’s fun. I love baseball, so that’s always a gas for me. They let me swing the bat … at least try.
Zenger: At this stage of your career, do you have a preference for movies or TV?
Gries: Honestly, I like them both because they’re usually shorter subjects. You come in, you do your job, and you go home. When I was doing “Dreamcorp LLC,” I loved doing that because it was local, and I was going back to work. I’d love to keep doing that show. We’re talking to people about the possibility of reviving it. It was an Adult Swim show that was sold to Hulu.
But when Adult Swim was sold, everything went into a holding pattern, which really wasn’t a holding pattern at all. It was like, “Yeah, you’re done.”
As a rule, I like to finish and move on. It’s like the circus, pull the tents down and disappear. Television now has changed — you have the quality of movies, and you have the short experience of movies. The show that I just did was seven episodes. It’s fun to do that kind of thing and build a character. TV shows are really great in the beginning, but then all of a sudden, they become aware of themselves, and they don’t have quite the intensity of content. They get watered down. You’re hoping to get the same buzz you got from the original, and invariably, it’s not going to happen.
Zenger: Do you still enjoy the writing and directing side of the entertainment industry or is the focus solely on acting?
Gries: If I had my way, I would mostly be writing and directing. I do have a film that it looks like they want to make it, and I’m going to direct it. I’m doing a rewrite right now. It’s a film that I’m excited about making. Fingers crossed that all the parts fall into place. It’s contingent upon the cast.
Zenger: Are there any roles or part of the entertainment industry that you haven’t done that you would like to?
Gries: I would love to either be in a Broadway play or direct a Broadway play. I’ve directed plays before. I think it would be a lot of fun. I don’t mean a Broadway musical. I’d like to do a classical piece of theater.
Zenger: You were noticeably absent from the “Martin” reunion show. Why?
Gries: I don’t know. It’s funny because I just had lunch with Garrett Morris, Bill Duke and a few friends the other day. There was the billboard above the restaurant for the reunion of “Martin.” I walked in, and I ask Garrett, “Did you see that billboard out there?” And he goes, “Which billboard?” And I’m like, “Come on, you didn’t see it?” And he says, “Oh yeah, I did.” He started laughing his ass off. At the same time, we only did two seasons. We didn’t stick with the whole show. They moved to a new format, from radio to television.
Honestly, if they had offered, and I was available, I probably would have done it. But I didn’t really enjoy doing the show. In one regard, I really did because I made some amazing friends. I loved Tommy Ford. I love Garrett Morris. He and I are still very close. Carl Anthony Payne, Tichina [Arnold] and Tisha [Campbell], we got along really well. Martin kept people at an arm’s distance.
And as much as I totally admire his talent and enjoyed working with him, we never got too close. There were no problems with the cast. It was mainly the politics around the show that I didn’t enjoy. The writers and some people involved made it a little more difficult for me.
Zenger: Has the new way of filming and digital takeover been a major adjustment?
Gries: It’s interesting. One of the hardest things is, there’s just so much of it. I’m still catching up on movies and television from seasons and years ago. At the same time, there are some hidden gems. The writing has become so much better. They are showing way more depth than television had with the Big Three and eventually the Big Four networks. Television then was kind of safe. It followed a format and formula. To me, the sooner this gets killed, the better.
There are more times than I care to count, I would read a script for a pilot and I went: “My God, how many times have I ready this exact script before?” It got beyond ridiculous. You felt like all the writers, show runners and network executives were all living in a repetition redux. They were recreating, regurgitating the exact same thing, but with slightly different circumstances.
Zenger: Fifty years is an awesome accomplishment. What have been your keys to longevity and consistency?
Gries: That’s a good question. If I could package it and sell it, I might be rich, but I don’t know. In a weird way, it requires luck. When I say luck, I mean preparation crossing paths with opportunity. You always have to be prepared. It’s like anything.
My girlfriend is a fashion designer. She works hard. When she’s not working for a company, she’s working on ideas, working for herself, working with friends. It’s the same kind of thing in so many areas. Music, you’re always working, whether you have a record deal or not. You’re always building toward something. That kind of persistence is key to understanding if you love what you do, then just keep doing it.
If it doesn’t work out… I can say, I have known so many ridiculously talented actors and actresses, or other artists, musicians, who just didn’t get their break. Through attrition, they gave up. In 50 years, one thing I can say: I’ve seen them come, and I’ve seen them go. There have been so many that I was surprised they went. And I went, “Why?”
I guess it comes down to, they’re smarter than me, and they can figure out something else to do. My brand of stubbornness is what’s kept me around. It’s like, OK, bad year, maybe next year will be a good year. “White Lotus” came along. I auditioned for that show. I was suffering from the “OG” COVID when I read for it. I had the original before the vaccination.
I had a friend come over and read from about 40 feet away, and I got the job. What a phenomenon that turned out to be! What an incredible stroke of dumb luck.
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