U-M alum finds legal niche

by Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Character actor David Paymer, an Oscar nominee and University of Michigan alumnus, has starred in more than 90 feature films and 100 television episodes.

“I lost count,” said Paymer, 57, a New York native who has a recurring role as Judge Richard Cuesta on the award-winning CBS legal drama The Good Wife. He lives in Santa Monica with Liz, his wife of 23 years, and their two daughters.

“(Cuesta is) a very complex character,” Paymer explained. “He’s not a judge who’s just ‘overruled’ and ‘sustained.’ They just aired an episode, where I’m – the best word I can use – is ‘impeached.’ I have to defend myself for the possibility that I was involved in some improper conduct. It’s a very complex role. I can be funny because he’s very acerbic. He’s also a bully, and he’s very vulnerable. There are different layers I can explore as an actor that I don’t get to explore in many shows. It’s also one of the better-written shows on television.”

Now in its third season, The Good Wife centers on attorney Alicia Florrick (Emmy-winning actress Julianna Margulies, TV’s ER) whose husband Peter Florrick (TV’s Sex and the City), a former attorney for Cook County, was jailed in the wake of a very public sex and corruption scandal. Alicia returns to her old job as a litigator at the law firm Stern, Lockhart & Gardner to provide for her two children, Zach and Grace, after years of being “the good wife,” and must cope with the stigma of the scandal surrounding her name.

Paymer has high praise for Margulies and co-star Christine Baranski, who plays senior partner Diane Lockhart.

“Julianna is a joy to work with,” Paymer said. “These are two of the best actresses on TV today. I just so appreciate their talent and their professionalism. Whenever you’re working with someone of the highest caliber, it’s just gonna up your game.

Paymer was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his role as Stan Young, the brother and manager of Buddy Young (Billy Crystal, his co-star from 1991’s City Slickers), a famous comedian whose ego and self-destructive nature alienates his loved ones in 1992’s Mr. Saturday Night (which Crystal also co-wrote, produced, and directed).

“(Crystal) was thinking I could play the role of his brother. Luckily, he didn’t tell me he was writing script with me in mind because I’m sure I would’ve behaved in a very different and unnatural way…That really got my passport stamped, so to speak. I was invited to dine at the grown-ups’ table,” he said, laughing. “It represented a big jump to me, career-wise. Suddenly, Steven Spielberg was calling and I did Amistad for him. Robert Redford was calling and I did Quiz Show for him. Olive Stone was calling and I did Nixon for him. I had the opportunity to work with all these legendary directors that I wouldn’t have had the chance to, otherwise. Billy put me on the map.”

After transferring to U-M his junior year from the University of Rochester, Paymer graduated in 1975 with a degree in theater and psychology.

“I was a psych major, but I was really gravitating towards wanting to explore the possibility of being an actor,” he said. “U-M was able to provide me with a double major in both theater and psychology, which made my parents very happy because they were very worried about me choosing acting as a career – later on, they were very happy – but at that time, they were very worried. They wanted me to have something to fall back on, so to speak. I also had an interest in psychology and U-M provided a double major. I also wanted to get out of New York and go to a different part of the country. When I visited Ann Arbor when it was making my decision, it was a vibrant campus – still is – and a very exciting place for me. It had a lot of opportunities for a young actor. That’s how I ended up there.”

For Paymer, it was a “treat” returning to Ann Arbor last year after 30 years to film the romantic comedy The Five-Year-Engagement, which stars Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada). The movie, which is set in Ann Arbor, opened over the weekend. Paymer portrays Pete, the father of Segel’s character Tom.

“It was like going home again because I have such fond memories of being here. It was an intersection of my past and my present. Obviously, Ann Arbor looks a lot different than it did in the mid-1970s. The blueprint of the city is as I remember it, there are just bigger buildings everywhere,” said Paymer.

The movie opens up in San Francisco where Tom, a talented chef with aspirations of opening his own restaurant, proposes to girlfriend Violet Barnes (Blunt).

However, she accepts a post-doc position at U-M, which derails his career plans and forces the couple to postpone their wedding. Upon arriving in Ann Arbor, Tom hates it.
This strains their relationship and their engagement is put off yet again.

“I loved what Jason Segel’s been doing lately as an actor and a writer and a producer. Of course, this is a movie produced by Judd Apatow (Segel’s longtime collaborator on films such as the aforementioned Sarah Marshall). You can’t work for a better bunch of people than Judd and his extended creative family, so it was really a no-brainer to go play with them and go back to Ann Arbor at the same time,” said Paymer. “To stroll around and have all these memories of old girlfriends, old friends, plays that I did, and then to be a grown-up and actually doing in Ann Arbor what I was studying in Ann Arbor – which is being a movie actor – and to be back there as a movie actor in a major Universal motion picture, it felt great.”