Before breaking through as an actor on Broadway in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, D.B. Sweeney played baseball, worked in construction, drove cabs and cooked in some of America’s finest restaurants. His many stage appearances led to movies and television where he’s played dozens of memorable roles including Shoeless Joe Jackson in Eight Men Out, Doug Dorsey in The Cutting Edge, Travis Walton in Fire in the Sky, and Dish Boggett in the landmark Lonesome Dove miniseries.
During his time in the New York Theatre, D.B. was discovered by directing legend Francis Ford Coppola and offered the leading role of Jackie Willow in Gardens of Stone opposite James Caan and James Earl Jones. This indelible and critically acclaimed performance led to a series of major parts in studio films including No Man’s Land with Charlie Sheen, the World War Two hit Memphis Belle, the star studded Eight Men Out and the enduring romantic comedy The Cutting Edge.
We caught up with him at his home in Chicago.
Strange Luck was a sci-fi/drama series that aired on Fox from 1995 to 1996. You played Chance Harper a freelance photographer who has a bizarre tendency to always be in the wrong place at the right time. A total of seventeen episodes were aired before the show was unfortunately canceled. This show came at a time when FOX was trying a lot of new shows that were outside the box in terms of style and story. (Profit, The X-Files), Looking at the TV and streaming landscape now and the variety of programming available, do you think Strange Luck was ahead of its time?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny – it was on Friday nights at 8 o’ clock on FOX and I remember we were getting a 15 share and last year I think only shows like The Bachelorette etc., got those type of numbers so the show by today’s standards, was actually very successful. I guess FOX felt like they had The X-Files in it’s third season and we were the lead in to them and they felt that they could do better and they’ve never gotten close to that since. It was a great experience while we did it. Frances Fisher was in it and she was terrific – I had a good time making it. That was another show filmed on Canadian soil, up in Vancouver – I had a great experience making it but I really feel it was unfortunate of the time slot the show got and so on. It’s really weird to me that it’s never been released on DVD.
This was your first lead role in a TV series having mainly worked in film – what drew you to the role?
Well, the late great Brandon Tartikoff, who ran NBC and is a broadcasting legend, was running a company called New World and they owned Strange Luck and they had this deal that the show was going to go to FOX and Brandon Tartikoff came after me and said ‘we really want you to do this – I really want you to do this – what will it take to get you to do this?’, so they gave me a nice amount of money and they said I could have script input, whatever I want. He was a great guy who was great with talent and made you feel really important and special and he said he wanted to support me anyway he could and that was my mandate going into the show and it was pretty tempting. It was hard to turn down.
One film of yours that made a huge splash at the time was Fire in The Sky. Not a film without controversy, it was released in 1993 and is based on Travis Walton’s book The Walton Experience, which describes his alleged extraterrestrial encounter. The abduction and probe footage remains pretty intense to this day. Can you tell us a bit about that shoot?
I was excited everyday filming that movie. Just a great crew and cast. Peter Berg who is now a big director was one of the actors, Bradley Gregg who I had done Lonesome Dove with and Robert Patrick is another one of my favorite people I ever worked with and of course James Garner, one of my heroes, so you are doing scenes with those guys – so that was awesome. Then when we did the abduction scenes it was me and the special effects guys from Industrial Light and Magic and these puppets and technicians and puppeteers and all this other stuff – but it was Industrial Light and Magic – if you knew Star Wars or any other great visual effects movie, these were the best guys in the business!. So I was excited to go to work every day, they were really long days and I spent about 3 or 4 weeks on wires because it’s a zero gravity situation so they had to make me look weightless and that’s really hard on your body because you have to sort of hide where the wires are holding the weight of your body. I was pretty fit but it still it wore me down so it was really hard work and I was kind of exhausted and I think that really helped the being tortured acting I guess, but I always feel like acting is the easiest part of my job and the hardest part of my job is getting the job and trying to get from the set to my dressing room without tripping over cable or tripping over a person or getting into a controversy or something (laughs). I love acting and I’m not trying to say it’s easy but to me, that’s the fun part of my job
There was one scene, if memory serves, where you’re almost encased in vinyl or rubber on your entire body so you couldn’t breathe. What was that like to shoot?
That was the only shot in the film where I wasn’t involved in the entire sequence. They cover Travis, my character up and then the camera pulls up and you see the material stretching against his body and the camera’s pulling away – I did all the close-ups, I did every other shot in that whole 11 minute sequence and that one shot I didn’t do because to make that that shot work, what they did was the examination table that that I was on, they drilled a bunch of holes in it and then they had to glue down this rubber material all the way around and the shot was – they used a pneumatic suction to suck all the air out to make that thing go flush against my body so it took almost four hours to glue that thing perfectly down air tight and they told me it was going to take a long time and I said you know what, maybe just have the stand-in do this one, so it’s funny that that’s one of the iconic shots but I could lay there for four hours I just couldn’t do it. I kind of wish I did it because then I could say every single frame of that sequence is me but cheers to the guy who did!
Did you ever meet Travis Walton?
I did, I met him after we filmed it and we had lunch together and seems like a nice guy.
Do you believe his story?
I don’t know. I mean he believes it; you know and I don’t think it’s done a lot of good in his life. It’s not like its brought him fame and fortune and it’s a pretty tough story and the idea that there’s doubt about it in people’s minds that’s got to be hard for him to, but I have no reason to doubt him – I wasn’t there and he says it happened and there is an awful lot of compelling evidence – like all the guys in the truck were not close friends who could cook up some story, a couple of the guys were just co-workers so I don’t know. It’s very compelling but on the other side; the sheriff in Arizona said that these guys are doing LSD so if you were on LSD you could cook up a lot of things, so I don’t know. I have no reason to doubt him personally, I just think it made for great movie.
When playing a real character like Travis Walton there like you did with Shoeless Joe Jackson in Eight Men Out, do you take into consideration that they’re real people with research beforehand or you just go in totally fresh just doing your thing?
Well Shoeless Joe Jackson was a really fun experience for me because I was a baseball player in college and high school and I thought I had a chance to be the first guy to be believable in a baseball movie, so I spent a long time learning how to hit left-handed and I researched Shoeless Joe Jackson and what I found in my research about him personally didn’t really line up with the script, so I threw some of the research out because he got to do the script unless you’re the director and you can change it. I found that he wasn’t as dumb as people had said and that he was maybe even more complicit – that he wasn’t the innocent that the movie makes him out to be – so I just went with the baseball aspect and didn’t really deal with it because Shoeless Joe Jackson was dead I didn’t feel like I had to be his advocate. I did a movie called Memphis Belle two years later and in that movie I play sort of a real life person in the sense that it’s a true story about the Memphis Bell but it was a fictionalized version of the crew so they changed everybody’s name, so I was the navigator, my name was Phil Lowenthal but the actual navigator on the Memphis Belle was a guy named Chuck Layton from Michigan and when we made the movie, they flew all the surviving crew members of the Memphis Belle over to England to meet us and it was really great because we had all these B17s and for a lot of these guys it was her first time back in England since the war and at that time I became aware of a controversy, which was, my character in the movie does what would you would consider to be a cowardly act and he’s terrified that he’s going to die which is very human but in the context of the war and doing your duty it was cowardly. So, I liked the character a lot because he overcomes it and tries to convince others to do their job to overcome his shortcomings and I thought it was very dramatic and interesting on a narrative level. Chuck Layton’s family was very upset because nobody’s going to really get the subtlety that they changed the names; it’s like the legacy of the Memphis Belle navigator, was having history rewritten by Hollywood and now they were worried that the navigator of the Memphis Belle is now a coward. I was very sympathetic to that and I got a drawn a little bit into the controversy and there was a lot of stuff going back and forth and I was like, look you know I want to do the best job I can, you guys have to decide what you want to do and it didn’t help me do my job, so by the time I got to Fire in the Sky, I really wasn’t that interested in meeting Travis because I thought, I’m going to do the script and I hope the people that wrote the script did their job and have taken care of all the historical fact checking and I just want to play the part. That was kind of an evolution for me of going from not really being that concerned about my responsibilities as an actor except in terms getting the baseball right and then Memphis Belle was really a turning point for me where if you play real people you either have to get it right or you have to completely change it.
Let’s talk about a favorite of mine, No Man’s Land. Written by Dick Wolf of Law & Order fame, the film is about a rookie cop, played by you, who goes undercover to take down a car theft ring, run by Charlie Sheen. This movie did not get a wide release and it was kind of under the radar and found its fan base once released on video. It was almost like a pre-Point Break style film in how the undercover cop was being dragged into the world of stealing Porsches and finding the lines being blurred. What stands out about this film most for you?
Well Dick Wolf was a staff writer on Miami Vice at that point – you know – he was not a big powerful TV producer like he is now, and I was offered the movie; it was my third movie and my first big movie was called Gardens of Stone and Francis Ford Coppola hired me out of nowhere and made me the star of this movie and even before the movie came out I was getting offered Hollywood movies, which was crazy because 2 years earlier I was driving a taxi in New York City. So I’m sitting in my hotel room while we’re filming Gardens of Stone and I have four scripts in front of me that are offered to me and I can’t even believe my good fortune, so I’m trying to figure out how to pick one of them and I don’t want to make a mistake because I think this will be my only chance; I got this Coppola movie and this other movie and if they both stink then I’m probably going back to driving a cab. So I’m trying to figure out how to eliminate some of these scripts. I didn’t feel the writing of No Man’s Land was that good – Dick Wolf’s script was kind of dumb; it was like a TV script, but the idea of the undercover cop and the very slick and seductive car thief play by Charlie Sheen, and he falls in love with a car thief’s sister…I thought there was something in there, so I said to my agent if they will get somebody to rewrite this with that idea but just to make it more interesting and a little less bubble-gum I’ll do it; and they said yes and who did I want to have write it. I said I had just seen this movie the other night, Birdy with Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage and I said if you can get those (Jack Behr and Sandy Kroopf) guys to rewrite it, I’ll do the movie. So they did it and they kind of fired Dick Wolf and they hired those guys, but part of the firing of Dick Wolf was they made him a producer. So they wrote this great script and I was working in Porsche garages learning to play a mechanic and having a great time. Charlie Sheen was learning how to be a big-time partier (laughs) he had just finished Platoon and the studio that released Platoon, Orion, was making No Man’s Land and they were convinced Charlie was going to be a big star and they were right and Charlie was convinced he’s going to be a big star so they weren’t really thinking too much about No Man’s Land, but for me, I was like I’ve got to to make this thing work. So, I spent these months working with the writers, and the script really evolved and really got better and stronger and then somehow Dick Wolf managed to get everybody fired except me and Charlie.
He got the director fired, he got the writers fired, everybody got fired and I thought, well that’s the end of the movie we’re not going to do anything but I didn’t have a writer approval in my contract – I don’t know of anything like that – so I had to do the movie. I had some conflicts with Dick indirectly; I really didn’t want to do the script that I had turned down, I wanted to do the script that have been rewritten, so anyway that lesson of the story for young actors is don’t make enemies with the most powerful person on television 25 years later.
True enough! It did turn out well in the end and very much has the look and feel of Miami Vice or To Live and Die in LA. A very film-noir sense of style. Were you happy with how it was received?
Like I said it was my third movie and I was just thrilled to be invited to the party. It was badly released. I had really bad luck with studios at that point; The Cutting Edge was MGM, Eight Men Out was Orion, No Man’s Land was Orion and I wasn’t thinking in terms of building a career and how to have a hit movie or any of that stuff, but if I had I would have been doing movies with Warner Brothers and Paramount and Disney, the big distribution powerhouses who ensure that you’re movie gets out there. So those two terrific movies, No Man’s Land and Eight Men Out were Orion and Orion botched the release on both of them. They had Bull Durham as well and they released that film before they released us (No Man’s Land) and then we were sort of thrown away as the ‘extra baseball movie’. Bull Durham is great but I thought we deserved a little bit more respect from them in terms of release; so a little bit of bad luck there on the release of those three movies, but you know, what are you going to do, you just have to go on the next thing.
Luckily though thanks to home rental, these movies found an audience…
Absolutely, I know all these movies did extremely well on rental but unfortunately the way that Hollywood decides whether or not to give you this next big movie or this other big movie is based on box office in those days and probably to a certain extent still today, but it’s not always in your control and I’m proud of all those movies.
Some of the driving stunts in the movie were fantastic and this was long before CGI took over…
Yeah, we were shooting on the streets of LA on blocked off roads and we had the guy, who at the time, was the best stunt driver in Hollywood, Corey Eubanks, who’s dad is Bob Eubanks the host of The Newlywed Game. There is this one cent shot in the movie that you don’t even see how good a driver Corey is. There’s a scene where we’re hiding in this lumberyard from the bad guys who are chasing us and he drives into this little section – I guess a Porsche is about 6 feet wide – and he comes in at about 30 miles an hour and he’s got about a twelve foot space and he’s got to pull a 180 and put the car from 30 miles an hour into this twelve foot space. So, when they yelled action, Corey came in about 40 miles an hour and he threw that car into a 180 and he landed it on a dime. It was just one of the most incredible pieces of craftsmanship I’ve ever seen on a movie set.
I thought there should have been a sequel.
I think so too. They made nine of them called The Fast and The Furious (laughs).
Was Charlie attached to the movie when you read the script?
No, the funny thing is Charlie Sheen did Platoon around the same time I was doing Gardens of Stone and it was directed by Francis Coppola with James Caan and at the same time Matthew Modine was doing Full Metal Jacket with Stanley Kubrick so of those three Vietnam movies, Platoon was on nobody’s radar while they were filming because Oliver Stone wasn’t ‘Oliver Stone’ yet but Stanley Kubrick and Francis Coppola were two of the greatest living directors making Vietnam movies so at that point the money was not on Charlie Sheen. But when the movie was finished people start seeing it in Hollywood and Orion and Mike Medavoy and all these guys were very smart and very prescient and they thought Charlie was going to be a huge star. So, I had already been signed to do No Man’s Land and learning how to tune Porsche engines and they said hey DB, we got this guy Charlie Sheen and he’s going to come in to play Ted Varrick and I said great, I had been on a TV movie with his dad a few years earlier and I loved his dad and I was like; right sure sounds good, I’m sure it’ll be great guy. Then my agent at the time, J.J. Harris told me there was just one problem. They already gave you first billing and Orion thinks when the movie comes out that he’s going to be your bigger star in that moment than you are, because Platoon’s going to be bigger than Gardens of Stone or something to that affect. I said I don’t care; he can have first billing if he wants. So she says that she can get something in exchange for second billing – we can trade it for something. So this is how naïve I was; I’m out here in LA so I said that maybe she can get me a rental car. She says ‘a rental car? are you kidding me?’ So, she said standby don’t do anything and she calls me back a half an hour later, and I remember – it sounds like nothing much but this was my second movie remember, so I was getting $60,000 to do No Man’s Land, which to me for 10 weeks work, I felt like the richest guy in the world – and she says, ‘okay, you’re getting second billing not first billing and you’re making $125,000 and I got you a rental car’ and I said ‘you got to be kidding me, to change my billing?’ and she said ‘absolutely’. So, I said to J.J. ‘what will they give me if I take third billing?’ and then she hung up on me.
What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment as an actor?
I would say having a 30 plus year career and not sucking and trying to consistently do the best I can with every situation in and I’ve had some really no top-level scripts like The Cutting Edge and shows and jobs and to be on Two and a Half Men which was a very successful well staffed show. Though I have had other situations where you know the movie’s got issues when you accept it, but you know I think Tom Cruise is the only guy who gets to choose everything he wants to do! You go through periods where they really want you and other periods when they don’t want you at all so you either go and sell real estate or you try and find something that other people have passed on and for me I was always optimistic – you know what, this guy’s never directed a movie before but maybe we can get through it together and maybe he’s the next Quentin Tarantino and how are you going to find out unless you get on the ground floor?
I would rather be out working on a movie that may or may not work as opposed to just sitting around the house.
Your latest project, Two Dum Micks is the story of a pair of unlucky guys who meet in jail and immediately hatch a scheme that involves the Food Network, DUI Attorneys and Fois Gras. The plan’s flaws are quickly and disastrously exposed. Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings) plays Mikey and you play Mick, a couple of lovable losers who can’t get out of their own way. Why did you choose to do these as comedy shorts?
Well back in the beginning of Hollywood, silent one reel films were 10 to 12 minutes long and they relied on physical comedy and action because they didn’t have sound but they were also the length of it was somewhat dictated by the technical limitations of cameras and projectors but I think it was also an idea that people weren’t going to sit with dark room and watch flickering images all day long so it’s funny how everything comes full circle and people now have a much shorter attention spans or desire to watch longer content, so I tried to tap into that and I wanted to slapstick and I wanted to work with Sean Astin and Two Dum Mucks ticked off all the boxes.
Is your intention to put these out as a proof of concept in hopes of securing a distribution deal?
We’re hoping that happens and Sean and I would love to do a lot of these but at the same time we’re just doing them because we’re actors and that’s what we’ve got to do to keep your career going; you have to always continue to reinvent yourself and make things happen, so I hope somebody else takes over, but right now I’m financing them and I made the first one and I’ll make this one and Sean is my partner, so we’re having a great time with it.
How did you come up with the idea for the project?
I wanted to work with Sean Astin and I love Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello and I wanted to try and think of a modern context to do the similar kind of your physical comedy, slapstick comedy. It’s hard right now doing comedy; it’s very regulated by all the tastemakers about what you’re allowed to make fun of and what you’re not allowed to make fun of and I was trying to think of a set up where you’re not going to get in trouble and I thought making fun of two 50 year old white guys might be the only way to do comedy.
It already seems to be getting some really good traction online…
Absolutely! We posted it on Facebook just over a month ago and it already has more than 600,000 views so we hope everyone will check it out!