Good judgment-U-M alum finds legal niche on 'Good Wife'

By Kurt Anthony King

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 explayed. "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 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. 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

Published: Thu, May 10, 2012