The Tragicomic Tragicomedy of Peter Scolari

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For culture vultures of my generation — and the generation and a half that have followed — Peter Scolari is a star of TV comedy and, in some ways, a relatively unsung national treasure. The sitcom Bosom Buddies, which premiered on ABC in 1980 and ran for two seasons, was America’s introduction to him. It concerned two young single men living for a cheap rent in a hotel for women, which meant getting gussied up as feminine alter-egos, a kind of 30-minute Some Like It Hot for the post-’70s set.

Bosom Buddies, of course, was also America’s introduction to Tom Hanks, who played Kip and, in drag, the lovely, raven-haired Buffy. But Scolari, whose Henry and Hildegarde were Hanks’ counterparts, always struck me as more inherently antic and frenetic — the more farcical of the two. This may have been a function of their characters: Kip’s Buffy was more apt to keep the men-passing-as-women deception alive out of fear — the idea of Hanks passing as a woman doesn’t quite work, which is the essence of his 50 percent of the premise. The other 50 percent was Henry’s fey Hildegarde, for Scolari’s looks meant that he might pass more readily as the fairer sex, so fear more rarely entered that character’s equation. As a result, Hildegarde was too crazy to believe, yet eerily, creepily plausible.

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Scolari next turned up on Newhart in 1984, playing the egregiously superficial, uber-Yuppie producer of the TV show hosted by the legendary Bob Newhart’s character, Dick. Scolari scored a total of three Emmy nominations for his Newhart work, and turned in, for such an on-the-surface character, mirthfully daffy performances for six years. It was fascinating how Scolari’s Michael Harris could be so tightly, inexplicably coiled: the ripe and unpeeled second plantain to Newhart’s peachy top banana.

Scolari, of course, has worked extensively across various mediums; I’ll let those of you interested in catching up on his full credits check him out on IMDB, the Off-Broadway Database, the ubiquitous and abridged Wikipedia entry, and also on IBDB, which highlights Scolari’s Broadway debut as a top-billing replacement in the musical Hairspray in 2003. Later, he proved himself a powerful starburst of energy in the revival of Larry Gelbart’s classic-of-a-classic, Sly Fox, in 2004.

Now the actor is returning to his proverbial roots, which are Off-Broadway — it was where, as a founding member of New York’s Colonnades Theatre Lab, he made his professional stage debut more than 35 years ago. The occasion is a new comedy called White’s Lies, by Ben Andron, directed by Bob Cline. The reviews have been mixed thus far, but, in fact, White’s Lies is an endangered species: a commercial Off-Broadway comedy. No how-I-lost-my-virginity tales, no Christian pop-group cuteness orgy, but a commercial Off-Broadway comedy. Passenger pigeons were still swooping around the last time that happened. (The play stars the great Betty Buckley along with Tuc Watkins, Andrea Grano, Christy Carlson Romano, Rena Strober and Jimmy Ray Bennett.)

Interviewing Scolari, however, proved to be a much different experience than what I expected. Which is to say that I expected to laugh and the actor is funny — in the cauterizing, deadpan-buffoon manner that actors sometimes put on when waiting to see whether their interviewer du jour is a total jerk. I don’t know if I’m a jerk, but I do know that we had a conversation, a getting-to-know-you deal back-and-forthing, and it relaxed Scolari and, I think, freed him to be the naturally honest and organically entertaining individual he is. He is also distinctly, darkly funny. He says ribald things not to test you, I think, but because he finds cackling at the appalling a bit soothing. Saying something twisted means he is being straight with you; if he were to answer a question directly, that would be weird. Our dialogue could have revolved around predictable queries — “What was it like working on Bosom Buddies?,” “How did you end up starring on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show?,” “Tell us everything about growing up in Westchester” — and generated far too predictable answers. Instead, we talked about acting, about craft and spent a lot of time goofing around. Silliness defies quotability, but he made up for it with the revelation he shared with me, which I now share with you. I am sharing it, I should add, not because it’s gossipy, which perhaps it is, but because, when all the clowning about and juggling charm settles into a groove, Scolari, who is said to juggle for pleasure, happens also to be a class act.

White’s Lies is playing at New World Stages (340 W. 50th St.) in an open run. For more information on the play — and to buy tickets — call 212-239-6200 or visit www.whitesliesonstage.com.

The interview began with Scolari climbing around the unattended bar at New World Stages looking for a spoon for his far-free chocolate pudding.

While you’re there, I’d like a Jack Daniels, please.
Sure thing.

How do they leave the liquor unguarded?
I should get you a drink.

If this was a New Yorker piece, we’d already be at 1,500 words.
I got a fork!

Awesome! Can we talk about the series of blog posts than ran under your name on Playbill.com? Where you wrote about the process and production of White’s Lies?…
Those blog pieces.

Did you actually write these?
I most certainly did. The designer run-through blog was a small masterpiece. You’ll appreciate the opening line. I had never heard of never such a thing, a designer run-through, but Donna Karan really enjoyed the show. I went very into the absurd with the piece — I’m very influenced by Woody Allen, S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchley and a bunch of other dead or nearly-dead people.

When were you writing these?
Generally at night. My girlfriend and I are generally mutually insomniac, which ain’t bad, so it works out. You know, when we get into show mode, your body already knows: this time, next week, you’re not going to be sleeping. This morning, I had to take out some of the crudeness of what I wrote.

I read the first one and I chuckled and then I chortled.
And then you were ashamed of yourself.

I was ashamed of using the word “chortle” in casual conversation.
No, never. Be proud of that.

Your writing struck me as uniquely you. When did you first know you were funny?
It wasn’t any of the first laughs that I got as a high school actor.

You knew you were funny at some point.
Well, no! There’s a fine distinction to be made here. I grew up in a mafia that was four of us — each distinctly odd, each of us filling the gap left by the other, and we became a unit person, like some high school kids do. Usually you have four guys with shared sensibilities — that was not our thing. Anyway, one of the four of us was a class clown. A nimble wit. An outstanding impersonator because he didn’t just get a good feel for the person being impersonated — it wasn’t that he sounded like your math teacher. It was that he captured your soul. In some way, we were all funny in the ways that friends are funny together, but that doesn’t always transfer to the macro, where you go, “Hey, I’m a funny guy!” I had a very good first year in college at Occidental — President Obama’s alma mater — in 1973. I was there four years before the president. That’s pretty damn funny. We had the same drug dealer. That’s a snip that you’ll make later.

Oh, no. I’m good.
Anyway, all I knew was that material was funny. And I have instincts and I’ve been blessed with good directors going through high school and college days, and I was taken into a company here in New York City, called the Colonnades Theatre Lab, in 1974, and suddenly I was a pro. They let me in as an apprentice and bonded me into Actors’ Equity and cast me in a role.

Then you knew you were funny as an actor.
Well, my father died in 1976. I formed the Dead Father’s Club shortly thereafter.

Wow.
They’re already warming up a room in a hell for me.

I have a duplex.
I’ll visit. So, I was cast in the title role of a history play that required a dark, brooding, melodramatic young man. There was nothing funny about it. That’s how I was being cast in 1975, 1976…

Why?
Why? I gravitated to it because that’s how I thought of myself in 1975, 1976 — as a young, brooding, melodramatic actor, angst-ridden and, you know, I was 19, 20 years old.

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That comes with the territory.
I think it does. And there’s a lovely pretension in there somewhere best described by people who knew me. And my father passed in terrible, horrible tragedy at 50 years old. I’ve outlived him now — it’s big thing in the family. Anyway, they let me have two weeks off from the company, and I came back and the artistic director said, “I’m not going to have you play this character anymore.” He said, “I want you to create a role with the playwright, with one of the lead actors in the play who is sort of the adjutant military advisor to Henry VII in this history farce. And I was suddenly put into a sort of playwriting-development situation in which we created a character who was comical, who was a ridiculous, wonderful farce element in an otherwise serious play.

And you were expected to just turn the comedy on?
I didn’t turn it on, that’s the thing. That’s the genesis of the role: the character was a serious idiot. So we found this Marx Brothers kind of energy where my character goes running to Henry VII and I say “There a riot in the street” and he says “How many are there?” and I say, “Just the one.” As we got this in front of an audience, I came to the mechanics of being funny from professionals. I understood that I can allow something to occur in a rehearsal: If it’s funny, ergo, oh my goodness, I am funny. I was pretty much next cast in [Feydeau’s] A Flea in Her Ear, where our director was a fellow who had fled Beirut during the civil war there in the 1970s — now there’s comedy. He directed this French farce to an nth degree of comedic possibility. He taught me farce. He taught me that it isn’t tennis, it’s ping-pong. You go from zero to 50 in 30 seconds, not three minutes, and you mean it more. If you survive that beautiful hazing, that is.

So what do you know about comedy today that you didn’t know 30 years ago?
I cite George Burns as having said “Tragedy is when something terrible happen to you. Comedy is when it happens to someone else.” But comedy isn’t difficult — there’s a beautiful impossibility to it. If it’s difficult, you’re working too hard. Comedy is a happy accident — irony, paradox, ambiguity. It’s syllables. They knew it in vaudeville. Neil Simon knows it: “There’s three too many syllables on this line.” For White’s Lies, we had a big workout with the writer and found out the “k” sound isn’t always funnier. “I’m gonna be sick” isn’t as funny as “I’m gonna be ill.” By the way, I’ll never answer anything you ask me bluntly or clearly.

There will always be a haze of ambiguity between us.
Please write something that makes me look cogent.

Deal. You know, I’m always interested in how actors evolve over time. Sometimes actors figure things out after 20 or 30 years and sometimes one doesn’t quite believe them.
In my 30s and 40s, I unlearned a lot so I could come at it again. I stopped knowing things and what’s happened is that, in my 50s, I’ve had to say to myself, “You’re not going to be able to overwrite the program anymore.” In my 50s, it’s about another kind of courage, another kind of trust — the courage to fail. I like the comedic actor who goes the wrong way and makes it work.

What does that mean?
Something that’s not what the writer intended. But you know what? They’re using the same words — and the ball isn’t dropping when it’s handed to you and the ball isn’t dropping when you hand it back. When I did Sly Fox on Broadway, I experienced that. I wasn’t trying to reconfigure the intention of Larry Gelbart, the playwright. But I remember doing stuff in rehearsal and he took me aside. He said, “You know, that’s not the way I wrote this part.” Which surprised me, because I thought I’d gleaned the nuances he intended. I said, “You’re shitting me.” He said, “No, I’m not. Keep doing it.”

Like a lot of comic actors, do you get moody or blue or melancholy?
I was diagnosed seven years ago as bipolar — as a manic-depressive who, at 46 and 47 at the time, was in a tremendous of trouble for it. An unmedicated manic-depressive is really a powderkeg. Great, great unhappiness and unhealthy joy followed me all my days. It turns out to be brain chemistry was what I always thought I was.

I didn’t know that.
I don’t bring it up, specifically.

But here’s a related question, then: Have you ever felt afraid that the thing that gave you your sparkle, that thing that gave you that edge, wouldn’t be there if you weren’t manic?
What I thought was inspiration was, I’m sure, a cousin to inspiration. By and large, though, it was mania and/or deep depression that would, in rehearsal — I mean, I would know your lines. There was such a chemical imbalance. You’ll hear drug addicts and alcoholics talk about this, too: “I thought I needed this to be creative and it’s not true.” You can’t import creativity. You can channel it. I just dropped my fork. Comedy chases me.

You also find out that the things that developed out of mania still work for you on stage, but the physical experience is different. I’m more malleable now. But there’s more torture in working comedy than there used to be. It comes very easily now — a director can say something I totally disagree with, but I’ll try it. I’ll make that version work, too. And at 54, I’m working in a new comedy and, not that I’m bragging, but I’ve gotten a couple of thousand laughs in my time in the live theater, and it’s as potent and as scintillating an experience onstage today as it ever was. The difference now is that, within seconds after the curtain goes down, everything shuts down. Before, I was high as a kite.

Is there a difference for you now when you’re in front of a camera?
I used to love the camera.

The camera says nice things about you, too.
I used to love the camera, but I don’t like it anymore. I want to be there and I want to manage that fear. The truth of the matter is that I feel too safe in front of a camera. I want to be, actually, threatened or challenged — for there to be a clear river to cross — because I know that’s what initializes me and gets me up and running.

Here’s the thing you’ll appreciate that was given to me. Some 10 years ago, a director said this to me: “I want you to play for an actor who is out there in that audience, who can do anything you can do, and maybe a couple of things that you can’t do.” Then the director said, “Wait, let me upgrade that. There’s an Italian nobleman out there who speaks seven languages, he’s versed in the arts, he’s a decorated author of farce, a man of letters. He knows how this role was played 100 years ago. He knows how this character was played at the Comedie Francaise. Good luck.”

Nice director.
No, no, very smart. In other words, it’s fine if you make 700 people enjoy your performance. But shoot higher. Always shoot higher.