December 09, 1985 12:00 PM

Some actors spend months researching their roles, right down to the shape of a character’s toenails. For the part of Dan Fielding, Night Court’s smug, self-absorbed assistant district attorney, John Larroquette’s homework was as close as the nearest mirror. Recalls his British-born wife, Elizabeth, of their meeting 11 years ago: “He was pompous and arrogant, and I tried to ignore him as much as possible.” His chronic drinking problem may have contributed to that hauteur. In any case, Larroquette gave up booze nearly five years ago and claims not to take himself so seriously now. Don’t believe it. He also says, “I would never write an autobiography. I’m too self-obsessed to write about anybody but me and too egotistical to tell the truth.”

At the moment, Larroquette, 38, is cruising toward Malibu. The car, a shiny black $45,000 Porsche, is new. So is its $2,000 cellular telephone. His home—a three-bedroom ranch on three acres overlooking the ocean—is also newly purchased. Then there’s his new personal computer, his new Emmy (he won for Best Supporting Actor), his new, prized $20,000 collection of leather-bound first edition books and even a new Rottweiler, named Max. Things are so good that his wife, daughter Lisa, 15, and son Jonathan, 9, seem to be the only things in his life not under warranty.

Larroquette, meanwhile, is in no rush, so he’s crawling along Pacific Coast Highway at 90 mph. “I love leather on leather,” he purrs, caressing the leather steering wheel with his doeskin gloves. “It feels good.” Sometimes it feels too good. Weeks ago he was nabbed doing a humiliating 48 mph in a 35 zone. “I wanted to say to the cop, ‘Listen, let me get back in the car, follow me, and let me get up some speed so I can say that I was caught doing 130 in a 35 zone.’ ”

Larroquette’s most memorable journey is the one toward self-destruction that began in his hard-drinking youth. “I should be dead right now,” he says. “I should be playing handball with John Belushi or I should be in some ward with a liver the size of a basketball.” He also experimented with drugs and pills but gave all of them up cold turkey. “My drinking was a long, drawn out melodrama,” he says. “I thought I drank because I had problems, but I realized I had problems because I drank.” The turning point toward recovery came on Feb. 6, 1981, in an epiphany that sounds almost mystical. Sitting with friends, “drunk as usual,” he suddenly stepped outside himself. “I saw this big hulk of a guy spewing forth this ration of bull—about bad taste in actors and movies and incompetence in the industry. The guy’s face looked like it had been inflated with a bicycle pump. And my first thought was, ‘Who is this guy? He sure is a loser.’ Then I realized I was looking at me.” Since then he has “not taken a drink, or had a pill or a snort or a toot or a popper or a suppository.” Recently he stopped smoking. “I quit the day Selma Diamond [his Night Court co-star] died,” he says. Since she died of lung cancer, “I didn’t want to take a cigarette break at her funeral.”

Larroquette first read for the part of Judge Harry Stone (played by Harry Anderson), but executive producer Reinhold Weege was impressed by Larroquette’s arrogant, smug nature and “a certain conservative opportunism. I said to myself, ‘There’s my prosecutor,’ ” Weege remembers. Concedes Larroquette: “There are similarities. There have to be, because I am playing him and he is stuck with me.” He is known as a crazy around the set. “It took a while to get used to him,” says Richard Moll, the show’s baldheaded bailiff. “He’ll stand over me and trace my scalp saying, ‘Men, we’re going to gather here in the clearing….’ ”

Larroquette grew up on the fringe of New Orleans’ French Quarter, the only child of an enlisted Navy man and a department store clerk. His dad walked out on the family when he was 2, and Larroquette later found out that his date of newfound sobriety was his father’s birthdate. Larroquette and his mother, Berthalla, who later remarried, were regulars at Mardi Gras—they usually dressed as mother and son Orientals—until he turned 18. By then, he says, “I was more interested in getting drunk and picking up strange women.” A poor student, he skipped college and became a disc jockey on a classical station in New Orleans. “I was 17 and had to sound like I was 40, had gray hair and drove a Jaguar.” He spent the next six years getting hired and fired on the deejay circuit in Louisiana, Texas and Colorado, and there was a brief failed marriage along the way. “I was a true child of the ’60s, looking to get laid and get high,” he says. “I would like to think I was an anarchist. Actually I was a smart-ass.” Like the time he was working on a radio station in Houston, calling himself Judas of the South. He would play Coven’s Black Mass and invite listeners to stop by the church for “coffee and virgins.”

He tried producing records and failed miserably. So in 1971 he moved to California and took cut-rate acting lessons. He went on to do numerous guest spots, specializing in “psycho of the week” parts. “I like playing villains,” he says. “There’s a lot of meat in them.” Movies like Stripes and Altered States followed. He met his wife, an actress, while appearing onstage in L.A. and won her over with the sophistication of a budding Jerry Lewis. One day at rehearsal, “he stuck his head in a bowl and did this hilarious broadcast from the bottom of the bowl,” she says. “I just died laughing and thought, ‘Oh no, now I’m in trouble.’ ” They married seven months later.

Despite his new material indulgences, Larroquette isn’t taking his success for granted. He gazes out toward a picture-postcard sunset over the Pacific. “This is not beyond my wildest dream because it is my wildest dream,” he says. “A lot of my drinking was done alone in my car dreaming majestic dreams about houses by the ocean and Emmys.” Now that he has both—and has stopped drinking as well—the too-good-to-be-true paranoia is creeping in. “Maybe I’m hallucinating all this,” he says. “Maybe I’m on the floor in a seizure just thinking I’m being interviewed.”

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