Mostly recognized for his role as Big Al Kennedy in the soap opera Sunset Beach (NBC, 1997-1999), Don Amendolia (b. 1945) has, in fact, starred in many different TV shows, from popular sitcoms like Cheers (NBC, 1982-1993) and Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998) to groundbreaking drama series like Twin Peaks. In Twin Peaks, Amendolia played Emory Battis, a dubious character who recruits young and attractive girls from Horne’s Department Store, hoping to turn them into prostitutes at One Eyed Jack’s. I talked with Amendolia about his role in Twin Peaks, and in a vividly digressive and funny conversation we touched upon many different themes: From network television to voyeurism in the works of David Lynch, from perverted men and flawed characters to a specific, American brand of salt.
AH: How did you get to play Emory Battis in Twin Peaks?
DA: Honestly, I was just offered this role because I knew Mark Frost and Bob Engels. I knew Mark and Bob when I lived in Minneapolis. Bob is one of the writers, and he is also from Minneapolis, and we always played tennis together. They knew me, and they just asked me whether I wanted to be a part of Twin Peaks.
AH: Who is Emory Battis? How would you describe your own character?
DA: Emory Battis is someone who is a little off in his head – sexually – and this was a perfect way for him to feather his own nest. He got tied up in these kinds of dubious things. Good people under enough stress and duress will cheat and lie because they get in too deep. People can get caught in circumstances that they would have never thought they would be in. People are like that. People we know. We all know people who get caught up in bad situations. That is just real life, and how brilliant that they show it. There is nothing cliché to the characters of Twin Peaks.
AH: You were a part of five Twin Peaks episodes, from the last part of season one to the first couple of episodes in the second season, before the ratings started to drop. In one of the episodes, “Realization Time” (directed by Caleb Deschanel) there are numerous allusions to different noir-films. You are also part of one very interesting scene where Audrey, from the closet, is observing your character, while you are talking to Jenny from the perfume counter. This scene utilizes a kind of low-key lighting similar to film noir (with the venetian blinds and everything), and it is also reminiscent of an iconic scene from Blue Velvet. How would you describe that scene, and did you ever talk with Caleb Deschanel about elements like that?
DA: The voyeur is very important to David Lynch. It’s something that recurs in his scenes. Here in the US, we have a table salt that’s called Morton Salt, and on the picture there is a person holding an umbrella and a salt shaker called “Morton Salt,” and there is a caption saying, “When it rains, it pours.” When I was little, that was my first image of infinity because we had a picture of a salt shaker on a salt shaker. Lynch’s voyeuristic shots are like that. You are watching on somebody who is watching somebody else, and you really feel naughty. It pulls the viewer into the scene in a way and brings him to identify with the voyeur of the scene.
AH: You are also a part of episode 2.2 (“Coma”), which was directed by David Lynch, in what I would consider an absurdly funny scene including an ice bucket, a vacuum cleaner and Emory being tied up and. Could you say a few words on this scene and what it does to your character?
And could you say a few words on David Lynch as a director, and how he and his approach differed from the other directors you worked with?
DA: David was always a pleasure to work with. David Lynch was so brilliant, and there was a girl working on the set, one of the crew. She had purple and green hair – that was really unusual and forward back then – and David liked her look, and there was this old vacuum cleaner, and he just said, “Put her in the scene.” That was just off the top of his head that he had her vacuuming in the scene, and I thought it was so brilliant. It added to the absurdity of the scene.
David was very much of the moment, and he worked with the tools which were in front of him. He was very soft spoken, but at the same time very clear about it. He is one of the best directors because of his imaginative and improvisational style.
In that scene, I kept trying to get sweet Sherilyn to choke me harder, but she just couldn’t do it. She didn’t have it in her to choke me, so I remember having to act as if I was being choked.
AH: In the third episode from season two we see your character with a camcorder, and we hear the line, “She is ready for her close-up” which is reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard. How did the Lesli Linka Glatter introduce you to this scene, and how would you describe her as a director?
DA: She’s a real pro. She was really talented, and later she actually asked me to be a part of another TV production, she was doing. Unfortunately, I was unable to do it.
One must credit Twin Peaks for giving such talent a chance. I’m speaking as a director now. I have dabbled in multi-camera television. I’m saying that there is a certain political set of hoops that you go through, if you want to make television. To be a director on a sitcom, if you were raw, you had to sit and observe for a long, long time – maybe a year – without pay. After doing that for a long time, you would hope to be able to direct an episode. Twin Peaks wasn’t the same procedure. They just hired directors, and they hired directors from cinema, even independent cinema. Very artful and creative directors.
AH: You have acted in different TV shows, including a few sitcoms from the 1980s. You were also in one episode of Cheers which became a direct competitor to Twin Peaks in terms of ratings. (How) was Twin Peaks a different TV experience than other shows you have worked on, and why do you think that the ratings dropped during the second season?
DA: It was scary, it was chancy. It was too edgy. It was the voyeur in the closet, and that was appealing to many viewers, but it was alarming to the network and the different executives and sponsors. Twin Peaks did not have the immediate effect on television that it should have had, but things have changed, and today you can see how the influence of Twin Peaks on modern television shows. And if you have to learn from the past, this is a good past to learn from.
I think Twin Peaks was so lavishly produced. I believed I was in the great Northwest, I believed I was in Twin Peaks. It was so realistic to me. It was so lavish, and there was so much work to do. There was so much action to do because it was an ambitious show. There were a lot of sets and a lot of people. Usually, when you are on a set, for example Cheers, it’s all shot in one or two sets. Twin Peaks wasn’t like that. There were many sets because it was so much more ambitious than your average TV show. I used to think of Twin Peaks as cinema – each episode as one movie – because it was so ambitious and artful. It felt more like a movie than it did a TV show. It felt like a movie set. It was very labyrinthine in terms of characters, sets and stories, and, in actuality, the sets were like that. It was just more complex.
Now you see one shot of a TV show, and you push one button and record the show. Now you have the leisure of watching what you want and when you want. The industry has changed, and the time itself has changed.
One of the overlooked qualities of Twin Peaks – and why it’s so indelible to our brains – is the music. The music is so hypnotic and so tempting. I think that lush music was a major part of the show. To see that lavish a score on a television show was also very unusual. The music of Twin Peaks is much more complex in an alluring way than what you would usually see on television.
AH: Twin Peaks has often been described as one of the most important and influential TV series of all time. Do you believe that it changed television drama as we know it, and, if so, how did it influence modern television drama?
DA: I’m not sure it changed the standards of TV. I think it touched a nerve within the intelligent watcher. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as immediately influential as it should have been. I don’t believe it elevated television. I believe it should have, but I think people were frightened of it. I don’t think it changed television in a positive way. People were scared of it, and the networks went the other way. They were frightened of their own darkness. I’m speaking mostly of the powers that be in television. In its time, Twin Peaks was a huge success, yet it wasn’t really honored for that. I think that the award shows are mostly self-congratulatory, but they are a barometer in a way.
Now, finally, it seems that the television industry has caught up to it. Now that there is cable, there are so many channels that you can appeal to smaller groups of interested viewers. If it were to come out now, Twin Peaks would come out on HBO or Showtime. Today, you can take a chance and make a show like American Horror Story, which would not have existed if there had been no Twin Peaks.
According to Don Amendolia is a central theme and concept in the works of David Lynch, as seen in this classic scene from Blue Velvet (1986):