Over the course of nearly 30 years and approximately 100 film and television roles, Paul Giamatti has worked his way up from blink-and-you’ll-miss-him roles like “Heckler #2” to become an Oscar-nominated leading man. While he continues to build a diverse resume of film roles with projects like American Splendor, Sideways, Cinderella Man, 12 Years a Slave, and Straight Outta Compton, he’s also bringing his singular brand of wit and talent to the small screen on Showtime’s Billions. To celebrate the venerable actor’s 50th birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Paul Giamatti.
1. HE GREW UP WANTING TO BE A PROFESSOR.
Growing up in a family surrounded by academics, Paul Giamatti considered following his father’s career path and becoming a professor. In 1978, at the age of 40, Giamatti’s father—Bart—was appointed president of Yale University (the youngest person to ever hold the position). “I was never the class clown, or put on shows at home,” Giamatti told The Scotsman about his roundabout road to becoming an actor. “I never thought of acting as something I could do with my life. When I was a kid, I used to run around wrapped in toilet paper so I could be the Mummy. But that wasn’t a sign that I was dreaming of being an actor. I was just an odd child."
2. HE HAD A STRANGE OBSESSION WITH BASEBALL UMPIRES.
Growing up, Giamatti was oddly fascinated with baseball umpires. “I don’t think it had anything to do with their authority,” he told The Believer. “It was more a fascination with the appearance of the home-plate umps. They wear those old-school chest protectors and the mask and they’re always dressed in black … There’s something weirdly sinister about those cats. And of course I’ve always been drawn to the ancillary supporting players in drama. If you look at a game of baseball as a narrative of some kind, the umps are the bit players. They’re the character actors. In almost any situation, I’m invariably interested in the people that nobody pays much attention to."
3. HIS FATHER IS THE MAN WHO BANNED PETE ROSE FROM BASEBALL.
Giamatti’s obsession with baseball’s supporting players might make more sense when you consider that, after leaving his position at Yale in 1986, Bart Giamatti became the president of the National League and, in 1989, was appointed MLB Commissioner. Though he only held the position for five months (the elder Giamatti passed away on September 1, 1989), he managed to make one memorable move during his tenure when he banned Pete Rose from the game amid allegations that he was betting on baseball games.
4. HE LIKES PLAYING SUPPORTING ROLES.
Though he emerged as more of a leading man in the early 2000s with movies like American Splendor and Sideways, Giamatti is content to play a supporting role. "I think you're given more license to have fun, in a way,” he told The Guardian of being a supporting player. “You're supposed to be more vivid, your job is to be more eccentric. I think I just like it better. There's something about working in a smaller space that I'm more temperamentally suited to."
5. M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN SEES HIM AS A TOM HANKS TYPE (WITH BEAUTIFUL EYES).
M. Night Shyamalan, who directed Giamatti in 2006’s Lady in the Water, doesn’t see Giamatti as a bit player. “He is very much a leading man," Shyamalan told The New York Times. "For me, he is like Tom Hanks—he can carry a movie. Paul's eyes are very beautiful in a puppy-dog way. The audience is compelled to want what that person wants and that is a sign of a real star."
6. HIS MOST CHALLENGING ROLE REQUIRED HIM TO SIT IN POOP.
When asked about the biggest challenge he has faced as an actor, the ever-self-deprecating Giamatti said it was one of his earliest roles. “I believe the character was called ‘Man in Sleeping Bag,’” he said. “A homeless guy. It may have just been ‘man.’ Who knows. It was an episode of NYPD Blue. We were in a squatters village below the Manhattan Bridge. I was lying in real human feces. A real lunatic who lived there in a huge drainage pipe of some kind would crawl out occasionally and pelt me with debris … They had to pay him a lot to stay in his pipe. Good for him. I had one line. Something like, ‘I don’t know nothin’ man.’ I screwed it up. I sat around all day. At one point I got thrown off the set by a P.A. who thought I was a real ‘Man in Sleeping Bag.’ I was nervous; disoriented."
When asked about the most fun he’s had playing a part, Giamatti responded: “Man in sleeping bag."
7. HE COULDN’T BELIEVE THAT ANYONE WOULD WANT TO MAKE, OR WATCH, A MOVIE ABOUT WINE.
Though Sideways may be one of the best known, and most beloved, films on Giamatti’s resume, the actor himself wasn’t so sure about it. He told The Scotsman that when he was offered the part, his first thought was: “No one will want to make this movie—and who the hell is going to want to watch a movie about wine?" For the record, Giamatti freely admits that he knows nothing about wine, and he’s fine with that.
8. HE GOT FOOD POISONING WHILE MAKING SIDEWAYS. HE ALSO GOT VERY DRUNK.
In the DVD commentary for Sideways, Giamatti and his co-star, Thomas Haden Church, discussed how they both got food poisoning after filming the dinner scene with Giamatti’s on-screen mom. On another occasion, Giamatti got very, very drunk.
“There was one dinner scene where I had to drink a sh*tload and by the end of the night I was completely hammered,” Giamatti recounted. “Fortunately I didn’t have to do that much talking but I got really f*cked up, it was great. You can tell that I’m kind of messed up. Maybe that’s why the Academy didn’t nominate me for that movie, because I’m clearly drunk."
9. HE DIDN’T CARE ABOUT HIS SO-CALLED “OSCAR SNUB.”
Speaking of the Oscars: While much of the movie-watching world was taken aback when both Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen received Academy Award nominations for their work on Sideways, while Giamatti got nothing, the actor wasn’t at all fazed or disappointed. “That was an odd dilemma to be in,” he told the Independent. “I didn't expect to get nominated so it was like everybody else was way more disappointed than I was, so that was really weird, talking to these people and not knowing what to say to them to take their disappointment away that I didn't get nominated."
10. HE WAS APPROACHED ABOUT PLAYING MICHAEL SCOTT ON THE OFFICE.
In 2006, The New York Times reported that when adapting Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office for American television, Paul Giamatti as Michael Scott was on the top of at least one NBC executive’s dream casting list. Giamatti declined the part.
11. HE HAS PORTRAYED TWO DIFFERENT PRESIDENTS.
Six years after playing the title role in HBO’s John Adams miniseries (a part that earned him a Golden Globe Award), Giamatti took on the role of another POTUS when he voiced Teddy Roosevelt for Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.
12. NOT BEING BORED IS HIS MAIN CRITERIA FOR ACCEPTING A ROLE.
When asked about how he goes about choosing his roles, Giamatti told The A.V. Club that he doesn’t have any sort of calculated plan. “I just don’t want to be bored,” he said. “That’s the only criteria I have. I like it if the script is good and the director seems like he’s gonna be good. But if I can find a variety of things to do, which I feel like I manage to do, as far as the actual performing goes and the character, that’s huge for me. To be able to feel like I can do a fairly diverse array of things. I’ve been lucky in that way. I don’t mind being stereotyped in some way and playing certain kinds of guys, but if I can find something to occasionally get a break from that, that would be nice. And I feel like I manage to. But there’s no grand scheme other than that."
13. HE THINKS HE HAS BEEN TYPECAST, AND HE’S OK WITH IT.
Because he chooses his roles on what is most interesting to him personally, Giamatti often ends up playing oddballs. “I think I'm typecast. But that is fine with me,” he told the Independent. “I remember an actor called Bud Cort, I met him once and he said, 'Go ahead and happily be typecast, I resisted it and didn't get cast again, I would happily go back and be typecast.' Within the type I play, it's interesting to play, ambivalent, spiky, weird, unpleasant people."
14. HE CAN BE VERY CRITICAL OF HIS OWN PERFORMANCES.
Like so many other artists, Giamatti has a habit of picking apart his performances. “I definitely have a tendency to only see the blemishes of things, and see lots of things about my acting that I don’t like,” he told The A.V. Club. “I think I’ve gotten a little easier on myself, or at least a little more usefully critical of myself. I think before, I just couldn’t take looking at myself at all. I don’t know. I’m happy people see something I don’t see. I’ve very critical of myself, and film has been an adjustment for me. I’m glad; it’s a challenge in some ways. Certainly not boring. But it’s always been hard for me to feel like I get it, get how to act on film. I feel like I’m gradually getting it."
15. HE BELIEVES THAT CHUCK RHOADES, HIS CHARACTER IN BILLIONS, IS ESSENTIALLY A GOOD GUY.
At the moment, much of Giamatti’s time is devoted to Billions, the Showtime series he stars in that was recently renewed for a third season. In the series, Giamatti plays U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, a complicated character who will seemingly stop at nothing to take down his wife’s employer, hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). While Rhoades doesn’t always make the best choices, Giamatti believes that he’s essentially a good guy.
“I admire those guys who do what my character does,” Giamatti told the Los Angeles Daily News. “They are ambitious, driven guys with human needs and desires, but they do believe in the law as a kind of instrument for doing good.” He acknowledges that Rhoades is “definitely a flawed person, but essentially I think my character is doing a good thing.”