The Untold Truth Of Kurtwood Smith

It's not hyperbole to describe Kurtwood Smith as a veteran of film and television. In the former, he's remembered for such performances as the authoritarian father of a prep school student in "Dead Poets Society" and as sadistic, sociopathic crime boss Clarence Boddicker in "RoboCop." Meanwhile, his IMDb profile lists dozens and dozens of additional credits, ranging from such TV series as "24" and "House" to films including "Girl, Interrupted," "Broken Arrow," and "Rambo III."

Those and other roles, of course, all stand in the tall shadow cast by Red Forman, the gruff-talking Wisconsin dad Smith portrayed in "That '70s Show." More than 15 years after the beloved sitcom's cancellation, Smith will be returning to his most iconic role in a new Netflix spinoff, in which he'll reunite with on-screen wife Debra Jo Rupp for "That '90s Show." 

Smith has been delivering impressive performances since the 1980s, but it's a certainty that "That '90s Show" will result in this talented and versatile actor being discovered by a whole new generation of viewers. To find out more about him, keep on reading and discover the untold truth of Kurtwood Smith.

Kurtwood Smith had never considered acting until college

It's fitting that Kurtwood Smith, a native of New Lisbon, Wisconsin, would achieve his biggest fame in Wisconsin-set "That '70s Show." Embarking on a career as an actor, however, wasn't something that was even on his radar until he was in college. Speaking with The AV Club, Smith admitted he was "not doing well" in college and "didn't really know what to do" when it came to the future path he'd pursue. "So I ended up taking an acting class and I did quite well, and I thought, 'Well, let's see how this goes.' And it went well, and like in anything else, I just kept getting reinforced in what I was doing, and everything just kind of fell into line."

As a profile in the Los Angeles Times indicated, it wasn't quite that easy. After graduating from San José State University, Smith then earned an MFA from Stanford University. From there, he decided to remain in the San Francisco area for several years, performing onstage, before making the move to Los Angeles in the latter part of the 1970s, where he struggled for a few years trying to get an agent and land bit parts in TV series. 

According to IMDb, Smith's first on-screen role was as "Guy in Laundromat" on the sitcom "Soap." "I had one line in that," he recalled for The Wrap. "One line, and it got a huge laugh, so it was really quite worth it."

The actor appears on screen with his wife in RoboCop

Kurtwood Smith landed his breakout role when he was cast as crime boss Clarence Boddicker in the 1987 feature "RoboCop." That role, Smith told The AV Club, "was a big deal for me." In Esquire's oral history of "Robocop," Smith recalled that "he was just getting started" when he was cast in what ended up being a career-making role. "I hadn't done anything big at that point," he said, admitting that the "role was an exciting prospect for me."

Not only did Smith's performance propel him to more substantial roles, "RoboCop" also holds a special place in his heart, since he shared the screen with his wife, actor Joan Pirkle, in one particularly salacious scene for the film. As Vulture recalled, Pirkle — now Joan Smith — played a secretary whom Boddicker hits on, telling her, "I've got some free time. Maybe you could uh ... fit me in."

Speaking with Esquire, Smith revealed that Pirkle's role came about when he requested that the producers find a part for her. "I asked if she could read for the part of Dick's secretary," he explained. "Most of those roles were filled by locals, so the fact that she was there [in Dallas, where 'RoboCop' was filmed] already helped."

He's been directed (and serenaded) by Bill Murray

In the wake of the success of "RoboCop," Kurtwood Smith was cast in the 1990 comedy "Quick Change," featuring Bill Murray as both star and co-director (his behind-the-camera debut, which would be the only time Murray has directed).

Interviewed by The AV Club, Smith admitted that being directed by the quirky star of such comedy blockbusters as "Ghostbusters" and "Groundhog Day" was a singularly unique experience. "I like Bill, and I got along great with him," Smith explained before recalling a memorable Murray moment that took place during the filming of a scene. According to Smith, just as Murray was about to call "action," he surprised everyone by taking a musical detour. "So he said, 'OK, everybody ready? Sound? Everybody ...?' And then he starts singing. You know the song 'Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)?' He starts singing it kind of like the lounge guy he used to do on 'Saturday Night Live' — and he sings the entire song," Smith recalled. "All the verses. The entire song. Then he says, 'Action!' It had nothing to do with anything. But we were all quite entertained. It was great!"

In addition to Smith, "Quick Change" boasted an impressive cast that included Randy Quaid, Geena Davis, Stanley Tucci, Phil Hartman, Jason Robards, and Tony Shalhoub. "You couldn't get that cast together for all the tea in China right now," Murray mused in a 2010 interview with GQ.

Kurtwood Smith based his '70s Show character on his stepfather

For sitcom fans, Kurtwood Smith will always be best known for playing crotchety Red Forman on "That '70s Show" for eight seasons. What fans might not know is that Smith drew inspiration from his own life when creating the gruff, sarcastic character. As Smith revealed in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he based Red on his late stepfather, particularly "in terms of his attitude, his voice, the walk and the edge that he had." However, Smith's stepfather never got to see himself immortalized on television. "He died a matter of months before it aired," the actor explained. "Plus, he would have probably said, 'What the hell? I'm not like that at all.'"

Over the years, Smith admitted to The AV Club, the character of Red "just seems to be so much a part of me and my family. I did not write any of those jokes, but when I first auditioned for the role and from then on, I always had my stepdad in mind."

During that interview, Smith described the experience of being Red as "just a pleasure," particularly when working with on-screen wife Debra Jo Rupp. "Working on those scenes in the house — especially Debra Jo and I — it was a particularly special time," Smith recalled. "For it to go on that long, eight years, and to have a character that meant as much to me as he did personally — that was special."

He doesn't remember Red's funniest punchlines

As viewers will recall, Red Forman delivered many of the funniest lines on "That '70s Show," including such classics as, "I'm sorry, Kitty, but yelling is the only part of being a father that I enjoy!" and, to son Eric, "What are you going to put on your resumé? Dumbass?" 

While those and other Red-uttered lines may have become familiar to fans, they apparently didn't make nearly as much of an impression on the actor who voiced them. Asked about whether he watched reruns of "That '70s Show" during an interview with TV Guide, Kurtwood Smith revealed that he sometimes does, not because he intends to, but because the show is "on all the time" in syndication. 

Smith also divulged that when he watches those reruns, he'll tend to remember individual episodes, but not his character's punchlines. The reason, he explained, has to do with the sitcom practice of changing dialogue in the midst of filming, based on the response a joke receives from the live studio audience. According to Smith, he can recall the scenes "but I don't remember the jokes, because we would change them front of the audience. The writers would come up and say, 'Say this instead.' So you're watching something eight years later, and you only said it once, it's easy to forget." 

Kurtwood Smith did his first nude scene at 68

Many actors have gotten naked on camera, and Kurtwood Smith can be counted among them. Speaking with The AV Club, Smith recalled taking it all off for a nude scene in the 2011 film "Cedar Rapids." According to Smith, shooting that nude scene — which took place on the first day of filming — remains his "strongest memory" from making the movie. "It's weird to be naked in front of 50 to 100 people who aren't," he joked.  

Speaking with TV Guide, Smith described his nude scene as his "most awkward on-screen moment," explaining that he "had to be naked, and here I was, 68 years old, and I'd never had to do this in my life, you know, naked in front of a crew of 100 people ... being naked, I think, generally is awkward." 

Having finally appeared nude on screen, Smith admitted, has made him less bashful about nudity in his personal life. "I was in New York with my wife, and at one point I started to change clothes, but then I thought, 'Oh, I'd better close this window. Nobody from that office building over there wants to see my wrinkled old ass.' And then I remembered, 'Well, what am I worried about? I've already showed my ass to tens of millions of people!'" he joked to The AV Club.

He's a four-time Star Trek guest star

While viewers of "That '70s Show" will always associate Kurtwood Smith with Red Forman, fans of "Star Trek" likely have a very different perspective of him. That's because Smith has made multiple appearances on the franchise. Speaking with in 2017, Smith discussed his "Star Trek" roles as the president of the Federation in "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country," Cardassian security officer Thrax in "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," and scientist Annorax in "Star Trek: Voyager." 

According to Smith, being part of the "Star Trek" franchise "means a lot. I enjoyed having been part of a few phenomena." His only complaint, he admitted in an interview with Little Review, was the extensive makeup he needed to transform him into a Cardassian. "It took four hours to put that stuff on!" he said. "They kept saying, 'Be glad you're not a Borg,' as if that made a difference to me." In addition, he told Looper, Smith connects to the Shakespearean elements within "Star Trek." "I find 'Star Trek' very much in that vein, where the characters are a little bit larger than life," he explained. "They're dealing with big questions and with difficult answers. I always feel comfortable in that thing."

In 2020, Smith logged his fourth appearance in the "Star Trek" universe when he lent his voice to an episode of the animated spinoff "Star Trek: Lower Decks," voicing Imperium Magistrate Clar in the episode titled "Veritas."

Why the actor's specialized in playing villains

A quick scan through Kurtwood Smith's IMDb credits indicates that he's played a lot more bad guys than good ones over the years, typified by "RoboCop" villain Clarence Boddicker. That, Smith explained to Today, was kind of by design — although he did tread carefully. "I was less concerned about being typecast as a bad guy than I was concerned about being typecast as a type of bad guy," he said. "I didn't want to be the crazy psychotic street thug, middle-aged street thug. And I didn't want to just be mean Mr. Perry [from 'Dead Poets Society'], either. I was careful, you know, for somebody who had been kind of banging around doing guest-star stuff on television."

Of course, there are many degrees of on-screen villainy. As Smith told the Orlando Sentinel, some of the characters he's played are "actual villains, and some were just problematic." 

Interestingly, Smith's extensive pedigree of playing bad guys gave some Fox executives pause when he was in the running to play Red Forman on "That '70s Show." However, the series' creators, Bonnie and Terry Turner, pushed for Smith, and offered those execs an example explaining their point. "They said, look what [John] Lithgow was doing before [sitcom] '3rd Rock [From the Sun],'" Smith said. "He was pushing Sylvester Stallone out of a helicopter [in 'Cliffhanger']. And I do think my bad-guy past lent a little extra authority to the character."

Despite lingering rumors, he did not appear in The Deer Hunter

Arguably the biggest misconception about Kurtwood Smith is that he appeared in the 1978 Oscar-winner "The Deer Hunter." It's a rumor that Smith has set to rest several times, including in an interview with The Wrap. "People keep asking me about that and I keep meaning to go back and rent the movie," he said. "I think it says that I'm an uncredited extra in the water. Somebody in that must just look an awful lot like me."

Smith offered up another denial when speaking to The AV Club. "Yeah, it's not true," said Smith of the claim that emerged after a background actor's resemblance sparked the story. In fact, at that time Smith said he'd recently watched the film, and "did look for that moment in particular, and I see who they're thinking of, but, no, that's not me. I'd have no problem acknowledging that if it was me. I'm not trying to hide anything!"

Smith also set out to dispel some even more unbelievable rumors. "I was also not offered the role of the original Batman," he joked to The Wrap. "Nor 'Married ... With Children.' Nor was Chuck Norris supposed to play Red Forman." When confronted with the latter rumor in an interview with Bullz-Eye, he admitted, "I suppose it's possible," but also cast a skeptical eye. "I don't know how seriously to take that," he added. 

Kurtwood Smith had worked with Robin Williams long before Dead Poet's Society

Prior to being cast in "That '70s Show," one of Kurtwood Smith's best-known roles was in "Dead Poets Society" as Tom Perry, a demanding, authoritarian father who indirectly causes the death of his son and, by extension, the firing of prep school teacher John Keating, played by Robin Williams

However, "Dead Poets Society" wasn't the first time he'd ever worked with Williams. "I worked with Robin in theater in Marin County in the early '70s, so I'd known Robin for some time," Smith revealed in an interview with Dallas-Fort Worth's NBC affiliate. "We weren't palling around or anything like that, but I was certainly aware of his abilities." Having acted with him previously, Smith knew that Williams — who at that time was still known primarily as a comedian and not as a Juilliard-trained actor — would nail the "Dead Poets Society" role. "I thought that it was a great part for him and that he would really shine in it," Smith added, "because I knew he had the ability to play the more serious aspects of the role."

Looking back, Smith told MovieWeb he had mixed feelings about the film. While declaring "Dead Poets Society" to be "one of my favorite films, and one of the films I'm most proud of," he also admitted it "wasn't always fun to do, acting-wise. [Perry] was such a downer kind of a guy."

The reason he agreed to reprise Red Forman in That '90s Show

When Netflix first announced that it would be producing a sequel spinoff of "That '70s Show" set two decades later, the first names to be officially attached to the project were Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp, reprising their roles as Red and Kitty Forman. In "That '90s Show," the two are now grandparents to Leia Forman, teenage daughter of Eric (Topher Grace) and Donna (Laura Prepon), who's visiting their Wisconsin home for the summer. 

Speaking with Comic Book, Smith revealed the three reasons why he agreed to reprise Red. "I can't tell you too much, but I can tell you that the big thing for me was getting to play that character again and getting to play that character with Deborah [sic] Jo Rupp playing my wife Kitty," he explained. "Those two things were enough to entice me to want to do the project. I thought that, and then third was the fact that Gregg [Mettler] ... who was a writer from the original show was a writer on this, not just the writer, excuse me. He's pretty much the creator on the show."

Smith also promised that fans would be pleased. "I'll just say one other thing about 'That '90s Show' and that is that we've had some tests. We finished two episodes and the response has been terrific," he revealed. "So I think you're going to be very happy."

The actor is comfortable with being a celebrity

The success of "That '70s Show" propelled Kurtwood Smith to a level of fame he hadn't experienced previously. While some actors who become associated with a role fear becoming typecast, that hasn't been the case for him. "I've done enough different things that it's not a plague to me like it might be for some people who are only identified with one particular role," he told The Wrap.

"I'm used to sort of being the guy ... that people either know me or I can tell that people recognize me, either from the movies or people just think that they know me," he said in an interview with Daily Actor. "It was that way for a long time, but it was that way back when I was doing theater in Los Gatos, California. I'd go to the grocery store and those are the people that are going to theater. So I was kind of used to that."

Since then, he's come to a sort of grudging acceptance of his own celebrity. "I know that people I'm with are saying, 'Everyone in the room is staring at you,' and I say, 'Well, when I look around they aren't staring at me.' So that aspect of it, I forget myself at times." Ultimately, he explained, he tends to forget how famous he's become, since the level of celebrity he has now "came fairly late in my career."

He's part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

In 2015, Kurtwood Smith achieved a rite of passage common to many actors these days: He became part of the fabric of the vast collection of films and TV series collectively known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As The Hollywood Reporter declared at the time, he had joined the cast of ABC's "Agent Carter," in which Hayley Atwell reprised her role as WWII-era espionage agent Peggy Carter from the "Captain America" movies. According to THR, Smith had signed on to portray Vernon Masters, a War Department veteran with a knack for circumventing government bureaucracy. 

"When we were developing the character of Vernon Masters, we wrote it with [Smith] in mind," "Agent Carter" executive producers Tara Butters, Chris Dingess, and Michele Fazekas said in Marvel's announcement (via CBR). "We just never thought we could actually get him. Thankfully, we were wrong."

Interestingly enough, Smith is also one of the rare actors to have appeared in projects for both Marvel and its rival, DC. As Looper pointed out, he's voiced multiple DC characters in various animated projects. This has included playing Agent James Bennett, guest-voicing in two episodes of "Justice League," portraying Kanjar Ro in the 2009 animated feature "Green Lantern: First Flight," and Shyir Rev in "Green Lantern: The Animated Series." However, within the DC milieu, Smith is best known for playing Gotham City Police Department mainstay Jim Gordon in the animated series "Beware the Batman."

Kurtwood Smith has made millions from acting

The life of an actor is typically one of uncertainty; making it big is rare, and even those who do achieve success must constantly scramble to keep it. Yet for Kurtwood Smith, acting has been a lucrative career. According to Celebrity Net Worth, Smith is sitting atop a $10 million fortune. As he admitted in an interview with The AV Club, a hefty part of that grand total comes from his salary on "That '70s Show" — and the salaries he was able to command subsequently due to the show's success. "I made money doing that show. I mean, we're not talking about 'Friends' money or anything like that," he explained. "But as far as being able to have a successful financial career, anyway, it certainly gave me that."

A quick glimpse at Smith's IMDb profile demonstrates that another factor in Smith's success has been hard work. That's a characteristic he shares with his most famous on-screen character. In one memorable scene from "That '70s Show," Red is lecturing son Eric (Topher Grace) about the importance of maintaining a strong work ethic. 

"Eric, work is work," Red explains. "You don't show up late, you don't make excuses and you don't not work. If it wasn't work, they wouldn't call it work — they'd call it super wonderful crazy fun time. Or skippedy do." Seems that work ethic has literally paid off.