Pilot Error: Ron White Reflects on ‘Señor White’ and Takes Us Through ’12 Miles of Bad Road’

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Photo courtesy of TaterSalad.com
Photo courtesy of TaterSalad.com

There’s a certain tendency for those who’ve never taken the time to listen to the comedians from the so-called Blue Collar Comedy Tour to presume that it’s just a bunch of good ol’ boys indulging in lowbrow corn-pone comedy, but…well, okay, Larry the Cable Guy definitely resembles that remark (as someone who once had to review Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, I can unfortunately testify to this fact), and I can see why you might be tempted to lump Jeff Foxworthy into that category as well. Truthfully, though, Foxworthy’s stuff, while it features a Southern bent, is often just about family matters that anyone who’s married and/or with children can appreciate, and the same goes for Bill Engvall as well, which is no doubt why both gentlemen eventually ended up getting their own sitcoms. Indeed, all three of the aforementioned comedians have managed to diversify into other areas of the entertainment business, with Larry getting his own show on the Travel Channel (Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy), Foxworthy serving as host of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? and Engvall, God help him, doing time on Dancing with the Stars.

Notably absent from this list of Blue Collar comedians: Ron White.

While his absence is notable, it’s not entirely surprising if you’ve ever heard White’s act. For my money, he’s the single funniest guy in the bunch, but he’s, uh, not exactly what you’d call a warm and fuzzy type. As such, he’s ended up sending way more time on the stage than he has in front of the camera…and, frankly, that doesn’t really bother him a hell of a lot. With that said, however, it’s not like he didn’t try to take a shot at going the same route as his Blue Collar brethren, which is why, when I talked to White earlier this week for The Virginian-Pilot in conjunction with an upcoming appearance in my neck of the woods (Norfolk, VA), I couldn’t help but ask him about a couple of TV projects that didn’t end up panning out for him.

White actually took a couple of stabs at getting his own show. First, there was FOX’s Señor White, which was created for the 2003-2004 pilot season and was to have found Ron and his TV girlfriend, played by Melinda McGraw, as owners of a pottery factory in Mexico, with Brent Sexton – late of The Killing and, lest we forget, NBC’s Ironside – as Ron’s buddy Tater. Then, during the 2004-2005 pilot season, Bruce Helford took a shot at putting together a series for White, which, according to TheFutonCritic.com, would’ve featured him as “a hard-drinking beach-bum kind of guy who suddenly finds himself raising two 12-year-old boys on his own.” Not long after that, there were apparently even some discussions with TBS about trying an animated Ron White series. (I don’t know what the hell that would’ve been like, but I’d’ve damned sure tuned in to find out.) Most recently, it looked like White was on the verge of pulling a sitcom for the USA Network, of all places, but that one – Driven, about an unemployed dude in Texas who starts his own limo business – was a no-go, too. What’s most interesting about that one, though, is that it was penned by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who was behind another of White’s TV projects that never achieved lift-off: HBO’s 12 Miles of Bad Road.

I didn’t get a chance to hit all of these topics, unfortunately, but I did spend enough time talking with White to find out that, although he still thinks highly of a couple of these projects, he’s still just fine with living the stand-up life.

Photo courtesy of TaterSalad.com
Photo courtesy of TaterSalad.com

Antenna Free TV: I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about Señor White.

RW: Yeah, y’know, I thought it should’ve gone. I thought it was good, I really did. And there was so much shit on television, and…it stuck around. They spent over two million dollars on this thing. And I was out there for a month and a half, living on their nickel at a really nice hotel in Beverly Hills and driving a BMW, and I was, like, “Well, this is great!” [Laughs.] And the first Blue Collar (Comedy Tour movie) was about to come out in theaters, and I was, like, “God, it looks to me like I’ve got the world by the balls!” Because if they’re making a sitcom with you, they make you feel like you’re the only person in the world. And they’re so good at it. Because your name’s on everything and it’s all a huge production, and it’s all a huge production, and there’s lots of money being spent. But you don’t realize that they can just take that and toss it in the trashcan and it doesn’t make any difference at all. Because Rupert Murdoch’s got the money.

When it came time to pick it up, it came down to me and a show with Cheech Marin (The Ortegas), and Cheech was a bigger star than me then and now. So even though it was horrible… [Laughs.] …and they already had a bunch of episodes of it made that they were buying from ABC because it sucked, and they owed somebody a favor from somewhere, I got tossed in the trashcan…and this show never makes it on television! They watched Señor White, and they said, “Well, that’s just more of a movie.” And I’m, like, “Well, let’s make a fucking movie! This is FOX, right? You’ve got FOX Studios down there…? You’re making movies down there!”

AFT: At first I thought Bruce Helford worked on a new version of the FOX pilot for ABC, but the ABC pilot was actually a different premise altogether, wasn’t it?

RW: Yeah, that was a different scenario, but with me still in it. There’s a billion of ‘em, and all of ‘em would work if the writing was good. I could be a small-town drunk, a big-town drunk… [Laughs.] As long as I’m a drunk, I think it’s gonna go!

AFT: Do you have any regrets about not having moved forward more with the acting side of things, or are you quite happy just sticking with the stand-up?

RW: Oh, that’s all I am, is a comedian. That’s all I ever wanted to be, and that’s all I am. That’s what I do, and that’s what my fans want me to keep doing. It’s amazing to have a 10-year run at the top of anything, and I’m still grateful for it. I have a blast doing it. My fans have really done everything they could do for me, so I wouldn’t dump ‘em and just give it up for television. And I don’t need television. ‘Cause this job pays really, really well. [Laughs.] And I don’t have a boss! I write it, I produce it, I perform it, and I don’t really answer to anybody. But on television, you work 15 hours a day, and you answer to everybody, from the script supervisor to the director to the wardrobe person to the prop dude. And you spend most of your time sitting in a shitty room or a trailer waiting to go do something for four minutes! So it sucks…to me. Everybody else thinks… I mean, it looks like everybody loves it but me. But I’m, like, “What the fuck?” I mean, you know, I did do a couple of little parts in a couple of really big movies (Sex and the City 2 and Horrible Bosses), and then I had a really good part in a very, very small movie that Billy Bob Thornton wrote that I thought was gonna just go nuts, and I had just the best role in it. But the critics didn’t like it, and it just kind of went away. But it’s called Jayne Mansfield’s Car, if you ever get a chance to watch it.

AFT: Just to touch on one more TV gig… It wasn’t so much a pilot that didn’t make it to series as much as an actual series that never made it to air, but you had at least a small role in HBO’s 12 Miles of Bad Road, didn’t you?

RW: Yeah, that’s right. And my television career is also called 12 Miles of Bad Road. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was another one. Maybe it’s me! Maybe I am the problem. I seem to be the common denominator! But, yeah, that was Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who, next to my wife, is the most talented person I know. She wrote every episode of Designing Women herself, writing on the set, two scenes ahead of what’s being shot. She’s just a genius. Her and her husband, Harry Thomason. This was a huge production. I mean, huge. It was a story about Texas billionaires, who they know a lot of. I mean, not that there’s a lot of billionaires, but they know ‘em. Up at Preston Hollow and Dallas, there are some mega-rich folks. I mean, unspendable amounts of money. And they’re very eccentric, and they’ve all got bad-ass jets and do really unreasonable shit because they can, like building football stadiums the size of towns.

So it was a story about those people, and it was great. It had a great cast, and it was dark, dark, dark, because part of it was about the appetite that these guys have for making bad decisions and not really giving a shit about the consequences. It was just a great show. But what happened was that Chris Albrecht was running HBO at the time, and then he slaps his girlfriend in a parking lot in Vegas, and it makes the news, and he gets fired from HBO. Well, he was the guy that championed this whole thing, and if you’re on television and you don’t have a champion, you’re done. Now, they’d already spent 30 million dollars, bought seven episodes, which were finished, and then this guy (Bill Nelson)… [Starts to laugh.] …who I called in print a ball-less, soulless sucker of Satan’s cock, ‘cause I was doing an interview in Canada one night drunk, and it had just happened and I was so fucking pissed… I mean, just for everybody! I mean, just so much effort was being put into this wonderful thing, and it just gets shit-canned because Linda wouldn’t bow down to him and wouldn’t change a thing, and eventually he dropped it. So whether she was right or whether she was wrong, that was the way it was gonna go down. We had this fantastic actor who played the role of a gay real estate entrepreneur, a very famous actor…and I can’t recall his name right now! A little bitty short guy. He was in a lot of Linda’s stuff.

AFT: Oh, you mean Leslie Jordan?

Courtesy of TheLeslieJordan.com
Courtesy of TheLeslieJordan.com

RW: Right! Well, (Bill Nelson) says that he doesn’t like the way…(Leslie) doesn’t depict homosexuality in a realistic manner. And I’m, like, “Have you ever met the guy? That’s exactly who he is! Right there! He’s not even acting!” [Laughs.] And that just rubbed everybody the wrong way, because Leslie… He’s a guy that just held court every day, and he’s just so funny and so talented, and for somebody to say he’s the wrong kind of queer for this thing…? It’s just appalling! So that’s what happened to it. It was just a war that was lost because the show lost its champion.

[Writer’s note: I reached out to Jordan in an effort to get his side of things, but I was told by his manager that “he’s suffering from a bit of ‘interview burn-out,'” which makes sense if you realize that he’s constantly promoting his one-man play, My Trip Down the Pink Carpet. Fortunately, Jordan touched on 12 Miles of Bad Road briefly during a 2010 interview with The New York Times. Per the piece, “In 2008, HBO canceled the show after six episodes were shot but before any were broadcast, a result for which Mr. Jordan blames his controversial character — a hustler-chasing gay man named Kenny Kingman — and the conservative attitudes of HBO executives.” This paragraph is followed by a direct quote from Jordan: “I thought, ‘Why can’t you have a gay character that likes hustlers?’ ” Mr. Jordan said. “I stood in that room with HBO and said: ‘What is the problem? Just because he’s not muscle-bound and adopting a Chinese baby?'”]

AFT: I still can’t believe they haven’t at least released it on DVD. You’d think they’d at least want to recoup some of their investment.

RW: Well, no, because they… [Starts to laugh.] Now they really just… They have a lot of animosity towards us, because Linda and Harry released every episode to the press to see what they thought about it…and the press loved it. So HBO and this guy, now he’s just fucking pissed, and he would rather use it as a piss pile than put it on television. And that’s just how vengeful they can be! It’s really cutthroat-y and…that’s another reason why I don’t have all that much to do with it. I can just live out here in Montecito and do some shows and do whatever I please.

Post-script:

Just in case you’re now as fascinated by 12 Miles of Bad Road as I am, you may be interested in reading what a couple of the series’ other stars had to say about it when I’ve chatted with them.

Showtime
Showtime

Lily Tomlin (The Onion AV Club: Random Roles, 11/2/2012): “They ordered 10 episodes, we did six, then a hiatus came during the writer’s strike and they just… I don’t know what the real story is. I can’t really know. But Chris Albrecht had bought 12 Miles for HBO, but then he got involved in that fracas of abusing his girlfriend in the parking lot, and he resigned. And the new people just did not like the show. Well… the story I always heard was that they fought with Harry and Linda over one thing and another. And the next thing we knew, they weren’t going to air it, they weren’t going to continue filming it, they weren’t going to do anything, even though they’d spent $25 million on it. The sets were elaborate, because the characters were so rich. I thought we were really coming together as an ensemble. Every friend I gave the tapes to, they all wanted to know, ‘What happens? We want to see the next one!’ It was this big, sprawling soap opera. But it didn’t go. I don’t know why they wouldn’t (release it on DVD). They wouldn’t even air it, which is crazy. I mean, they air so much stuff. I think there’s a financial advantage to airing it, isn’t there? I never really got it. I thought it was a bit nutty.”

HBO-Cinemax
HBO-Cinemax

Ivana Milicevic (Bullz-Eye: The Light from the TV Shows, 1/14/2013): “It was, like, political stuff, when Chris Albrecht got fired and everything. I wish they would release it, though. Leak it, whatever. That’s what so interesting to me. Because six episodes were done. And it was so good. What’s funny is that I didn’t know (Lily Tomlin) was a part of it, and I didn’t really know what to do with the character on that, so I kept turning it down and turning it down. But then finally I said, ‘Okay, I’ll take a meeting.’ And then when I was in the meeting, I suddenly had this idea what to do with it…and I made the character, like, Bosnian. Like, with an accent. I don’t know why, except that…it was a one-hour dramedy, basically, and I just couldn’t find a way into the character. So then all of sudden that happened, and they were dying laughing, and they offered it to me. I remember playing kind of hard ball with the deal, but then I got it and was, like, ‘Cool!’ And then my manager said, ‘Oh, Lily Tomlin’s in that!’ And I was, like, ‘Thank god I didn’t know that before, because I would’ve taken 25 cents!’ I love Lily Tomlin so much, and she’s so lovely and divine. I loved working on that show. I was kind of the one character that nobody liked, so I didn’t get to have that many scenes with her where she wasn’t being mean to me all the time on camera, but I love her. She’s awesome. And she’s great in it. God, why don’t they release that? Dammit! It’s really good. It’s, like, Dallas meets The Sopranos meets comedy.”

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