‘Barry’: Gene’s One-Man Performance Was 55 Years in the Making

It's a key early moment that came right from memory, in more ways than one.
Barry Season 4 Episode 2 Gene Show
Henry Winkler in "Barry"
Merrick Morton/HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “Barry” Season 4, Episode 2, “Bestest Place on the Earth.”]

One of the funny and tragic throughlines on “Barry” is Gene Cousineau’s pathological need to pull focus. Any time there’s a stage to be graced or a part to be played or a performance to be delivered, he’s been able to find his way to make it happen. He’s hosted master classes and MasterClasses, had walk-on roles on network TV shows, and written acting books. This week’s “Barry” saw him, in a likely misguided move, taking control of his own narrative.

When a reporter sniffs out some truth behind the serial killer threatening the greater Los Angeles area, Gene (Henry Winkler) decides to stage a one-man show about his entire relationship with Barry (Bill Hader), from meeting at the theater, being trapped in a trunk, and everything in between. The whole thing is quintessential “Barry”: it’s funny, it illuminates the character in the spotlight, and it’s perfect material for an actor to sink their teeth into.

As Winkler recently told IndieWire, that involved Winkler doing a very specific kind of Barry Berkman impression.

“I’m not a great mimic. But I just had the sense of Bill. And so he came out,” Winkler said with a laugh.

Some very specific Gene editorializing aside, it’s a pretty effective overview of some of the character’s big moments over the past few seasons. It also feels so true to Gene’s particular flair for the dramatic, starting with a hand-detailed invitation and cresting with The Langley Schools Music Project version of The Eagles’ “Desperado” echoing over the speakers for anyone walking into the theater. Even though the performance touched on moments that the audience has seen play out on the show, Winkler didn’t go back and rewatch any of them.

“That was all from memory. It is theatrical anyway. Mimicking it wouldn’t be as much fun,” Winkler said.

Winkler is often complimentary of fellow cast and crew on these “Barry” seasons, praising writers and co-stars and camera crew members. For this latest Gene scene, Winkler reached back into his past and credited a figure from his college days as a spiritual inspiration.

“When I went to Emerson College, there was a man — Dr. Ken Crannell — and he did that exactly. He did the entire ‘The King and I’ merely by changing voice and changing direction on who he was talking to. I learned it a little bit there and I applied it here. That was 1968. And here I am, doing it in 2023,” Winkler said.

Patrick Fischler in "Barry"
Patrick Fischler in “Barry”Merrick Morton/HBO

This season features a number of moments where Gene has to make a crucial decision. It’s not a big change, but you can almost see the wheels start turning in his mind when he finds out that his entire ordeal could be at the heart of a major magazine piece. Whether it’s those pivotal moments or performing for an audience of one (the great Patrick Fischler as the Vanity Fair writer Lon Oneil), Winkler again emphasized the value in having Hader also there as a director and barometer.

“That’s why it’s terrific to have the third eye. I truly believe that one needs a director. An actor who says I don’t need to be directed, I think is really full of baloney,” Winkler said. “Bill is very clear about what he hears, and what he wants. And your job is to try and service the writers, try and service the director’s vision, try and service the creators. Now you’ve got three all in the same person. He’s very clear, and in structure comes freedom. So you’re listening to what he says, you’re churning it up inside your imagination and emotion. And then you just spit it out. If he loves it, we move on. If he doesn’t, he tweaks it. If you make him laugh, even when you’re acting with him, he breaks up laughing.”

The physical parts of that theater performance isn’t just in the blocking or the voice. It’s in Gene being absolutely doused in sweat by the end of it. In his usual happy demeanor, Winkler explained that was one part of the sequence that maybe wasn’t his favorite.

“I wasn’t exactly pleased with the way I looked like wet rat, but, you know…” Winkler said with a winking smile.

“Barry” Season 4 airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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