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The actor: George Wendt, who came up in the Chicago improv scene in the mid ’70s before moving to Los Angeles and launching a career as a character actor and sitcom staple—including over a decade holding down a barstool on the hit show Cheers. Wendt can currently be seen in the quirky indie comedy Saturday Morning, in which he plays a helpful stranger who guides staid yuppie Joey Piscopo (son of the Saturday Night Live veteran) on a journey through the strange society of folks who wake up early on the weekends.
Saturday Morning (2007)—“Harold”
George Wendt: I remember it being fun and an interesting story… kind of a fantasy. I think I got to make out with a hot chick, which is very rarely in my job description.
AVC: Do you get called to do a lot independent films, or is this an unusual thing for you?
GW: I get called to do a lot of labors of love… independent films on very small budgets. If I have the time and if the project speaks to me, it’s better than sitting around, right? I like to keep busy.
A Wedding (1978)—“Caterer”
GW: Indeed! Yes, I was an extra in Robert Altman’s A Wedding. It was such a fun job. I was doing Second City in the evenings. Or actually, you know what… I think it might have been after I got fired from Second City the first time. I think that summer I was getting more or less spotty work down at Second City. I was in the resident company and got fired, busted back down to the touring company. The touring company had work, but it was sort of local and only a once or twice a week kind of thing. So a couple of local actors—Jeff Perry from Steppenwolf, and Annie Ryerson from Second City—got cast in this Robert Altman movie. Perry recommended his Steppenwolf buddies, and Annie Ryerson recommended me and a bunch of Second City guys. We had the time of our lives, just hanging out in waiters’ tuxedos and enjoying the catering, and the beautiful location up in Lake Forest. I think John Malkovich slept every day. He wouldn’t let the assistant directors find him. He would just pick some random bedroom in this enormous mansion and sleep all day. Dennis Franz was on board, and Terry Kinney, Danny Breen, myself… bunch of Second City guys and Steppenwolf guys and one Organic guy, Dennis Franz, all goofing off that summer. It was really cool ’cause there were so many big stars in this project. We were all quite starstruck. Carol Burnett… well, I guess you could look up who’s in it, but so many people, and they were all pretty cool. Lots of eye candy; really beautiful women. Lauren Hutton, Nina Van Pallandt… gorgeous mature ladies. Geraldine Chaplin, I could keep going.
AVC: Did the stars treat you like fellow actors or like caterers?
GW: They knew we were just a bunch of goof-off wiseacres. They didn’t really have much to do with us. There were some fellas like Pat McCormick, a hilarious comedy writer, and Howard Duff, who were really a lot of fun. They would put up with us. We were like little puppy dogs.
AVC: Did the people from Second City and Steppenwolf hang out a lot? Was there camaraderie?
GW: Yeah, we did hang out a bit, certainly that summer. The Steppenwolf guys were a few years younger than us, but we did bond over that project and then over the years there’s been lots of contact between Second City—as an institution, not necessarily the individuals—with Steppenwolf. The Chicago theatrical community is rather compact.
AVC: You said you got fired from Second City more than once?
GW: Actually fired once, and then I quit once.
AVC: For a particular infraction, or did they just need to cut people?
GW: Oh, ’cause I sucked, basically. “Sucked out loud,” I think was the quote.
AVC: Not really an improv guy?
GW: You know, for somebody who made his living at it for six years, I’m probably the worst improviser of all time. [Laughs.]
Teddy Bears’ Picnic (2002)—“General Edison ‘Pete’ Gerberding”
AVC: That was the a Harry Shearer project, right? Were you required to do any improv in that?
GW: No, oddly enough. That’s more of a Chris Guest thing. Chris and Harry are joined at the hip in so many ways but not on this project. Harry didn’t ask for a lot of improvisation. He certainly had the boys on hand, and once again, talk about fun… Bob Einstein and Howard Hesseman, Kenny Mars, David Rasche. I was like the youngest guy in the cast. Michael McKean, on and on. They could have improvised 10 movies.
AVC: When you’re with a cast like that do you have to step up your game, or do you just go with the flow?
GW: I always want to step my game up. With fresh faces like Joey Piscopo on Saturday Morning, it’s on me to be the steady guy for him. But when I’m working with all these veteran guys, of course, yeah, I want to make sure I hold my own. And keep my ears open at lunch, because the stories are phenomenal.
Lakeboat (2000)—“First Mate Collins”
Edmond (2005)—“Pawn Shop Owner”
AVC: During your years in Chicago, did you get to do any David Mamet plays on stage?
GW: No… Oh wait, I actually did Lakeboat onstage with a lot of the same cast from the movie, directed by Joe Mantegna. That production more or less got the go-ahead for the feature film. I was at Second City right at the same time that Mamet was breaking through. My wife was in one of the early productions of Sexual Perversity In Chicago, at the Apollo Theater in I want to say ’78, with Jim Belushi. I was really busy with Second City, so I didn’t get in any of his plays.
AVC: What was the mood in Chicago back then, with Steppenwolf coming along, and Second City, and Mamet doing his thing? Did you feel that you were a rival to New York or Los Angeles as an entertainment center?
GW: It kind of snuck up on everybody. We didn’t really have any kind of notion as to where we stood in relation to New York or Los Angeles, it was more just about us. Second City was a lot of work and lot of fun. And right then Mamet was coming up with St. Nicholas Theater Company, and there was also Steppenwolf as you say, and let’s not forget the Organic Theater Company which was Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz and Meshach Taylor and John Heard. And Stuart Gordon, the director. He does lots of horror pictures now.
Taxi (1981)—“The Exterminator”
GW: Louie had a cockroach in the cage and I was one of the exterminators. It was pretty funny.
AVC: When you make an appearance on a show that’s well-respected and has competent people working behind and in front of the camera, do you come in thinking, “Gosh if I really nail this exterminator role maybe they’ll call me back?”
GW: Yeah, you always want to do a good job on everything, but the director of Taxi was Jim Burrows and the head writers at the time under Jim Brooks were Glen Charles and Les Charles. So that was certainly was a big help for me, ’cause they were the guys who created Cheers.
Cheers (1982-93)—“Norm Peterson”
GW: I still have dreams about Cheers, isn’t that weird? I’ll be laughing and Burrows will say, “Oh that’s great, let’s put that in,” and then I’ll wake up and there’s no show to put it in.
AVC: You’re dreaming yourself as George Wendt on Cheers, not as Norm Peterson on Cheers?
GW: I don’t really dream as Norm, no. [Laughs.] I know it’s sort of hard to distinguish between the two of us, but no.
AVC: You’ve played Norm Peterson on something like 8 different shows, besides Cheers…
GW: You might need to update that. I don’t know if Family Guy is part of the count now. I’ve done several of those kinds of shows, yes. Go on.
AVC: Is there a getting-into-character element with Norm, or are you just Norm?
GW: [Laughs.] No, it’s not like I put on the buckteeth and a humpback or anything. Walk with a limp.
AVC: Is that really the case, that you’re just yourself with that character?
GW: Yeah, as long as “myself” had awesome dialogue written by award-winning, hall-of-fame Hollywood comedy writers.
House (1986)—“Harold Gorton”
Fletch (1985)—“Fat Sam”
GW: With House I recall thinking, “Wow, do I really want to do a genre picture?” And then it probably worked better than some of the more quote-unquote fabulous projects I’ve been involved in.
AVC: Were you getting a lot of offers to do movies back then, or was Cheers keeping you too busy to do anything else?
GW: I’d get offers for crap projects that I would usually pass on, but any project that I sort of wanted to do that I didn’t really get offered, I’d just kick and scream for a meeting or audition.
AVC: How about Fletch, is that something you had to fight to be in or did they come to you?
GW: I’m sure my agent had to get me in the room. I got in the room and got the offer, but I auditioned the usual way. It didn’t come to me.
AVC: What do you recall most about Fletch?
GW: [Laughs.] Chevy’s rehearsal techniques come to mind. He used to like to go through scenes and try different exercises while running the lines. Like, “Okay, now we’re two guys taking a dump next to each other in a public bathroom.” “Auuggh… Listen, I think the heroin dealer’s at the beach … Auuughh.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you find those techniques effective?
GW: Well, they were hilarious.
Spice World (1997)—“Film Producer”
GW: I never got to work with the girls, that was the bad news. The good news, as far as I was concerned, was that to me it was a Mark McKinney/Richard E. Grant project. Because the three of us had all our scenes together. And because the girls weren’t in on those days, we got their trailers, which were the most massive motor homes I’ve ever seen in my life. You want to know what was in the fridge?
AVC: Yeah, what was in the fridge?
AVC: I have a hazy memory of seeing you on Friday Night Videos back in the mid-’80s, co-hosting with John Ratzenberger, and you each got to pick one video during the show. And if I’m not mistaken you picked “King Of The Hill” by the Minutemen.
GW: I may have. I was a big fan of the Minutemen. Unfortunately their career only lasted about a minute. D. Boon had that tragic auto wreck. But I still listen to various Mike Watt projects.
AVC: So being in Spice World was not an affront to everything you hold dear as a music fan?
GW: I recall my daughter, who was in junior high, saying “Oh my god Daddy, do not be in the Spice Girls movie.” But anyway, I love Richard E Grant, you know, Withnail And I. And Mark McKinney of course, Kids In The Hall. We had a great old time, hamming it up.