Ask Peter Weller about the iconic sci-fi film “RoboCop,” in which he starred, and he’ll most likely steer the conversation to jazz. Or the decline of education in public schools. Or Roman and Renaissance art. It’s not that the actor/director/writer/educator and fine arts expert isn’t proud of his groundbreaking performance in that visionary film, or of the 70-plus films and TV shows he has done since, he’s just more interested in life’s other offerings.
During a cigar break at the Hollywood Show in Los Angeles, Mr. Weller discussed his friendship with jazz legend Miles Davis, the need to teach cursive writing in school and his career teaching art history.
And, yes, “RoboCop.” But it took some doing.
Question: Let me ask you about “RoboCop.”
Answer: First of all, let me ask you something. You, The Washington Times, have a physical newspaper that can be rolled up and delivered. Are you aware — and I can say this as a recent Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance art and intellectual history in ancient Roman art — they have ceased to teach cursive writing in public schools?
Let’s talk about that. Here we are signing autographs for people who essentially know know how to write their name and are functionally literate. But if you cease to teach cursive writing, how does one know how to, I don’t know, replicate the Declaration of Independence? Or the orations of Cicero? Is it just going to be on the internet?
Q: Do you do a lot of autograph shows?
A: I rarely do them. Maybe two or three a year. Just to keep my price up. Also I’ve got too much other stuff to do. I have to teach Renaissance art. I have to teach a film class at UCLA. I have to direct a lot of television. And I have to raise a 4-year-old kid.
I also play in a jazz sextet. So I don’t have time to do a lot of conventions. The good thing is, when I do them, it does puts me back in touch with the people who go to movies. I do these shows just to stay in touch with them.
Q: What instrument do you play in the jazz sextet?
A: Trumpet. I went to North Texas State, one of the great jazz schools. When I realized I wasn’t going to be Miles Davis, I switched my major to English and theater.
Q: Was Miles your hero?
A: Yes, Miles Davis, my one and only real hero of my life. I met him [because] every time I had a movie interview, I would shift the conversation to jazz. Miles, when I finally met him, he knew he had a sucker walking in the door. Because his people told him, “This guy plays the trumpet and every freakin’ interview he has ever given, he’s talked about you.” I met him at the Hermosa Beach Magic Club after I had met many guys in his band. These guys said, “You can meet Miles anytime you want.”
But it’s not good to meet you heroes. The humanity in them or the a**hole in them will bring it down. And you don’t want to do that. But right after a show, the owner of the club said, “Mr. Davis is expecting you backstage.” Then I hung out with him for essentially every gig he had after that. I was defiantly the groupie. I would be backstage for an hour and a half with him all the time. I was with him for the very last gig at the Hollywood Bowl. I walked him to his car. Eighteen days later he was gone.
Q: What do you think about Don Cheadle’s Miles bio-pic?
A: God bless Don. He’s a talented guy. I don’t know, man. No. This is all so personal to me. He [Davis] bequeathed me his self-portrait. It’s on my wall.
Q: Why has “Buckaroo Banzai” become such a cult classic?
A: I don’t know. John Lithgow and I introduced the film when it was accepted into the Lincoln Center Archives. Lithgow and I were standing backstage going, “Who’s gonna introduce this thing? Neither Lithgow, [Jeff] Goldbloom, me or Ellen Barkin knew what the hell this movie was about. We don’t know what it is about to this day.
I got to play the guitar and trumpet, and that was the most interesting thing to me. I based the character on the genius of Adam Ant, Jacques Cousteau and Elia Kazan. Kevin Smith introduced the film and gave 20 minutes of why it is a cult film. He said, “It does not spoon-feed you genre. You can’t pin the genre. Is it action? Science fiction? Romance? Is it a comedy? We don’t know. It’s got social issues. Bad guy are redneck aliens. The good guys are Rastafarian black aliens. There is social commentary. It’s an anomaly. It’s shadow play. An adventure into dreamland.” He went on and on.
Lithgow and I turned to each other and said, “I didn’t know that. Did you know that?” I think because you can’t pin it down, that is what the appeal is. People are attracted to the big question mark.
Q: What did you think about the remake of “RoboCop”?
A: There is a good news and bad news about a remake. When you remake something, if you futz with the theme, you are in danger. Because people get it —they get the theme. They know what is galvanizing, what is energizing.
A good American remake was “Girl with the Dragon Tattooo.” [David Fincher] didn’t futz with the Swedish version of that. The remake of “RoboCop”? You’ve got the resurrection, but you don’t get the engine of it. You don’t get the opera of the thing. There is really no third act in the remake to me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Most importantly, I’ve got a 4-year-old kid to raise. If you’ve got kids you know you’ve only got one prayer: “Let my kids outlive me.” That’s the bottom of everything.