Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
Jeff Daniels is obviously a movie actor. This can't go any further without making note of that tiny fact for just a short while. It's a tribute, a sort of geek out. There was a time back during those high school years when not only did we go to the movie theater one Friday evening - yeah - 14 years ago to see "Dumb and Dumber" on opening night, but we went back the next night as well to watch it again - just the dudes. Lloyd Christmas and Daniels' Harry Dunne were the new quotables (there with Chris Farley and Adam Sandler) and saying, "Samsonite? I was way off!" or, "Why don't you eat your burger and we'll tell you," or discussing the scene where Petey is sold to a blind kid for travel money were how we spent our time when we weren't challenging our buddies about who knew more lyrics for Sir-Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back." It was the perfect comedy for a bunch of 16 year olds - complete with Daniels' explosive diarrhea scene that was robbed of any special, distinguished recognition from the Academy (they were too busy going bananas over "Braveheart" and "Babe").
It would be fantastic if no one ever tries to do another laxative scene as long as they continue to make movies. It will feel half-baked and quite erroneous. Daniels is nothing like Harry Dunne, as I'm sure almost anyone would be willing to wager. He's a quiet and humble man who takes pride in the state of Michigan and the city of Chelsea, where he spent his childhood living and where he still resides and raises his three children with his wife and high school sweetheart. He founded the Purple Rose Theater Company there and regularly plays shows across the country to raise money for the theater, also contributing most of the proceeds from the sales of his three recorded albums to the same cause. He traveled to Rock Island by big Aerosmith-like tour bus from his home the first day of May and the early morning rising time, along with the jarring and lengthy ride in the bus had Daniels pulling into town haggard and dragging.
He had some fair rings around his eyes as he walked with his beloved guitar the half-block from the dinner theatre where he was to be performing later that night to the Daytrotter studio, where he was greeted by a three-person newspaper crew, invited to the session for a brief Q&A and some video recording. Daniels immediately made the comment that he thought he was being treated a little too well - as if he were Neil Diamond. Immediately, just a guy. Immediately, just a guy that you could see as a father who runs a lumberyard - just as his father did — a guy who could absolutely fall in love with a classic car, a pair of jeans and a flannel. Here's a hunch that's unconfirmed, but he must mow his own lawn. I can't see him hiring out for something like that.
He probably changes his own oil. He probably would admit to being a diehard Sparky Anderson fan, a believer in the powers of Alan Trammell. He might have seen Mark "The Bird" Fidrych as a peer to model his baseball skills after when he was still playing. He most assuredly is a guy that sits on the back porch as the day's wound itself down into a big, orange, submissive ball and imbibes with a micro-brew or a cheap brew, just something cold and amber. He confided that he enjoys playing the smaller locales than some of the big absurdities of population and ego.
The songs that he writes follow the kind of story song construction that a short vignette - a 12-minute movie - might have. He's matter-of-fact, poignant and humorous through all of them, getting those clever snaps of thought fleshed out into pieces that stand to explain the diverse actor's true self - which could be closer to Bill Johnson, the hamburger stand proprietor in "Pleasantville" who starts the movie as a man so burdened by routine that when Bud doesn't show up for work on time, he goes on wiping the countertop until he's worn a light brown streak in it and ends it as a fearless man taken by the beauty of passionate beings, of artwork that transcends much of what most people value and think matters. Daniels has been disenchanted by the Hollywood scene for a long time, choosing his roles wisely (case in point is the spectacular turn as Bernard Berkman in "The Squid and the Whale") and continuing to live in the Midwestern city he grew up in - not envying all of the chumps who want the world to smell and look like they do.