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Willie Garson – Saying Goodbye to White Collar

Willie Garson stars in "White Collar."
Willie Garson stars in “White Collar.”

Willie Garson

Saying Goodbye to White Collar

by Jay S. Jacobs

Willie Garson has been pretty lucky recently in long-term TV roles.  First he spent several years playing Sarah Jessica Parker’s flamboyant best guy-friend in HBO’s Sex and the City.  He quickly followed up that beloved character with one that has become even more widely embraced, playing the constantly-scheming but lovable con man Mozzie on the hit USA Network show White Collar.

White Collar is the story of a dashing con man Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) who gets caught by the FBI and is forced by crusty agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) to help them on cases.  The popular ensemble show — which also stars Tiffani Thiessen (as Peter’s wife Elizabeth), Diahann Carroll (as Neal’s friend, mentor and landlady), Marsha Thomason and Sharif Atkins (as tough Federal agents).

The fifth season ended months ago with Neal being kidnapped after helping to foil a big heist.  Sadly in the months since that cliffhanger, USA Network decided that the sixth season would be the last for the long-running show, and it would be an abbreviated six-episode arc.

A few days before the final season starts, we were one of a few media outlets who were able to speak with Garson to discuss the end of White Collar and what is coming next for him.  (Hint: Bill Bixby fans will be very excited.)

What would you say excites you the most about this final season?

What excites me the most is that we got it. That we got one actually, because it was a little in jeopardy just to due to economics. It was really important to us – and eventually, also thankfully to USA – to give us these six episodes to finish up the story, as much of it as we could. We’re really excited, because our fans are so into the show, which we’re very thankful for. We really want to give them some kind of closure. We really took that opportunity seriously and worked very hard on these last six. I’m excited for people to see it.

What would you say is your biggest take away from this experience?

Well that’s a great question. My biggest takeaway from this experience is that TV shows can be run a different way. This show was run a different way, in terms of the collaborative nature of it. The studio – which was FTVS – and the network USA and our creator executive producer Jeff Eastin set up the show to be a very collaborative place. We all felt that we had some kind of ownership of the show, in terms of how it’s made and what goes on and what happens. It just made it a different place than I’ve worked before. We all felt a real part of making it, rather than just showing up to work and doing what was presented to us.

In recent seasons they’ve been giving certain hints about Mozzie’s background. I know that in the last six episodes they really have to focus mostly on Neal and Peter’s stories, but will they have time to explore any more about Mozzie’s background in those final episodes?

Very much so, and in a very incredible way. It was a massive surprise to me and it will be a massive surprise to our fans. (laughs) It’s terrific. I think it’s episode four. It’s quite terrific. People can really look forward to that. Any very strange Mozzie fanatics can really look forward to that episode. (laughs again)

Terrific, now not asking for any spoilers or anything but where do you think that Mozzie would like to end up five years from now and where do you see him winding up?

It’s always been an interesting question about Mozzie because Mozzie is kind of where he needs to be. He doesn’t have a goal, other than pulling cons, outsmarting people, being the smartest guy in the room and living comfortably. It’s interesting, if Mozzie suddenly woke up to a treasure of $200 million, I don’t know if he’d be fully happy just sitting there and rotting. I think he’d be one of those guys who would actually try and get rid of it, so he could get it again. The game is what keeps Mozzie going. I think he would do that forever.

White Collar cast

I thought you were hilarious in the premiere. Can you explain a little bit about your process for choosing a role? Now that Mozzie is done for you, what will you miss most about playing him? And can you describe the evolution over the seasons as you see it for Mozzie?

Well thank you. [In] the pilot, Mozzie was going to be this underground, dark, behind-the-curtain figure. What happened was the producers – Jeff Eastin the creator and the other writers – had to figure out a way to make him more involved with the show, because the character worked so well. That was a huge decision, which changed the show in a lot of ways. It affected all the other characters. That Mozzie was now going to be known to the FBI and part of the FBI’s process. If you think about it, it’s absolutely insane. However, it worked for the show because of how well Tim DeKay especially played it. That evolution took place really on camera, in terms of how much can Neal be involved with the FBI and keep his old life going? Which means Mozzie.

That was really great. As far as choosing roles, as actors in general on television the roles kind of choose you. I’ve been pretty fortunate in that they’ve been pretty decent projects that I’ve been very lucky to be in. I always joke that you go after NYPD Blue as hard as you go after Gilligan’s Island. You get the one that you get. I’ve been very lucky to go from NYPD Blue to Sex and the City and John from Cincinnati then straight to White Collar.

Now that I’ve been doing this for 100 years, I get the opportunity to create something on my own, which is a remake of Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which I’m developing with Fox. It’s been an interesting ride, but I believe as actors you end up where you belong. You get the role that’s the role you’re supposed to be getting. I’ve just been very fortunate.

With White Collar and Sex and the City you’ve now been part of these two iconic New York shows where the city is as much of a character as it is a backdrop. Has that been a choice to keep trying to do shows in New York, or has that solely been a blessing?

It’s been completely by coincidence. I’m from there, but I’ve lived in Los Angeles for a very long time. Since 1986… which is amazing because I’m only 20 now. What’s amazing is that I’m just thought of as a guy who works out of New York. While NYPD Blue was shot in LA, it’s thought of as a New York show. Then Sex and the City obviously. I don’t know why I’m thought of as someone who lives in New York, but I’ll take it as a compliment, I guess. Is it? I don’t know. (laughs) Then this one came up. I’m hoping my next show, just because of the logistics of raising my child in Los Angeles, that I get to shootCourtship of Eddie’s Father in Los Angeles. Which is what we’re trying to do, but we’ll see what happens. I’ve been blessed to be on iconic New York shows. New York has treated us like gold. Like we’re on the Yankees. It’s been fantastic. It’s been a great city for us.

Tim DeKay and Willie Garson

Did you ever think back in season one that Mozzie would warm up to Mr. and Mrs. Suit quite the way that he has over six seasons?

(laughs) No, not at all. I never thought that Mozzie would have any contact with anyone near the FBI. I think in season three is that great scene where Mozzie actually comes through the FBI office for the first time. He can barely step off the elevator, with sweat pouring out, everything going blurry. (laughs again) I just thought that was handled so well. What’s great about this show is the agility of the writers. They handle it and they move on. It’s like: Okay, we did that. Mozzie is afraid of going to the FBI. Well now, next time he goes to the FBI, he’s been there already. It’s not that big of a deal. That’s been what’s great about this show. As actors we talk about hitting beats. The show doesn’t hit the same beat over and over. It keeps going forward. That’s been a real blessing.

Do you think that Neal and Mozzie still want the same thing when the show comes to an end?

I believe they do. I don’t know how much it’s discussed in the episodes. But I believe that the characters are cut from the same cloth in a lot of ways, in terms of… we’re con men. What’s great about the show is even when Neal,when Matt’s characterhas been deeply involved in an FBI situation, the show never forgets that he is an international con man. Mozzie is cut from the same cloth as well. So possibly they do want the same outcome.

Knowing that these were the final episodes that you were all making, what was the experience like on the set? Was it different than it had been on previous seasons knowing that it was coming to an end?

It was sad and horrifying for all of us. It came too quickly. It was a lot of tears. A lot of: “It is the last time we’re doing this. The last time we’re doing this.” It came too quickly. We have been pretty open that none of us are rewriting history. It just was a situation where art and economics just did not mesh on the same page. We are ending too early and we’re all aware of that. USA found a way to thankfully make room for these final six, to give us a chance to tie up a lot of loose ends. We did the best that we could. But it all came too soon. We honestly felt we were going to have a full sixth season and a full seventh season and then be done. So we’re about 20 episodes short.

That said, we were thankful that they gave us the six. We’re thrilled for people to see them because we worked… I don’t want to say extra hard because we worked hard in all the episodes… but these were very carefully designed to build to a quick climax in the final episode.

Willie Garson

Looking back on the six seasons what were some of your favorite episodes to act in?

It’s really hard when people ask questions like that. It’s so difficult, because the reality is as an actor on a show that shoots the way we shoot – which is 10, 11 pages a day – it’s all kind of one long episode. (laughs) It’s like a six-year episode. It doesn’t feel like I really like that one, I really like that one. Personally, in terms of scenes, I always like scenes that are not so much about a caper, but more about two people talking. Because Mozzie has been such a usable character on the show, I’ve been fortunate enough to have scenes run in just normal conversation with every other character. With Jones, with Diana, with Marsha’s character. Certainly with Elizabeth, with Peter and obviously with Matt. We love scenes where we’re just talking about feelings, whatever. But all actors feel that.

If Mozzie was to pop up on some other show sort of like Frasier or Detective Munch from Homicide, where would you see him landing?

(laughs) Well, I will say that a version of Mozzie is landing on this show I’m developing on Fox called Courtship of Eddie’s Father. The best friend/business partner of the father. That I kind of created for myself (laughs again), because I really liked Mozzie. Mozzie was certainly the closest to myself that I’ve played. I found that that was very freeing in a lot of ways. To have more fun with. Mozzie could show up on any show. Maybe not Survivor, but there are many shows that Mozzie could show up on.

What are you going to miss most about White Collar when it’s over and done?

Really the day-to-day camaraderie and fun of being together. We’re all very much the same kind of people and we just jelled perfectly. Jeff Eastin, the creator, along with the network, worked very hard on casting this show. They just got it right in this blend of people. As hard as we all worked actually to get it. It just worked out perfectly. It was never like all of us, I got some pilot. It was like no, no I got the one I wanted. We all felt that way. I got it with my friends who I was friends with I studied with already, Tim and Tiffani. And Matt just fit in perfectly in my life.

So I’m going to miss the camaraderie and the collaborative nature of it. We almost felt like we were in a high school, that first time when you’re acting in high school plays. You’re all in it together, making it as good as it can be together. That somehow transferred into a big time TV show. It was just delightful. I’m really going to miss that camaraderie. Seeing Matt and Tim and everyday is a big deal for me. We try to now, even though we’re not working together.

Willie Garson

Social media has really changed how fans interact with shows and I know you’re active on things like Twitter. Is there anything that you would like to say to those fans that don’t have the chance to talk to you today and thank you for six wonderful seasons?

Well, it’s always so interesting to me and I think to all of us when fans thank us all the time. The real thanks is from us to the fans. When I was studying acting, there’s nothing worst than actors saying, “I had an amazing experience in this scene. I really felt this is the scene.” It’s actually a two-way street. It’s me acting, but it doesn’t matter if I’m acting if no one is watching. So it’s been just a delight to have all these fans who care so much about us. It keeps us literally employed and able to do what we do.

Social media has been terrific as a way to be aware of what people are thinking. What they like and don’t like and how they feel. On the worst side of it, it’s a fantastic ego boost, because to know that you’re actually affecting so many people is why we do this for a living. This way it’s just very tangible. It’s a minute-by-minute thing. I can Tweet one thing and get 500 replies within two minutes. That’s amazing. I don’t take it lightly. I don’t think any of us do. It’s been terrific. Twitter has been terrific for me, so I love it.

You’re producing Courtship as well as acting right?

I am producing. Story wise, it’s a combination of the original show Courtship of Eddie’s Father combined with myself and Nathan, my son. Our life together as a single adopted father combined with Courtship. I came up with it, I’m producing it and I will be acting in it as well, yes. It’s in development for Fox, so who knows what’s going to happen but we’re well on our way.

Is there any chance we could see White Collar alums make an appearance?

In my perfect dream world – absolutely all the time. (laughs) Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for about two years and we’ll see what happens.

When I spoke with Jeff Eastin a few years ago and asked him what was the biggest surprise creating this show, he told me it was your character. A pleasant surprise of course.

(laughs) I hope so.

What did you enjoy or like about this character?

What I liked most about this character was that it was the closest to myself. I’d never really had a chance to play that much to myself. In that it was very freeing, in terms of adding stuff and coming up with ideas that entertained me. I really got the opportunity to entertain myself on this role. That said, that all comes from the way Jeff set up the show. It’s so collaborative. It was a surprise, because this was going to be a very ancillary character who just helped where Neal would maybe go consult with him once an episode for a scene about something nefarious.

It turned into part of the actual family of the show. I thank him for that and really I thank the fans for that. It’s just been a great opportunity for me to have more of a playground. It’s been a playground the whole time. They also let us write stuff. Change and fix scenes and add stuff. It’s just been terrific in terms of all of that. That’s been a very special experience. I don’t know if I’ll have that again. I’ll try to have it but I don’t know if I’ll have it as well as it’s been done on this one.

Willie Garson

As fans we tend to identify with the character often more than the actor itself. When I see you on other shows to me that’s Mozzie appearing on another show. What character are you surprised that you’re identified with the most?

That’s hilarious. You know, I guess Sex and the City was a real… I don’t want to say a hurdle… but it’s something always that people just assume that I was that character. Because of the success of White Collar I would say it got to about 50-50 where people now think I’m Mozzie, which is terrific, too. That’s a very big compliment, I hate to say it, but I guess to my work. That’s very nice that people believe that.

Can you give the audience maybe three tidbits about you that might surprise them to know about the real you rather than the character that we associate with?

What’s a surprising thing? I’m a pretty good athlete, which I think is surprising to many people. I have a pilot’s license. I think that’s surprising to people. Let’s see. People know about my poker playing, so that shouldn’t be too shocking. I’m a huge fan of reality television. (laughs) All those three things aren’t interesting at all.

What are your favorite reality TV shows? Do you watch the Housewives and which one is your favorite?

(laughs) I have been known to dip into the Housewives pool. I have a soft spot for New Jersey because it’s where I’m from. I have a soft spot for Orange County because I know a few of them. And you can never count out Atlanta, which for a long time was the Cadillac of those shows. I like any reality shows that have to do with real estate. I’m a huge fan of House Hunters International. Anything to do with food. I love cooking ones and I love Anthony Bourdain. I never miss an episode. I’ll even watch a little daytime when I’m at the gym to see my friend Mario Batali on the tube. Anything to do with food, I’m in.

So you’re a Food Network junkie?

Not a junkie, because there’s things all around the dial now with food. I am a partner in two restaurants here in Los Angeles and I am a food guy. So I like food. (laughs)

Which restaurants?

I am an owner of a restaurant called Dominick’s and another restaurant called Little Dom’s, both here in Los Angeles.

Ending a show is very difficult to do. Are you happy with how it ended?

It’s a really hard thing to end a show that satisfies everyone. In a way, I think ours will be pretty successful. Not for the reason that you think. It’s because we were in a hurry. We didn’t have a ridiculously long amount of time to prepare for it. Much like I tell my son when he’s playing tennis, the longer he waits to take that shot the worse the shot is going to be. That’s how I feel about endings of shows. It came too quickly. We were not prepared for the show to end, so we just went to work and quickly summed it up. I think it came out in a really elegant way. I was surprised at how lovely the final episode actually is. We did our best. I think all shows try to do their best and we did our best. So there you have it.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a real evolution in TV as far as shows likeFargo. They’re smaller, they’re confined and featuring more movie actors. How are you approaching your show differently than you might have had you had done this a few years ago? How do you see the evolution that we’re seeing right now in television?

Well that’s a good question. What’s happened is people with power, meaning big movie stars moving to television, have decided as TV has evolved and the art form has evolved. It’s only 50, 60 years old. [They] have figured out that there are ways to do this better. What’s great about television is that in the realm of a number of episodes it does offer more control. Over this is how we’re going to make this environment. This is how I’m going to stick this scene in, that scene, that scene. If you did that with a movie you only have the 90-page script and you stop doing it for a year or two years.

With TV you get a lot of practice to hone it and make it a better place and do it better. I have found now it was really started on Sex and the City by Sarah Jessica [Parker], who came in and said our show is going to be a different place. We’ve all been in different shows that have not been a good place to work. So let’s make this a better place for our guests, for the way we treat each other on set and the way we get our best work out of each other.

I took that to White Collar and with Matt and Tim and Tiffani and Marsha and Sharif. We said let’s make this a better place. Let’s improve on that, even. Then with our partners at USA and with Jeff Eastin in our studio FTVS they said: Okay go, run. Make it. Make the show that you want to make together.

Now I’m going to take that into Courtship of Eddie’s Father. I was talking yesterday about well how do we make this an even better place, where people are thrilled to be here. Like where White Collar ended up was the word on the street about White Collar was it’s a great place to be. You were half there. So we got incredible guest stars, movie guest stars who had no problem having to do an episode of a cable television show. That was a testament to people wanting to be there. Our directors were primed to be on White Collar. We can just continue to make it better.

That’s why movie stars, it’s very hard to go to a $6, $7, $8 million movie to have that environment. But you can have that environment on a $3 million television show. That’s why people are flocking towards TV. That may seem a little esoteric of an answer but that’s actually the real answer.

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: November 6, 2014. 

Photos ©2014. Courtesy of USA Network. All rights reserved.

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