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Hollywood Journey: From Law School to 'Prairie Scum'


Some of the finest performers in Hollywood are character actors, who are often seen on screen but are hardly household names to audiences. William Sanderson, who plays a sheriff in the series True Blood on the HBO cable network, is one of those actors.

He is a native of Memphis, Tennessee, says he is often cast in Westerns as an outlaw or derelict because of his southern accent. He finds himself playing the kind of unkempt characters he jokingly calls "prairie scum."

He was the quirky E. B. Farnum in the series Deadwood. The award-winning show, set in the historical Western town of Deadwood, South Dakota, mixed fact and fiction with offbeat humor and raw language. Sanderson played a neurotic, obsequious and greedy character, a hotel owner who became the town's mayor.

Sanderson often gets small roles but sometimes plays memorable characters. One of the best-known was the toymaker and genetic designer J. F. Sebastian in the 1982 science fiction classic Blade Runner.

The film by director Ridley Scott starred Harrison Ford and Daryl Hannah. It concerned a future world where humans felt threatened by the clones they had created. Sanderson says it was a high point in more than 100 film and television roles. "I played a lot of renegades, you can imagine, with this accent, or derelicts, but after Blade Runner, because I played a genetic engineer with two hours of makeup, I began to also get what they call 'more sympathetic parts'. It would have been nice to be a romantic lead. But since I will not win any beauty contests, I am not counting on it," he said.

Sanderson started acting in New York after a hitch in the U.S. Army. He then got help to go to college and law school under the G.I. Bill, a government program for veterans. He graduated from Memphis State University with a law degree, but chose a different path from most of his classmates. "I did. I never took the bar exam, which makes me call myself an ignorant man, almost a lawyer. But I never regretted going to law school. Just, how did I end up an actor? That is the question," he said.

Sanderson answers his own question, saying he performed in some plays in college and learned that pretending to be someone else was more fun than poring over law books and researching legal cases. His decision to enter acting has paid off.

"I have been very lucky, but I had my apprenticeship in New York where I bartended after law school and studied acting, did plays that people often did not come see. But when I look at the resume, I say you have been pretty fortunate to do some movies and a lot of television and some theater. [I] do voiceovers, cartoons. I probably scared some of the Hollywood audience, but I think it all is providence. It is a gift from heaven, to survive," he said.

Sanderson played eight seasons on the television comedy Newhart, as one of three rustic brothers, Larry, Darryl and Darryl, who had moved from Appalachia to the northeastern state of Vermont, where comedian Bob Newhart ran an inn in the series.

Sanderson recalls the show was filmed in front of an audience, which raised the stakes for the actors. If the audience applauded, the performers knew the characters would remain in future shows. "They said I looked calm when I came on the stage, but off-stage - I did not throw up like a lot of actors - but I [had] lots of roiling stomach and fears and adrenaline and insecurities," he said.

He has worked with some of Hollywood's biggest stars, from Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon to Angelina Jolie.

Sanderson enjoys working in Hollywood, but with so many other actors here, he faces tough competition, as he notes philosophically. "Many are called, but few are chosen," he said.

In his latest role, the actor has shaved and cut his hair. He plays a modern small-town sheriff in a series about vampires called True Blood.

Although he is often typecast as a cowboy or Southerner, Sanderson enjoys taking roles in new directions. Through more than three decades in Hollywood, he has played nuanced and original characters, and worked with some of the best in the business.

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