LOS ANGELES - Before 1998, Kurtwood Smith was most recognizable as a bad guy.
Some of the characters he played, such as super-criminal Clarence Boddicker in Robocop, were "actual villains, and some were just problematic," Mr. Smith says. Most notable in the "problematic" category is the disciplinarian father of Robert Sean Leonard's character in Dead Poets Society.
Since 1998, however, Mr. Smith has played Red Forman on Fox's That '70s Show, the perpetually disappointed father of Eric (Topher Grace) and giver of tough-love advice to Eric's friends. While Red is rarely pleased with anything the teens on the show do, Mr. Smith doesn't view him as a bad person.
"I think despite all his grumpiness and crankiness, he's a pretty lovable guy," Mr. Smith says. Not that Red doesn't have a right to be cranky: Red lost his job as an autoworker and now wears an ugly red blazer to work at Pricemart. A veteran of World War II and Korea, he is forever amazed at how easy the youths have it.
"(Red) grew up in the same era as my parents," says Mr. Smith, 58. "He shares a lot of those values. People took responsibility for themselves and then found out that maybe the American Dream wasn't all it was cracked up to be."
Mr. Smith got the part of Red after a casting director, Marc Hirschfeld, introduced him to the show's creators, Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner. They liked him, but network executives weren't so sure of their choice at first.
"They said, 'Look what (John) Lithgow was doing before 3rd Rock,' " Mr. Smith says of the Turners, who also created 3rd Rock From the Sun. "He was pushing Sylvester Stallone out of a helicopter (in Cliffhanger). And I do think my bad-guy past lent a little extra authority to the character."
That '70s Show will soon face a dilemma that all shows featuring high school students must deal with: how to keep them together after graduation. While it's obvious some of the characters are college material and some aren't, Mr. Smith says he's aware of "no specific plan" for the future.
"I guess we'll just have to wait and see," he says. "Hopefully, we'll get a couple more years out of it. It's a great ride, and we're all enjoying it."
That '70s Show airs at 8 p.m. Tuesdays on Fox (WFXG-TV, Channel 54). Tonight's show will be pre-empted by the Billboard Music Awards.