We can hardly believe it ourselves. But we here at Abnormal Use scored an interview with the actor, Phil Morris, who most know as Jackie Chiles, the bombastic, flamboyant, and opportunistic trial lawyer from “Seinfeld.” So, today, Abnormal Use continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” which now includes actors, as well as law professors, practitioners, and other commentators in the field. Though the character only appeared in six episodes of the series (including the 1998 finale), Chiles resonated with viewers. Recently, Morris reprised the role for a series of videos posted on the Funny or Die website (two of which have been posted already with three more on the way in the coming weeks). Less than a week ago, Morris was kind enough to submit to a telephone interview with our own Kevin Couch. In the interview, Morris discusses not just his role as Chiles, but also his upcoming projects, his love of superhero comic books, and his past work and influences. Although you may be able to quote many lines of Jackie Chiles “Seinfeld” dialogue, you probably didn’t know that Morris has studied kung fu, collected 20,000 comic books in his life time, and expressed an interest in one day playing the Silver Surfer on screen. His new sitcom, “Love That Girl!,” premieres in January. Our favorite part: Though his signature character is associated with litigiousness, Morris himself is actually skeptical of the modern litigation culture, going so far as to call it “beyond the pale.”
The interview transcript is as follows:
ON THE RETURN OF JACKIE CHILES
KEVIN COUCH: [I]t’s been 12 years since the finale of “Seinfeld,” and you have revived the Jackie Chiles character recently. Can you tell me about that?
PHIL MORRIS: Well, you know, Jackie had a life of his own even during the run of “Seinfeld.” You know, I had done a couple of commercials for Honda and Diet Dr. Pepper. He was one of the few characters, actually maybe the only character, that Larry [David] and Jerry [Seinfeld] would allow to do his own thing outside of the “Seinfeld” universe. So, you know, I mean, I just never really tired of him. I don’t think the public did, and we never got a chance to do a show that was – we had in development, and it was always just kind of percolating beneath my skin, and when the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” shows came out last season with the “Seinfeld” reunion kind of run, or arc, everybody was asking me about Jackie. I mean, you know, it was like Jackie had come back, and Jackie wasn’t even in it. So, I sat down with a friend of mine who’s a pretty high powered agent here in town, and he was asking me about Jackie. You know, we loved this reunion stuff, and we finally had something to talk about at the water cooler again, and you know, the only thing missing is Jackie. Where’s Jackie? I was like, “You know, man, Jackie, that ship has sailed, and blah, blah, blah.” He goes, “Oh, no, it has not sailed. We want that guy back.” And he gave me the idea to kind of put it on the web and, you know, test the waters, see if people were interested. You know, Kevin, I work a lot. I do a lot of shows. I do a lot of stuff. I’m on “Smallville” on the occasion. I’m doing a new show called “Love That Girl!” for TV One. So, it’s not like I was sitting around waiting on stuff to do.
MORRIS: It’s like, this came to me, and as an actor, rarely do you get a character that you feel so committed to and it speaks to you so fully as a Jackie Chiles. So I was like, “Why not?” Let me give it a shot. You know, so, I wrote a couple of these interstitial commercial kind of things. You know, Jackie’s back, and he’s wanting new clients kind of deal. And, a buddy of mine and I who are writing it, he told Funny or Die that we were doing this. And we hadn’t even started. And they came right at us. They were like, “We’ll produce it, we’ll distribute them, we love this guy, he’s perfect for us!” So I wrote these five with Whit’s help, Whit Hertford’s help, and went to Castle Rock and cleared their legal. It took about two months. And the result is kind of, you know, what you see. They’re parceling out one episode or one segment every few weeks and judging the public’s interest. And so far, the public is very interested.
COUCH: [W]ould you be interested in pursuing the Jackie Chiles character further? I mean, it sounds like you’ve got some good feedback from Funny or Die, and from the public on Funny or Die, would that be something you’re interested in pursuing in the future?
MORRIS: Of course, of course. Like I said, it’s rare for an actor to have characters that you so firmly connect to. Now, I don’t really relate to Jackie personally, but as an actor, I get it completely. So, I find that it’s refreshing for me to try to fit into that skin all the time, and like I said, I have barely scratched the surface of Jackie Chiles, so it’d be great to be able to pursue this path, you know, the computer screen and maybe into a television series, or I don’t even know what’s next for him, but I really don’t think there’s a limit.
MORRIS: Well, I’m sure you have people in your family or people that you know that you can imitate or you can represent because they’re such great characters, but they’re not – it’s not really you, but you know them so well, you know, and I think Jackie is a combination of many men that I have grown up with and seen, from my father to my great uncle, Uncle Phil, my namesake, that just remind me of this kind of force of nature that is Jackie Chiles. You know, of course, Johnnie Cochran is in there as well. He was the template. For my purposes as an actor, Jackie is a hustler, he’s a pimp, he’s a preacher, and he’s an attorney. So, do I relate to all those things? I relate to them. Are they Phil Morris? No, not all of them.
COUCH: Did you have a chance to meet Johnnie Cochran?
MORRIS: I did, actually. Interestingly enough, we went to the same barber shop for years and years and years here in Los Angeles. So, I would see him as a kid come in and pontificate on everything from the Raiders moving to L.A. to any of the number of egregious acts of civil unrest. So I think I was doing some subconscious study on him for a long, long time.
COUCH: [B]ut you never had a chance to discuss the Chiles character with him?
MORRIS: Yeah, I did. And he loved it. I mean, I think he thought it was very flattering – at first.
COUCH: At first. Understood. Of course, one of the story lines from “Seinfeld” was, I guess, Kramer’s burns from the hot coffee. Do you have any feeling about that? What about people filing these lawsuits for burning themselves on hot coffee?
MORRIS: Well, we’re so litigious in this society, too much. It’s way beyond the pale. So that’s where I kinda jump off from Jackie. I certainly wouldn’t put stock in a lot of that stuff. I think, it’s just, we’ve gotten away with way too much here in the United States in terms of the legal ramifications of everything. I think, again like I said, beyond the pale. Jackie is an opportunist. So anything like that is manna for him. But personally, I think we’re really hurting ourselves and shooting ourselves in the foot. Not only are we giving our legal system a bad name, but we’re abusing it! We’re misusing those bits of legal power that we have – we’re fortunate enough to have in this country. It kind of drives me crazy.
COUCH: Have you ever had any lawyers come up to you and talk about Jackie Chiles?
MORRIS: All the time.
COUCH: What’s common in what they talk to you about?
MORRIS: Most of them – all of them, to me, are very positive. In fact, there is a Jackie Chiles Law Society at the University of Utah. I bet you didn’t know that!
COUCH: I did not go to the University of Utah, or I assure you, I would have been a member.
MORRIS: Is that crazy? So, anyway, their club, their society is about the public’s perception of law as the media represents it. And it’s very interesting, a very interesting phenomenon. But, yeah, most of the lawyers that come up to me are very supportive. They get the joke! You know what I’m saying? And I think people need to know that. As crazy as we think lawyers are and as crazy as the lawyers might actually be – on a whole, especially when it comes to Jackie – they get it! They’re like – man, this man is a lightning rod for all that’s good and all that’s bad.
COUCH: Anybody talk to you about not getting the joke?
MORRIS: No. Not one lawyer has gone – you know, “What the heck are you doing, I can’t understand why people even like this character!” Not one. Not one has come up to me with any sort of negative spin on this [character].
COUCH: It’s not the first time you’ve played a lawyer. I’ve got to ask you about Tyrone Jackson. I don’t know if anybody else will know who Tyrone Jackson is. But you played a character on “The Young and the Restless,” right?
MORRIS: You’re good, Kevin, you are good!
COUCH: Well, you know, I have the Internet to thank for that. . . . Is [there] anything from Tyrone that’s in the Jackie Chiles character?
MORRIS: Only his determination. That’s it. Tyrone actually was a very good natured, “Johnny Be Goode” kind of character, and Jackie certainly isn’t that. But what they have in common is their dogged determination to make sure the truth – as far as they see it – will out. That’s pretty much the only connection there.
COMIC BOOK SUPERHEROES
COUCH: Like you mentioned earlier, you’ve done a lot of different work – voice work and animated features, Doc Saturday, Jonah Hex, work in the “Justice League.” . . . I guess you’re a fan of this genre of entertainment?
MORRIS: Yep, oh, yeah.
COUCH: What motivated that? . . . From what I can tell your sister [actress Iona Morris] has done some voice work and animation, as well.
MORRIS: She actually turned me on to voice over work early on. I was so busy with the on camera stuff. Voice over is not easy. It’s a very clique-ish insider type of circle that you get into. But, hey, I’m a comic book fan, man. I’m sitting here right now in my bedroom, and I’m looking at the 20,000 comic books I have in my library. 20,000!
COUCH: Wow. That is impressive.
MORRIS: I’ve collected since I was a child. So, all of that helps me as an actor. It helps my imagination. It helps my fantasy life. All that stuff. So, it’s a natural to kind of transition into voice-overs. I’m just a child. Man, I haven’t grown up.
COUCH: Are you a fan of anything in particular in the comic book genre?
MORRIS: Now, I’m a big fan of the writers. Before, I used to be a Marvel guy. When you’re a kid you kinda take allegiances with either Marvel or DC – those are the two big dogs. But there’s a lot of independent books out there, and a lot of writers and artists that – now that I’m in that world – that I’ve known and been fortunate enough to become friends with. I really like the writing. Obviously, it’s not kid stuff anymore. They’re dealing with some interesting themes in the comic book world.
MORRIS: It would be the Silver Surfer, actually, from the Fantastic Four comics. He was a very existential, philosophical being who kind of belonged to no world and no universe, and sometimes, I feel like that. [Laughs.]
COUCH: Well, I’m sure it wasn’t hard to play a super hero right after playing a lawyer, right?
MORRIS: [Laughs.] You know, perfect study. I’ll have to be honest with you.
COUCH: You would agree that lawyers are pretty much like super heroes?
MORRIS: No doubt, no doubt. You’ll get no argument from me, Kevin.
ROLE AS PRODUCER
COUCH: You ever think about doing anything other than being an actor? Like, being something like a lawyer?
MORRIS: I was very interested in automotive design for a long, long time. When it got a bit too math intensive, I bounced out of that. You know, I think I sort of expanded my ability to create and express within this particular career choice. You know, Jackie, I wrote and produced, and obviously, am Jackie. Since then, I’ve produced something else that we want to turn into a feature film. So, I went from producing nothing in 30 years of acting to the last couple of months producing two very diverse and very extravagant products. I would really like to pursue that more – to produce and to write and use all of my skills as opposed to just the acting part of my tool kit.
COUCH: Is there anything you’re working on now as far as production or writing?
MORRIS: There’s a movie that we’re trying to put together called Surf Men, which is a historical piece about the turn of the century, actually 1880′s, Reconstruction lifesaving service back in the East Coast which is a precursor of the Coast Guard and the African American lifesaving crew that was a part of that service. It’s an incredible story, so my buddy Dennis Haysbert from “The Unit” and “24″ and the Allstate commercials – he and I are producers on this project. And we’re very excited to get it out there and have people see what we’re really all about beyond our acting skills.
KUNG FU HOBBY
COUCH: Now, you’re a kung fu guy.
MORRIS: I am.
COUCH: How’d you get into that?
MORRIS: Well, my dad [Greg Morris] did the original “Mission Impossible” . . . years ago, back in the sixties. At first, they started to take karate lessons because they were doing some exotic hand-to-hand combat then – it really wasn’t seen. So, when my dad started, I started. In ’66, I was seven. So, I’ve been involved with the martial arts since I was seven years old. This particular master that I study with now, Hawkins Cheung, I’ve been with for a little over 20 years. I started with him here in Los Angeles, and he was Bruce Lee’s best friend back in Hong Kong. So, there was no better teacher I could find than him. And I was a huge Bruce Lee fan, so it just fell right in my lap. I’ve been with him for over 20 years.
COUCH: So if I were to anger you in some way during this interview, would you be more likely to file a lawsuit Jackie Chiles style or just put me in some kind of kung fu grip?
MORRIS: I think I’d just file a lawsuit. Jackie would come after me if I put hands on you. He would say, “You should know better.” And I should. I need to walk away. I’d rather come after you with humor. [Laughs.]
COUCH: Now, you talked about your dad, Greg Morris. You grew up in a household where he was an actor. Did you ever think to yourself, “He’s got a much cooler job than being a lawyer?”
MORRIS: Yeah, I think so. Yeah.
COUCH: . . . [W]ho else helped shape your career – who have you wanted to be as far as an actor and now maybe this production and writing?
MORRIS: A big influence – not as much personally, although I do know him personally, professionally, in terms of his legacy is Sidney Poitier. I remember when my father came up, he was one of the first African Americans to present an image on television that was palpable, acceptable, mainstream, strong, intelligent. It was a huge deal in the country, period, but especially in my community. And certainly one of the great idols and icons in my community, Sidney Poitier. And I had the fortune to meet him as a child and to see him come to our house, hear him speak, he was a good friend of my father’s. And every time I run into Sidney, he has great words of wisdom and is always checking on my well-being and my understanding of this business beyond just being an actor. So, he’s been a huge influence. The way he carries himself, his intelligence, his bearing. So two of the greatest – Sidney in film and my father in television – were two of the greatest influences a young African American actor could have. Those two. Bill Cosby, ironically enough. Another very good friend of my father’s who is such a solid individual. He’s a professor. He’s very much a family man. A staple of entertainment, black, white, indifferent, for years and years and years. In fact, decades. So he’s been a very close friend. Not so much personally [that] I call him up on the phone and say, “Hey, Bill, what do you think about this?” Just that when you grow up the way I grew up, the influences are everywhere. You’re fortunate, and you’re smart, if you take a page out of the people’s books who’ve been there before you. I’m hoping to find that and further that in my own creative career.
HIS NEW SITCOM, “LOVE THAT GIRL!”
COUCH: . . . You have got a new sitcom coming. Tell me about that.
MORRIS: Yeah. Martin Lawrence is one of our producers, and Bentley Kyle Evans, who produced the “Martin” show and “The Jamie Foxx Show,” created a show called “Love That Girl!” starring Tatyana Ali from the “Fresh Prince.” It’s basically – Tatyana plays this young divorcee’ who moves back to Los Angeles and deals with her father. I play her dad. And deals with her brother, played by Alphonso McAuley and her crazy neighbors. It’s really a traditional four camera sitcom that is just funny and has great value and is not just good for my community but good for television overall, and TV One is a brand new network that has been out maybe five or six years and is being run by some of the most forward thinking African American executives I’ve ever worked with. We air in January. We have a 26 show initial order. So, I think the public will like that, as well.
COUCH: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve done? You’ve done a multitude, you know, “Star Trek” and all the other stuff that you’ve done. Can you point to a favorite? Is that hard to do?
MORRIS: It’s kind of hard to do because I’ve done so much and so different. I loved “The Young and The Restless.” I really did. We started talking about that a little bit. That was a great initial offering for, again, a young actor.
COUCH: I tried to look that up on YouTube. I did not find any Tyrone Jackson videos. I don’t know if there’s some legal reason for that. But if we can dig one of those up, we’ll put that up.
MORRIS: I don’t know where that would exist either. “The Young and The Restless” has been on forever. They’re a daily show, so the archives have got to be very convoluted, but “The Young and The Restless” was great. Certainly, “Seinfeld” was phenomenal. I did a television movie for Disney called “Tracks of Glory” about Marshall “Major” Taylor who was a world champion cyclist. That’s a project that not a lot of people saw, but again, very close to my heart and helped me a lot as a creative person. I did the new “Love Boat.” This was a weird one to pick up and talk about. The new “Love Boat” I did with Robert Urich and Joan Severance, and it was one of the most incredible times I’ve ever had. First of all, Robert Urich was a fabulous guy. He had had – he was post-operative cancer, he’s since passed away from cancer. But to know him was just a joy, and he just was a brilliant guy, and I got a chance to work with him. I worked with Peter Graves on the new “Mission Impossible,” which was phenomenal. Here, he was my Uncle Peter, I grew up with him and his kids, now we’re working together! It was just – I’ve had a great life, a great creative life, Kevin.
FURTHER READING ON PHIL AND GREG MORRIS
- “Mission: Impossible’s Greg Morris / He keeps his cool despite grueling competition both on and off the screen,” Ebony, December 1967.
- “Mission: Possible: Greg Morris Family / Beats old show business ‘jinx,” Ebony, May 1981.
- “Mission: Possible / Phil Morris takes over dad’s role in suspense TV series,” Ebony, June 1989.
- “New Faces on TV and in Films,” Ebony, March 1985.
- “Phil Morris Stars in ‘Tracks of Glory,‘” Jet, July 20, 1992.
- “Second Generation: Children Tell Why They Follow in Their Parents’ Footsteps,” Jet, Jun 19, 1989.
- “TV’s Greg Morris Talks About His Family and Future,” Jet, January 12, 1978.
- Waldron Clarence. “‘Young and The Restless’ Celebrates 35 Years of Drama, Success,” Jet, April 7, 2008.