Interview date: 03/05/2009
Run date: 03/13/2009
George Wendt is Norm Peterson. Oh, sure, it may now only be every third person who walks past him on the street that bellows out the name of his character on “Cheers,” but it’s the man’s legacy, and he’s as comfortable with it as he can be. That hasn’t stopped him from continuing to work, however. Wendt has been doing a fair amount of theater work in recent years, including turns in “Twelve Angry Men” and, perhaps more notably, taking on the role of Edna Turnblad in the Broadway production of “Hairspray.” Recently, he popped up in a small role in the indie comedy “Saturday Morning,” which has just emerged on DVD via Lightyear Entertainment, and we spoke to him about that project as well as his work throughout his career in motion pictures and television
George Wendt: Will Harris?
BE: This is he.
GW: George Wendt.
BE: How are you doing?
GW: Good. How are you?
BE: I’m good. Pleasure to talk to you. Well, I checked out “Saturday Morning” this morning, actually, and I think it would be fair to say that you’re in it for a limited amount of time.
GW: You know what? Yeah. (Laughs)
BE: How did you get involved with the film? Did they approach you?
GW: That, and it sounded like fun.
BE: They just pitched it to you randomly?
GW: I think so. I mean, honestly, I can’t remember. (Laughs) I mean, they got in touch and wanted to know if I would do it.
BE: How long were you actually on the set? I wouldn’t think it would be a tremendous length of time.
GW: I’m thinking two, three days at the most.
BE: Was it fun? I get the impression it was kind of a shoestring budget, but it’s definitely a funny film.
GW: Yeah. Yeah, it was fun. And I get to make out with a hot chick, right? So that was good.
BE: So how do you pick your parts these days? Is it people pitching things to you, or do you go actively seeking them?
GW: You know, it varies. Sometimes people look for me, and those are generally offers with very little money, low budget this and that thing. And other times I have to go out and try to get something.
BE: Have you considered trying to return to TV on a full time basis?
GW: Oh, yeah, I’d be thrilled. But I think I’ve been kicked out for overstaying my welcome.
BE: You certainly kept busy for quite awhile post-“Cheers”. I mean, your headlining series didn’t last as long as one might have liked, but you were a semi-regular for awhile on “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” and you’ve certainly popped up here and there.
GW: Yeah, I pop up now and then. You know, I had a series, and I’ve done the odd pilot. I think “Modern Men” was the last one that got picked up, and that only went about six episodes. And there were a couple of pilots that didn’t take off, so I’ve been doing a lot of theater.
BE: I know you did “Hairspray” not too long ago.
GW: Yeah, I did “Hairspray” for the last year, a little over a year. And the year before that, I did “Twelve Angry Men.” I did the national tour of that for a year.
BE: Actually, I just was reading about that. Richard Thomas was also in the cast of that, is that right?
GW: Yeah. And I just got done…last Sunday, I just finished a new musical that’s headed to Broadway, one called “Minsky’s”.
BE: Okay, yeah. Actually, Mark Evanier was writing about seeing a showing of that out in L.A. So how did you get into theater? I mean, obviously, you started in Second City, but what led you into doing Broadway musicals?
GW: Um, well, I had done Broadway before, but it was a play. That play “Art,” which I did in London first, then on Broadway, and then actually went back to London with it after the Broadway run. But “Hairspray,” you know, I just thought would be a giggle. They called me for the national tour, like, two or three years ago when they went out on tour. I auditioned for it, and it nearly happened, but they found somebody else they liked better. So I figured that ship had sailed, and then, geez, whatever it was, I guess a year ago last summer, after I wrapped up the “Twelve Angry Men” tour, they asked if I would be interested in doing Broadway. So I went in and had to audition for that, but that worked out.
BE: And how was it going in drag as Edna Turnblad?
GW: (Laughs) Well, it was really fun. You know, at first, it’s sort of, like, “Oh, God, what a bother.” “Twelve Angry Men” was absolutely nothing. No makeup, no hair, no wig, no nothing. It was, like, you just walk out on stage and do it. And then all of a sudden, I’m with all the fittings and fat suit. I go, “Fat suit?” And they go, “Yeah.” And I go, “Well, you mean like fake breasts, right? Because I’m well fat enough.” They said, “No, no, you’ve got to have a big booty and everything.” This big, old fat suit and oodles of makeup and wigs. Crazy, crazy, crazy. I mean, the work was fantastic, but getting in all that gear was not the best part.
BE: I understand that you also did the role of Mr. McAfee in a production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” too, at some point.
GW: Yeah, it was a movie, actually. It was a TV movie for…I think it was NBC, but I’m not sure. But it was with Tyne Daly and Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams and a bunch of people.
BE: So you’ve stepped into roles played by both Harvey Fierstein and Paul Lynde.
GW: Yeah, well, I like to say that the critics treated my performance as Harry McAfee in “Bye Bye Birdie” about as well as I would have imagined that they would have responded to Paul Lynde had he played Norm in a remake of “Cheers.”
BE: That good, huh?
GW: (Laughs) Yeah.
BE: So does every other person who passes you on the street still shout “Norm” when they see you?
GW: Uh, yeah. It’s maybe every third person now. It used to be every other person. It’s faded a bit, but not too much. Maybe that’s because I’ve retained my youthful vigor and I haven’t changed a bit. (Laughs)
BE: So do you get tired of it, or are you happy that they still remember you that way?
GW: It’s fine. They’re always going to remember me that way. I decided a long time ago that if I’m going to let this make me crazy, I’m going to be certifiable, so I just roll with it.
BE: So you’re still accepting the free beers they offer you then?
GW: Oh, yeah.
BE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of other things on your resume. I really loved the episode that you did of “M.A.S.H.,” with your classic pool ball in the mouth scene.
GW: Oh, yeah. It was rubber. It was a rubber ball that was painted green. I think it was a nine ball or something like that. I forget what it was. And they just squished it into my mouth and then it popped into normal size once it was in.
BE: How did you enjoy doing the “Masters of Horror” episode with John Landis?
GW: That was a lot of fun. I mean it was real hard work, once again super low budget but boy, he really knows what he’s doing. He knows what he wants and he gets it. Yeah, he’s a trouper, man. He’s a lot of fun. I think that turned out pretty well.
BE: Believe it or not, when I changed my Facebook status today and said that I was going to be talking to you, one of my friends responded, “I first saw him in ‘My Bodyguard.’”
BE: That was pretty early on in your career.
GW: Yeah, I was still working at Second City at the time, and, you know, they shot in Chicago. That was my first movie that I wasn’t cut out of. “Somewhere in Time” was my first movie, and I was completely cut out of that, much to my chagrin.
BE: But you were, however, in the Mark Blankfield classic, “Jekyll and Hyde...Together Again.”
GW: (Uncertainly) You know…
BE: Well, supposedly, anyway. You’re credited as “Injured Man.”
GW: I think that, yeah, maybe I was. I can’t remember. I know my wife was in it. An enormous breasted woman, a woman who went in for a breast implant and they just created these gigantic, inflatable breasts. I barely remember it. But I think I was.
BE: So in the pre-“Cheers” era, were you just kind of taking the stuff that came to Chicago to film, or were you actively looking at that point?
GW: Well both “Somewhere in Time” and “My Bodyguard” were casting locally in Chicago, and then “Jekyll and Hyde,” that was a Hollywood project. I made the move to Los Angeles in 1980.
BE: So what made you decide to make the move?
GW: Well, my wife and I, we met at Second City, Bernadette Birkett. She and I met there, were working together, and she got a pilot that shot in Los Angeles in late ’79. And so that stoked a lot of interest in her, and a bunch of film agent people were hounding her to move out. So I had been at Second City about six years at that point, and that’s pretty much the end of the line, really. Most people don’t stay much longer than that, although some do. So I was ready to go, and we just thought we would move to L.A. and look for film and TV work. We both had pilots in hand, but a few weeks later, that all goes to crap, doesn’t it?
BE: Well I know you popped up in…well, like I said, “M.A.S.H.,” but you did an “Alice,” a “Taxi,” a “Soap”…
GW: Yeah, I kept busy until I got a series for Paramount, “Making the Grade,” and then “Cheers” came around.
BE: So how much of an auditioning process was there for “Cheers”? Did they know you and want you right off the bat, or did you go through some rounds of auditioning?
GW: Actually, no. I was just one audition, and they wanted me from the one audition. Well, I know that Glen Charles and Les Charles and Jim Burrows had seen me and, you know, had worked with me in “Taxi,” so I think they had an inkling that they were interested. They also knew about this “Making the Grade” project. It was another Paramount project, one by Gary David Goldberg. So the studio knew about me and, of course, it was different networks, so…but, anyway, yeah, I just auditioned once. Oh, coincidentally, one of my workshop buddies at Second City was running the programming at the time for NBC, so that was good. Brandon Tartikoff.
BE: I did not know that.
GW: Yeah, we were in the workshops at Second City together.
BE: I actually interviewed William Katt the other day…
BE: …and he said that the project of his that he did that he always thought deserved more love was the movie “House,” because he was fully ready to do a sequel, but they decided to go in a completely different direction with the second one.
BE: Did you enjoy working on that movie?
GW: Yeah, it was interesting, because I remember at the time taking the film going, “Bill Katt, he’s cool,” and the script looked like it would be funny, but…I sort of wanted to think that I was too fabulous to do a genre picture. Do you know what I mean?
GW: And then it turns out it worked better than almost all of the sort of “fabulous” movies I’ve been involved with. (Laughs)
BE: Well you were in a couple of great movies right around that time. You played Fat Sam in “Fletch,” but you were also in “Gung Ho,” which I think still holds up really well. Did you enjoy working with Ron Howard back then?
GW: Yeah, very much so.
BE: What was he like as a director in those early days?
GW: You know what? He was great. I mean, I know that probably everyone, like me, everyone expected him to be super nice and talented and all American and, “Gee whiz, aw shucks.” What I didn’t know was how wickedly funny he is. As a human being he is funny. Dead funny. So that was fun.
BE: How did you find your way into the cast of “Guilty by Suspicion”? Because, at the time, it was kind of unlikely to see you in a drama like that.
GW: Yeah, it was a typical interview with…my agent sort of kicked and scraped for a meeting. And I went in there with the director, Irwin Winkler…he also produced. I think…and I got a callback that was with Bob (DeNiro), as we call him. (Laughs) And that was that.
BE: So are you still going to be in “House of Re-Animator”?
GW: You know, it was originally called “Re-Animator: House of Bush,” or something like that. But it sounds like that ship might have sailed. I mean, it was something Stuart Gordon was trying to put together. He wanted me to play Cheney. It may or may not happen; I don’t know what the status of that project is.
BE: IMDb has you down as playing the VP and William H. Macy as President.
GW: Yeah, well, we’re all old Chicago buddies.
BE: You were also in “Teddy Bears' Picnic,” a somewhat obscure film that I discovered on DVD.
GW: (Snorts) Yes, I was.
BE: (Laughs) I can’t tell from your reaction what that says about the film.
GW: Well, you know, it was great fun to work on. It’s just a cast of complete ne’er-do-wells, veteran improvisational actors. Kenneth Mars, Howard Hesseman, David Rasche, Bob Einstein, Michael McKean, Henry Gibson. It was just loaded with…I mean, I just kept my mouth shut and just listened to stories all day. It was just really great stories at lunch from all the geezers. I was, like, the youngest guy on the cast, except for John Michael Higgins. It was great.
BE: Last question: do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love that you thought it deserved?
GW: Huh. So it probably has to be film or television…?
BE: No, it could be theater as well. And it doesn’t have to be just one, if you have more than that.
GW: I was sort of surprised “Modern Men,” written by Marsh McCall, didn’t have a bit of life over at The WB…or The CW, whatever. It was three funny, cute boys, and I was the dad of one of them. It was all about them. Oh, and Jane Seymour, she was their life coach, and, basically, they were just tired of being losers in love, and they really wanted to employ this life coach to sort of transform themselves into viable life partners for the girls. In a real earnest way, but it was really funny. And, of course, I was this horrible role model who had been divorced, like, three times. I was the anti-Jane Seymour. (Laughs)
BE: Actually, I do have one more quick question of curiosity. When it came time to do the Bears sketches for “SNL,” did they work around your schedule to make sure you were there for them? Because I don’t know if you were in all of them, but you were certainly in most of them.
GW: Well, you know, sometimes it just doesn’t work. They would always just call and say, “We’re thinking about this and that,” and I would say, “Yeah, I’ll come in.” But the problem is sometimes it gets cut between dress and air. So you’ve schlepped across the country, and it gets cut between dress and air, and not always for not being funny. There’s a lot of decisions to be made. “Oh, no, that set’s already been shipped back to Brooklyn,” or, “No, we can’t make that change that fast. We need this piece here and blah, blah, blah.” Last I heard from (Robert) Smigel was after the election. He calls and goes, “President…? Chicago. Secretary of State…? Chicago. Chief of Staff…? Chicago. Secretary of Defense…? Ditka.” So I thought maybe he was going to cook something up, but it didn’t happen.
BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. I appreciate you taking the time.GW: All right. Bye!