To moviegoers of a certain age, he will forever be Biff Tannen, the looming jarhead bully who menaced Marty McFly through three Back to the Future movies and multiple time frames. To others, he's known as the gruff-but-well-meaning Coach Fredricks, the lovable gym teacher, who despite his curt mien used his heart of gold to teach awkward teenagers on the TV show Freaks and Geeks about the facts of life and how to not throw like a girl.
In real life, he's Tom Wilson: Renaissance man. As an actor, musician, painter and comedian, Wilson has been seeking out his own laid-back creative path through the thickets of Hollywood for almost three decades. These days he's an in-demand TV guest star and voiceover artist, and he's still finding time for his long-running passion for stand-up, a craft he's been honing since his teen years.
This week, Wilson comes to Royal Oak. Metro Times talked with him about life as a D-lister, the real pursuit of happiness and what it's like to be a thespian trapped in a linebacker's body.
Tom Wilson: I started out around 1979, right at the start of the comedy boom years. In those days every restaurant had Disco Wednesday, Stand-Up Comedy Thursday and Foxy Boxing Friday. By the mid-'80s, it seemed like every TV show had a brick wall with a guy standing in a spotlight ... and the clubs just got huge. I've seen the ups and downs, boom, bust, plateau and everything in between.
Metro Times: So what came first for you: the acting or the comedy?
Wilson: I was studying acting in New York, trying to be god's gift to the American theater, a real serious actor. I used to look down my nose at these comedians. But I started hanging out with comics, and I was like, "Man, you guys make like 20 bucks and a cheeseburger? I make nothing."
MT: And you don't have to cut in a drummer.
Wilson: Exactly ... which is very good for a guitar player like me. Hey, thank God for stand-up. It was very free, and back then it was such a hip thing to do. I took a shine to it from the very beginning.
MT: What is your act like?
Wilson: It's mostly autobiographical. I do music in my set, but I'm not a "guitar comic." I open with some music, then the lion's share of the show is straight stand-up, then I close off with a couple of songs.
MT: So comedy is something you like to do. It's not just a means to an end.
Wilson: I run into young comedians who think that I'm trying to shake some money out of being a low-level celebrity.
MT: So this is not a "Screech" situation?
Wilson: No. I was doing this long before the movies. I know some of those guys and with all due respect, they don't have much of an act. They go around trying to sell some tickets with "Hey, remember me? I'm the guy from your TV!?" Buy me some drinks, and I'll dangle shiny objects in front of your face."
MT: But that's where people know you from.
Wilson: Of course. Look, I've got to deal with Back to the Future. But I do it at the beginning of my act. [I think people are surprised] with the quality of my material.
MT: And now do you get many Freaks and Geeks fans?
Wilson: Fortunately, I get Freaks and Geeks fans, oh, 17.2 percent of the time. That DVD set just gets passed from person to person to person. There are new fans all the time. People really love that show; I was glad to be a part of it. Anything to cut into the Back to the Future thing, you know? Back to the Future fans come up to me at the airport and of course they talk about Michael [J. Fox] and the car, and time travel, but Freaks and Geeks people come up to me and say, "That was my life."
MT: I read that you do voices on SpongeBob SquarePants?
Wilson: I do a lot of voices on SpongeBob.
MT: You really know how to get young audiences.
Wilson: Younger and younger all the time. I'm trying to get these 14-year-olds who like SpongeBob fake IDs so they can come see my stand-up.
MT: It beats doing a car show.
Wilson: I could be doing a car show, standing next to the latest model or whatever, but if I'm going to be out there meeting people, I'm going to do my own show, and have my hand in creating it. My themes are about me, my upbringing and about being a geeky musician and artist kid, not an athlete.
MT: Yet you've played jocks so often.
Wilson: It's really the ultimate irony of my life. I call myself the "Trojan Librarian." Inside this 6-foot-3 body is a small guy in a sweater vest.
Tom Wilson performs Thursday, Feb. 15, through Sunday, Feb. 17, at Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle, 269 E. Fourth, Royal Oak; 248-542-9900.
Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]