LOS ANGELES — Kurtwood Smith turned the image of the sitcom dad on its ear in the raucous Fox sitcom “That ’70s Show” as Red Forman, the tough-nosed war vet father of Eric (Topher Grace).
Red was the antithesis of such sweater-clad warm-and-fuzzy TV dads as Ozzie Nelson on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and Bill Cosby on “The Cosby Show.” In fact, Red was more Tasmanian devil than teddy bear. He loved his power tools, drinking beer, hunting and fishing.
Red was known for his pungent put-downs of his son: “What are you going to put on your résumé? Dumbass?”
The character of Red hit close to him for Smith. The 70-year-old actor based the character on his late stepfather “in terms of his attitude, his voice, the walk and the edge that he had.”
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His stepdad never got a chance to see his small-screen alter ego. “He died a matter of months before it aired,” Smith said. “Plus, he would have probably said, ‘What the hell? I’m not like that at all.’ ”
The versatile character actor is back on TV playing a vastly different, far more complex dad on the new ABC Sunday evening drama series “Resurrection,” which has not only received strong reviews but has also been a top 10 performer in the crucial 18-49 demographic.
For Smith, acting success in Hollywood came later in life. He was a seasoned theater veteran of 44 when he was cast in “RoboCop.” He steals every scene he’s in playing the bone-chilling villain Clarence Boddicker in Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 blockbuster.
After earning an MFA in acting from Stanford University in the late 1960s, he stayed in the Bay Area and acted professionally before moving to Los Angeles in the late 1970s.
Smith pounded the pavement for two years in search of an agent while getting day work in TV and film, parts like the pizza delivery guy on the sitcom “Angie.”
Then came “RoboCop” and another high-profile part in Peter Weir’s 1989 “Dead Poet’s Society” as the disciplinarian father of Robert Sean Leonard’s character.
Since then he’s worked almost constantly, including films with such noted directors as Woody Allen (“Shadows and Fog”) and Alexander Payne (“Citizen Ruth”) and on popular TV series such as “24” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
In “Resurrection,” Smith plays Henry, a once-powerful man living in a bucolic small town. He and his wife, Lucille (Frances Fisher), had their lives upended 32 years earlier when their 8-year-old son, Jacob (Landon Gimenez), accidentally drowned.
In the first episode, the young Jacob suddenly returns home looking exactly the same as he did before he died.
Without reservation, Lucille accepts Jacob as their son, while Henry looks on the young boy with skepticism and keeps his distance. Though Jacob’s death brought Henry and Lucille together, his reappearance begins to tear them apart.
Henry strikes a personal chord with Smith. The father of two grown children, he couldn’t stop thinking about his granddaughter, who is the same age as Jacob, when he first read the script.
“One of the things I find fascinating about the character is that he has such a strong immediate emotional response,” Smith noted at ABC in Burbank. “But at the same time, the reality of it to him makes no sense. He put the kid in the ground.”
Henry, said Smith, “exists on a more emotional level than so many of the characters I have played. I have played a lot of hard-nosed characters.”
Despite being one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood, Smith had to audition for “Resurrection.” The network was initially reluctant to cast him, he noted — it wanted a bigger name.
“To be honest, you pretty much have to audition for pilots these days,” the wiry actor said. “I felt a special identification with it. I just did that one audition.”
Aaron Zelman, the creator and executive producer of “Resurrection,” said the network was “going after one actor in particular and someone they thought was a name that would possibly in and of itself bring viewers. But I have to say that Kurtwood was certainly always at the top of the list from the beginning. The name being bandied about I had doubts about.”
“My concern was that he didn’t have a sense of humor,” said Zelman, who wrote the pilot. “Kurtwood, I knew obviously did comedy and could give the character a wry, ironic sense of humor. I wanted him to have that capability.”
And besides, Zelman said, he had been a fan of Smith since “RoboCop.”
“He was so memorable,” Zelman said. “I said (to him), ‘You were the scariest bad guy I had ever seen in a movie.’ ”