Nobody has yelled at him on the street yet. No one has let the air out of his tires or phoned late at night with a rude anatomical suggestion. But Dennis Dugan—who plays Moonlighting’s wonky Walter Bishop, the man Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) married over David Addison (Bruce Willis)—figures it’s just a matter of time. After all, immediately following Dugan’s debut on the hit series last month, the ABC switchboards lit up with calls from fans who were exercised about the interloper in Maddie’s arms. If Moonlighting is at least in part a mystery show, viewers wanted a puzzle solved: When were the producers going to vault Walt and get Maddie and David back in a tight clinch?
“If the show’s creators were trying to stir up trouble, their plan worked beautifully,” says Dugan, 41. He can find evidence right in the workplace. Sure, Shepherd likes her new co-star—”Dennis fell right into the rhythm and craziness of Moonlighting,” she says. But she admits, “I didn’t think it was a good choice to have Maddie get married. I objected to it and was told at great length that Maddie would do it and it was my job to do it.”
Okay, there are a few people who are thrilled that Dugan is on Moonlighting. His mother, for one. The show’s producer, Roger Director, for another. “We needed a believable match for Maddie,” says producer Director. “Yet we needed someone who would both serve as the object of David’s amusement and also could challenge him. Dennis does all those things. The odd thing, which is wonderful and scary to watch, is that Walter and Maddie seem to have a good relationship—and that’s threatening not only to David, but to our jobs.”
Dennis Dugan knows all about job insecurity. Since 1975 he has done nine pilots that have crashed and burned. And if Dugan did star in one series, Richie Brockelman, Private Eye—a spinoff from The Rockford Files—the show only lasted five weeks, from March to April 1978. Even the Moonlighting stint is guaranteed for just a year, and it might end sooner than that. Like this week. Director says Dugan’s character will be bumped off on the Tuesday, March 22 episode, although his boss, executive producer Glenn Caron, claims, “We’ll be seeing more of Dennis on the show.” With Moonlighting’s last-minute changes, you never know. Either way, Dugan doesn’t mind being rubbed out. “I’m just glad that I was rubbed in in the first place.”
The acting bug rubbed up against Dugan when he was a kid growing up in Wheaton, Ill., the second of four boys born to Charles, an insurance salesman, and Marion, a housewife. “My mother always had aspirations of becoming an actress, but she got married and had kids,” says Dennis. He began acting in Wheaton High School (where schoolmates included John Belushi and journalist Bob Woodward), majored in drama at the University of Chicago and performed at the prestigious Goodman Theatre for three years before heading for New York.
Manhattan greeted Dugan with the same level of warmth that Birds Eye—frozen Maddie Hayes frequently reserves for David Addison. He worked at a marketing research company for two years—Jane Curtin was also on the payroll—before being cast in 1971’s Obie-winning House of Blue Leaves. When the producers restaged the play in L.A., Dugan followed.
Work didn’t come much quicker in California than it had in New York. After seeing Dugan’s performance in Blue Leaves, B-movie king Roger Corman cast him in Nightcall Nurses as a Peeping Tom transvestite. Dugan was fabulous in the part, but as he says, “There’s not a lot of calls for those roles.” So he’s made do over the years with small parts on TV (ranging from The Mod Squad to Hill Street Blues) and in film (from Harry and Walter Go to New York to She’s Having a Baby). Recently he directed episodes of Hunter and Wiseguy, but he’s best known in the industry—in the words of a friend, actor Michael Keaton—as “the best out-of-work actor around.”
However unsettled his professional life, Dugan has aimed—with varying degrees of success—for a happy, well-ordered personal life. An accomplished painter, he’s had several gallery shows in L.A. Dennis Dugan silk screens adorn the walls of the two-bedroom town house he moved into after the breakup of his 14-year marriage. He and actress Joyce Van Patten, sister to Dick, were divorced last year. “We did our life together as actors—we were always acting in life,” says Dugan. “Actually, we had a terrific relationship. I just don’t know when it began to fall apart.”
His girlfriend of the last six months, psychologist Sharon O’Connor, has been helping Dugan pick up the pieces. “He’s a lot like the character he plays on Moonlighting,” says O’Connor. “He’s sensible, strong and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”
At the moment Dugan may also be one of the happiest. “I don’t really have anything to complain about right now,” he says. Even if he gets shut out of Moonlighting, it looks like there’s another job opening for him. Producer Brian (Splash) Grazer is considering him for a Joe Pyne-like talk show character in a new series, Channel 99. “Despite my best efforts, people know who I am,” laughs Dugan. “I do have a reputation. I’m not just the guy who destroyed Moonlighting.”
—By Joanne Kaufman, with Vicki Sheff in Los Angeles