For W’s second annual TV Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.
In Big Shot, John Stamos plays Marvyn Korn, a disgraced NCAA basketball coach who, after throwing a chair at a referee, is subsequently fired and sentenced to a life of coaching women’s high school basketball. But when Stamos signed on to the heartwarming Disney+ dramedy, it was actually titled The Big Ugly. “I was like, I don’t want to be on that, let’s change the name,” he says. The word ugly simply doesn’t track with an actor who has spent the better part of his more than four-decade career playing affable heartthrobs with ridiculously good hair. At 58, Stamos has managed to charm generations of fans—a rare feat for any actor but especially one riding the tumult of pilot season year after year. For the boomers there was his wayward son Matt Willows in You Again?, for millennials, cool dad Uncle Jesse in Full House, and now, for Gen Z, there’s the transformational Coach Korn in Big Shot.
As for his personal interests, Stamos has always skewed a bit older. He’s played the drums for his idols the Beach Boys off and on since the ’80s, loves Elvis, and counted Don Rickles as a close friend before the comedian passed away in 2017, at the age of 90. “He really wanted me to find love,” Stamos recalls, adding that he was thrilled Rickles got to meet his wife, Caitlin McHugh. The couple married in February 2018 and have a 3-year-old son, Billy. “I wish he would have met Billy. Billy looked like him when he was bald,” he jokes.
In July, Stamos debuted the true-crime podcast series The Grand Scheme: Snatching Sinatra, in which he speaks to Barry Keenan, one of the real-life 1963 kidnappers of Frank Sinatra’s son, Frank Sinatra Jr. For W’s annual TV Portfolio, Stamos discusses his young soap opera days and how Sammy Davis Jr. encouraged his music career.
What was the very first TV show you were on?
General Hospital. I played Blackie Parrish. My character was supposed to die and my mom wrote all these letters to ABC and they kept me around. But it was great. That show was super popular at the time. Sammy Davis Jr. was on. And Elizabeth Taylor. One day, I’m doing my scenes and I look, and there was someone in the eyeline. I go, can you get that woman out of my eyeline? And it was Elizabeth Taylor sitting in a director’s chair having champagne. I think [she] and Luke [played by actor Anthony Geary] were hanging out together.
Yeah. There was definitely a Luke and Elizabeth Taylor [storyline]. They were on a boat together.
Yeah, but in real life they were hanging out, I think. Sammy Davis Jr. was on. We started talking about drums. And I said, “I always wanted to play drums on TV and they won’t let me.” He was singing on the show so there was a band set up. He goes back to the producer’s booth, comes back at me and says, “Just do what I say, man.” I’m like, what? “Just do what I say.” And I go, okay. We start the scene and he ad libs, he says, “Blackie. You play drums, right?” They cut to me like, wow. He says, come on up here. I went up, and there was a drum set there. [Blackie] became a drummer right at that moment. And I’ve played drums on TV ever since.
How long did you play Blackie?
Two years. I always wanted to be on sitcoms. I wanted to be funny. I loved Garry Marshall—Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. I signed this terrible contract for [General Hospital], I think I was making $300 an episode or something, but the show got huge and I got in teen magazines and stuff. But I said I wanted to leave. The producer was this beautiful, brilliant woman named Gloria Monty. She says, “You can’t leave.” I said, “Well, I think I can.” I don’t know where I got the balls. I don’t have them now. She took me to the Brown Derby. She said, “You’ll never work again if you leave my show.” And I said, “Well.” She was good to me though.
She was very powerful, Gloria Monty.
Do you remember her? Yeah. She changed the whole face of daytime.
So did you [book] a sitcom after that?
I tried. Yeah. When you first start out you’re fearless. It’s taken me so long to try to get back to that. I watched the kids on Big Shot, their fearlessness. I said, keep that. Because over the years you just start listening to people, and you start believing stuff. It’s like, ah.
You’ve always had such a great sense of humor about yourself.
My dad kept me humble. My parents did. I remember one of my friends told me recently, he said, “When you got famous, I went up to your dad and said, ‘Man, Johnny could get any girl he wants.’ And my dad said, ‘Well, not any girl.’ He always kind of kept me in my place.” But I always wanted to be funny. I wanted to be on a sitcom. I did a show with Jack Klugman after [General Hospital] called You Again? and that really changed everything. He became my first older-man mentor type.
What was your thought process to get to Elvis?
During the pandemic, there were some very dark, scary moments. And I always go back to what’s comfortable, musically, especially. I love Elvis Presley so I watched the 1968 Comeback Special again. It sort of changed Elvis’s career completely. He got in great shape and wore that leather outfit. It was [sort of like] the first Unplugged. At the end of it, there’s a song called “If I Can Dream.” When he started singing it I just started crying. He’s in a white suit. It was right after Bobby Kennedy had been shot and Martin Luther King Jr. He felt like, I can’t just be singing about girls and shaking and hound dogs, I have to plug into what’s happening in the world and the country.
I brought Caitlin and Billy in and we watched it over and over. I mean, [the lyrics], “There must be peace and understanding sometime, Strong winds of promise that will blow away the doubt and fear, If I can dream of a warmer sun where hope keeps shining on everyone, tell me why. Oh, why, oh, why, won’t that sun appear?” It just sort of fit into everything that was happening, you know? After singing that, I think Elvis said something like, I’m never going to sing another song that I don’t believe in, that I can’t really connect to.
So you put on the leather.
So I put on the leather, and I don’t think I’m ever going to take it off. I’m wearing the undies right now.