03/15/2012 1:59PM

Q&A: Jeff Copland of HBO's 'Luck'

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A life-long racetracker who has been, among other things, a trainer, jockey agent, and gambler. He played the part of Goose Kellogg, a small-time, hustling trainer, in the HBO series “Luck.”

(Note: This interview was conducted before HBO canceled the series.)

Birthdate: May 19, 1949, in Rochester, N.Y.

Family: Single

Got into racing because . . . I cut my teeth at Finger Lakes. It was only 15 minutes from where we lived. Racing was one of the occasional hobbies of my dad. We had relatives on his side of the family in Cleveland, so we would go to the races at Thistledown and Randall Park. I just took a liking to it. What’s there not to like?

How did you end up working at the track? I went to a small college, Ashland University, in Ohio, but that wasn’t for me. I transferred to Miami-Dade Junior College. I lived right behind old Tropical Park. Then I ended up in Boston after running a ski shop in Vermont. I had a cousin going to Boston University. He was friends with Mike Welsch, and Mike got me a job at Suffolk walking hots. I eventually hooked on with the Winick family in Florida, and that’s who I came with when I moved here to California in 1977. I was a clocker and an assistant trainer for them. I’ve been a hot walker, groom, trainer, assistant trainer, agent, clocker, and gambler.

How did you end up working on “Luck”? You know how at the racetrack you form friendships just by bumping into people? Just being a racetrack rounder, I met Eric Roth at Del Mar when I first came out here. Eric has become my dearest friend in life. I met David Milch in passing back then, too. Just two guys saying, “Who do you like?” David’s a good soul. I got to know him, and he said he wanted to do something on the racetrack one day. I also knew John Perrotta back in Florida as a racetrack rounder. Then later, I was out here around the time of the first Breeders’ Cup, working as the jock agent for Declan Murphy, but he broke his collarbone. At that time, John was working for Due Process Stable. I helped arrange for Due Process to buy part of a horse named Raami, who was trained by Darrell Vienna. Perrotta met Vienna, and through Vienna, Perrotta met Milch. Fast forward, and John, David, and Eric all end up working on “Luck.”

But how did you get cast? Eric is working as a co-producer of the show. David said he wanted to write a part for me. The character originally was known as Woody. David called me one day and said I needed to go over and audition. This was about two years ago. I guess the part is sort of based on me, a bottom feeder, a hustler. I mean, that line they gave me − “I’ve got a 2-year-old for sale that can really run” − I’ve had so many people come up and say, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that around the racetrack.” Anyway, I went in for the reading. I read for director Terry George. It was a ball. And I got a call the next day.

“Woody” is what everybody calls you at the track. I’ve heard that’s because you once looked a lot like Woody Allen: Nobody knew me when I first came around the track, so the nickname stuck.

Getting back to being cast, how badly did you want to do it? Once I read for it, I wanted to do it. I stayed up all night reading my lines. I didn’t want to fail. Ritchie Coster, who plays Renzo, I had met him back when they shot the pilot, and he’s become a good friend. He helped me a lot.

You do admit that your character does seem based on you: It is. But it’s hard to be me. They told me to tone it down because I do get animated. Everybody says, “You’re such a nice guy on this.” They teach you. Ritchie, Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart, Jason Gedrick, they’re all brilliant. You’ve got to be sort of a sponge. They’ve really helped, being as I’m a neophyte. John Ortiz has been a great help, too. And he really has embraced the game. He likes coming out here, and he had no connection to the sport before this. He’s been a great ambassador.

What is your perspective on the four gamblers that Coster, Dunn, Hart, and Gedrick play? There are degenerates in all walks of life. There wouldn’t be racing if there weren’t people like that. The best thing about them is that they love their lives.

This is your first acting job. Did you ever envision something like this happening to you? The only constant in life is that there’s change. You might not like the change, but there’s change. This turned out to be something I really like.

You’ve kind of had a Zelig-like life at the track, making friends with Eric Roth, David Milch, and, before he died in 1994, Charles Bukowski. You’ve also been friends with some top old-time trainers: I’ve been very lucky in this business in that way. In my life I’ve surrounded myself with creative people. Bukowski, Eric, Milch − I love creative people. All those guys like to gamble. And I’ve been fortunate to be around trainers who, in their own way, were creative, guys like Willard Proctor, Eddie Gregson, Bob Wheeler, Warren Stute, and Ralph West, who was as good a trainer as any of them. I’ve been around Buster Millerick and Harry Trotsek, and at Hialeah I would talk to Reggie Cornell and Woody Stephens. Out here, I learned a lot from Alex Hassinger.

You were very close with Bukowski: We were introduced at the races by Darrell Vienna. I got invited over his house in San Pedro, and we stayed friends after that. I was a pallbearer at his funeral. He was a dear soul. I have a book from him that’s inscribed, “Doing time at the track is as good as anywhere.” I’ve been fortunate in my life in that respect. I’ve been around some really great people.

Hobbies? I like James Lee Burke novels, and James Patterson. I like crime novels.

What television shows do you like? I love “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and I really liked “Bored to Death.” I also like “Homeland” and “Shameless,” and “Strike Back.”

Would you like to do more acting? I just like going to the track. I like the camaraderie. I’m 62 years old. If I was in my 30s, maybe I would pursue it. I know I’m not Dustin Hoffman. But it is fun. It’s fun for me. You need validation in life. I like that they had enough confidence in me to let me do it.