Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Like many Saturday Night Live alumni, Tim Kazurinsky began his acting career onstage as a member of Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe, working under the direction of improv guru Del Close. After his time at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Kazurinsky accepted an invitation from SNL writers Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield to appear in a bit part in their Police Academy sequel, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment. One day on the set turned into a recurring role in the film franchise, with Kazurinsky’s nebbish Carl Sweetchuck serving as the timid foil to Bobcat Goldthwait’s manic Zed. After committing himself to screenwriting for a large part of the last two decades, Kazurinsky recently returned to the Chicago theater circuit, and can currently be seen as Wilbur Turnblad in Drury Lane Theater’s production of Hairspray.
The Odd Couple (2011, 2012)—“Felix Unger”
AVC: You’ve been doing a lot of stage work in Chicago, prompted by a run in The Odd Couple opposite George Wendt.
Tim Kazurinsky: Yeah. I’d been screenwriting for like, 25 years, and George called up and said, “You’ve got to come down to Kansas City and be Felix Unger.” He being Oscar, and me being Felix, which is pretty much what we were backstage in 1978 when we worked together at Second City. In the Second City spirit of “Yes, and?,” it just sounded like a fun thing to do—I’m like, “Yes, I will do that.” And, I went down and I had so much fun because there’s great barbecue down there and George had an in at this terrific microbrewery, Boulevard Brewery, and so it was so much beer and barbecue I thought I’d go insane. He hasn’t bought a beer in like 30 years, since he’s been Norm [Peterson on Cheers], and it’s just ridiculous going to a bar with him. Going into the brewery, there were brewmasters that had come from three states—Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas—to worship at the hem of his garment and I felt like one of the apostles. They were just in adulation of him. And then, the next day a truck pulls up at his house and starts unloading cases of every kind of beer that he liked and sampled. And I said, [Laughs.] “Can I have a couple of those cases, a couple of cases of the shit you don’t like?”
AVC: Before doing The Odd Couple, when was the last time you performed anything scripted onstage?
TK: It had been a long time. My friend Mark Nutter—who has just written Re-Animator: The Musical—had done a thing called The Bicycle Men that they had run it [in Chicago] and they all had to leave and go back to L.A. and there were a few of us who ran it for another couple of months after they left. So I did that, but that was just sort of filling in on a show. Prior to that, onstage—boy, probably not back until Second City in ’78, ’79.
The Second City (1978-79)—various characters
AVC: Any roles or sketches from your time on the Second City mainstage that stick out in your mind, 34 years later?
TK: Second City was fantastic. In one scene, I remember playing a sperm meeting an egg in the uterus. George and Bruce [Jarchow] and I did a fantastic bored cowboy scene together. From Casablanca, I got to play Rick. Played a pig from “The Three Little Pigs.” It’s harder to think of what we didn’t play at Second City. We were really big on costumes. Backstage at Second City back then, it was Nazi helmets, Viking horn helmets, swords, guns of all sorts. Now, there’s like, nothing. The new generation kind of thinks they don’t need the props. We were tricked out with all of those ridiculous props. I think we used to hide behind them. [Laughs]. But, yeah, we were big on the costume dramas and Vikings. Oh! I played Deng Xiaoping to George’s Leonid Brezhnev, and we would call each other every morning just to make sure that neither of these guys had died. That would be the end of the sketch.
AVC: And Del Close was still directing at The Second City at the time?
TK: Oh yeah, he directed the three shows that I was in. Yeah, one as an alcoholic, the other one on heroin, and the other one: straight.
AVC: So you got to see the many sides of Close.
TK: The many sides of Del, yes. He went into aversion therapy in between shows one time—between shows that he brought up—so that when he would take a drink of alcohol, he would just immediately vomit. It was very effective. I saw him accidentally pick up a drink at a bar one time, and he thought it was his Diet Coke and it was somebody else’s rum and Coke, and he promptly threw up because it was booze. So, whatever they do at the Schick Shadel clinic, it worked for him.
AVC: What’s the most important lesson you learned from Del Close?
TK: To not go for the joke. Del despised when you went for an actual joke. He wanted it to be organic, what he called the “mystery laugh”—that if you’re totally in character and playing for real, the laughs will come. But, if you’re trying to ham it up and overtly go for a joke, he would just throw things at you and make you leave the theater.
AVC: But you obviously survived such extreme directorial habits.
TK: Yeah, oh yeah. And, the odd thing is that after we would get all the scenes together, Del would invariably melt down or OD or disappear or get drunk or pass out in his shower or whatever, and then Bernie Sahlins would come and put together the running order and shape the show. It was a weird symbiotic relationship that Del and Bernie had that, where Del could never quite shape the actual show. Then Bernie, who was a producer, would come in and figure out a running order and get the blackouts in between the scenes, and they would never give each other credit for what the other one did. It was hilarious.
AVC: So they had their own Odd Couple thing going on?
TK: Oh, absolutely. They had mutual respect and contempt. In the end, more respect than contempt. They just needed each other.
Saturday Night Live (1981-84)—various characters
TK: I’m the luckiest man in showbiz. I did not audition for Second City. I was taking a class with Del, and back then, there was only one Second City touring company, and they accidentally booked two shows on the same day. Rather than give the money back, they took six kids out of the workshop and pretended that they were the touring company. And I was one of those six. And it went over really, really well and [the producers] happened to see it and they went, “Well, this is a really good group, so let’s keep them as a kind of backup touring company.” And that’s how I got into the company. I was an ad man at Leo Burnett, so I said, “Well, I’m making very good money. I’m not going to go do shows for $25 in a van or a bus going to Toledo. I got a good paying job.” I said, “If you’ve got a job offer, let me know.” Eventually, they offered me a full-time job.
And, I didn’t audition for SNL because that started in ’75 and I was onstage in ’79, and when [executive producer] Dick Ebersol was going to take over for Jean Doumanian, John Belushi said to Dick Ebersol, “You should go to Chicago and see this guy on the mainstage at Second City.” So he came in unbeknownst to me and watched me in a show at Second City, and he offered me a job.
To tell kids today that I didn’t audition for Second City or Saturday Night Live—they’d probably kill me. People work so hard now. They put in years in the trenches and the training programs and—you know, now there’s people’s audition tapes for Saturday Night Live. Oh my God. If I had had to do that, I would have never gotten in.
AVC: Doumanian’s ouster is one of the more infamous moments in SNL history. What was the atmosphere like when you arrived at the show?
TK: It was a really weird phenomenon. Dick Ebersol came in and we did this show—it was me, Joe Piscopo, Eddie Murphy, Tony Rosato, Christine Ebersole, Mary Gross, and Robin Duke. And [the 1981 Writers Guild Of America] strike happened at that time, and Dick Ebersol pretty much said to us, “We get to do one show before the writers’ strike. If it’s good, this shit will survive. If it’s not, NBC is going to stick a fork in this. It’s going to be done.” He really said they were going to kill this thing if it doesn’t work. And luckily, it turned out to be a great show. It didn’t hurt having Eddie in the cast, but it really was a very good show and it got picked up for another year.
I got to stick around for ’82, ’83, ’84. And it was great. Eddie was great. I have to give him credit, he would say things like, “I’m too heavy in this show, give someone else some air.” Of course, he became a star and he did Trading Places and 48 Hours. But I gotta tell you, he was not a prima donna and he’s fucking amazingly talented. He could see someone for three minutes and do an impersonation. I picked him up one time at an airport where we had to go drive to a press conference, and on the plane he had been sitting next to Muhammad Ali, and he was doing him in the car, and he had him cold! I’m driving, and it was like I was sitting next to Muhammad Ali. I went, “How does anybody do that?” You know? I’m missing that gene—that impersonation gene.
AVC: But you picked up the character gene at Second City.
TK: [Laughs] Yes, I did. The silly hat gene, and the crazy coat I can do.
AVC: At the start of your second season on the show, returning SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue spray-painted the word “DANGER” on the writers’-room wall, because he felt that’s what the show was missing at the time.
TK: I don’t know if the story ever gets out that he actually ran out of spray-paint halfway through. It said “DANG,” so it was like, “I don’t think that’s what you really want to be remembered for.” He was so pissed off—you don’t want to say “DANG,” you want to say, “DANGER.” He was calling the show a “Viking death ship,” that it now officially sucked, that the writing staff wasn’t good. He said that our job was to take it down and self-destruct and kill the show. And I was like, “I just got here. Can we maybe do it for like a year so I can get a condo or something?” I’m an actor, right? I would like a piece of property—simple.
AVC: You found your own way to insert a little danger into the show with the recurring sketch “I Married A Monkey.”
TK: Everybody would say, “When do you tape the show?” And I would say, “You know, it’s live.” At that point, it had been on the air for five years and it was kind of slick. And I would say “We’re doing it while you’re watching, don’t you get it?” And they’d go “Really?” Now, I think people know, but it still looks too slick for my taste. I always thought they should do some improv stuff. I thought, “If I work with a live chimp, something’s going to mess up and people will know that the show is live.” And sure enough, that happened. It never really went according to plan, but that was the plan. After I did “I Married A Monkey” the first time and the baby didn’t come out, it was because they didn’t hire a real trained chimp or anything. The chimps were owned by this Romanian circus guy—he eventually shoved the baby chimp out and it rolled across the floor like a bowling ball. But Dave Wilson, the director, said after the show, “It’s certainly the first time anyone’s improvised on this show.” I was like, “Jesus, that’s not a good thing.”
Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985), Police Academy 3: Back In Training (1986), & Police Academy 4: Citizens On Patrol (1987)—“Carl Sweetchuck”
TK: I was on my honeymoon when I got a call from my sister who said that Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield, who were writers on SNL the year before, had written Police Academy 2, and they wanted to know if I would do a day under the credit sequence of the film. So I said, “Sure—they’re pals.” I remember my wife saying, “Why would you agree to do one day’s work in L.A.?” And I went, “You know, they’re my friends, and Second City is ‘Yes, and?’ You just say yeah.” So, I went out there, shot the day. That day they fired the director and the new director, Jerry Paris, came in and he said, “I don’t like much of what’s been shot. I like the gang leader Bobcat and the old man in the lamp store.” I said, “He’s just a day-player” and he said, “Well, keep him around.” And six weeks later, Bobcat and I were still on set and Jerry Paris was saying to us, “Well, what do you guys want to do today?” [Laughs.] It was like the silliest thing of all. And we’d say, “We’re in the supermarket and I’ll hide in the bananas and Bob will find me.” And apparently the kids liked it. They had these cards people sign when they leave the theater—“Who’d you like?” They liked Bobcat and they liked the old guy in the lamp store, so they had us join the force next year. I was like, “They want me to be a cop? I’m like 50 to 60 years old in this!” It didn’t matter. So we we’re cops in a couple more movies.
AVC: Did you form a pretty quick bond with Goldthwait?
TK: Absolutely. We ended up shooting a little extra thing where he holds me up at an ATM when I’m trying to make a bank deposit and he sprays mace in his mouth and then gives me a kiss. So yeah, we bonded pretty quickly. [Laughs.]
Hot To Trot (1988)—“Leonard”
Shakes The Clown (1991)—“1st Party Dad”
TK: And then, after that, [Bob and I] did Hot To Trot. I tried to talk him out of doing Hot To Trot—I said, “You don’t want to be in a talking-horse movie”—and instead he talked me into doing it with him. And then his first movie, Shakes The Clown, I’m the “first party dad.” He was supposed to hit me and he wouldn’t hit me, and I said, “Oh! You’ve got to flatten me!’ [Laughs]. And that was a mirror of a scene in Neighbors.
Neighbors (1981)—“Pa Greavy”
TK: I played this tow-truck driver and I had to punch John Belushi in the belly and he’s like, “No, you really gotta hit me,” and I was like, “No, I can’t hit you! You’re my friend!” But I actually did hit him and he said, “Not so hard, okay?” And I was like, “Oh, I feel terrible!”
AVC: But that’s very much in line with the character, because that guy is mean. It’s a different side of the “old man” coin.
TK: Oh I loved it. It took a couple of hours every day of makeup and stuff, but I just loved playing that character. My son in that movie, Tino Insana, he was three years older than me and played my son.
AVC: Was it strange to be an actor in his mid-30s playing all these characters that were 50 or 60 years old?
TK: Well, now that I’m 62 I look like those guys. [Laughs.] It’s kind of scary. Those makeup guys were spot on, because I actually turned into that guy. When my mother saw Neighbors, she started crying because, she said, “It looks just like your grandfather.” I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll be there someday.”
Continental Divide (1981)—“Reporter”
TK: There’s an interesting thing with that. [Director] Michael Apted said he wanted some raw footage of John Belushi laughing naturally. And he had me do a couple of scenes of improv with John to get him to laugh, but didn’t end up using it in the film. But he wrote me this two-page letter saying, “I’m sorry I didn’t use that footage we shot, but unfortunately I had to drive the narrative of the story.” And I just thought, how different. An English director would write you a two-page letter apologizing for not using a scene that he had shot. I was always impressed that Michael Apted did that.
Actually, on Saturday Night Live, Michael Palin hosted and we had the joy of writing a couple of things for him. He brought his mother with him and I had a couple nights chatting with his mom. After he went back to England, he wrote me a two-page letter thanking me for being nice to his mom. And, I’m thinking, “These Brits.” You gotta love them. Because, can you imagine anybody sitting down and writing a letter saying, “Thanks for being nice to my Mom”? I mean, he was such a sweet guy. Very, very thoughtful. The English—yeah, I love them.
According To Jim (2004)—“Elf”/“Lenny The Salesman”
AVC: In addition to appearing in the According To Jim episode “Stalking Santa,” you wrote the script as well.
TK: I wrote it for Bruce Jarchow to be Santa, and then I wrote myself in as an elf. Then Bruce gets out on set and he says, “They’re auditioning dwarves for the role,” and I said, “No, no! I’m the elf! Dwarves? That’s not funny, you need just a short person!” So I wormed myself into the elf role just by being obnoxious.
Somewhere In Time (1980)—“Photographer, In 1912”
TK: Christopher Reeve was the nicest man. The others were a bit aloof—Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer. Chris was totally down to earth and knew all about Second City. There’s this great story: He came to Saturday Night Live once. When I saw him, I said, “You picked a great night to come to Saturday Night Live; Robin Williams is hosting tonight. Do you want to meet him?” So I took Christopher Reeve backstage to meet Robin Williams before the show, and Chris said to Robin, “Where’d you go to school?” “I went to Julliard.” “I went to Julliard!” And he said, “Well, where did you live?” “Oh, I was on 11th—“I was on 11th! What floor?” “Third floor.” “I lived on the third floor!” These fucking guys were roommates at Julliard. And I’m sitting there going, “That’s amazing! That’s amazing!” And, of course, the reason that Christopher Reeve would even come to the show was that his fucking roommate, Robin Williams, was hosting. I’m like, playing matchmaker here with these guys and I’m like, “You fucking assholes.” They played me like a violin.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2002)—“Hugh Mellon”
TK: It was actually two episodes—all the dialogue ended up being edited into one episode and I’m the shadowy figure and in a couple of scenes from another episode. I still get a residual check from it, but all the dialogue’s in that one episode. The best part was in a little scene in a theater where my son—the size of whose schlong Larry David had remarked on at the pool—we’re at Richard Lewis’ HBO screening. A little kid named Michael Aquino played my son, and his character got into an argument with Larry David and they were insulting each other and this little boy was so sweet. He said he didn’t want to say anything mean to Larry because he liked him. So I said, “You know what? I’ll give you the line. I’ll feed you the lines and you say them, so you’re not really being mean.” [Laughs.]
AVC: At that end of that scene, your character’s name is turned into a Curb Your Enthusiasm catchphrase.
TK: [Laughs.] “Fuck Hugh.” Here’s the thing: When we did that, I had little kids and so we didn’t have HBO at our house—’cause my wife didn’t want the kids watching the titty shows. So I had no idea that this was going on, and one of the baggers in my grocery said to me, “Oh fuck Hugh.” He was like “Ah, fuck Hugh.” And I said, “I don’t know what I did to provoke this.” I completely did not remember, and he said, “Curb Your Enthusiasm!” When I got home I said, “We got to get HBO.”
AVC: If only to know when strangers are complimenting you or insulting you.
TK: A whole bunch of people would say to me, “Fuck Hugh.” I guess there were T-shirts made. So it was quite the legacy—the “Fuck Hugh legacy.”
VC: You got to be an action figure thanks to Police Academy and a T-shirt thanks to Curb Your Enthusiasm.
TK: Right. I’m doing Hairspray here, and the guy that plays Edna, Michael Aaron Lindner, is a huge comic-book and Batman fan. The other day he comes in and says, “You were an action figure! I just saw you on a website! I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I’m working with an action figure.” I said, “Well, in reality, my action figure fits inside a fire hydrant.” It’s not the kind of thing you brag to your kids about—it’s so small it fits inside a fire hydrant. [Laughs.] But I guess technically I’m an action figure.
AVC: Would you say that’s a good summation of the classic Tim Kazurinsky character: His action figure fits inside a fire hydrant?
TK: Yes. It’s an achievement, but it’s… not the greatest achievement. [Laughs.]