In a New ‘Night Court,’ John Larroquette Plays Defense
In 1985, John Larroquette won the Emmy for best supporting actor for his work in “Night Court.” Larroquette, a New Orleans native with a double bass voice and a 6-foot-4 frame, played Dan Fielding, the smarmy prosecutor assigned to the graveyard shift at a Manhattan municipal court. (Here is Entertainment Weekly’s appreciation: “Rarely has horny smugness been so convincingly portrayed.”)
Larroquette won again in 1986. And in 1987 and 1988. Then he declined to be considered for further awards.
“I didn’t want to outstay my welcome,” he said on a recent video call, from the study of his home in Portland, Ore., a black-and-white diptych of the playwright Samuel Beckett behind him. (Larroquette collects rare books, particularly Beckett first editions.) He had taken the character, he felt, to the limits of what the network would allow. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences should give someone else a chance.
“It was a high-class problem, my God,” he said.
“Night Court,” an affable workplace comedy with a rich vein of absurdism, ran from 1984 to 1992 as part of NBC’s vaunted Thursday night bloc. Enjoying the stability and the camaraderie, Larroquette put in the hours until the end. But when the network offered him a spin off, he declined. His nine seasons as Dan had defined his professional life; he wanted to try other people on for size.
“I thought, I’ve done this for a long time,” he said. “If I let him die his natural death, maybe I can do another character elsewhere.”
But Dan Fielding didn’t die. On Tuesday on NBC, he approaches the “Night Court” bench once more. In the show’s reboot, a multicamera passion project for Melissa Rauch (“The Big Bang Theory”), Larroquette reprises his role — bearded, grayer, less able to leap a courtroom’s railing in a single bound.
“I wanted to see if I could make him funny again, truly,” Larroquette said. Then, smiling his signature smile that reduces his eyes to slits — half grimace, half goof — he landed the punchline. “Also, let’s be honest, it was a lot of money.”
Larroquette, 75, doesn’t see his career, before “Night Court” or after, as having a deliberate arc. He understands it instead as a flashy pinball game that has bounced him from bumper to bumper and sometimes into the gutter, artistically anyway. (Pressed, he’ll mention a “Fawlty Towers” remake.)
After “Night Court,” he next starred in “The John Larroquette Show,” a comedy about a recovering alcoholic that skewed too dark for network tastes. (Larroquette is about 40 years sober. When I warned him that I had food poisoning and might have to exit the call at some point, he said: “I’ve held the heads of several drunks in my lifetime. I’m used to it.”) That comedy, created by Don Reo, captured a little of his native melancholy, a morsel of his seriousness.
“I had no idea I’d be working with an actor who was as into Samuel Beckett as he was,” Reo said.
“Staring into the abyss and the abyss is staring back — that spoke to both of us,” he added. “He’s just in touch with the curse and the blessing of being alive.”
Stints on the David E. Kelley shows “Boston Legal” and “The Practice” followed. “The Practice” earned him a fifth Emmy. Once a lawyer, almost always a lawyer: “You don’t think of me as a guy that runs a motorcycle shop,” Larroquette said with his usual rumble.
Kelley, speaking by telephone, said: “You’re looking for an actor who can be funny without compromising those dramatic stakes. John keeps things real.”
Afterward, fulfilling a lifelong dream, Larroquette went to Broadway, where he earned a Tony, in 2011, as a featured actor in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” He has rarely felt entirely satisfied as an artist; this came close.
“I wish I had been more substantial in that regard,” he said. “Basically, I’ve never considered acting much of an art.”
In recent years, Larroquette had begun to contemplate retirement. He has a pension from the Screen Actors Guild and some savings. And social security. “Because I’m an old guy,” he said. None of his three children, he joked, need bail money. He had spoken to his wife, the former actress Elizabeth Larroquette, and consulted financial advisers. They told him that as long as he didn’t buy too many more rare books or live past 105, he’d be all right.
Then Rauch called. She loved “Night Court” as a kid and hoped to oversee its reprise. She wanted Larroquette as a part of it. Larroquette turned her down, more or less flat. He wasn’t the physical comedian he had been, and he didn’t feel that Dan’s libidinous ways matched current sensibilities.
“He said no,” Rauch recalled in a recent conversation. “But there was also a bit of a door open.”
Because Larroquette had questions. He didn’t want to see the reputation of the original “Night Court” sullied. So he and Rauch kept talking: about what this new show should be, about what needed to change and what should stay the same. Gradually, they developed a friendship. And when Rauch announced that she planned to star in the series, playing a judge, the daughter of Harry Anderson’s Harry Stone, he agreed to join.
“There was a part of me that was intrigued by the idea of reinhabiting the character that I’d played 35 years ago and what’s funny about him now,” he said.
In this reimagining, Dan is still a narcissist and a buffoon. Yet, he no longer leads with his genitals. He has loved and lost, and the ladies who saunter in and out of court no longer hold the same allure.
“There’s no degrading glances,” Larroquette said. “Nobody wants to see an old man do anything. I don’t find it appealing. So I don’t know where the humor would come from.”
One further change: Dan is a defense attorney now, a source of occasional confusion. “This man is a depraved menace and has no place in a decent society,” Dan says of his first client, a man accused of lewd acts. Then he course corrects: “My client, dare I say, my friend, is an outstanding pillar of his community.” The client then flashes the bench.
On the original show, Larroquette had a talent for going big without ever seeming to show the strain. Marsha Warfield, who joined “Night Court” as the bailiff Roz in its fourth season, remembered his effortlessness, no matter how absurd the jokes. “He was fully committed to the insanity and all of the gags and things,” she said. “He made it look easy.” (How absurd was the original? “We had an episode where a ventriloquist’s dummy committed suicide,” Larroquette said. “Not the ventriloquist, but the doll.”)
While making this new version, Rauch noticed a similar facility. “It’s almost like watching a jazz musician riffing,” Rauch said, describing a scene in which Larroquette had to deliver his lines while shooting backward in a swivel chair. “He’s never not funny.”
But this reboot had gravitas, for Larroquette at least. Almost every major member of the core cast has died — Anderson in 2018, Markie Post and Charlie Robinson in 2021. While filming on a set that mixed pieces from the original production with recreations, he said, he sometimes would look over and see his old castmates as they had been.
“So it was sad,” Larroquette said. “It was. It hurt.”
Larroquette won’t do another nine seasons on this new “Night Court.” But revisiting the show seems to have helped him to accept the progress of his career and to acknowledge the original as a high point. Though a serious man, he has accepted that he is best loved and best remembered for portraying a pervy fathead. He joked that he looked forward to “Entertainment Tonight” setting his obituary to a slowed down version of the “Night Court” theme.
He is, he said, a clown, which he meant both in the Beckettian sense, a witness to the absurdities of life, and in the red nose one. The idea of going out the way he came in, making jokes about men arrested for lewd conduct, had started to feel pretty good.
“I was born a clown,” he said. “It was easier to make people laugh, and usually they wouldn’t beat you up if they were laughing. I’ve tried to live by that, just trying to make people laugh. You can’t think of your troubles if you’re laughing.”