Dan Castellaneta's stealthy celebrity gives him the best of both worlds. He enjoys most of the benefits of international (practically intergalactic) stardom, but no paparazzi chase him. The press release for The Bicycle Men, a comic stage musical starring Castellaneta, refers to him as "a true American Comedy Icon," but the average person on the street probably wouldn't recognize his face. He's like a celebrity version of Superman: mild-mannered character actor by day, insanely famous guy by, um, day too. These are the perks of Castellaneta's main gig, voicing Homer Simpson (and many other characters) on The Simpsons. As an original Simpsons cast member, Castellaneta can pretty much call his own shots these days, and the show gives him ample time for extracurricular pursuits like The Bicycle Men. The play, about an American bicyclist stranded in a French town, was written by Castellaneta's friends from the Chicago improv scene, where he began his career in the '80s. Before the show opened for a short run in Chicago, Castellaneta talked to The A.V. Club about the big five-oh, life as Homer Simpson, and his brush with The Great One.
The A.V. Club: You just turned 50. Are you feeling reflective?
Dan Castellaneta: Oh yeah. How I imagined myself being 50 is not how I am feeling now. You think you'll be different, but I still feel like I am about 12 years old—mentally, not physically.
AVC: You didn't have any preconceptions about where you'd be at age 50?
DC: No, I didn't. Not at an early age. I don't think I ever thought about 50—maybe 30 or 40, but not 50. I said, "If I can make it to 30 or 40, I'll be fine."
AVC: It seems like you have the best of both worlds. You have the cool parts of fame, but you still have privacy.
DC: I get the anonymity. I can walk around and not get bugged by anybody. Although I don't get the parts in films or other television shows that would be befitting of a huge, international star, I don't have to worry about walking around on the street or eating at a restaurant. Occasionally, you do get recognized a little bit. And that's fine. Most people are pretty cool about it. That's the thing—it's such a low-key thing that I can still enjoy it and not worry about it.
AVC: All the headlines for The Bicycle Men, from the British press to the press release here, have the word "Homer" in them. Does that become annoying after a while?
DC: It's only annoying in that Homer—the character Homer, if he was a real actor and if I was Homer Simpson—I would be getting all kinds of scripts and offers. But since I'm not him, he's not getting any. That's the irritating part. But, by the same token, it's certainly a great tool to use to get people in to see other stuff that I do. And when I do go to auditions, I always walk in with a little bit of goodwill, because most people are huge fans of the show. It's got its good points and its bad points. The only thing is that they're setting up people with expectations like they're going to see Homer or something similar to that, and it's going to be the complete antithesis. I'm the straight man in this show. It'd be like going to see Mel Blanc and expecting him to do Bugs Bunny. He was a character actor too, but he'd play different parts on The Jack Benny Show. But you want to see him do Bugs Bunny.
AVC: You've said The Simpsons leaves you time to do other stuff. How much time does the show take?
DC: We record on Mondays from about 10 o'clock until about 3. Then we have redos on Thursday for an hour. Then I go in subsequently to do an hour or two of new recordings, from the rewrites. It takes them eight months to do the shows; they can do a lot of rewriting. For each episode, it takes eight hours of recording. So, basically, I have four other days to do stuff. Just the fact that it's animation helps. Hank Azaria, who's the voice of Chief Wiggum, is in a play in New York, so they just record his stuff by phone patch.
AVC: When do you start a season?
DC: The actors start in the end of February, beginning of March. We don't work as much as actors on a sitcom or an hour show, but the writers work almost twice as much as any other writers on any other show. They work all year round, whereas some get a two- or three-month hiatus.
AVC: Did doing the movie throw off that series rhythm?
DC: The movie was quite a task. The thing is, the most labor-intensive part is the writing. Most of the writers on the movie, except for Al Jean, who runs the TV show, are either guys who consult or come in twice a week, or haven't written on the show for a while, that came back to work on the movie. So they had time to do that. But it was the most work I've ever done on a movie, even having been on camera. They rewrote and rewrote and rewrote an incredible amount of times, and we had to come in to re-record lines. I think I did more hours on that movie than I did on any movie.
AVC: By this point, are you pretty immune to criticism of the show?
DC: I don't think so. We've had a great run, and after a while, you realize that everyone has different opinions on whether the show is still good, isn't good, when its best seasons were, when its worst years were. Even I have my opinions on when it was and when it wasn't, but I would still say that there have been episodes that I have not liked, and then watched later on and thought they were much better than I thought they were. It's also just tough, because anything that is going to run a long time is going to be open to that kind of scrutiny—especially for a show like The Simpsons, which was so different and fresh when it first came on the scene. Now it's established itself, and other shows have been influenced by it. So the writers are under a challenge to keep it fresh and do things differently, so the show will change from what it was in the beginning, and people won't like that, and won't think it's good because it wasn't what it was before. But at the same time, if they continue to do the same thing, people will say it's gone stale. You can't win. But generally, people still love it. I've always thought, as Matt Groening has said, even the worst shows have had five or six good laughs in them, which is more than you can say for a lot of shows.
AVC: What's your favorite Simpsons bootleg item?
DC: In Mexico, they had these plaster figurines, and I guess rather than find a mold of Homer, they just smoothed over Bart's head and painted a muzzle on it. Instant Homer. I loved those.
AVC: You made your film debut in 1986's Nothing In Common, Jackie Gleason's last film. Did you interact with him much?
DC: No, I didn't. All of my stuff was with Tom Hanks. The only interaction I had with Jackie Gleason was when we were shooting a scene at a bar, when he came onto the set, and he'd already had a few snoots, as they say. He interrupted the shot to come in and say, "I just want to say, I want you all to know how happy I am that you are a part of this film." And we were all like, "Oh. Thank you, Jackie." And then he walked out. It was a surprise visit, my brush with The Great One. They hired a lot of us from Second City, and one of the actors, I think he just came out with a book or something, and Jackie Gleason signed it. He seemed to be pretty accessible. But I'm not one to go up to people. I was pretty intimidated—even to this day, of TV and film stars.
AVC: You mentioned Second City. When you moved out to L.A., did you notice much of a difference between the comedy styles in Chicago or L.A.?
DC: The Groundlings had more character-oriented sketches, I think. This is generalization, but a lot of their stuff was based around a character. I think they even said, when they get trained, no matter who you are, you develop three or four characters in the school. You always have that at the ready. Whereas I think, with Second City, you are a type: the intellectual, or the tall goofy girl, or the smart-mouthed pretty girl, or the fat guy. There seemed to be archetypes that they would put Second City actors in. There always was one Second City actor who could do everything, but generally, they fill an archetype.
AVC: You worked with Improv Olympic in Chicago as well.
DC: I did a few things there. We used to do this thing where we would get old movie clips, and then ask the audience for a suggestion. Then, using that suggestion, we would dub it, right there on the spot.
AVC: Do you do that kind of thing much any more?
DC: There's a whole crowd of us, of course, out here, and for a long time, we used to have a space where we would meet and do long-form improv—we would do The Harold. It was great. We would do it like once a week or so. They used to have it on the West Side, which is where we lived. Then that closed down. There is still a space, but we don't go as often as we used to, because it's not as close. But generally it was great fun, and I would get to meet people that were before and after me. It's still kind of a fraternity.