The Other Side of Jeff Daniels
As an actor, Jeff Daniels’ career has often seemed like a contradiction.
From his role as intrepid anchor Will McAvoy in HBO’s The Newsroom, for which he won an Emmy, to current supporting turns as Apple CEO John Sculley in the film Steve Jobs and NASA director Terry Sanders in The Martian, to the cerebrally-challenged Harry Dunne in Dumb and Dumber and its sequels, Daniels has been equally deft at playing the hero, the villain, and the fool.
“The last time I looked, the Greeks were holding up two masks,” Daniels says by phone, referencing the comedy and tragedy symbols of his craft as well as his decision to make Dumb and Dumber To with Jim Carrey 20 years after the original film.
“Jim cracks me up. When we made [the original] we thought 13-year-old boys would think it was great but that’s about it. Over 20 years, we’ve had people from 8-80 saying that movie still makes them laugh. So let’s make a movie that makes people laugh the same way with these now middle-aged guys who are still that stupid.”
Unlike his Dumb and Dumber character, Daniels is a thinking man, who’s keenly aware of his own comedic wit, which often is on display in his other creative outlet – music.
Although his penchant for guitar and songwriting has long paralleled his acting career, it was only in 2000 that the 60-year-old Chelsea, Michigan, resident began performing in front of an audience.
Until recently, Daniels’ concerts have largely been solo, acoustic affairs, where he woos audiences with his everyman charm and songs written through a comedic lens.
“I have an ability to write funny and be funny and occasionally smart-funny – certainly with lyrics,” he says. “I grew up on guys like Woody Allen and Preston Sturges who wrote well. … But there’s this attitude that comedy is a second-class citizen and not as important as doing something serious. I said, ‘Let’s stop trying to be funny and lead with the songwriting.’ That was my attempt.”
The result is Days Like These, Daniels’ sixth recording under his independent label Boomadeeboom Records. Released last year, the 10-track album opens with the bluesy lament “Days Like These” and continues with highlights such as “Wicked World,” a title inspired by a preacher on a Harley-Davidson; “A Little Bit Strange,” based on acting advice given to him by Hollywood legend Jack Lemmon; and “Now You Know You Can,” inspired by Daniels’ famous “Northwestern Speech” in the pilot of The Newsroom.
Since its release, Daniels has ditched his one-man shows for full-band gigs. Instead of hiring musicians his own age, or as he describes it, “a Viagra band,” he’s co-opted his son’s group, the Ben Daniels Band to back him on a five-week tour that began in Three Oaks, Michigan.
“The solo show was something that I enjoyed doing for a lot of years, but there were some songs [on this album] that just wouldn’t hold up; they needed more,” Daniels says. “I asked Ben, who does a whole different thing, if they could jump on my stuff in a way that serves the song. We went out a year ago just to see if it would work and it really did. Despite the parental highlight that it is to play with your son, it’s a show that works so well that I enjoy doing this as much, if not more than, the solo show.”
Daniels, who grew up in Chelsea, bought his first guitar – a Guild D-40 – in Ann Arbor the day he left for New York City at 21 years old.
“I knew I was going there as an actor, but I enjoyed music,” he says. “I figured I would be sitting around a lot waiting for the phone to ring and I could use that time learning to play. That guitar became a great sense of strength and comfort for me. It became my best friend.”
While waiting for the calls that would bring news about films roles such as P.C. O’Donnell in Ragtime, Flap Horton in Terms of Endearment, and Tom Baxter and Gil Shepherd in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Daniels immersed himself in Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Tablature Books. He would go to The Bottom Line on West Fourth Street and watch Doc Watson and Steve Goodman and John Prine, then sit in his apartment writing songs in a private notebook.
“I began hanging around playwrights like Lanford Wilson at the Circle Repertory Company in the late ’70s and became instantly fascinated in the writing process,” Daniels says. “Just the draft after draft of a new play and the tweaks and the rewrites. I wanted to learn more about how to do that. Eventually I wrote my own plays, but for years the writing outlet for me was my guitar. I can look back at the notebook and see the influence. The artistry of writing hit me right in the face.”
Daniels, whose myriad film credits include Gettysburg, The Squid and the Whale, and Good Night, and Good Luck, returned to Michigan in 1986, following the success of the Woody Allen film, The Purple Rose of Cairo.
It’s also where, in 1991, he founded the nonprofit equity Purple Rose Theatre, which still produces four mainstage shows a year, many of which are original works written by Michigan playwrights.
Daniels’ devotion to the Purple Rose and its mission became reason enough to take his private hobby public. In 2000, he decided that Christmas and New Year’s weeks, when the theater was dark, would be an ideal time to do a fundraising performance.
“I thought it would be a breeze because of my stage history in New York and elsewhere, but I walked on and was terrified,” he says. “It took several shows for me to realize that the reason I was terrified is that emotionally it was naked. In all the other ways I had been on stage there was a role to play; there was a character; there was a filter between me and the audience. It was just me and my guitar and that filter was gone. Once I figured out that the character I had to play was Jeff in a good mood, which is kind of what you do on every talk show, then it was like ‘OK, I can do this.'”
Daniels’ previous albums – Live & Unplugged, (2004) Grandfather’s Hat (2006), Together Again (2007), Live at the Purple Rose (2009) and Keep It Right Here (2010) – have endeared him to audiences for their clever lyricism and bluesy, folk-rock vibe.
There’s “The Dirty Harry Blues,” which he wrote about his work playing the villain in Clint Eastwood’s film Blood Work, where he gushes, “You don’t know what an honor it is for an actor to get killed by Clint.”
There’s “Recreational Vehicle” about a disastrous trip Daniels took with his family, and the tender “Grandfather’s Hat,” about missing someone who’s no longer there.
His home state of Michigan also is a focus of his music, whether it’s “The Ballard of the Buckless Yooper” or his baseball tribute “The Lifelong Tiger Blues, Revisited.”
Days Like These, which was engineered by Ben Daniels and produced by Brad Phillips, has only taken Daniels deeper into his songwriting. The final track on the album, “Back When You Were Into Me,” is an example of that.
It was inspired by a production assistant on The Newsroom, who talked about a relationship gone stale. Daniels wrote it from that perspective and enlisted his daughter-in-law, Amanda Merte, to sing it both on the album and during live shows.
“It’s actually a song we added after the August tour because of how Amanda sings it,” Daniels says. “She sings it in the middle of the set, and it just stops the show. I said ‘This has got to go on the album.'”
Proceeds from Daniels’ CD sales still support his Purple Rose Theatre, which debuted his latest play, Casting Session, in September.
Daniels’ day job also has gotten busier recently after joining the cast of the Divergent series for the final two films in that franchise. But that doesn’t mean he plans on hanging up his guitar anytime soon.
“I still write whenever I want to write,” he says. “If anything has changed it’s that I’m a little more judgmental. I’m more focused on finding songs that would earn their way into the set.”
He pauses and adds, “After all, I’m still just waiting for the phone to ring.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Herald-Palladium newspaper in St. Joseph, Michigan.