Bill Kinison Interview
My Brother Sam Kinison
Robin Williams described him as a "kind of white Richard Pryor." Tom
Shales called him ''Lenny Bruce at ramming speed."
The world knew him as Sam Kinison.
At the height of his fame in the late 1980's, comedian Sam Kinison appeared
regularly on Saturday Night Live and the David Letterman Show, packed concert
halls across the country and sold hundreds of thousands of records.
In April of 1992, Sam Kinison died in a car crash in the California desert.
He was only 38 years old.
Bill Kinison, Sam's brother and manager, has written the definitive book
on Sam Kinison. Titled "Brother Sam, The Short Spectacular Life of
Sam Kinison," it's published by William Morrow and Co.
We spoke with Bill Kinison about his famous brother.
Q. When you appeared on the Geraldo Show, you made
mention of the fact that the publisher of your book, William Morrow, didn't
publicize the book. I don't understand. Why not?
A. Well, why didn't they do a second printing when we sold out, 75,000 in the
first six weeks?
Q. That's what I want to know.
A. I have no idea. I had a meeting with them and there was really nothing concluded.
It ended up in a shouting match. I talked to Howard Stern basically right
after the book was being released and surprisingly he told me everything
that was gonna happen. He said a lot of times they just take books to lose
money on. I think what happened is they had an editor that actually
bought the book and it was kind of a bidding war with other publishing companies.
After he bought the book he went to Hyprion and so they had another fellow
come in who probably would not have bought the book. When I had a meeting
with him, he had the CEO and the head of sales. Neither one of 'em had read
Q. It is a very well written book. You could probably
even make a movie out of it.
A. Yeah, well I sold the movie option to Howard Stern. The option date is up
on October. So I don't know that he will renew it again.
Q. You and Sam went to a boarding school in Utica,
A. Actually it was in Salisbury Center, a religious school.
Q. That's how far from Utica?
A. About 50 miles, and it may not even be 50 miles, maybe 40.
Q. What memories of Utica do you have?
Q. Did you ever get into Syracuse?
A. It kind of reminded me of Peoria where we were raised. Kind of an industrial
town if I remember correctly.
A. Oh, yeah. We'd go down to Syracuse every once in awhile for concerts. Q.
What year would that have been?
A. Oh man, that was back in 70, somewhere in there. Q.
What do you remember about Syracuse?
A. Big town, when you came from Peoria, Illinois. It was cold. I remember that.
We hitchhiked one time. That was the last time I wanted to do that, (laughs)
Q. You write, "Sam and I both grew up with low
self-esteem. I never said it out loud but I thought of myself as white trash.
I suspect Sam did too." What do you mean by white trash?
Q. "Nobody calls it the casting couch anymore, but
it's still an open secret in the entertainment industry." I never realized
that stand-up comics had that situation to deal with.
A. We started in a housing project. Actually the same housing project as Richard
Pryor, except we were white. We never really lived in a house or an apartment, ‘til
we left home. We were raised in a church building. When I was about 10 years
old we moved into a church building. Sam was about 5 at the time. I mean that's
where we lived. They actually converted Sunday School rooms into a church.
But, when I refer to white trash I'm talking about the bottom of the totem
pole. That's how we viewed ourselves, as very poor. I don't think we were
ever trashy. Preacher's kids. Pentecostal preacher's kids which was even worse.
A. Oh yeah, especially at the Comedy Store. You schmooze Mitzi Shore (owner.)
to get whatever you want there. The biggest surprise to me is when I went out
there ( Hollywood), from watching movies you have these ideas of idol makers,
star makers, and they just don't exist.
Q. So where does an up and coming entertainer go to
be discovered? And what are all the managers and agents doing there, then?
A. Managers are there, which was what my job was because entertainers can't
take care of their own business. If they could take care of their own business,
we would not be in business. Agents to me are the most expendable part of the
Q. Usually you hear just the reverse. Managers are
expendable. Why do you say it's the agents?
A. Well, because we had booking agents but unless you can come up with the
project, unless you can give it to 'em on a silver platter, they don't see
it. These same agents that later on were begging to sign Sam, I brought to
Sam doing the same exact act at the Comedy Store night after night, picked
up their drinks, schmoozed them, watched them double over laughing. When the
evening would be over and we'd sit down and talk business, they'd say. "We
don't know what to do with him." After he does 6 minutes on HBO all of
a sudden everybody knows what to do with him. But, it was still the same act.
So unless you can give it to 'em, unless you can give them a finished product
and I mean with projects, they don't see it. Agents are working for the next
job. Agents want to be managers. Managers want to be producers. So everybody
out there works for their next job. The talent is irrelevant. The average career
in show business is three years. You have exceptions to the rule, but that's
the average career. And amazingly, that's how they run it. So that's why with
Sam I never did look at it as a three year career. I made decisions that the
ordinary manager or agent would not have made, because I planned on being around
Q. You mention all of the "names" in Hollywood
who were early supporters, fans of Sam's, people like Phil Collins, Dan Aykroyd,
Lauren Hutton and Steve Martin. What did that really mean to have these people
in audience laughing at the jokes?
A. At first it meant something. You've got to remember Sam had never been successful
at anything in life. The first thing he was ever successful at was comedy.
At first he was kind of awestruck, although he had been doing comedy for two
years in Houston and had been the Texas Comedian of the Year. So he kinda got
a confidence. So when Sam came out here to L.A. he really felt like he was
the best. He was deflated for five years being a doorman and everything else.
He worked his way up. To have these people come in and laugh, 'cause he'd seen
them all these times, didn't make him awestruck anymore, Sam put it this way,
and I think he's right, the first thing everybody wants to do is make money.
Anybody who says they don't want to do that is a liar. All the entertainers
want to make money. After they've made money then what becomes important to
them is the respect from their peers. Sam never thought he was gonna make a
lot of money, so what became important to him was the respect from his peers.
That's the reason he did the kind of comedy he did, because he always thought
the best he was gonna do was be a headliner in a club.
Q. You don't think much of Todd Smith or Creative
Artists Agency do you?
A. Will you quote this perfectly the way I say it?
A. Todd Smith is the wimpiest S.O.B. I've ever seen in my life. If I ever run
into him personally, I'll be happy to slap him into next week. You can put
up my bail! That's what I think of that sleeze bag.
Q. You say that because Sam wouldn’t do a movie
C.A.A wanted him to do?
A. C.A.A, had a movie called "Atuk." Sam is not blameless in
it. Sam never read the script, until after the fact. Actually the biggest culprit
in that whole thing was a fellow who was working as a manager for us, Elliot
Abbot. The script was horrible. This was a movie that was for John Belushi.
After Belushi died, it sat there for 10 years. They couldn't get anybody to
get in it. C.A.A. picks it up, and put in all their people. Todd Smith was
at C.A.A. He was our movie agent. To make along story short, it's a crummy
movie. According to Elliot Abbot, they told Sam that he could bring up his
writers and beef up his lines as long as it didn't change the scenes. So he
did. Well, the first day he shows up in costume. They've got the rewrites.
So they come in and they're like, ''wait a minute, what's this?" Sam goes, "These
are the re-writes." They said, "what re-writes?" Either they
lied or they never had the permission that we had been told. It would've been
a "Crocodile Dundee;" Sam was calling it an "Eskimo Dundee" goes
to New York. Sam goes "It's not a funny movie. You want to do it right
now as written, fine. But, I'm telling you right now I'm not gonna go out and
promote a piece of s—." I think that they really intended on just
scaring him. Sam would really not rather do a movie, than do a bad movie. They
said "Well, we're pulling the plug." Sam gets up says "fine" and
leaves, goes back to L.A. Todd Smith never as much as gives us the courtesy
of a phone call that they (C.A.A) had dropped us as a client. After I had gotten
Sam's career back rockin' again and we did "Charlie Hoover," and
really not too many weeks before Sam died, Sam said, "Why don't you give
Todd Smith a call?" At that time I had wrapped up another series
with Fox that we were signing the papers on. We were also doing a three movie
deal with New Line Cinema. That's how Hollywood works. You get a project. You
call them and that baits them into it. So I called Todd Smith and he was very
short with me. Its yes and no. I said we've got some projects and I'm glad
to put these in your lap if you're interested in taking Sam in. We had gotten
the word before that (Mike) Ovitz (head of C.A.A.) and everybody wanted
Sam back, except Todd Smith. Todd Smith would always nix it. Well now, Sam
gets in an accident and dies. I have not released it to the news yet. I'm at
the hospital. I get a call from this S.O.B. (Todd Smith) going, "Bill,
you may want a good agent for a movie and a book and I'd like to offer our
services." I told him then what I thought of him. So that's why I feel
like I do towards the guy.
Q. Did Todd Smith know Sam had died?
A. He already knew. Somehow he knew. So he said, "I offer my condolences
and also if you need a good literary or movie agent, I'd like to offer us." I
told him if I ever meet you, "I'll mash you in the ground, like the cockroach
you are." Obviously I've never run into him.
Q. Sam had been doing stand-up for seven years and
hadn't gotten a break.
A. Yeah, that's right.
Q. How then do you explain a Bob Goldthwait who makes
the jump from stand-up to HBO specials to movies. What did "Bobcat" have
that Sam didn't?
A. (laughs) I think the question should really be what did Sam have that Goldthwait
didn't have? And that answer would be talent. Sam made a lot of money,
once he made it. Sam would not do a crummy movie, and one of the reasons was
watching Goldthwait do Police Academy, and then doing that, God I don't even
remember the name of it where it sounds like John Candy called over a phone
on his voice-over on the horse movie;. "Hot to Trot," that was it
and then (Andrew) Dice Clay did "Ford Fairlane." Sam said I'm not
doing that. I make $3 million a year doing stand-up. I don't have to make that
kind of crap. I think that was the main reason. Also, Sam was a partier and
he had that reputation. That's not the best reputation to have in Hollywood.
I think that was probably the major influence.
Q. You write, "Sometimes Sam and Sly Stallone
would rent movies starring Goldthwait whom they both disliked just so they
could sit around and howl." Why did Stallone dislike Goldthwait? What
would they say? Were you there?
A. Oh, yeah. Actually Stallone called him one time and said if I ever run into
you I'm gonna whip your ass, because Goldthwait would make comments in the
media about Stallone's movies. Sam never went after Goldthwait. To Sam, Goldthwait
wasn't important enough to worry about. So the real rub was with Goldthwait
towards Sam. I guess the best way to put it is people would mistake Goldthwait
for Sam. No one ever mistook Sam for Goldthwait. Then I guess it got to be
where Goldthwait would be doing a show somewhere, people thought he sounded
like Sam and started yelling out "Sam," and Goldthwait would go, "I
have this 300 pound, evil, no talent twin," and all that kind of
stuff which Sam always thought was funny. Actually Goldthwait did an article
in Playboy a few months before Sam died that Sam just sat and laughed at. He
referred to Sam that way. He was sick of people mistaking him for Sam. So that's
where the real rub was. I'll never forget Goldthwait coming up to me at the
Comic Relief right after Sam died and wanted to apologize to me. I said, "Apologize
for what?" And he said, "When I heard Sam died, I called three friends
I was on the outs with and patched it up because it made me realize my own
mortality and everything else. Since Sam isn't here, I wanted to apologize
to you for him." I wasn't trying to be cruel to Bob but I said, "I
really don't think you got anything to apologize for, because I don't think
Sam ever held anything against you."
Q. Bill, did Sam ripoff Bobcat's act?
A. (laughs) Exactly. What part of it did he rip off?
Q. No. This is serious. There was some talk going around
that Sam Kinison had stolen Bobcat Goldthwait's act.
A. Exactly which part was that?
Q. The voice.
A. There's a difference between that and a scream. I was there the first night
that Sam ever did the scream, and I can tell you where that came from which
I put in the book.
Q. Was Sam doing it before 1979?
A. Oh yeah. Sam had been out in L.A. since the middle 70's. The scream was
really a scream out of frustration. It definitely wasn't from Goldthwait
or anybody else. You gotta remember, Sam used to preach so that was also
his preaching style, with that huff and puff type of deal. But, I just think
that's hilarious. I had never heard that.
Q. As I recall, Sly Stallone got mad at Goldthwait
because in Goldthwait's stand-up act, he would mention Stallone's Rambo character,
and say that during the Vietnam War, Stallone was at a private girl’s
school in Switzerland.
A. Yeah. I think that was right. Goldthwait I've never had any respect for.
I felt that basically he lambasted either Stallone or Sam or anyone else he
could, to try and get attention. He's just lucky he never ran into one of these
guys on the street sometime.
Q. Would there have been a fight?
A. Oh, in a second, with either one of those guys. It's one thing to do comedy;
it's another thing to say Stallone was at a girl’s school during Vietnam.
Q. Goldthwait with that remark was questioning Stallone's
right to do a Rambo character in a movie. Obviously no one ever told Goldthwait
that Sylvester Stallone was an actor. He was acting in a role. John Wayne
acted in military movies. Was John Wayne a real war hero? Goldthwait was
way off with that routine.
A. Yeah. I think under the right timing if Goldthwait would've run into either
one of those two, it would've been a bad deal. Actually, I think Sam and Goldthwait
got into it one morning on (Howard) Stern. Stern called Goldthwait while
he was filming some movie. Sam told him, "I tell you, when I come back
to L.A. I'm gonna beat your ass."
Q. And he meant it?
A. Oh yeah. He wasn't kidding at all. Goldthwait was like, "I'm not a
fighter. I won't fight you." But yet on stage the guy would run his mouth.
Sam could brawl. If he would've run across Goldthwait around that period of
time he definitely would've nailed him. Stallone was much more upset than Sam
was. Sam never even bothered to call the guy. I still can't get over people
thinking Goldthwait stole Sam's act. When did Goldthwait go to L.A.?
Q. I'm just guessing here, early 80's.
A. Sam went to L.A. in '79, and had already started this stuff down in Houston,
and never ran the club circuit because everybody thought he was too blue.
He never did anything in New York at all. So I don't even know where they
think Sam would have ever seen the guy. I still don't know what the resemblance
of their act is. There's a lot of difference between acting retarded and
screaming. It's like I said no one mistook Sam for Goldthwait. But I do know
that Goldthwait was very upset because everywhere he'd go, they'd mistake
him for Sam. They thought Sam did the Police Academy movies. It would actually
make Sam mad. He'd say, "I wouldn't do pieces of s— like that." But
I guess it really bothered Goldthwait that he was mistaken. Funny thing
was every once in a while Sam would get mistaken for Meatloaf. But I think
most comedians are insecure anyhow.
Q. Why didn't Sam get on Comic Relief? Was it because
he made enemies of people like Whoopi Goldberg?
A. Yeah, probably. I think Sam's comedy is what a lot of comedians envied.
In Sam's comedy, he had the nerve to be totally honest. I mean he was honest
with his own life. Everything Sam did in comedy was either what he experienced
or was his viewpoints. So it wasn't what I would classify as Johnny Carson
'Tonite Show' comedy. I think he was one of the few comedians that did that.
I think that's why other comedians really liked him, or they really envied
him. With Comic Relief, I thought it was very hypocritical that after
the guy dies then they want to run a clip of him. I said that's interesting
since you never even invited the guy here, as a spectator, let alone one of
the participants. Yet this is the same guy who got the Concert of the Year
five years in a row from his road record. Yet he wasn't big enough for them
to have on Comic Relief. He buried everybody out on the road that was on there!
Sam felt that Goldthwait was somewhat responsible for that also because they
did have Goldhtwait with Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg. So it was either
we have Goldthwait or we have Sam. So Goldthwait they can handle. I don't think
they could've handled Sam.
Q. You write, "Sam always wanted people to think
he was in charge. In truth he rarely calculated anything, even controversy." So
can we say that Sam was lucky?
A. Oh yeah. I always told him I thought he was the luckiest guy in the
Q. You say that Sam built his career by himself with
virtually no connections. But he did have help along the way didn't he?
A. Well, it all, depends on how you put it. Sam would surround himself a lot
of times with what I would call leeches, the Kato Kaelins of life. We had a
few of those. When it got down to it, he was basically by himself.
Q. Why do you think Sam said to you, "I'll never
live to see 40." Do you think he knew something?
A. Oh, I think he always felt he would die before 40, at least that's what
he always said.
Q. But why?
A. His lifestyle. He wasn't a healthy person. He had a bad heart.
Q. What happened to this truck driver who hit Sam?
A. He got a two year suspended license, a year probation, and 300 community
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