'Animal House' Star Tim Matheson Talks Marine Corps Service

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22nd Annual Critics Choice Awards - Arrivals
Tim Matheson arrives at the 22nd annual Critics' Choice Awards at the Barker Hangar on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, in Santa Monica, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Tim Matheson's career has been built on a foundation of coincidences and a medical throughline.

The 74-year-old actor known for his roles in "Animal House," "The West Wing," "Hart of Dixie" and Netflix's "Virgin River" enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1968. That same year, his film "Yours, Mine and Ours," starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, was released. At the end of the film, his character, Mike Beardsley, leaves his family to enter the Marine Corps.

"On the day I was to film a physical in the movie, I think for the draft, I actually was called to go to my draft physical as well," Matheson said. "We had to reschedule shooting."

He ended his military service as a lance corporal but had the opportunity to attend Officer Candidates School. He turned it down to refocus his attention on acting -- the only career he ever wanted to pursue.

"But I must say that boot camp in the Marine Corps was one of the most profound occurrences in my life," he said, "as its purpose is to teach you that you can do a lot more than you think you can. You can do much, much more, and it'll whip you into shape."

The experience, he said, was "shocking and enlightening."

"I was a Hollywood kid," Matheson said. "We were lower middle class, but I smoked, and I didn't run."

He didn't work out much but was in decent shape.

"I was a squad leader in boot camp because I didn't mind taking charge of a situation. And I thought they might go easier on me if I was a squad leader," he said with a laugh.

Tim Matheson as 'Hollywood Marine'

While serving at the U.S. Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center in Los Angeles in Chavez Ravine, Matheson aimed to keep his acting career quiet.

"[My best friend Mike Stokey Jr.] was always kidding me about Hollywood Marines, and Elvis Presley had enlisted in the Army," Matheson said. "So I did not want to be called a Hollywood Marine. I went into boot camp and made sure I didn't mention anything about it."

In a twist of irony, Matheson once marched by the base theater, which was showing his first film, "Divorce American Style." But because his role as Mark Harmon was minor, nobody was the wiser.

Ultimately, a friend who served in the 4th Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California, outed him -- to little ado for the future "Animal House" star.

"I found out the 4th Marine Division, which is what was based at Camp Pendleton, was en masse moved out and sent to Vietnam," Matheson said. "So they mobilized the entire base basically and shipped them over, office workers and all ... but he did blow my cover."

In 1969, Matheson starred in "How to Commit Marriage" alongside Jackie Gleason and Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan's former wife. Having recently left the Marines, his hair was short, prompting him to don a wig for the "spoof on hippies" flick.

Then the reverse happened.

"[To] play counterculture hippies, I let my hair grow and put on a short hair wig when I would go to my Reserve unit," Matheson said. "That worked out for a while. And then once, I think after about two and a half years, I forget how it got out. My gunny was affronted by the fact that I was wearing a short-hair wig and wasn't following, to the letter, the short, short hair."

In response, Matheson said he told his gunny that he was "the exception that proves the rule" because he needed the long hair for his civilian career.

Time for a change

Early in his career, Matheson was cast in "The Virginian," a western, and continued to land roles in the genre -- including "Bonanza" and "The Quest" -- for about seven years.

"I was ready for a change," he said. "Westerns were on the wane. ... So I took improv classes, and then I saw the script for 'Animal House,' and I had never really done a comedy. Fortunately, I got to audition with Peter Riegert, an improv actor. ... We bounced off each other with ease. We both got the parts, and now a new section of my career was launching."

Matheson came to learn that, every five to seven years, it was time to change things up to avoid getting bored or phoning it in.

"So westerns, then it was comedy, then I sort of went into TV movies, then started directing TV movies, and then directing comedy TV movies and pilots," he said. "So there were these natural sort of forks in the road."

Starting over in the 'Hart of Dixie'

One of those forks came when Matheson's career was in a directing phase, during which his credits included USA's "Covert Affairs" and "The Good Guys." The schedule, he said, took him away from his family more so than acting.

"It was just so grueling, and there was a natural shift because my marriage ended, and all my kids were off to school. I had been living in Santa Barbara for 20 years. ... I moved back to LA and just started over," he said. "One of my first auditions I had was 'Hart of Dixie.'"

While not originally a regular in the CW show starring Rachel Bilson, his character Dr. Brick Breeland was "central to the story." He was later added to the billed cast and directed two episodes per year.

"It sort of grabbed me and took me with it," Matheson said. "I was in a show that was very popular, and it lasted four years ... but I didn't want to go back to directing."

Since 2019, he has played Vernon "Doc" Mullins in the Netflix adaptation of Robyn Carr's "Virgin River" novel series.

"This last sort of phase has been focused more on just acting," he said. "It's been a rebirth for me."

"Virgin River" was Matheson's first streaming show, sending him into a new market with a new platform for broadcasting.

"When the second season dropped in the middle of COVID, we were up in Vancouver shooting the third season," Matheson said. "Our show was like the number one show in the majority of cities around the world in the United States and Canada ... and we were all together as a cast and a crew. It was really wonderful for us to experience [the news] like that."

Gaining traction during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Matheson said "Virgin River" was a "comfort kind of place" for viewers.

"I think it was also a heartwarming show, a safe place during COVID for people to escape to," he said.

The role of doctor also is throughline for Matheson, whose characters in "The Quest," "Animal House," "Hart of Dixie" and now "Virgin River" either are in the medical profession or lean that way through the course of the film.

"[Doc] is the voice of reason and counselor who helps people," Matheson said. "It's a wonderful kind of world to be in [and play] a character who cares for people and wants to help them."

Season four of "Virgin River" premieres July 20 on Netflix.

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