In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's actor and comedian Tom Arnold, whose Dead Ant just premiered at Screamfest 2017.
Because of the terrible thing that happened in Las Vegas, I've seen people tweeting "typical Hollywood liberals" a lot this week, in regards to all the gun talk. But, you know, I grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa, and I took an NRA gun safety course when I was seven years old. At the Y camp, the rifle range was the number one thing to do. There were six and seven year old kids firing 22s—that's the culture, that's where I'm from. I've been a gun owner for 50 years, and I've done a lot of hunting, so I know a lot—and when these folks talk about, "We need this kind of weaponry for hunting," I know it's bullshit.
I'm not a Hollywood liberal. I'm a liberal compared to those guys, but I'm also smart, and this is the culture I grew up in. Growing up on a farm, Hollywood and the entertainment industry had a big influence on us. Bailing hay all day was the hardest, worst job, but when you'd be done, they'd pull the hay wagon around, and if Richard Pryor had a new album, they'd set up giant speakers, and the other rednecks and I would sit there and drink our beer. We worshipped Richard Pryor—all these white boys. He was a God to us.
I was raised by a single father, and the only time I ever heard my dad laugh was when he would come home from work and there was a Bob Hope special on. I remember thinking, I want to do whatever it is that Bob Hope does, because that makes my dad laugh.
When you've been sexually abused, one of the benefits of having really bad things happen is that you develop a split in your personality to cope. It's a coping mechanism, and you go into another, better place. That place, for me, was where I was friends with Richard Pryor, Bob Hope, Robin Williams, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and that carried on through my teen years.
I can't imagine my 12-year-old kid thinking, "I'm go to the depot downtown, get on a bus with a bunch of drifters, and head 30 miles outside of town to detassel some corn for 12 hours." But that's what I did every summer—and it was good money. My bosses were 14, and of course I got into fist fights with them, and they fired me. I had to hitchhike home, and I was so embarrassed that I couldn't even tell my dad, because this job meant everything to me.
When I got home, I called the owner of McCurdy Seeds and said, "Mr. McCurdy, my name is Tom Arnold, I did not deserve to be fired. So and so fired the whole crew of us, and we hitchhiked home, and I want another chance to come to work tomorrow." The guy was so blown away that he said I could come back to work the next day, so I didn't have to tell my dad. I don't know about you, but I would rather be punched in the face by my dad than have him give me that "I'm disappointed in you" look.
I worked at a meatpacking plant for three years out of high school, and when you get older, you realize, I can get to that place by slamming three tall boys, too. It's easy to become an addict. If you work on the kill floor of a meatpacking plant, you'll get very drunk every night, have dreams of being friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and then you'll wake up at 4:45 and go, "Fuck, I live in Ottumwa. I'll never meet Arnold Schwarzenegger. I gotta quit having these goddamn dreams and get fucking real." Then, ten years later, you're fucking best friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Every psychotic, crazy dream I had to go into this other world because of childhood abuse has come true. And that's how I survived my childhood, because I always felt like an outsider, which I think a lot of people do too. You keep this fantasy thing going, and fortunately I didn't completely surrender it.
I got fired from the meatpacking plant. You got three strikes, and you were out—strikes were being late and getting in fights. I always had two, and then I got arrested. I was going to community college, and on the way back to the dorm after a party, my friends and I were like, "Let's go streaking." We went to the diner downtown and ran naked through there. There was nobody there—the chef didn't even come out of the back—so then we went to Mr. Quick's, which was a bigger fast-food place. A few people saw us, but wasn't enough.
On the way back, I said, "I know where people will see us, let's go to Jefferson Square Manor"—the old folks home. We knew the nurses who worked there and thought they would think it was hilarious. They did not. Mr. Quick had already called the cops, who were waiting for us when we ran out of Jefferson Square Manor. I got arrested fully naked, handcuffed behind my back, and taken to jail. I'll tell you this: If you get arrested naked in an old folks home in a small town, it will be in the newspaper, and you will get fired. According to my grandma, that was the worst day ever for the whole family—but it was the best day of my life. It forced me to do other things.
When I first came out to Hollywood in 1988, they had a writer's strike. We just had the biggest meatpacking strike ever, and these writers were like, "We're on strike"—and I was like, "This is not a strike." At the meatpacking plant, I voted for every strike. Union reps would come around with the paperwork, I'd sign it, and they'd go, "Don't you wanna know what it's about?" And I'd go, "I don't give a shit what it's about, I want to fucking go on strike." We'd sit outside the plant, and if people would try to get into the plant—even when it was our own cousins—we'd fucking take molotov cocktails and try to blow our own cousins up. That's a fact. My dad was in management, and he finally had enough money to get a used Mercury Marquis convertible. He had it for two days—our other cousin blew it up. The cops knew he was going to do it, but they had to wait until he blew it up to arrest him. That's the union town we lived in—my dad was management, so, you know, fuck him.
The day before I started filming Dead Ant, my dad died. I used to think he was boring because all he did was work and come home. My uncle Bob, on the other hand, was fucking exciting. He got drunk, got in fights with gangs, was a nudist, went to fucking Burning Man—how awesome is that? I'd always be like, "Dad, why can't you be like Uncle Bob? He's so fucking fun." But later in life, I got to appreciate him more.
Our next door neighbor growing up was a guy named Old Man Johnson. He had no thumbs—and a lot of people in Iowa have no thumbs, it's fact. Farming accidents, meatpacking plants—they get their thumbs cut off, and a lot of times they'll get their big toe sewed on where their thumb was, and they fucking love shaking your hand just to fuck with you. As Old Man Johnson got up in age, he lived alone, got sick, and lost control of his bodily functions. Every day for eight years, my dad left the plant at noon, went over and cleaned him up, and after work he put him to bed. When I heard that story, I was like, "OK, my uncle Bob is awesome, but that's a real man right there."
My dad never went to the doctor, but he worked at a hospital at the end of his life. I talked to him on a Wednesday, and I could tell something was up; he said, "Tommy, the mobile oncology unit is going to be in Wallowa County in three months so I'm going to wait for them." I said, "No, there's an ambulance coming to the house right now. You're going to Des Moines. They have a real oncologist there."
So he was diagnosed, and he had cancer everywhere—he had to have been in serious pain for a year, and he had four days to live. I flew in, and I was so grateful I had time with my dad, and that he wasn't going to suffer. But I needed to have a moment with him seriously to go on with my life, where I tell him I love and appreciate him, and I'm trying to be the man that he is—that I'm not there yet, but I'm trying.
We all get to the hospital and my dad's in the bed, and he's got to go the restroom, and my fucking four brothers scatter because they're huge pussies. I pick my dad up, carry him into the restroom, put him on the toilet, and I get the toilet paper to clean him up. Our eyeballs are about three inches apart, and I know he can see in my soul, and I can see in his. I tell him I love him, and I'm trying to be a man like him—it was a moment that I selfishly needed for me to go on.
Three hours later, my stepmother gets to the hospital, and he has to use the restroom again, so I pick my dad up carry him to the restroom again, put him on the toilet, and I get the toilet paper ready to go. My stepmother's like, "Tommy, what are you doing?" I go, "Well, I'm gonna wipe Dad's butt," and she's like, "Why? He wipes his own butt." So I hand him the paper, and he wipes his own butt. Apparently I didn't need to be wiping his butt when I was wiping his butt, but it was the moment—I'm gonna pretend that it was the moment, at least. I thought it was.