(This interview was originally published January 3, 2011 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)
When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I want to continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is Doug Barr. He is probably best known by '80s fans as “Howie Munson,” the sidekick to Lee Majors’ character, on the television series The Fall Guy. After five seasons there, you may also remember him from his recurring role of “Charlene’s boyfriend/husband Col. Bill Stillfield” for 4 seasons on Designing Women. Since then he has gone on to be an accomplished director, screenwriter and even wine maker. You will find out all about it as we get on to some selections from my interview with Doug Barr…
Q: When did you realize you wanted to be an actor? Then how did you go about pursuing that career?
Doug: During college where I was studying International Affairs (I wanted to be a diplomat), I took a motorcycle trip with a buddy around the Mediterranean, ran out of money in Greece, met a model from Paris on an island called Mykonos, skipped a semester in order to stay with her in France and at her urging, started modeling in order to earn enough to remain in Europe. When I returned to school in Washington DC, I continued modeling part time in New York, realized that if I could speak, I could do commercials. So I began studying acting. I continued doing so after graduating from college and was eventually cast by Bill Persky (The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, Kate & Allie) in New York for a TV pilot shooting in L.A.
Q: You received your big break getting cast as “Howie Munson” on The Fall Guy in 1981. How did that opportunity come your way? Do you remember the audition process at all? Did you have any expectations going into the series? Did you ever expect this role to last as long as it did (5 seasons)?
Doug: By the time I got to 'The Fall Guy,' I’d done the sitcom pilot I mentioned, called Semi-Tough, followed by another pilot that became a short lived series called When the Whistle Blows, and so I was familiar to the networks. That landed the audition for Glen Larson, the producer of The Fall Guy, which led to a reading with Lee [Majors], which won the roll. The pilot was a wonderful action-packed script with lots of humor and, of course Lee had a built-in fan base, so it seemed like it had a pretty good chance to be successful.
As a youngster, The Fall Guy was certainly one of my personal favorite shows back in the early '80s. It ran on the ABC network for five seasons (113 episodes) from 1981 to 1986. It was about a Hollywood stuntman, “Colt Seavers” played by Lee Majors, who moonlights as a bounty hunter with the help of co-stars Douglas Barr and Heather Thomas (with Markie Post joining cast later). I loved the truck they rode around in which was a two-tone brown jacked up GMC 4×4 pick-up with a big chrome roll bar and off-road lights. I also loved the show's them song. Here is a video of the opening credits from The Fall Guy including Lee Majors himself singing “The Unknown Stuntman” theme song…
Q: You got to work side by side with the great Lee Majors. Please tell us about Lee Majors as a person and that experience of working with him.
Doug: Lee was the consummate professional. Always prepared and expected the same from everyone else on the set. He was very generous, finding guest rolls for his old friends, and always available to read off camera lines with co-stars, guest stars or day players. He told me his set behavior was very much influenced by Barbara Stanwick on 'Big Valley.'
Q: You also were able to work with the gorgeous Heather Thomas. Please tell us about Heather and also the experience of working with her.
Doug: Heather is a total delight. Kind, funny, talented and, contrary to her poster-girl image, smarter than a whip.
Q: What were the physical challenges of making The Fall Guy? The show had its share of action, but what I think made it special was the added element of humor. Was that an enjoyable aspect of your role?
Doug: We did several stunts per episode. Many performed by an amazing stunt team headed by the coordinator, Mickey Gilbert. Hundreds of stunts done and there was only one serious accident in five years. Lee and I both loved doing as much stunt work as the producers allowed which, in those days, was quite a bit. Lots of horseback, helicopter, driving, shooting and fighting “gags.” That, and playing the comedic foil, made the show amazingly fun.
Q: According to a recent interview with Lee Majors, he said that the studio wanted to do another season of The Fall Guy but Majors was getting burnt out on Hollywood and felt the audience might have been getting burnt out on him. Did you feel the series could have or should have continued longer?
Doug: I was very surprised that they did not continue. The ratings were pretty solid and I think the audience would have held for at least another season. It was fairly physically demanding and the hours were very long, especially for Lee who had to be in virtually every scene, and I think he was just worn out after so many years in episodic TV.
Q: When you make a series for 5 seasons, I would expect that you become close as a cast. How do you remember your experiences with the cast making The Fall Guy? Do you keep in touch with Majors or Thomas?
Doug: We all got along professionally and socially. I haven’t lived in L.A. in many years, so I see less of them than I’d like, but we’re still in touch. Lee and his wife, Faith, came to visit just a few weeks ago.
Q: You followed up The Fall Guy starring on the series The Wizard which only lasted one season. What do you remember from that experience and why do you feel the show was not more successful at the time?
Doug: It was the most wonderful and inspiring show imaginable. Great fun to shoot. David Rappaport, who had the title roll, was a very talented actor and musician. He was also brilliant and decent, much like the character he played. There’s still a website and a substantial fan base trying to get Fox to re-air the 20 or so episodes that were produced (including one I co-wrote). Why a terrific and uplifting program like The Wizard failed to build an audience is a mystery to me.
Q: Then in 1988, you joined the cast of Designing Women in the recurring role of “Bill Stillfield” during seasons 2-5. Your character was romantically involved with Jean Smart’s character. How was the experience of working with her and all of those other great women on that popular show?
Doug: What a talented and delightful cast of actors. It was all very incestuous, as Dixie Carter was married to Hal Holbrook who played her romantic interest, while Jean’s husband in real life, Richard Gilliland, played Annie Potts’ boyfriend and Delta Burke’s husband, Gerald McRaney, played her boyfriend. 'Bill Stillfield', the character I played, if I remember correctly had once been a boyfriend of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the brilliant writer and producer of the show. Harry Thomason, who co-produced the show had also produced The Fall Guy. It was a remarkable experience. The live audience, the incredible writing and directing made it a real joy.
Q: Your character had to be written off the show after Jean Smart decided to leave the show (before season 6). Were you disappointed at that time that you were losing this role or were you ready to move on?
Doug: By the time Jean decided to move on, I had already made the transition to writing and directing. I was more than happy to move behind the camera.
Q: Are there any '80s roles (TV or movies) that you auditioned for and did not get that would be surprising or interesting especially looking back now?
Doug: Certainly easier to count the ones I got than the many I did not get. One that comes to mind was a meeting with Spielberg, (who was cooking something with Deborah Winger in the kitchen of his production office) for the Harrison Ford role in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' That certainly would have been a career changer. There was no chance in hell I was going to get it, but he was extremely nice.
Doug: I played a trapeze artist on 'Fantasy Island.' I recall being confused about the show’s premise, fantasy versus reality, and asked Ricardo Montalban just before a take to explain it to me. He said, “I’ve been doing this show for many years now, and… I have no idea.” I did 'The Love Boat' a few times. Fred Grandy, like me, was from Iowa, and after the leaving show, he successfully ran for Congress and was a remarkably capable representative. He and the rest of the cast made that show really fun to work on. I think I played a jewel thief in one episode, if I’m not mistaken.
One special show I remember always enjoying in the '80s was Battle of the Network Stars which pitted teams made up of performers from the TV shows on each major network against each other. There were 19 episodes airing between 1976 and 1988 and they featured many of the most popular stars from the most popular TV series of that time. Competition included swimming, kayaking, golf, tennis, cycling, the baseball dunk tank, running races, an obstacle course, and finally the top two scoring teams face off in the tug-of-war. Barr was a participant in three of them on the ABC team (December 1981, May 1982 and December 1984).
Q: I actually remember you very well as being part of Battle of the Network Stars. What do you remember about those experiences? Was it really as competitive as it appeared?
Doug: My cousin Bobby Gregor was playing for the Chargers at that time which I remember impressed [host of the show] Howard Cosell. Unfortunately, my football skills weren’t as good as Bob’s and Mark Harmon’s team kicked our butts. The games were indeed very competitive. The payday was dependent upon how well your team placed. As I recall, there was about a $30,000 bonus for first place, so believe me, everyone was doing the best they could. They were incredibly fun. Hard to believe there weren’t more injuries.
There used to be a video of the relay race event from the December 1984 show which included an impressive leg ran by Doug Barr for the ABC team, but it doesn't seem to be available anymore. Here is a picture from May 1982 Battle of the Network Stars of Barr handing the baton off to his co-star Heather Thomas in the relay that year...
Q: After three decades in the industry, from your perspective, how has it changed both for the good or bad?
Doug: Young audiences are so much more sophisticated than they were back in 'The Fall Guy' days. They have high expectations in both visual and emotional content and it’s up to the storytellers to keep it interesting.
Q: I asked a similar question in my interview with Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg and others; I know ratings ultimately dictate the programming, but are you surprised and/or disappointed in the lack of wholesome family shows on network television today? Why don’t we have as many fun shows like The Fall Guy on television today?
Doug: With limited budgets and so many competing entertainment opportunities, it’s very difficult to capture attention without being in your face (sex and violence) edgy. I’ve just finished writing and directing two movies for NBC/Walmart – Secrets of the Mountain and The Jensen Project. Both are incredibly family friendly. Walmart is planning to do several more and I think they present a wonderful alternative, particularly for early prime time audiences. It will be interesting to see how well the whole series of movies will do ratings-wise.
Q: You have remained relatively busy working over the years. When and how did you get into directing?
Doug: I started writing while acting on 'The Wizard.' Then wrote a feature called 'Conundrum' for MGM which was set to star Sally Field and to be directed by Philip Noyce. It fell through at the last second and a year later I (with my friend, the producer, Thomas Baer) bought it back and sold it to Showtime. By then I’d directed (not very well) an indie picture I’d also written called 'Dead Badge'  and so was able to convince Showtime to let me direct' Conundrum' . That put me in the TV movie business and I’ve managed (to my amazement) to stay busy at it for many years now.
Though his last credited acting role is from 1994, Barr has remained quite busy directing at least 22 projects over the last 15 years. Most of the work has been on TV Movies including the two just-finished projects he mentioned earlier for NBC/Walmart. In addition to that, back in the early '90s, he decided to try his hand at the wine business. He is co-owner and operator of the Hollywood and Vine Cellars in Napa Valley.
Q: Please tell us all about Hollywood and Vine Cellars; How it started and what it has become.
Doug: My wife, Clare, and I wanted our son to go to public school (which was difficult in the neighborhood where we lived in L.A. because of safety issues). By the time he was in Kindergarten, Clare had left acting behind (she’d been on a show called Paper Chase among many others) to return to what she had studied in college, Painting, and I was writing and no longer needed to be in L.A.
We moved north to wine country, bought a house in probate, discovered the previous (deceased) owner had been a pioneer in the wine industry. His name was Maynard Amerine and he’d been a professor at UC Davis and written many text books on viticulture and oenology. I found one left behind in the cellar, read it, became interested, called my old college pal, Bruce Orosz (the buddy I went on the motorcycle trip with in your first question) who had become a producer, and asked if he wanted to make a little vino. He did, and in 1998 we released our first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. What little we produce can be found in restaurants and wine shops in 30 states, the Caribbean and bits of Europe and Canada. It’s a wonderful and really interesting sideline. My son, by the way, did in fact go to public school and is about to graduate from college.
I am thrilled that Doug took the time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. You can find out more about Hollywood and Vine Cellars at the official website. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Doug Barr for his contributions to '80s pop culture and for taking a walk down memory lane with us for a little while here as well.