Tom Arnold’s left leg is jittery—almost spastic—as he pumps it up and down continuously while sitting on a couch at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. His room’s sixth-floor window overlooks the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where thousands of famous names decorate the concrete below.
While the comedian is certainly big-city famous, he’s still very much a product of his small-town roots in Ottumwa, Iowa (pop. 24,998), which also was the purported hometown of Radar O’Reilly, the lieutenant character from the TV series M*A*S*H.
Arnold sees a similarity between himself and O’Reilly. “Both fictional characters,” he says with a laugh.
The fictional part of Tom Arnold, 48, is the guy most people know—the loud, obnoxious, belligerent character that came to the spotlight as the husband of comedienne-actress Roseanne Barr and went on to appear in numerous movies, including True Lies, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Pride. Moviegoers soon will see him in several new features, including The Final Season, Gardens of the Night and Remarkable Power.
The guy behind that character—the real Tom Arnold—is quite different from the roles he’s known for playing. He’s a sensitive, smart, self-critical person who wants very much to mentor younger people and to have a positive impact on the world, particularly his hometown. He’s politically involved in stem cell research and in developing alternative fuels, and he’s taken a major role in state-level charity events, including the Special Olympics, and RAGBRAI, an annual bicycle ride across the state of Iowa in which he’s participated several times.
People don’t really know Tom Arnold. And, he adds, “They shouldn’t.”
“I think people understand what’s presented to ’em,” he explains. “If you put a certain thing out there, it’s easy to stereotype and say, ‘He’s this guy.’ And it’s easier to give (that guy) to ’em than anything else.”
Always the class clown
Easier indeed, because showing people the outrageous side has always worked. Arnold figured out during his school years in Ottumwa that playing the class clown brought instant attention.
“I wasn’t the best athlete. I was definitely not the most popular or best-looking,” he says. “But you’re always looking for something to get the other kids to like you.”
He always was quick-witted, and that became his way of getting attention. After graduating from Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, he cut his teeth as a stand-up comic in Iowa City, then moved to Minneapolis, where his in-your-face routines caught the attention of Roseanne Barr when she appeared there. She brought Arnold to Los Angeles as a writer, and their now-infamous relationship emerged. They married in 1990, divorcing four years later.
When he first hit L.A. in 1988, he sharpened the hard edge on his personality even more. Working with Barr brought money, success and fame—and drew him dangerously close to the flame of self-destruction.
“I always said if I had enough money to buy all the drugs and all the booze I wanted, I’d never want anymore,” he recalls. “Well, that’s maybe a lie. I had access to things—bad things. I wigged out fast.”
“He hit the ground running out there on the drugs and alcohol,” says Mike Sporer, whose backyard adjoined the backyard of Arnold’s two-story childhood home in Ottumwa. “In fact, I came out to visit him one time, probably six or eight months before he got sober, and I remember coming back home and telling our friends, ‘Hey, listen, Arnie’s gonna be dead shortly. You better go visit.’ He was out of control.”
It’s possible he was trying to outrun the memories of his adolescence. Arnold was reared in a rough and unstable environment. His parents divorced when he was 4 (his mother eventually would marry seven times), and after his father remarried, Tom felt mostly unwanted in a blended family that included his original two siblings, his stepmother’s two kids and eventually two more additions. When his father turned 70 this summer, Arnold put together a family scrapbook on DVD. In photos from most of the vacations the family took from the time he turned 8, Tom is nowhere to be found.
He remembers being beat up frequently by bigger, older kids on his way home from school, and one of his first jobs was working in the local Hormel meat-packing plant, an experience that thoroughly sapped his spirit. “To just stand there all day and kill something, that’s not too good on your psyche,” Sporer says. “That’s not a healthy environment.”
But reconnecting with his youth—specifically with the kid that got lost somewhere back in Ottumwa—helped Arnold learn to manage, if not conquer, the demons that surfaced in Hollywood. He started attending recovery meetings in the late 1980s, and he used a photo of himself when he was 5 years old as a motivator to finally come clean in 1989.
The young boy in the picture is handsome and has a smart, confident air about him. He looks happy. “I wouldn’t have been sober, if it wasn’t maybe for this picture,” Arnold says, holding the image carefully in his hands. In previous attempts at sobriety, he says, “I would do it for whatever—get a job back, make people like me, girlfriend, whatever. But I did it (this time) for this kid who was 5. I’d look at that kid and I’d do it for him. We deserve to be who that kid was, you know.”
Peeling away showbiz
Arnold remains a huge supporter of his home state. Viewers of FOX-TV’s The Best Damn Sport Show Period, which he co-hosted from 2001 to 2005, might recall that he kept a University of Iowa Hawkeyes football helmet on the set. He donated the 1,350-acre Iowa farm he and Roseanne owned to Indian Hills Community College, and he awards two full scholarships each year to IHCC students. He even has aspirations to become an Iowa governor, mirroring the actor-becomes-chief-executive career shift of his friend and True Lies co-star, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And he’s still peeling away the layers of showbiz and oversized personality that have covered the real Tom Arnold for years. After living next door to basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal in the trendy Hollywood Hills for eight years, he recently moved to Los Angeles’ more quiet outskirts. He made headlines in the spring when he filed for divorce from his wife of five years, Shelby. But in separating, they came to grips with their individual personalities, and, Arnold suggests, they might actually be able to work things out.
“I’ve learned more about her since I filed for divorce than maybe in the seven years before that,” he says. “We both are afraid of intimacy, but since the pressure’s off, she’s been there for me in ways that she didn’t think were important before, that were important. And I have, too.”
It’s a moment of reflection for the real Tom Arnold—the kind of moment that’s not usually associated with him as an outrageous public figure.
“There’d be times we would go to San Diego, to a children’s center, and take 30 abused children to the ballgame,” recalls Kevin “Mo” Moreland, a friend from Iowa who spent several years working with Arnold in Los Angeles. “People would at first think, ‘I’ve got to keep him at arm’s length.’ “But I had so many people tell me, ‘Oh, he’s nothing like I thought he’d be.’ He surprises a lot of people with his generosity, and his open heart, and just the way he views the world.” v Which is why, perhaps, his left leg is so active. Most everyone sees Tom Arnold as a loud, hard-partying extrovert. In reality, there’s so many other things—quieter things, good things—going on underneath the surface that he can barely sit still.