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Jeff Daniels on why he keeps risking failure

Jeff Daniels on why he keeps risking failure
Jeff Daniels on why he keeps risking failure 08:39

At his home in Chelsea, Michigan, Jeff Daniels is right where he wants to be.

"Something keeps you here?" asked correspondent Tracy Smith.

"It's the humidity," Daniels replied. "I'm not comfortable unless I feel like I'm in a sauna."

It's also where the 66-year-old actor thought he'd always be: "I never had any faith whatsoever that the acting career would last."

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Correspondent Tracy Smith with Jeff Daniels at the actor's Michigan home.  CBS News

Never? "No. That's one reason I moved back to Michigan after ten years in New York. This was 1986. 'When it's over, I'll have my wife and two-year-old and later two other kids, and when the phone call comes – You're over – I'm already home!'"

But right now, his home is on streaming TV. In the new Showtime series "American Rust," Daniels is the police chief of a run-down little town trying to uncoil a murder mystery that touches some of the people he's closest to.

To watch a trailer for "American Rust" click on the video player below:

American Rust (2021) Official Trailer | SHOWTIME by SHOWTIME on YouTube

Smith asked, "What appealed you to about the police chief?"

"I hadn't played it before," he said. "I really enjoyed driving the police cruiser!"

His character is pretty much like everyone else around here: a good person going through hard times in rural Pennsylvania. 

Daniels said, "There's a bunch of people in 'American Rust,' if they aren't at bottom, they can see bottom. And they're stuck, and they're trying to get out, and they're good people, and they have to make bad decisions just to survive in the United States of America."

It's a role he's played many times: the guy with the guts to say what no one else will. 

You might remember his famous monologue in 2012 from Aaron Sorkin's series, "The Newsroom":

Will McAvoy (Daniels): "The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore."

The Newsroom - America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. (explicit) by Mike Phillips on YouTube

The speech went viral, but Daniels had been just as stirring two decades earlier, as a Union officer in the 1993 film, "Gettysburg":

Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Daniels): "We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground. All of it."

(Gettysburg 1993) Colonel Chamberlain's speech by Stian Melchior 2 on YouTube

The thing is, after his heroic role in "Gettysburg," it was hard for some folks to picture Daniels as Jim Carrey's goofy sidekick in the Farrelly Brothers' 1994 hit, "Dumb and Dumber." Daniels said, "There was someone else on call the whole first week of shooting."

"What?" said Smith. "Somebody to replace you?"

"Yeah. Jim wanted me. The Farrelly Brothers wanted me. The studio? Hmmmph."

'Course in the end, he stuck it out, and they loved it, even the folks back home.

Mika Brzezinski took a trip to Daniels' hometown for "Sunday Morning" in 2006 and met Jeff's dad, Bob. "People say we look alike, and I'll say that's too bad, because I'm not too good-looking!" he laughed.

Bob Daniels was funny, but to Jeff, he was also the moral inspiration for every great role he would ever play. 

Sadly, Dad didn't live to see his son Jeff as Atticus Finch in the Broadway adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

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Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in the Broadway production of "To Kill a Mockingbird." CBS News

"I knew Atticus before I played Atticus," Daniels said. "I grew up with him – that knee-deep in decency, and treating people with respect, all those basics: that was Dad. Whoo, I miss him."

Smith asked, "What do you miss?"

"I don't know if I can get through it … I wish he'd seen Atticus. It was weird because I had run it for a year. And here comes Father's Day. So, you do the Sunday matinee, and you're thinking, 'Maybe you know, maybe he'll be watching,' and all that. I'm not religious, so I don't know, we'll see. I walk into the Sunday matinee on Father's Day and I hit it, and I'm goin', and everything works. You get to the closing argument, and you ride it like you're riding Secretariat.

"And you get to the end of the show, and you hope to see him at the back of the house, you know, in some angelic holy light. And you don't, 'cause he's not there. Okay."

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Jeff Daniels. CBS News

But after that show, after all the curtain calls, he was handed a letter from a woman in the audience who'd known his Dad. Daniels recalled it saying, "I always was asking your Dad, you know, 'Aren't you proud of him? Aren't you proud?' He goes, 'Of course, I'm proud of him. But I'm proud of him for the person he is, not just for what he's done in his career.'

"And I'm reading this … maybe he did see it," Daniels said, getting emotional. "Well, I mean, I love my Dad, what can I tell ya'?"

Summertime at the Daniels house is family time: his three grown children live close by, and the grandkids are frequent visitors.

Smith asked, "What's the best part about being a grandpa?"

"The best part about being a grandparent is that you no longer have to listen to other grandparents tell you how great grandparenting is. 'Oh, you're gonna love –' 'Shut up!'"

But summer days are fleeting:  Before long, Grandad will be back on Broadway as Atticus Finch, and after that, who knows? Even in Chelsea, Michigan, Daniels' phone never seems to stop ringing. 

"You're working really more than ever," said Smith.

"I'm working more in my 60s than I have in any decade of my career, which is not how they draw it up in the star school. It just isn't!" he said. "And I have yet to fail miserably, since 'Newsroom.' And I have tried, you know? I just keep risking it, and maybe that comes with knowing what you're doing after 40-some years. Maybe that – and I think that's part of it, is that I kind of know what I'm doing now."

      
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Story produced by John D'Amelio. Editor: Karen Brenner. 

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