Far greater than the sum of his tiny parts, Michael J. Anderson is propelled by his considerable intellect, insatiable quest for knowledge, utter fearlessness and love of life. Last, but not least, the diminutive Samson of “Carnivale” wraps the whole package in a dry sense of humor and a huge personality.
During six glorious years in the 1970s at the University of Colorado, Anderson changed majors more often than his underwear. He tore through full course loads in, among other things, physics, microbiology, music and philosophy before concentrating on electronic technology. He wanted expertise in a field where he could earn a good living immediately after picking up his sheepskin.
In the top percentile of his class, Anderson was pursued in a heartbeat by prestigious high-tech aerospace firms before settling in with a Colorado division of the giant Martin Marietta Aerospace Corp. to troubleshoot computers on the ground support systems for NASA’s vast space shuttle program.
“I was kind of a science fiction fan working in the most glamorous space program, besides the big philosophy companies weren’t hiring,” laughed Anderson, now 51 and heavily weathered by his rough and tumble life experiences. “It was great for four years, then it was time to go. I spent the next year or so traveling around the country, playing music on the sidewalk and living in my car.”
Anderson, picking an acoustic guitar the size of Rhode Island and sporting a fair voice, picked up street musician’s tricks of the trade in a matter of weeks.
“Sitting out on the sidewalk with the hat in front of me, I earned an average of $10 an hour while moving around the country,” he recalled. “But playing Las Vegas, more money if I sexed up the songs with a raised eyebrow and erotic undertone.
“Whereas in Utah, my take would be more lucrative if I could work the word ‘Jesus’ into every song,” he continued, straight as an arrow. “By the time I hit New York, I knew what I was doing. The first thing I did was spend my last bit of money on hardware to amplify my guitar over the city’s incredible traffic noise. Suddenly, I was making $100 an hour – so I stayed there about 10 years.”
Appreciative New Yorkers stuffed his battered hat with coins, bills and business cards that had notes scrawled on the back with such messages as “Come audition for our show.” Only months after his arrival on the streets of Manhattan, Anderson was separated from the rest of the pedestrians by the Broadway producers of “The Alcazar Gay Paree,” a French musical take-off on American culture. He portrayed Michael Jackson.
His next Broadway gig was a 1 1/2-year stint in dancer-choreographer Martha Clarke’s “The Endangered Species project: ESP” – a movement-dance project where he played something that represented the natural world. As his reputation as a dramatic actor grew, he was called to Hollywood by off-center director David Lynch to play The Little Man From Another Place on the “Twin Peaks” series and in the movie “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.”
Although he has more than a dozen of feature films to his credit – including “Murder Too Sweet,” “Warriors of Virtue,” “Mulholland Drive” and “Sticky Fingers” – Anderson gained a loyal following on TV with high-profile guest shots on episodics ranging from “Picket Fences” and “The X Files” to a 1999 arc on the daytime soap “Port Charles” as Peter Zorin and a brief appearance as Hour Hand on “Black Scorpion.” But Anderson’s crowning achievement is in “Carnivale” as the complex Samson, the rough, tough and intrepid 3 1/2-foot tall leader of a gritty, mysterious traveling carnival slowly moving through the Midwest during the turbulent 1930s of the Great Depression. As the forces of good and evil battle for control of the planet, Samson runs a show featuring jugglers, hookers, sword-swallowers, freaks and geeks for Management – a powerful entity yet to be revealed.
“Samson is definitely the best, most dimensional character that I have ever played,” Anderson said, leaving no doubt. “In fact, I think he is the most layered, dimensional character ever written for a little person. It’s so unique that I feel like I’ve won the lottery. And doing Samson, I’m really playing my dad. A self-made man in the manufacturing business, he was a pit bull in terms of his flintiness and willfulness. As a child, there was a period when I was afraid of him.”
Born in Huron, S.D., to standard-issue white parents (“this starts and ends with me,” he says of his genetic bone condition), the still-single Anderson was taught to think big and do big by his incredibly strong, nurturing mother.
“But every time I walk into a bar, the music stops and people gawk – like in the old Westerns,” he laughed. “In Hollywood, little people are treated like beautiful blondes: There are lots of them and they all look alike. We need to be a part of real life.”