5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Lou Cutell

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Photos by Carol Rosegg

The Young Abe Lincoln, the musical that installed the acting career of Lou Cutell into the showbiz firmament, had a curious history. First, it opened Off-Broadway in April 1961 for 18 performances. Coasting on success, the show transferred to Broadway for a few weeks. As Main Stem costs were high at the time (some things never change), the show transferred back to Off-Broadway for an additional run.

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There’s another factoid here, too: the late Jay Harnick, who directed The Young Abe Lincoln, was inspired to create the group that became Theaterworks/USA — still America’s largest touring children’s theater company — as a result of The Young Abe Lincoln‘s success. So even if Cutell had done little else, he would be assured a place in the history books for the most honorable of reasons.

As things turned out, of course, The Young Abe Lincoln was hardly Cutell’s last brush with the spotlight. Featured in the original cast of the Broadway musical Little Me, he later did memorable work in a City Center revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying that Loesser diehards are still talking about (Daniel Radcliffe beware). Nearly 50 years later, Cutell’s list of credits is a long and strong one, including roles in 76 films and some 200 TV shows. Most famously, Cutell portrayed the Assman — proctologist Dr. Howard Cooperman — on Seinfeld, arguably one of the sitcom’s most indelible characters.

Cutell, with Kopell and Ganzel, in "Viagara Falls."

Now in his 70s, Cutell has put pen to paper (or perhaps its keyboard to screen) and co-written a new septuagenarian sex comedy called Viagara Falls with Joao Machado. In the play, he essays the role of Charley, a widower, opposite another widower character, Moe, played by Bernie Kopell — he of unsinkable Love Boat fame. Charley and Moe are not only war buddies and lifelong pals, but also in full touch with their libidos. As the wackiness (pardon the pun) unfolds, their heated interaction with Teresa Ganzel’s Yiddish-speaking party girl (doesn’t everyone know one?) — not to mention a certain erectile-dysfunction pill — leads to a very frisky and farce-y scene.

Directed by Don Crichton and with costume design by the incomparable Bob Mackie (the men are alums, you’ll recall, of The Carol Burnett Show), Viagara Falls is currently in an open run at the Little Shubert Theatre (422 W. 42nd St.). For tickets and more information, click here or call 212-239-6200.

And now, 5 questions Lou Cutell has never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
One knowledgeable attendee asked me, “Your play, I noticed, abides by the rules of the unities of Greek drama: unity of time, place and action. Was this by design?” I thought, “Who the hell is this guy, my old classic theater professor from UCLA? I’m just writing a fun show with some heart and some laughs in it.”

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“The action of the play has you take a Viagra pill. Is it real?” “No,” I answered. “It’s too expensive for eight shows a week. I take an Aleve. It has the same shape and it’s good for my arthritis.”

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3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“During the play, you talk about getting aroused. Does it actually happen?”

4) The title of your play puts the idea of “senior sex” front and center. Why is it such a squeamish topic for some people?
Because we are brought up in a society that says sex is dirty. I also find it interesting that my play gets such a hearty laugh after people hear the title, Viagara Falls. My play does not only deal with “senior sex.” It also talks about younger people having problems with sex.

At one point, the character of Charley says, “Everybody worries. Even 30-year-olds worry about their looks and performance when it comes to sex. It’s only natural.” My play is for all ages, not just the older.

Shouldn’t everyone want as much sex for as long as they can get it? Well, I certainly hope so! It’s good for the soul and it deters prostate problems. If you don’t use it, you lose it!

5) You made your debut on Broadway nearly 50 years ago. What are the two or three most important differences between an actor’s life then and now?
Nothing really has changed: once an actor, always an actor. But because today the accent is more on youth, younger actors are forced into the limelight without being prepared, which causes terrible insecurities, resulting in offbeat personal actions. People who have garnered experience from school plays, community productions, stock, etc., seem to have more respect for the craft.

What’s better? I think there are more wonderful actors today than ever before. Our generation learned from seeing plays and going to the movies. Actors today have been weaned on television, and that has created more role models for them to observe and emulate.

What’s been lost in the fullness of time? Safe harbors to get experience, like stock and industrial shows. What can you learn from reality shows? Doing 10 different stock shows in 10 weeks is an unbelievable and valuable experience. Most of those old stock companies that were in every city are long gone and some are having difficulties staying afloat.

6) Was playing Dr. Cooperman — a.k.a. the Assman — one of those chance opportunities that changed your career? Do people still stop you on the street?
Actually, it did, but at the time I was just doing my job as an actor. I didn’t realize the impact the show had. I was doing another gig. We redid that scene about four times in front of a live audience because Larry David, the director, was not satisfied. Coming from the school of once you’ve heard the joke, you don’t laugh again (or not as hard), I was amazed that the audience laughed even more the more we did it. Go figure.

And yes. I am recognized more for Seinfeld and the Assman than any of the hundreds of parts I have played. It is one of the top five favorite Seinfeld episodes. Once, on a shuttle bus from the terminal to an airplane, a pilot kept staring at me. He was very dour. At one point, he asked me if I was the Assman. After I said yes, he broke into the biggest smile I ever saw and asked if we could take a picture together and at the same time called his wife, telling her he’d just met the Assman. By the time we got to the airplane, I had to take pictures with everyone on the shuttle. I signed autographs and I loved every moment of it.

  • Melanie Erhling

    Great interview!!!! Lou Cutell seems like such a genuine person and a real talent. I saw Viagara Falls before it started its Off-Broadway run. I loved every minute of it. If you get the chance…go see it!!

  • Len Silvers

    I can only imagine that Bernie Kopell and Lou Cutell have a Laurel & Hardy charm to them onstage. I’m planning to see it next week with some buddies from work.

  • Debbie Kale

    My whole family loved, loved, loved the show! 90 minutes, no intermission. I didn’t even realize how quickly time flew by. And check out the website. It has some great resources on it.