Tim Matheson: Gypsy Soul Finds a Home
Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: Krisztian Lonyai
Tim Matheson describes himself as a bit of a gypsy. Not the kind with a bandana on his head and a painted wagon for a home, but the acting and directing kind with a varied and long résumé of work, and a series of camper trailers for rest and rehearsal.
In 1958, at the age of ten, Matheson enrolled in an acting class and hasn’t looked back. Viewing life in a Zen sort of way, he has accepted roles along the way that have kept him not only acting, and now directing, for 50-plus years, but playing roles as varied as a gypsy wind.
“When you’re younger, you’re always looking for the next step—the next thing. I think you have to reinvent yourself every five to seven years. I started as a kid actor, and I did a lot of cartoon voice work. Then I seemed to be doing a lot of Westerns. I was in The Virginian and Bonanza. After the Westerns, I was the boy next door. I came to the point where I asked myself, what do I do now? So I took a lot of improv and comedy classes and started looking to mix it up. That’s when Animal House came along. I never really wanted to get tied down. I turned down work in that past 25 years, that would have been financially good choices, in order to stay independent … to stay learning. I like the idea of being sort of a gypsy. Living by my wits… being a freelance actor.”
As a young actor, Matheson played alongside an impressive list of Hollywood greats, including Henry Fonda, Lucille Ball, Debbie Reynolds, Dick Van Dyke, and Robert Young. Often labeled his breakout role, National Lampoon’s Animal House’s (1978) Otter Stratton took Matheson on an acting trajectory that includes movies, television, and stage roles, eventually leading to directing. In a place where you’re in one day and out the next, Matheson has established himself as a Hollywood “lifer,” maintaining friendships with other “lifers” along the way.
One of Matheson’s life-long acting friends is Gary Goetzman, former child star and now business partner and co-founder of Playtone Productions with Tom Hanks. Playing brothers in both Yours Mine and Ours and Divorce American Style, Matheson says, “He’s [Goetzman] the salt of the earth. So is Tom Hanks. That’s probably why they’re partners and why they get along so well, and why they’ve lasted so long together. They’re honorable, decent, wonderful people. They put their lives before their work.” It seems the great ones really make it look so easy… and Matheson is finding that balance as well.
Matheson’s gypsy heart seems to have found a home where he is settling in comfortably both as actor and director. Playing Dr. Brick Breeland in the CW’s comedic drama Hart of Dixie, set in Bluebell, Alabama, and described as small-town attitudes, big city drama and complicated love triangles, Matheson was offered the role after being invited to give his take on Brick Breeland by series director and executive producer Jason Ensler. “It was one of those things that fell right into place. I just felt so comfortable playing this guy,” Matheson said.
Initially hired as a recurring character, by the end of the first season, Matheson was invited to be a regular actor and shortly thereafter was invited to direct. Familiar with this natural evolution from actor to director, Matheson took a similar path on several television shows, including Burn Notice and White Collar.
Requiring the ability to be a skilled technician, maintain an artist’s vision, and have the patience and insight of a therapist, Matheson understands what is required of him when he is both actor and director on the same production, “I try to keep it separate. As a director you have to nurture everybody along. Everybody’s got their process. You want to make sure everybody is comfortable. Whatever technique they use to get into character, I support.”
Matheson appreciates how Hart of Dixie co-stars Rachel Bilson and Jaime King prepare in completely different ways for their performances and adapts as needed when directing the actors. Bilson plays New York City doctor Zoe Hart, the thorn in Brick’s side, while King plays Lemon Breeland, Brick’s Southern belle daughter.
“The first year Jaime had an acting coach with her and really worked religiously getting her character down and finding all the meat in the story. That works for her really well. Rachel comes at it 180 degrees different. She is casual and relaxed. She’s always very prepared. She just lets it happen in an organic way,” Matheson explained.
Being reminded of the depth of his career, Matheson describes a lesson he learned as a young actor from Clint Eastwood about directing and acting. “I asked him [Eastwood] if he wanted to rehearse. He said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘There’s something magic about it happening for the first time on camera.’ I thought that’s so true.
Rachel kind of has one foot in that school. She doesn’t like to over-work it and so trusts her instincts that she just lets it happen. She always surprises me. The same is true with Jaime. She always brings something new and exciting, something different. They’re both incredible performers, incredibly honest and real, incredibly funny, but with two different ways of approaching the same thing.”
In addition to being technician, artist, and therapist, Matheson brings a comedic sensibility to the set. “I tend to play things at a little bit of an increased pace—a little bit quicker,” he said. “Comedy is played best when it is just lightly quickened. Sometimes we’ll play in that direction, especially when things are getting a little complicated.”
While life may get complicated in Bluebell, Alabama, Matheson is appreciating this time in his life. His gypsy heart is enjoying reconnecting with Los Angeles where his home is only five minutes from the Warner Brothers set of “Hart of Dixie” and where he continues to evolve professionally. “I’m growing and learning as an actor and director in many different ways. This allows me to spend more time at home and to have more quality time with my grown-up children and my own friends, and get a deeper, more meaningful relationship with my cast and crew that I work with every day (my extended family). It’s something I hadn’t had before.”
Matheson speaks with a great deal of love about his three children. Cooper, his 20-year-old son is a junior at Columbia University in New York, studying engineering, which seems to produce a bit of awe in his father. “It’s a challenging, rewarding, invigorating, intellectual adventure for him,” Matheson said.
Describing his daughters, Emma, 25 and Molly, 27, with a lot of pride, both women have blazed impressive career paths. Emma doggedly pursued an internship with Learned Evolution, a social network marketing firm, and when the internship was completed, “They didn’t want her to leave. She stayed and is now head of their digital division,” Matheson said. Describing Molly’s path, he said, “She is the youngest agent at William Morris. She is bright, personable, and savvy. They promoted her to agent very quickly.”
In addition to practicing meditation, and recently taking up kickboxing and scuba diving, one of Matheson’s newer pleasures is travel, a pastime he hasn’t had much time for while building a career. He has the goal of spending every other Christmas with his three children on different adventures around the world. In 2011, Matheson, Cooper, Emma, and Molly spent 10 remarkable days in Havana, Cuba. This year they plan to go to Thailand. It seems that Matheson’s gypsy soul he is still being called to move, to learn and to connect in all directions.
In a town where the lines are often blurred between reality and fantasy, Matheson has found a way to settle his feet while allowing his heart to roam a bit—all the way to Bluebell, Alabama. “What I love about the show is the kinds of stories we do, where people, even at opposite ends of the spectrum can get along and, at the end of the day, learn to coexist,” Matheson said. “Sometimes that’s not the easiest thing to do. I think that’s what the show represents. We’re all nuts, so let’s not judge each other too harshly and allow everyone to have their eccentricities and get along.”