From ‘Dumb and Dumber’ to ‘Goodfellas’ to ‘The Office’: Mike Starr on Being Hollywood’s Ultimate Funny Tough Guy
“Wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?” Lloyd Christmas asks the hitchhiker that he and his friend Harry Dunne have just picked up before delivering exactly what he promised for five interminable seconds, with Harry eventually chiming in, too.
“Guys! Guys! Guys!” the hitchhiker shouts them down, finally getting them to stop.
The moronic duo was lucky that’s all the hitchhiker did to them, because even though he’d claimed to be a salesman late to a luncheon in Davenport, their passenger was actually a ruthless assassin known as Joe Mentalino.
In the classic comedy Dumb and Dumber, the antacid-munching Mentalino was played by veteran character actor Mike Starr. A big guy who is often typecast as cops and gangsters, Starr has amassed nearly 250 film and TV credits over the course of his 45-year career, becoming one of Hollywood’s go-to tough guys in everything from Goodfellas to The Office.
Along the way, he’s amassed a million stories he loves to tell — like the time Jim Carrey pranked Starr’s wife over the phone, or the time he taught Steve Carell, Ed Helms and Rainn Wilson what “gabagool” is, or the time he got his ass kicked (on-screen) by John Candy.
Pooter the Clown in ‘Uncle Buck’
John Hughes told me to scream insults at John Candy during my scene. It was six or seven in the morning in this high-end neighborhood in Chicago, and I was this big guy in a clown outfit — I looked like John Wayne Gacy. I was screaming at John Candy, and he punched me in the nose.
In the movie, all you see is him punching me, but there was originally a fight where we were on the front lawn and he was beating me with my big shoe. It was pretty funny, but it didn’t make it into the movie.
Frenchy in ‘Goodfellas’
I’m somewhat of a comical character in Goodfellas. In real life, Frenchy was a vibrant guy, which might have been his undoing. Frenchy was the kind of guy who would say stuff like, “Hey, you still fucking your wife?” They’d go, “What?” Then Frenchy’d laugh and give the guy a diamond ring to give to his wife. He was a lovable thief who enjoyed stealing and then sharing it with everyone. So I came in like I was shot out of a cannon. I was even told by someone on the set who knew Frenchy, “You’re perfect for Frenchy.”
Goodfellas was the purest “being in the moment” kind of experience I’ve ever had on a film. I really did my research on the character. I’m from Queens; he was from Hempstead, Long Island. I was sure to read Wiseguy, the book Goodfellas is based on. There was a lot of give-and-take on set. In the original script, it said something like, “I can get past all the alarms.” But I told Scorsese, “The beauty of it was, there were no alarms.” Scorsese says, “Okay, say whatever you know,” so I worked in everything that I knew about it. I was able to cram about two chapters of Wiseguy into my five minutes of screentime.
Joe Mentalino in ‘Dumb and Dumber’
Jim Carrey was insisting on somebody who had played intense, serious roles for the part, and he recommended me. And even though it’s a funny movie, I attempted to play Dumb and Dumber real. I guess it worked too because Dumb and Dumber is sometimes the only thing people know me from.
Every day on Dumb and Dumber, it was laughs on and off the set. Jeff (Daniels) was writing a play, and he was off in his own world. Sometimes, I would start talking nonsense and gibberish to the cameramen near him. After a while, he’d look over at me, start laughing and say, “What are you talking about?”
Jim Carrey was pretty phenomenal. He’d invite me over to watch hockey with him. He pranked me too. He got his gallbladder removed during filming, and I’d mentioned to him that my wife was a resident (surgeon). One night, before the surgery, while we’re watching hockey, he asks, “Do you mind if I ask your wife a few questions?” I said, “Sure.” I called her up and said, “One of the actors in this movie is getting surgery, he wants to talk to you.” Jim gets on the phone and starts wailing, saying the craziest things, like that he’s in love with me.
Filming was a lot of fun, too. I’ve been told the “most annoying sound in the world” scene is on a list for one of the greatest ad-lib scenes in history. I don’t remember how much of that scene was scripted. I had no idea Jim was going to scream in my ear like that, though, and it did kind of get to me. I have all these little nutty neuroses and things that bother me — like people whistling off-key or people nudging at me or poking me. So when Jim Carrey was screaming in my ear out of nowhere, I didn’t have to act annoyed. That’s good though: If it’s bothering you, use it.
I also enjoyed the peppers scene, where I died. There’s the part where I eat the peppers and my face turns all red. Before the shot, I did some push-ups, and they sprayed me with water so it looked like I was really burning. Then I fell back, and Jim started pointing and laughing at me. I wanted to laugh so hard.
Also, when I was laying back, Jim whispered in my ear, “Mike, I’m going to pump your legs twice. The third time — really shove me back.” I didn’t want to hurt him, but I shoved him and he went flying. He came back into the scene with the venetian blinds on him. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to laugh.
Angelo Grotti in ‘The Office’
When I guest-starred on The Office, Steve Carell explained to me the style of the show, about how they look to the camera. He encouraged me to find spots where it worked.
I played Angelo Grotti, an insurance salesman they think is in the mob. Nobody knew though. The director and producers kept trying to figure out if they should make Grotti more of a mobster, or is he just an insurance guy who likes to talk like that? To me, he was really an insurance guy who was maybe associated with that world, and it’s just the way it rubbed off on him.
On set, the director came to me and said, “The guys don’t really understand things like ‘gabagool,’ can you explain it to them?” I thought he was kidding. I said, “You setting me up?” He said, “No, I just want you to explain it to them.” So I went to Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson and Ed Helms and said, “I’m no language expert or anything, but the director wants me to tell you guys about the history of ‘gabagool’ and things like that.” I explained to them that people with roots in southern Italy, who lived in the northeast or Chicago, would turn the “c” in words to a “g” and that they’d shorten things, too. Thus, calamari became “galimar” and “capicola” became “gabagool.”
Most people know “gabagool” from The Sopranos, which I was almost in. I got a call to be somebody that got killed in the last show, but it didn’t end up working out. It’s okay though, I got to be Frenchy in Goodfellas, who ended up in a dumpster.